Since my last post I’ve been seized with a desire to mentally and physically box up my life in the games biz and move on. Having jumped the gun on transitions before, however, I know it’s important to follow through on commitments, even if they’re only ones I made to myself. (Perhaps particularly if they’re only ones I made to myself.) Included in my pile of unfinished business are a few articles I’d always intended to get out, and this is one of them.
Mapping Story to Chess
Back in November Greg Costikyan posted a note on his blog about Chess. The main point Greg wanted to make was how valuable and instructive Chess can be to game designers. Here’s the introduction:
From a game designer’s perspective, Chess is an important game for many reasons. First, it is, at least to Westerners, the abstract strategy game par excellence; while the pieces have colorful names, it in no way can be understood as a literal military simulation, nor does Chess strategy have any value outside of the context of Chess itself. It does not rely at all on chance; it is not a solvable game in the sense of Tic-tac-toe; and it offers an amazing level of strategic depth.
Chess is important also because it is a perfect example of some highly important design techniques–and stands in perfect defiance to at least one idee fixe of modern game designers.
I agree with all that. I also think computerized Chess is important because it proves what we can do on the simulation side of the game design equation. Leaving aside metaphysical questions about man/machine dominance, computerized Chess proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that computers can not only host games, they can play games as well. (The implications of that last sentence are worthy of an article in themselves.)
What I want to focus on here begins with the next four words that Greg wrote, which comprised the heading of the first full section of his article:
Chess Has No Story
Now, the age-old problem with a statement like this is that it prompts a question: what does Greg mean by story? It’s a fair question, but in Greg’s defense it’s often asked in the games biz by people who want to parry the issue in order to keep their own impossible dreams alive. In fact, Greg’s next sentence speaks to that motivation directly:
Time and again, particularly when talking with people outside the field trying to understand game design, or with wannabe game developers, they want to begin the process by talking about story or character.
At the narrative level Greg is talking about, he’s right. Chess has no story in the way that most people think about story. Just as importantly, it’s precisely people who know the least about storytelling who inevitably have the grandest schemes about combining stories and games. Trying to educate or pin these people down inevitably leads to a more nebulous definition of story as they desperately seek to find some way to keep their fantasies alive.
Greg himself made a similar point, noting how easily story can obfuscate game:
The impulse is understandable, because in almost every other entertainment medium, story is where you begin. That’s true of film, fiction, and TV; and those who have looked over the shoulder of someone playing a videogame see something that, at first glance, may not look that different from film. Characters are doing things in a visual medium.
And for some game styles — adventures, RPGs, action-adventure hybrids like Deus Ex — story is indeed highly important, and a strong part of the game’s appeal.
You cannot, however, understand how games function if the first thing you reach for is story. You could use almost the same story in an old-fashioned text adventure, an Unreal-powered action adventure game, and a computer RPG–and the experience of playing each of those games would be very different indeed.
This point can’t be emphasized enough. Game design, and particularly the rules set that defines any computer game, comes first in interactive entertainment. And that’s just as true whether you’re creating a game based on a film as it is if you’re creating a work with no overt narrative. If you want to be a game designer, even of games that feature prominent narrative elements, you need to understand game design. It may not be your specialty – indeed it is not mine – but you must understand it and you must put it first.
Nor is ‘story’ necessary to ‘game.’ Games can incorporate stories; some game styles depend on stories; but a game is not a story. To wrap your head around this idea, you might think about music. Many musical styles depend on story–opera, the musical, the rock-and-roll ballad. But many do not–symphonic music, house, ambient. Music, like stories, and like games, unfold in time, and you can talk about the ‘narrative’ of a symphony, using ‘narrative’ in a rather rarified sense, meaning evolution over time–but that narrative has not a damn thing to do with story.
Again, Greg’s right. Story is in addition to game in interactive entertainment, not integral to game. Just as putting a score to a movie augments the narrative, putting the right narrative elements (including music) to the right game mechanics can augment the player’s experience.
Greg next brought the issue full circle, back to the subject of Chess:
The best way, I’ve found, to make people pause and think again about the importance of story to games is just to say: What is the story of Chess?
