games, where’s the story?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

John Timmons comments thustly on a reaction to Halo 2 by David at Buzzcut:

But is this just part of the reality of play with many games or is it just an expression of frustration and/or disappointment?

Some people might argue that a first person shooter with a good story is about as possible as a dramatic porno movie. That is, who’d watch it without the porno? Who’d say, “Wow, without that sloppy stuff this’d be a damned good film.” A little beside the point, but there you go.

In John’s demo of Deus Ex and Medal of Honor I noted that “story” had been woven into DE as a spur to accompany levels of complexity. There was no guarantee that the story would be fulfilling beyond the surmounting experience or that, in any case, one player would care about it while some other player would be influenced more by circumstances, filial relationship, or darkness. I didn’t see enough of MOH to really grasp a sense of story beyond the intro mission. These describe my ignorance of the game but also the sense that I get of how story is involved in action games rather than those of adventures.

In chess we have a story behind the play–two kingdoms going at it, an image of perpetual conflict, triumph or stalemate resolves the story. All chess games, it could be said, are different, but all chess games are the same because they are, in any instance of play, “the game of chess.” An infinite game with infinite variations but restricted to a simple set of rules or computations. But there’s more. I used to play chess with a friend after tennis. M could whip me on the court so chess was my revenge. It was more than just the rules. And more so than my own frivolous revenge. It was a way for us to discuss, vent, siesta, and drink beer. My father would look over our shoulders and tell us what dumb moves we were making. What’s more, we’d shift the rules a bit to include a graduation of push-ups per taken piece–five for pawn, 50 for Rook, 75 for Queen, and so forth. So chess also became another way to workout.

It’s hard to talk about chess as just a set of rules. Chess is an infinite space. John Timmons is fascinated not just by how games change space but how space changes games, finding things in Deus Ex that he’d never encountered in prior play because of how “the situation of play” altered decisions. When we watched Susan Gibb play her hand at Silent Hill I saw another game being played beyond the one I’d had going. Variations on a theme. In a way we’re not studying games, but we’re learning a lot nonetheless about what makes for interest and complexity in serious play.


8 responses to “games, where’s the story?”

  1. susan says:

    This may also relate to the immersion aspect of gameplay. The spectator always sees something different, even if the game is being played the same; it’s almost as if a different track would be taken if not immediately faced with the decision. What comes to mind are tv games such as Jeopardy, where we can easily come up with answers from the safety of our couch. Or tv dramas here we end up yelling at the protagonist for God’s sake not to open that door. In gameplay, we know we have to move though the story from beginning to end, and how we go is as different as we travel through our own life story, with only the limitations of the programmer’s imagination.

  2. Christopher says:

    At the same point, games that allow the user to do things in a different pattern or order and not in an amusement park ride fashion beg for different storiesto unfold.

    Is chess truly infinite? Can you play a game of chess that hasn’t been played before? Yes the players themselves along with their location and timespace vary, but the game itself only has a limited number of variations.

  3. steve says:

    “Is chess truly infinite? Can you play a game of chess that hasn’t been played before? Yes the players themselves along with their location and timespace vary, but the game itself only has a limited number of variations.”

    How would this hypothesis be tested?

  4. Christopher says:

    How would the hypothesis be tested? Given the fact that there are only 32 pieces on the board, and the board consists of 64 squares and set rules establish how the pieces can move, there are a finite number of “games” that can be played.

    The players, the space, the time, are infinite (as time itself is).

    As such, the game itself has a mathematical maximum number of permutations (I don’t know what it is).

  5. Christopher says:

    As a followup to this, White has 20 possible opening moves. Black then has 20 possible responses to White’s opening move. This gives 400 different possible combinations for the first move. These moves in turn open up other pieces to move increasing the number of potential movements per turn until pieces are lost, which decreases the potential per turn.

  6. steve says:

    You go, man!

  7. Christopher says:

    Higher math isn’t really my thing but if you just take the first move (by each) yielding 400 possible combinations and then the next move by each (which could be 20 possible movements each or more by one or two) this brings it up to another 400 to say 525 possibilities the second turn. Given that you’d need to multiply the first by the second to get the total possible permutations until that point brings us to somewhere around 160,000 possible variations on the game by the end of the second turn of both players. Obviously this is going to get really wild quite quickly.

  8. steve says:

    At the end of the game you can have some really nice chase moves too and some weird turnabouts. And don’t forget en passant, castling, checking, and promotion. The deeper you go the more the probabilities open up.

    It may not be “infinite.” But I think you see the point.