New (old) Project: It is as if you were playing chess

Turning my mind back to the world of making the videogames. A while back I announced a new project called It is as if you are playing a videogame. I spent a bit of time thinking about it before I made Independence, Missouri and one of the big struggles was how to think of it as a single, unified game. Bits and pieces of different ideas kept shuffling around as I tried to fix it in place – notably the question of how you generically represent “videogame” in abstract mechanics.

So, as a way to tunnel in, I thought I’d make one of the more specific versions I’ve been thinking about: chess. Thus, It is as if you were playing chess has been born and is underway. It’s much easier, because the overriding idea of “pretend you’re playing a game” is much more straightforwardly expressed with a known game with know inputs and outcomes like this. It lets me get at a few of the key ideas without getting lost in side-tracks.

Those key ideas as I see them right now revolve around the idea of “performing” a game without actually playing it. So you look like you’re playing chess, but actually you’re just performing quite abstract movements and expressions with your device. The game explicitly tells you what movements to make with your hands (using the mouse or on a touch screen) and also instructs you on how you should appear emotionally. In this way, all of “chess” is there as far as an observer might be concerned, but of course you’re not actually playing chess at all.

Making it be chess specifically also helps on the “visualisation” side of the game, which has been a tricky element for the design of the more abstract “videogame”, version. If you’re performing this abstract inputs, you’ll connect them to the idea of a “real” underlying game. If the game is telling you to make gestures with your mouse, clicking and dragging shapes around, you’ll probably associate that to the idea you’re moving pieces in an invisible “real game of chess”. As such, a decent chess player would be able to tell that the game wasn’t really reflective if I made the movements completely arbitrary. With the chess version, I can insert an underlying game of chess that you play through – you don’t decide the moves of course, you just make them when instructed, but they are from a legal game of chess, so you don’t have that kind of dissonance that could be created.

That’s where I’m at with it. Hoping this will be pretty straightforward to develop and release quite soon. I have a bunch of basic interface stuff implemented and mostly need to insert the real chess game and think about the “emotion instructor” part of it all.

Hope you’re well, say hi to the kids for me.

Close analysis of having a game idea


I was just sitting here trying to think of what to write because I’m trying to write more often. Had nothing as usual, but then over the course about about 20 seconds I had a game idea and wrote it into my big ol’ list and realised it would be funny to document how the idea came about and expanded in those 20 seconds. So here we go…

Context: “Respect” by Erasure was playing on the stereo, played after listening to Gérald Kurdian‘s Icosaèdre (which is great, as is his band This is the Hello Monster). It’s early afternoon on a Monday, nice weather outside, the cat Kasper is sleeping on our bed, we’re sitting in the living room sofa working.

First: I looked over at Rilla’s computer screen and she had Processing’s documentation for the resize() function on her screen. She’s working on an interactive visualisation of Canadian obesity rates. The documentation page has two tiny images of images being resized in different ways (one horizontal only, one proportional).

Second: found myself thinking about image resizing, which I somehow do a lot of while making games and press screenshots, and the more specific idea of image cropping in when I take a full-screen screenshot and need to crop only the part of it that contains a browser game window. That activity is related to the Processing resize() in that the resizing example code is dynamic (so you drag the mouse around to resize) and the cropping has that same feeling of trying to make a box the correct size by dragging a corner.

Third: imagined a game activity entirely premised on resizing images to a standard resolution like 640×480, with a flicker of the mind going to various online game-like things that ask you to make similar visual judgements, like the centre-point between two points, say, or putting different colours in order.

Fourth: expanded this idea of image-resizing-as-game to the idea of boring UI tasks more generally being treated as games. The aesthetics/tone of WarioWare started to play alongside this in my head as well, that kind of time-pressured absurdity that WarioWare does. Thinking of other “skilled” activities you could participate in, like dragging a file into the trash, selecting a menu item, closing a window, opening a folder, kind of endless.

Fifth: satisfied that this was something to think about making at some point, went over to Things on my computer and typed “BORING SHIT AS WARIOWARE MINIGAMES: Resize the image to 640×480, drag the file to the trash, undo the typo, change the volume” to remind my future self about this idea when he’s looking for a game to possibly make.