Following Greg’s line of thinking, it’s clear that Chess has no story. Yes, like music we can describe a Chess narrative over time as pieces are moved in turn and one side seeks to defeat the other, but that’s not a work of fiction. I’m a storyteller, and that’s a hat Greg wears as well, and you’ll just have to trust both of us that there are entire structures inherent in creating a story that are completely absent in Chess. While there does seem to be some overlap between a fictional story and the move-by-move narrative of a game of Chess, manifesting any commonalities requires either diluting or mutating the meaning of story (as already noted), or adding some attributes to Chess to make it seem more story-like. For example:
Of course, a fellow I knew once responded by saying, “It’s a game about a war between two brothers…” Which made me pause and think again. Indeed, viewing Chess through that prism is interesting–but certainly most Chess players don’t think about the game that way.
Instead, they view it as an arrangement of pieces; the forces projected by those pieces; potential next-turn arrangments and what they would imply; and so on.
Ultimately the goal of Chess is rational, not emotional. Yes, emotions can come into play during a game, or between players, but emotions are not central to the experience. If they were, computers would never be able to beat humans at the game. Stories on the other hand are inherently emotional, and it’s only by imposing emotional constructs – such as the idea of warring brothers – that we find a way to morph Chess into a quasi-narrative experience.
Chess is a game about understanding the projection of force, anticipating the moves of others, and working toward subordinate goals — removing opposing pieces — in pursuit of an ultimate goal — checkmate. Nobody is thinking about plot obstacles or character development when they play Chess.
Note that that’s true whether a human being is shoving the pieces around the board or a machine is making the moves. The combination of the board, the pieces and the goal of the game describes a contextual experience, and it is into that context that the player steps when they play. In fact, most of the compelling stories about Chess involve additions to that context, such as a World Championship hanging in the balance, or a history of personal animosity or theoretical disputes being played out over the board.
Greg concluded the section with this:
Some might object that this is true, but not relevant to digital game designers; after all, almost everything that gets published today has some kind of story attached to it, if only as a little backstory to provide some player motivation.
True–but if your understanding of the game is limited to story-as-game, then you will certainly never design Tetris, nor yet Civilization. It’s important to understand that the world of possible games includes whole continents where nary a story is told.
With that pitch-perfect summation Greg moved on to two other sections, talking about the emergent complexity and meta-game of analysis that are inherent in Chess. If you have any interest in game design I urge you to read and understand those sections. On the subject of how game and story do and do not interact, however, I want to draw your attention to an additional paragraph from the section concerning the meta-game of Chess:
By “strategic stability,” I mean that, at least in the early game, players can anticipate similar strategic situations each game, or at least in a high proportion of games. With Chess this is obviously so, since starting positions are identical with each playing. With Go, there is a bit more variability, since players may place stones in any board position they wish–but nonetheless, they start with a blank board, and the first few placements are vital to strategy.
In talking about the relationship between game design and storytelling Greg accurately shows that Chess – the game that has been most successfully implemented in the interactive medium – owes literally nothing to narrative structures. By doing so Greg suggests that the success of any given interactive product, and indeed of the interactive entertainment industry as a whole, hinges on the game and simulation side of the design equation, not on the narrative side. I agree completely.
But the question of bringing emotional involvement to interactivity is not synonymous with or even analogous to adding story to, or deriving story from, Chess. In fact, mapping story to Chess only analyzes the problem in two narrowly-defined dimensions, unnecessarily restricting the debate we need to have and the territory we need to explore. In the narrative x-axis, any individual story is a fixed (non-computable) construct designed to generate emotional involvement in a passive audience, which is clearly not what we’re trying to do. And while Chess is the most successful interactive game implementation in history, in the gaming y-axis the design intent of Chess also has nothing to do with creating emotional involvement from interactivity.
As I’ve written previously (see also my GDC Moderator’s Reports), what we need to learn how to do in our industry is to create emotional involvement from interactivity. Looking at how story and a given fully-realized game relate tells us nothing except about how those two specific constructs do or do not promote emotional involvement. Rather than look at the two-dimensional intersection of game and story in any one instance, what we need is a way to see how the basic building blocks of story and game can be used to create emotional involvement in interactive works, whether or not those works include a full-blown story.
