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The Invisible Narrative of Games - OR - The Story of Chess

By accident or design, MOST games possess a narrative structure. They can either be well conceived narratives and help improve the quality of the game or be accidental and loose the opportunity. CASE STUDY: the timeless narrative of Chess!

[This blog is a continuation of a dialogue that began with my previous blog entry. The resulting dialogue gave me a powerful insight into the very nature of ‘game play’ and its infinite possibility when reexamined in the context of narrative tools. Thanks to all those who took part in the dialogue.]

When some people in the game development world hear talk of “narrative in games” their minds immediately jump – with horror – to the idea of lengthy cut scenes and complex dialogue trees as the only modes of carrying a game’s story. I’ve always found these devises to be somewhat awkward game elements and unless they’re executed in an absolutely exquisite manner they can get tedious very quickly. They remind me somewhat of the caption plates that pop up in old silent films to help carry the story forward; cinema eventually outgrew those tools and games too will outgrow their own awkward crutches. After all, ballet requires no words or film interruption and classical music requires no visual or vocal elements whatsoever to tell their stories, but they do possess a powerful understanding of narrative mechanics to satisfactorily complete their experience.

As long as narrative is ‘tacked on’ to a game with clunky external devices it will always be perceived as an interloper to the art form (and receive an appropriate level or wrath).

A story in its simplest form (excuse me… back to grade 6 for a moment) contains these narrative elements: beginning, middle and end. From this elementary base a storyteller can apply a plethora of dramatic situations, reversals, acts and other narrative tools to create infinitely complex stories. As a story grows, the storyteller faces the challenge of keeping all the disparate elements balanced and must adopt more tools to sustain interest in the narrative, but more importantly to deliver a satisfying reward for the audience at the journey’s end.

More than that however, Story (with a capital ‘S’) is a powerful psychological experience; a force of nature that the human mind chooses to create out of life experiences to extract purpose and meaning from that which is essentially chaos. The Art of building stories thus becomes a communal activity meant to share some particular interpretation of life’s chaos; be it a story in paint, film, paper, arrangement of musical notes or ludic arrangements of computer code.

It may surprise some to consider that even the simplest online casual games possess an element of narrative. Even in the simplest ludic exercises there is almost always a ‘welcome’ screen ushering players into the world of the game by explaining the rules or giving some visual taste of the experience to come, then begins the ‘tests and trials’ of the game itself and finally an ‘end’ screen (game over) where players may record their high score and know when it is time to leave the game. The beginning-middle-end structure is so simple and engrained on human nature that it becomes invisible as a consideration, but without it, the game would feel somehow wrong or incomplete.

So how than can narrative be constructed in a game without getting too wordy or showy? The trick lies in mastering the elements of the art form (yes, I just called games an ‘art form’) to such a degree that a story experience can be delivered in the context, construction, visual elements and ludic devices of the game without having to ‘back out’ of the game and turn it into a book or movie.

To demonstrate how a game can contain the context of a narrative I will analyze one game that has withstood the test of centuries: Chess.

There are many traditional games that have come down through the generations (checkers, tick-tack-toe) but they have an appeal that most people outgrow in their youth. Chess is one of the few of its kind that holds a broad fascination for a lifetime; challenging both young and old. This is because of the captivating narrative flow of its game play.

Chess contains a powerful narrative structure that is interwoven so subtly into its concepts that the player may not even be aware that they are part of the game’s miniature epic tale. The story of a chess game is expressed in the visual construction of the elements, the traditional names of the pieces, the simple and elegant series of rules, in the inevitable phases of the game’s play and finally in the game’s honorable denouement. All of these elements contribute to the game’s enjoyment and the powerful sense of accomplishment that comes with victory or the honorable sense of humility that comes with defeat. The narrative of chess, like all great stories, assumes the role of ritual.

Here then is how the story of chess is unfolds…

“Once upon a time two great armies met on the field of battle.”

This is the message told in the visual presentation of the set board; the white and black signifying the inevitable clash, the regal ‘pyramid’ of archetypal pieces denoting their royal rank and the strikingly dramatic ‘harlequin’ checkered board of no-man’s-land between them becomes the stage upon which the game’s drama will be played out.

The narrative continues through the rank and file of the individual game pieces; first by class then by function. In essence setting up what Campbell refers to as “the ordinary world.”

The loyal but faceless foot soldiers lined up obediently in the front row, the heavy guard, cavalry and clergy in the rear to protect the nobility and dole out the bloodiest strokes. Each piece possesses a distinct character in name and function that defines its interaction with the other pieces on the board. The stalwart Pawns await their order to march forward using their bodies to confound the progress of the enemy and - with an indomitable sense of courage and loyalty - never retreat! The sturdy Rooks hold their post and guard prepared to crush enemies that break through the ranks or castle themselves into danger to shelter their King. The wily and unpredictable knights prepare to rush forward and take the enemy by unawares. The sly ‘angling’ Bishops slide deftly through the havoc of the field to dispense their holy justice. The unrivaled, peerless Queen stands at her husband’s side (I can’t imagine if this is a nod to some ‘queens guard’ or if there were just some kick-ass matriarchs in the old days) and finally the unhurried, calculating King sends forth his troops to seize victory or relinquish defeat.