More context: I should also note that part of why this game idea went along the way it did, too, is because I’ve been thinking a lot about user-interfaces in connection with games, both in terms of the UIs that games have (see: Independence, Missouri), the idea of standard computer UIs as games (see, long ago: Let There Be Smite!), and the idea of combining the two (see, soon: It is as if you were playing chess). So it’s fairly natural, to me, that I would go in this kind of direction of “gamifying” standard UI practices, and I like it because it’s so familiar, but the game context defamiliarises it in a pleasing way.

So: there, that’s pretty typical to be honest, both in terms of the speed of the “ideation” and its (small) scale. I’d say a truly vast percentage of my game ideas come about in more or less precisely that manner.

Post-script: while writing this blog post I ended up having a second game idea. I don’t want to go into the same depth or I may die of recursion, but it revolved around the little example in the Things writeup of the other game: “undo the typo”. It occurred to me when re-reading that to paste it into this post that it would be hilarious to have a game where you are the autocorrect function on a word processor. I’ve got a lasting interest in games that are almost “degrading” to their player by putting them in the computer role rather than the active role, and this is a really nice and tidy example of doing that. It would be called… Autocorrect.

Invisible Realism

It is as if you were playing chess

(Excuse me while I push through the pain and write a quick post about something or other.)

While I was writing the press kit for It is as if you were playing chess (out Friday!) I reminded myself of the fact that the game features a real underlying game of chess. The rationale for that is that if you’re making these abstract “chess moves” with the interface, even someone not very attuned to chess might be able to notice if the moves were essentially generated at random. Like, “hang on, there isn’t even a piece on that square right now” or “there is literally no piece that can move like that”. Rather than write sufficient code to generate plausible moves, I just imported the move of pre-existing (and famous, as it happens) chess games. Because otherwise, even if you make sure the game shows legal moves it might still show stupid moves, and nobody wants to play It is as if you were playing chess and were not very good at it at all. (Although, having written that title, I’m like…)

Anyway, the game contains the moves (for white) of three classic chess matches, such that when you make the abstract moves there’s a sense in which you’re “really playing chess” I suppose, but also not, since nowhere in the game are the moves for black, for example. So you’re not really. But there is a kind of ground realism for the moves you make under there. And I like that idea that even in a deeply meaningless-looking interface there can still be seriousness below the surface. In fact it also refers back to Best Chess for me – in that game it looked to a large extent like nothing at all was happening, but in fact under the hood the game was literally working on solving chess, not just pretending to. That kind of authenticity is, I think, oddly powerful. Perhaps all the more so in this world of online games and especially JavaScript where, if people want to, they can pretty easily check what’s going on in the innards of a game they’re playing. (Unless I went out of my way to obfuscate it, which I don’t. See also: Leaderboarder for hilarity involving players and code.)

Do I have a point? I’m not 100% sure I do, but I do like internal authenticity and “responsibility” in games, games that don’t just pretend something is happen, but “do the work” beneath the surface, even if it’s invisible?

Anyway, don’t mind me.

It is as if you were playing chess: Is it a game?

While working on the course I teach on game making this semester, I got to thinking about the old, (bitter?) chestnut of game definitions, and I found myself wondering whether a pseudo-game such as It is as if you were playing chess meets the definition of a game or not. So, with the help of the excellent Jesper Juul, who wrote a nicely modular and clear definition of ‘game’, let’s see…

1. Fixed rules.
Seems legit. We definitely have rules, even visible in the above screenshot from the game – the rules are that you drag circles into destinations.

2. Variable and quantifiable outcomes.
Uh-oh? So this gets at the reason I thought this might be an interesting exercise, because It is as if you were playing chess is a ‘game’ that contains a game in some sense. Although the player isn’t specifically aware of it, the chess game she is going through the motions of (or ‘performing’) has a quantifiable outcome (a draw, or black or white wins). Furthermore, it’s variable because the chess game you’re playing through is randomised (not that you influence this outcome as a player).