The Z-Axis of Chess and Story
Greg’s mention of the ancient game of Go suggests a way we can analyze Chess relative to story in a third dimension, the z-axis being the degree to which the design elements of a given interactive product promote emotional involvement. Looking at the game/story problem from this perspective will also prevent us from making a mistake, which is to assume that if Chess and story have nothing in common and Go and story have nothing in common, that the degree to which Chess and Go (and other games) create emotional involvement is identical.
To begin, Greg’s definition of Chess above (projection of force, etc.) is a pretty good definition of Go, too, though winning in Go requires capturing more territory than your opponent instead of one particular piece. Still, both games feature a simple set of rules and objectives played out with simple pieces over a simple board. Although complexities abound during play, in no instance does anything remotely resembling a story arise. Despite these similarities, however, the games themselves are not identical, with Go being the far simpler of the two in terms of mechanics:
Go Design Mechanics
Go is played on a simple 19×19-line grid. There are two sides, traditionally black and white. Play involves each side alternately placing small stones of their own color on the grid-line intersections, the goal being to capture the most territory as the board is filled in.
Terrain types -1 (intersecting lines)
Unit types – 1 (stones)
Movement types – 1 (placement on the board)
Objective – capture territory
Chess Design Mechanics
Chess is played on an 8×8 board of alternately-colored squares, traditionally black and white. There are two sides, each identical except for color (again traditionally black and white), with sixteen different pieces of six different types. Each unit type has its own distinct range and type of movement. The object of the game is to be the first to capture the opponent’s ‘king’.
Terrain types – 2 (black and white squares)
Unit types – 6 (pawn, rook, bishop, knight, queen, king)
Movement types – 8 (six basic moves; two special moves: castling and en passant)
Objective – capture the other player’s ‘king’
While both games are relatively simple and have nothing to do with story or storytelling, they are clearly different in terms of design mechanics and design complexity. Upon closer inspection, although neither Chess nor Go contains a story, it turns out these games are also not the same in terms of their narrative elements.
While Chess is an abstraction of warfare, its abstraction pales compared to that of Go. Where Chess has named pieces, Go simply has stones. Where Chess uses two different types of terrain, multiple unit types and movement rules, Go offers only one of each. In fact, except for some faint possible suggestion in both games that the traditional use of white & black is symbolic of good & evil – which I discount completely – Go is entirely abstract, right down to its play mechanic and victory condition.
In Go, the idea of a land-grab between foes has been abstracted into an over-the-board battle for points of territory defined by two intersecting perpendicular lines. While the game does allow for the capture of the other side’s units, captures are simply another mechanism by which territory is gained. Now contrast this with Chess, where the point of the game is not only capturing a particular unit, but one that is personified as a king.
As Greg noted in passing:
….while the pieces have colorful names, [Chess] in no way can be understood as a literal military simulation….
It’s clear that the names of the Chess pieces do not relate to the game’s mechanics. What they do relate to, however, is Chess’s narrative context, and that is a key difference between Go and Chess. In Go you place stones on a board, and the only things those stone are suggestive of are stones. They don’t seem representative of armies or soldiers when you play, and they don’t have names that make you think of them as anything other than what they are: playing pieces in a strategy game. Chess on the other hand not only has personified pieces playing a variety of pseudo-narrative roles, but in sum those pieces evoke a medieval time period, suggestive also of a narrative setting.
Which raises an interesting point. If Chess has no story or narrative aspirations, why are critical pieces in the game – indeed both the most powerful and most important pieces – named after monarchs? For some reason the level of abstraction of the game mechanics has not been matched by the level of abstraction of the pieces names, as it easily could be. Instead of a king and queen evoking the 15th century when Chess migrated from the Middle-east to Europe, by now the game could easily feature pieces with abstracted names. The king could be called the ’eminence,’ for example, retaining the importance of the piece to the game’s design mechanics, but abstracting it away from the title of a monarch.
