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Comfort gaming, April 21, 2021
Space Diner feels like a throwback, putting me in mind of oddball text games I’d find on late-80’s demo disks –an alien burger-joint simulator would fit right in amidst all the Wizard’s Castle clones and Drugwars-alikes of the era. Partially this is due to the slight obtuseness of the installation process: while the provided instructions are good, I did have to first install Python (easy), figure out where Windows decided to stash the Python executables (slightly harder), and launch the program via a command prompt (pleasantly nostalgia-inducing). The presentation, which opens with endearingly-primitive ascii art before dumping you into an over-complicated interface, and the gameplay, which involves typing in a large number of bespoke commands, reinforce this impression. Space Diner’s mimicry of the grindy, wonky games of my youth is more than skin-deep, but maybe only a little deeper – subcutaneous fat-deep? – though, because it’s actually got some satisfying systems, clever design, and nicely understated writing that make it surprisingly enjoyable and perhaps even slightly modern.
With that said, most of what you do in Space Diner is make burgers. Your character is the proprietor of a diner (in space, natch), and each day, you open up, chat with your regulars, take orders from your customers, then go back to the kitchen to prepare and combine ingredients to make meals. There’s a bit of complexity here – early on, you might not have all the ingredients you need to give each patron exactly what they want, and occasionally orders are vague (“something with milk”) so you’ll need to improvise to figure out what the customer might like. But it’s generally fairly straightforward, since there’s a recipe book telling you how to assemble the dishes on your menu, and the game helpfully lists all the verbs you’ll need to use.
This is the kind of system you could see working well in a mobile game, except here there’s no time pressure, making Space Diner a chill, relaxing experience. There’s this game design framework called MDA that includes as one of the aesthetic components of gameplay “submission” or “abnegation” – the idea that some games are satisfying because you can just shut your brain off and spend time performing a task. Space Diner scratches that itch. The difficulty is low – even if you screw up lots of orders, it’s still very hard to get into an economic death spiral – and there are few interesting choices – occasionally you decide how to spend your evening on one of a couple of low-key activities, and you can change your menu once a week, though some options seem clearly superior to others. So really it’s the cooking and serving sections that occupy the most time, where not much thinking is required. That could be a recipe for boredom, but here, because the mechanics of the parser mean that it takes a fair bit of typing to assemble a meal, the busywork was just engaging enough to be satisfying.
It helps that there’s a little bit of worldbuilding and some narrative vignettes that help move things along. Occasionally one of your regulars will invite you to spend time with them outside the diner, and these short scenes provide a cute, slice-of-life view of what it’s like to be a colonist settling a new planet. I especially liked the sequences on Mars, where your regular – an older matriarch from a cow-person species – takes you on outings with her grandkids and cooks you a meal that you can reverse-engineer into a new recipe.
The other thing that’s better than it needs to be are the scenarios. When starting out, you’re given a choice of opening your diner on the moon or Mars. I opted for the former my first time, and quickly got up to speed with my goal (amass $400 – I’m guessing there’s massive deflation in the future?), my ingredients (a half-dozen rather traditional ones, such as beef patties, pickles, and buns, plus the exotic and not-at-all-appetizing silkworms), and my customers (a mix of blue-collar colonists and big-spending tourists). This scenario is pretty simple and I hesitated on whether I wanted to try again on Mars after I won – but I’m glad I did, because Mars had many more, more creative ingredients, a customer base that included humans and two alien races, with different age profiles, and a new goal of getting good online reviews from a diverse set of diners. It’s a much more engaging scenario, and felt fairly different from the setup on the moon.
For all that I liked Space Diner, there’s definitely some cruft. The interface can be quite fiddly, with excessive use of TAB to autocomplete commands being required to stay sane. I also sometimes ran into disambiguation challenges – I was unable to purchase moss from one of the Martian stores because the parser kept thinking I wanted to buy moss milk instead. Some of the mechanics seem underbaked, too: I kept thinking there’d be a way to upgrade my diner’s décor, and I was never really clear what good upgrading my knife or napkin-folding skills was doing. And again, at the end of the day it is a repetitive game of doing the same limited set of tasks over and over. Still, in the time I spent with Space Diner, it didn’t wear out its welcome, and I’m tempted to check it out again once the promised additional scenarios are ready – and not just to get a whiff of nostalgia!