So, after a string of losses to my phone’s Chess AI whilst I was tired and making my way home from a meeting on the train the other day, I let rip a string of tweets about “Chess Games” being “Bad Games”. The beloved “Chess Game” has been providing solitary Chess wannabes an AI opponent through almost every platform including early home computing, PC’s, consoles of all generations, phones, those computerised boards, and even those LCD handheld things since computers were computers. Heck, even before that the “Mechanical Turk” conjured up an ‘artificial’ player to forego the need for a human opponent. Given its ubiquity, I wouldn’t want to throw out a comment like that without expanding on my thoughts or first clarifying a few things:
- I’m not good at chess.
- I’m not criticising the game chess itself.
- The field of chess AI development is truly impressive and my comments are not a criticism of that achievement or talent.
- My comments are a reflection of my flaws rather than those of the software… but that’s also kind of the point.
At its heart chess is kind of a two-player competitive puzzle. That is just the kind of statement that would never make it in to a world class text on the subject; luckily I wasn’t planning on penning one any day soon. With that in mind two things are necessary to improve: an opponent and lots of games, with the latter relying on securing the former. The AI option handily wraps up an opponent of easily adjusted skill in a self-contained and on-demand package. So far, so great for the amateur who wants to improve their game, unfortunately chess games have a big drawback; they can be really really frustrating.
In my opinion this problem stems from two key things: Firstly chess is a game about battling whits against another person, and secondly the AI plays far too quickly. The speed of play is the biggest frustration for me, it’s not uncommon for me to mull over a move for ten or fifteen minutes before finally making up my mind, at which point my digital sparring buddy instantly makes their move. No matter how good my move, no matter how awkward their situation, the move comes back almost immediately. From a videogame perspective this is no fun; we expect a strong move or a good play to be accompanied by some kind of virtual reward. Imagine a fighting game where the opponent didn’t get knocked back as you land damage on them, or a platformer without the audio and visual cues for defeating enemies or picking up powerups. Had I been sat in front of a real opponent I might even have gotten a casual “nice move” or wince upon executing a neat play. The other problem with the pace of the opponent’s move is that it puts artificial pressure on to the human player; in short there is no respite between moves whilst the opponent considers their own, no pause to study the board, the move is almost always with the human. Feeling artificially pressured in to rushing my move has been my downfall countless times against an AI. I think the closest parallel I can draw in gaming is if a turn based strategy game didn’t show you all the enemy actions being played out; imagine if as soon as you finished your go the situation just changed and you needed to take your next turn.
The pragmatist would say that chess games could just program in “waiting” time to simulate an opponent considering their move, but that doesn’t work either. As a young child I would “play” (well, watch all the cool animations) of Battle Chess on the Atari ST, and the computer thinking time (which actually was thinking time) also frustrated me. Being forced to just sit there with nothing happening isn’t the solution. It might be possible to break up the “just sitting there” with nice graphics, a virtual distraction from the harsh board infront of the player. “Pure Chess” put a meticulously modelled and beautifully rendered chess set in front of the digital player and set it in a variety of casual chess playing appropriate rooms. Panning and zooming on those pretty pieces might just be enough of a distraction to alleviate some of that artificial pressure. The mobile game Chezz chooses to alter the game itself by making it a real time battle not limited to the turn-by-turn model, however tweaking the classic strategy game just to make it fit a platform associated with instant gratification feels like a cheap move.
None of this tackles the feeling of not playing against another human; In “Pure Chess” this void is emphasised as the player is virtually floating around the board facing an empty chair. One of my most beloved Chess games was “ChessMaster: The Art of Learning” on Nintendo DS and at least some of that appreciation was because it gave the different AI’s a grainy picture, name, and short bio outlining their play style. It is a seemingly tiny detail that made me feel like I was playing a real person with a style and a face.
I guess my dream chess game doesn’t exist, but I think it would combine some of these features to form a more well rounded gaming experience. The game (Which I’d affectionately call “Castling Encounters”) would take place in one of a number of highly detailed rooms, viewed from a first-person perspective. The player could stroll around the room at their leisure and return to the board when they were ready. They could pick up items, look out the window, put on the stereo, or whatever else the virtual arena had to offer. The opponent would be an actual ingame character, fully animated who would make light conversation. They would compliment good moves and mock poor ones (depending on their personality) and take varying times to make their own play (although could always be rushed). There could even be a narrative discovered from conversing with them; heck, how about special levels where you’re a secret agent playing chess against a fiendish super-villain to determine the fate of a country or even playing the grim-reaper in return for your soul.
Many games could be considered “dry” experiences if stripped down to their bare gameplay elements and it’s often the setting or story that make them as engaging as they are. I just don’t see why chess should be any different…