The point here is that changing the piece names in Chess wouldn’t impact the game one whit. Which again prompts a question: why does Chess include names of monarchs in a medieval setting? While it’s a stretch to say that Chess is about killing a king, or murder, or anything suggestive of a plot, the fact remains that the names of Chess pieces have a narrative connectedness to us that the stones in Go do not. It’s also a fact that these names are not integral to the game, which means we’ve kept them all these years for some other reason – something that doesn’t relate to or support the mechanics of the game.
One possibility is that it’s simply tradition, but if the mechanics of Chess could evolve despite tradition, why not the piece names? While documenting the causality of Chess’s evolution as a game is best left to the legions of academics looking to hang their hats in our new industry, I think there’s no denying that the piece-name ‘king’ adds something to the game of Chess that would otherwise be missing. It’s not a game mechanic and it’s not a story, but on some level it is emotionally resonant to us as human beings, which is why we’ve retained it all these years.
Think back to the response that was given to Greg, when he asked an acquaintance to explain the story of Chess:
It’s a game about a war between two brothers…
Now ask yourself if that answer would have arisen if the game in question had been Go. I would say it would not have, because there is nothing even remotely suggestive of a character in Go. It is both the king’s critical role in Chess as a game and the king’s piece-name that motivated an imaginative leap to the idea of the narrative of Chess being a war between two brothers. (Note also that even if you wouldn’t have made that leap yourself, and even if you think the leap is ridiculous on its face, you still do understand the leap.)
In the two-dimensional analysis Greg engaged in it’s correct to ignore this kind of suggested narrative. The proposition that Chess is a war between two brothers requires bringing other elements to the game that don’t exist in the rules, most notably the idea of a familial relationship between the pieces. Still, it’s not too hard to see other suggestive narrative features in the game, such as checkmate being equivalent to killing the king, which then becomes murder in a narrative context. By extension, if Chess does involve kings trying to murder each other, in a narrative context it makes perfect sense to ask what relationship they might have that could prompt such antipathy. Sibling rivalry is not only a logical answer, but also a popular one for plotting purposes.
As already noted, though, the point here is not to try to ascribe a story to Chess. The point is to look at how narrative elements differ between Chess and Go, and in this particular case the difference is stark. Not only does Chess have character-like units, but it turns out those character-like units allow us, with a little imagination, to ascribe plot and motive to individual pieces, if not to the game itself. While that’s of limited utility in Chess, it’s definitive of one way in which we might intentionally design other games that increase emotional involvement.
The idea that unit names in a game can be suggestive of characters in a narrative context is indicative of the fact that human beings want narrative elements in their games, even if they don’t relate directly to a game’s mechanics. To a game design purist this is crazy talk about unnecessary details, but I’m not a game design purist: I’m trying to figure out how to increase the likelihood that players will care emotionally about the choices they make in an interactive work. If choosing the right name for a unit in a game raises the player’s emotional involvement with that game even one iota, I want to know about it.
Because there is a demonstrable difference between the degree to which Go and Chess promote emotional involvement, despite the fact that both games are non-narrative, we can assume that Go marks one point on the design continuum of emotional involvement and that Chess marks another. From those two distinct points we can establish a line, and that line is the z-axis we’ve been looking for. Individually the two games have nothing to do with emotional involvement in a narrative context, but together they point the way. Adding more emotional involvement to a game design requires designing beyond Chess on the z-axis, adding narrative elements that do not detract from or impact the game mechanics, but which satisfy our inherent human desire to care not only rationally but also emotionally.
The Z-Axis and Salvation
While it would be fun (but ultimately fruitless) to streak off along the z-axis in search of a holodeck, I want to stick with Chess as the frontier outpost on the z-axis continuum. For those who remain unconvinced that the names ‘king’ and ‘queen’ in Chess hint at a narrative connection to the idea of character in story, consider this. While the modern traditional Chess set is relatively abstract, omitting faces and such, there is a long and powerful tradition in Chess of making imaginative custom sets. Usually thematic, these sets run the gamut from the wildly abstract to the representational, from comic to dramatic, from historical to fantastic.