The stage is set for something profoundly epic (far more intriguing than the pucks on a checker board).

Once the first piece is set in motion the narrative continues through a series of three inevitable game ‘phases’ each lasting roughly twenty moves depending on the experience and strategy of the players. Chess academics recognize that these phases occur with a pronounced shift in the goals and strategies of the game play. The three phases are The Opening, The Middle-Game and The End Game. They bear an unmistakable resemblance to the 3-act narrative structure of screenwriting and theatre.

During The Opening, the armies move forward and attempt to achieve dominance on the field. Seizing control of the four central squares and deploying the primary pieces as quickly as possible. There may be skirmishes between pawns but generally there aren’t many casualties among the higher pieces. In narrative terminology (borrowed from Joseph Campbell for simplicity) this is the ‘crossing of the threshold’ where the heroes of both sides plunge into the ‘land of the adventure.’ The first skirmish or the blocking the progress of an enemy’s Pawns on the field is the ‘threshold guardian’ and victory in this stage will yield the ‘magic amulet’ of the four central squares; the center of the board being pivotal in Chess strategy.

In The Middle-Game the storm bursts and strategies must change; this phase is occupied by the coordination and launch of the major attacks against the enemy’s weak spots to break through their ranks. Many primary figures will fall in the fray and if the conflict is heavily tilted to one side or the other than checkmate may occur, ending the game before the last chapter is played out. The dramatic see-sawing of this phase provides the proverbial ‘road of trials’ with heroes, tests and helpers driving one side or the other on toward victory.

In The End-Game, one side must fall. With their ranks broken the enemy brings forth what remaining primary pieces he has to bring down their counterparts and conquer the field absolutely. And then- in a wholly poetic twist - A lowly Pawn may complete his trek across the field and assume all of the powers of a Queen (the ‘Sacred Marriage’). At that point, unless providence herself chooses otherwise, the fallen King’s fate is sealed…

How then does the epic tale end? Does it end with bloody victory and the death of a King in humiliation and defeat? No. It ends with “checkmate”; the noble concession of one great ruler to another. For none other than a truly great ruler would dare to face his opponent on such a square and equal field of battle; to match intellect alone with no devious device of war beneath the table. All may be fair in love and war, but Chess is the game of Kings!


Now, am I reading too much into this? Am I just projecting a childish fantasy onto a board of wood and bunch of carven pieces? If so, then why has chess survived some 1500 years; coming down to us from origins unknown with rules, traditions and mythos intact? Because it goes far beyond being a game; it is a ritual narrative that awakens in its players a greater sense of being alive; and because of its unmistakable narrative power, Chess will be around for many generations to come.

I’ve seen plenty of games with Kings and Queens, Knights and Soldiers; elements of (*yawn*) generic ‘fantasy’ haphazardly poured into the game like ketchup on a hotdog. But they quickly lose their appeal when the elements demonstrate no real substance or consideration for how they fit in the narrative structure. As any writer will tell you, there’s far more to a good story than its words.

Video games seem to be going through a very natural adolescent ‘awkward’ phase at the moment; as an art form many games (in particular the larger story-driven games) seem confused about their identity, being neither childish nor entirely adult in nature. And the industry that produces these games will likely go through periods of obstinacy, withdrawal and rebellion before they emerge into whatever adult form they are destined to become (parallel the history of art, music, literature and cinema).

There will likely be continued resistance to the use of narrative structures in games. But for the designer that chooses to embrace the concept that games can contain powerful narrative devices an exciting new world of potential opens up. The open minded designer will have a multitude of new tools and devices to enhance the playability of his (her) games. Those that oppose the concept will simply have fewer tools.

For game developers who are interested in having a fresh batch of new tools to enhance the playability of their games; why not take a course in short story writing? Or read some good books on narrative structure, screenwriting or even study musical composition? It’s a fool’s argument to suggest that it would make you less informed.

For the larger industry of AAA titles I’d suggest something else. In this stage of the evolution of games, the influence of professional writers/storytellers would have an immensely positive impact *IF* they are included in the early conceptual development of the game concepts rather than tacked on at the end to write dialogue for already established scenes and characters. The gentle collaboration between designer and storyteller will yield games that have a far more sophisticated narrative experience and therefore more satisfying game play.

Inevitably though, games will move on. The ‘Game Writer’ (an awkward title to say the least) will need to evolve into something else. In all likelihood the Game Designer will BE the storyteller in much the same way that a film director is also a storyteller; crafting the visual, audio, ludic qualities of the game in such a way that gives the player a rich story experience of their own.

[With this as an intro I plan on following up with a more practical critique of a contemporary 3D shooter game and how a properly structured narrative could have made it a more memorable experience.]

The Light Dark King

Copyright © 2009 Frank Forrestall

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