When I was a kid, I played a game called Lemonade Stand on my school’s lone Apple II computer. It was a basic business simulation: you bought lemons and sugar, mixed drinks, and watched the weather to judge the market and set prices. It was hardly rocket science or day trading, but it was fun, and a lot easier and safer than setting up a real lemonade stand in the neighborhood where I grew up. While it’s definitely not a children’s game, Dope Farmer has the same basic goal as Lemonade Stand: to provide players with a safe, simplified stage on which they can play out a fantasy. The difference is that in Dope Farmer’s case, the fantasy in question involves earning money not with lemonade, but with drugs.
Like Lemonade Stand, Dope Farmer is a business simulation, but as the game’s title suggests, the focus is not on sales, but on production. The basic play mechanic resembles that of another farming simulator, Harvest Moon: you buy seeds, plant and water them. After a few days, they sprout, and after a few more days, bloom into plants that can be harvested for sale. Of course, since this is a game about drugs, the plants you grow aren’t turnips or carrots, but marijuana, coca, poppies, and mushrooms. In addition to farming, you can build labs to process acid, Ecstasy, and crystal meth for extra profit.
In order to maximize these profits, you need to watch the selling prices for your various cash crops. It’s safe to say that these prices aren’t being broadcast on the morning farm report, but it can pay to keep an eye on them all the same, as they fluctuate wildly from day to day. Waiting for the right price to sell at can lead to increased profits, but waiting to harvest means taking up space that could be used to grow the next round of crops.
Efficient use of time and farmland isn’t the only concern you have while playing the game. Occasionally, rainstorms and tornados will tear up your crops, forcing you to replant. The meth lab is a major investment, but one that can literally blow up in your face. Cops will occasionally show up and demand a bribe; if you don’t pay up, they won’t arrest you, but they will uproot all your plants. Despite these risks, it’s easy to make a lot of money in Dope Farmer. Even if you don’t pay a lot of attention to the prices, the profit margins on your black-market crops are generous, and every harvest provides more money to expand your farm with. It’s all very easy. Which is kind of the problem.
Much of the pleasure to be found in video games comes from the feeling of having mastered a challenge. When you avoid the ghosts to clear all the dots from the screen or blow away all those Covenant grunts, you’re not just proud of yourself for having finished a task, you’re happy because you’ve taken control of the situation, learned the patterns and strategies, made the game yours. They don’t call it “owning” for nothing.
Dope Farmer never lets you have this feeling of mastery, of achievement. There’s no challenge in the basic plant-farm-harvest cycle of play: crops don’t wither and die (unless you intentionally refuse to water them), and you never lose money on a sale. The ways in which you can lose plants and money — weather and cops — are seemingly random acts of God. There’s no way to protect your crops from rain or hide them from prying eyes; you just have to suck up the loss and hope you have enough money saved up to replant. On the one hand, you can’t lose, and on the other, you can’t win. Either way, it means that you’re not really in control of your own destiny.
There is some challenge to be had in trying to maximize profits and gain a high score (which can be posted online), but upon repeated play, you run into Dope Farmer‘s other major downfall: the monotony. Most successful simulation games encourage a certain level of creativity: games like SimCity and Railroad Tycoon are canvases onto which you paint residential areas and train tracks. In order to make big bucks in Dope Farmer, though, you need to plant your crops in orderly rows to facilitate quick watering and harvesting. Even what you choose to grow is to a great extent preordained (poppies always earn much more money than pot). Drained of all creative options, the game becomes mindlessly repetitive. Repetition is a quality that nearly every game possesses to some degree, but in most games, repetition is tempered with variation and, over time, patterns change and your strategies shift in response. With its low level of difficulty, though, Dope Farmer offers little more than boredom as encouragement for the player to change their style of play.
The game’s oversimplified gameplay and its blocky, two-dimensional graphics have a weird side effect; after playing for a while, you forget what it is you’re actually growing. Dope Farmer’s emphasis is so firmly on economics — cost vs. price, supply vs. demand — that the nature of the crops themselves gets obscured by the numbers. This seems odd: much of the game’s appeal lies in its puckish violation of taboos, in its willingness to help you safely act out a fantasy of illegal behavior. It’s a little disappointing to come in expecting taboos to be broken, only to find that growing marijuana is little different than growing soybeans. Or making lemonade, for that matter.