The point here is that I’m not the only one who thinks Chess pieces are suggestive of character: everybody thinks they’re suggestive of character, including the people who play Chess the most. The less obvious but more important point is that within the mechanics of Chess there is a design constant called the unit, which – almost paradoxically – can be physically represented in infinite variations along the z-axis without negatively impacting the game’s design. From the point of view of the z-axis of Chess, any given Chess unit is actually a variable that can be changed or augmented without upsetting the piece’s utility or the game’s underlying design, provided the unit itself can still be identified.
In fact, this plasticity extends beyond the mere look of a piece. In 1992 a computer game called Battle Chess appeared, which featured units as animated characters. These characters walked or traveled across the board when ordered to move by the player, and attacked each other when a piece was taken (undoubtedly inspired by a similar game in Star Wars). By the same token it’s not hard to imagine units being given their own sounds or lines of dialogue or musical scores in a given game, and the same being added for any combination of attack animations. In fact, today that’s actually a good description of even the most pedestrian real-time strategy game.
But does any of that really create emotional involvement, let alone tell a story? Probably not, but it’s easy to see how such narrative connections could be strengthened. Portray the pawns in a Chess set as Little Red Riding Hood, say, and the knights as the Big Bad Wolf, add a few piercing screams and maybe you’ve raised the stakes. If you want more juice, maybe change the pawns to realistic-looking children and…well, you get the idea.
From seeing how Chess pieces relate to the z-axis it should be clear that the board relates to the z-axis in much the same way. Instead of black and white squares, the board could feature grass and sand, or squares that make sounds when you put a piece on them, or light up, or play music. Extending the concept reveals the squares of a Chess board to be no different on the z-axis than the levels in a shooter: they’re simply the spaces units occupy when the game is being played. As long as the depiction of the spaces doesn’t interfere with the game’s mechanics, it doesn’t really matter what the spaces look like or how many emotions they provoke. From that it follows that game designers who want to increase emotional involvement through setting and place should exploit this kind of plasticity for all it’s worth.
While some of these advances have already taken place, the problem from a game design perspective is that they’re not happening as a result of intentional design along the z-axis, which allows emotional involvement to be crafted in harmony with design mechanics. Instead, the narrative elements currently being used to induce emotional involvement are simply the surviving artifacts of countless failed attempts to nail full-blown stories onto games. Because this approach doesn’t focus on the proper goal of creating emotional involvement in the context of interactivity, but instead continues to emphasize story structure as the arbiter of emotional involvement, it not only continues to fail, but the appearance of any new advance will similarly be left to chance.
Evidence that this malpractice continues is available in abundance in the latest crop of shooters, many of which rely heavily on linearity that would have been openly derided only a few years ago. (See also here.) Because our industry now assumes a priori that getting the player to care about choices emotionally can only be done through the creation of a full-blown story, and because consumers are demanding more and more narrative context with their interactivity, the trend in single-player designs in particular is to offer little more than a series of narrowly constrained, puzzle-oriented missions in the context of a short film. While that does increase emotional involvement, it does so at the expense of the one feature that distinguishes our medium from any other: interactivity. Even more problematic is the fact that these conflicted designs represent the zenith of this design approach, suggesting that it may have reached an evolutionary dead end.
Designing for emotional involvement from the point of view of the z-axis, on the other hand, does not mean cutscenes can’t be used, or that shooters can’t have a mission-based structure. What it means is that instead of designing a game and a story in parallel – two distinctly different forms of entertainment that are mutually exclusive in their effects – we replace the idea of a story with the goal of emotional involvement.
Designing from the z-axis puts the design emphasis back where it belongs, on the game or simulation that is the core of the player’s interactive experience. At the same time it retains the end goal of story (emotional involvement) without saddling the design process with the limitations of narrative structure. Industry-wide, the importance of adopting the design point of view of the z-axis is that it forces us to put more effort into understanding the ways in which simulations and game design mechanics can make players care emotionally about the interactive choices they make. That, in turn, emphasizes and leverages the unique strength and attraction of the interactive medium when compared to any other form of electronic entertainment.
— Mark Barrett