Even furthermore, if we look at the meta-game of performance, we could claim there are variable outcomes, because the game always ends on an implied emotional tone, randomly generated by the game’s grammar. (Although the emotional tone implied at the end does not necessarily match the actual result of the game being performed, which is unknown to the game in the first place.)

3. Valorisation of the outcome.
Following on from the above, it’s clear that the outcomes are valorised as well to the extent that in the underlying chess game it’s desirable to win (presumably), and to the extent that the final emotional tone implies a valence above the ending of the game, even if it’s maybe up to the interpretation of the player whether that implication seems to be “good” or “bad”.

4. Player effort.
This one is a problem I think. The obvious actions you take in It is as if you were playing chess are trivial, just dragging a circle to a destination. On the other hand, the performative element of the game, striking the appropriate poses with your body and expressions with your face, isn’t trivial at all and could be said to involve player effort. In a cute way, we might say that the player’s performance even “influences the outcome of the game”, because it will shape the player’s affect and emotional connection to the game’s imagined end over time. On the other hand, Juul’s definition doesn’t seem to strictly require having an influence over the outcome (e.g. games of chance).

5. Attachment of the player to the outcome.
This seems entirely possible to claim for the game. Even when pretending to play chess, we might imagine that one wants to pretend to win? Or perhaps we could even become attached to other performative outcomes, like appearing to lose, or appearing to go through a great struggle during play. Such outcomes are admittedly mostly defined by the player, but it’s in collaboration with the emotional and spatial cues provided by the game.

6. Negotiable consequences.
It seems fairly clear that It is as if you were playing chess could be “optionally assigned real-life consequences” – its actions/moves are indeed “predominantly harmless”, as all you do is move shapes around on a screen and do some acting (unless you perhaps find the acting itself traumatic I suppose). So you could negotiate any kind of consequences for the game you might want – you might agree to act as if your imagined result of the game affects your whole day afterwards, for example, or you might bet money on the game’s outcome, deciding whether you won or lost at the end!

So having gone through with that exercise, it seems like It is as if you were playing chess is a game. So there?

Update: Jesper Juul says it’s not a game, my world is in ruins around me. But I’ve always kind of liked post-apocalyptic settings, so it’s okay?

Two New Projects, Two Different Processes

I’m trying to write more things, so this is a thing.

Currently I’m working on two new games at the same time – one is more of a standard kind of “thing I just want to make” while one is more connected to a research project I’m involved in at work. I’m working on them at the same time because I feel I ought to be doing the work one, but I really want to be making the other one too. We’ll see if that backfires.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the two projects capture two different approaches to game making from my perspective – they’re both processes I’ve followed before, but it’s funny experiencing them simultaneously. Check it out…

SNAKISMS is a kind of spiritual successor to PONGS and BREAKSOUT in that it’s multiple versions of a classic game (Snake), with the change this time being that I’m trying to convey different “isms” or philosophies through the mechanics of the game by making small changes. The process here has very much been cerebral – sitting down with a notebook or my laptop and literally just writing down the names of philosophies and trying to work out how you could make a game of Snake out of them. There was no need for any coding or anything because it’s such a simple game – so the whole thing can be pretty much designed without touching development at all.

It is as if you were doing work is kind of a follow up to It is as if you were playing chess but is also tied more broadly to an interest I’ve had lately in thinking about standard user interface elements in the context of play, and the idea of play as a form of labour. In this case I only have a vague kind of idea with what the game is meant to be like, effectively “WarioWare with standard UI elements”, and as such my process has been much more to grapple with the actual tools for making the game in order to feel my way toward design decisions. As such, I’ve been fighting with jQuery UI and its Theme Roller to try to capture an appropriate theming of the UI elements (so that they look a bit like It is as if you were playing chess) and working out what the game is from the inside out in some ways.

Both those tactics for game design (in the head versus in the technology) are approaches I’ve taken in the past, and of course they blur into each other the further you get into development, but it’s been quite fun experiencing them at the same time like this – has provided me with an odd opportunity to observe myself working in some sense.