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Abstract versus story-oriented games

By Dave Menendez
Sunday, July 13, 2003, at 6:49 PM

Summary: Three funny articles which treat chess as though it were a modern computer strategy game prompt a look into the differences between abstract games like chess and Tetris and story-oriented games like Warcraft and Marathon.

A Kuro5hin article purporting to be Blizzard’s development log for Chess leads to a pair of great articles which treat the ancient strategy game as though it were an entry in the modern strategy video game field. These are a bored review of Chess (“cumbersome play mechanics and superficial depth and detail all add up to a game that won’t keep you busy for long”) and a fawning preview of Chess II, which introduces new pieces, provides more complex scenarios, and delves into the backstories of its characters (such as the mysterious relationship between dark queen Arnoux and knight-in-training Renée).

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about, Blizzard is a video game developer most famous for the Warcraft and Starcraft series of real-time strategy games. The “real time” part contrasts with the traditional turn-based organization of multiplayer games—first I move, then you move, and so forth. In a real-time game, there are no turns: all players act continuously and simultaneously. This is less confusing than it sounds.

The differences between a game like chess and a game like Warcraft don’t end with the choice between real-time and turn-based play. Chess, like most long-lived board games and some popular video games like Tetris and Pac-Man, is abstract: the pieces are interchangable, the playing field is symmetric and largely undifferentiated, and, most importantly, there is no story. Warcraft, particularly the single-player game, is very story-oriented. It has characters, plot, and a series of scenarios through which the player advances. The multi-player version is necessarily less story-oriented, since it can easily result in situations that make no immediate sense within the game’s scenario.

The pattern of story-oriented single-player scenarios and abstract multi-player games is common in video games, although the degree of story-orientation varies. Marathon, as I’m fond of noting, has a very involved story that, nonetheless, has no effect on the multi-player game. Quake, on the other hand, is pretty much all about shooting stuff in both the single- and multi-player variants.

The dividing line between abstract and story-oriented games is not fixed. There are board games which make an attempt at story (although they tend to be short-lived). There are video games like Arkanoid which included a story as something of an afterthought: it didn’t affect the progression of the game, and didn’t even make that much sense in relation to the game. (It involved the “grid monster” Doh, who trapped a spaceship behind a series of 2D brick patterns, which the spaceship needed to destroy by bouncing a ball off them. As near as I can tell.)

There is frequently friction between those who feel that games should have more storytelling and those who feel that games should focus purely on game play. This is a false dichotomy. Abstract games and story-oriented games serve different purposes and are enjoyable for different reasons, and there is a wide continuum between them. (Super Mario Brothers, for example, is less abstract than Arkanoid, but the specific details of its scenario are equally irrelevant.)