Taking pleasure in the unoriginal

I'm back from vacation (and a great deal of writing). I'm always interested—perhaps unusually so—in what people play when they're on travel.  I've always been big on travel gaming. When I was little, I bothered my mother and brother to play role-playing games, board games, and card games on the airplane. It's one of the great joys of air and train travel: They give you time to breathe, time to think. When the phone is turned off and all you have is your loved ones or travel companions, you turn to the kind of affection, discussion, and gamesmanship that has formed the basis of close bonds since the dawn of civilized man.

My favorite game to play on travel recently has been Chessmaster: The Art of Learning for the PlayStation Portable. It's not a great chess game by any means, but it was a digital download for my favorite portable system, and it's good for playing quick sessions just about anywhere.

The odd thing is, I've been playing chess almost rabidly as of late, and not just on the go or in the bathroom. I've enjoyed playing Chessmaster again so much—just sitting around on the couch or playing at my desk for hours on end—that I've encouraged my girlfriend to take part in a few real games of chess now and then, and it's quickly become one of the little joys of our living together.

It's almost hilarious that when I have umpteen video games left to finish, the one I've turned to most often has been one of the first games I ever learned to play. Certainly, I could just as easily play chess on a board against a real person, but in video game form, chess becomes something enlightening and engaging. I'm not sure whether it's the tutorials, the series of AI opponents (which is one of the few things Chessmaster: The Art of Learning does well), or simply the opportunity to play marathon sessions and learn from my mistakes, but when I play chess as a video game, it becomes less an event than a process.

And even though Chessmaster is a flawed video game, the fact that it takes advantage of what video games do well—immersion and learning-based interactivity drawn out over a certain period of time—and what chess does well is more proof of how immensely satisfying chess and, more pertinently, how special video games are than the PSP game itself.

There are a certain few video game types and board games that are refreshing no matter how old they are; games that stand the test of time and are made all the fresher as video games progress as art forms. I've previously mentioned that Tempest 2000 was a great game that far surpassed its predecessor by adding a single mechanic, so perhaps the original Tempest is not quite what I'm talking about.

Instead, the closest thing I can think of that resembles chess or poker or other "real-life" classic games are certain game types like Tetris-style puzzles, Street Fighter 2-style fighting games, and so on. It's not that every imitator is a success; just as Chessmaster: The Art of Learning is deeply flawed, so are several of the Mortal Kombat games, Welltris (anyone remember this?), and Lumines II.

Taking pleasure in the unoriginal

So why keep making games that refer to nostalgia or an already tapped source? Similarly, am I a dupe for taking pleasure in Chessmaster: The Art of Learning?

Video games have the unique ability to refer to the old, the familiar, and the original sources of inventive promise and possibility by adding even the smallest amounts of gloss. Even if the resulting product is imperfect, I'm sure the player still extracts some amount of fun tapping into this original source, this promise of wonder. I still get the same exhilarating tingle playing a new version of Tetris that I got playing the original on a grey-and-white GameBoy screen.

So it is possible to take great pleasure from bad games. But again, should we? What exactly are we encouraging when we do so?

I haven't played Shadow Complex for XBLA yet, but already the game has provoked a range of responses from the gaming media. Some have applauded the game for its high-tech sheen and sheer amount of content. Others, however, have derided the overall idea of the game as a stark remake of Super Metroid, right down to the red doors opened by shooting missiles at them.

The difference, it seems to me, is not that these reviewers came to this game with different mindsets or played it differently, but rather some reviewers were more able to suspend the realization that they were reviewing something "new" than others. Because I'm sure the game is fun, no matter what. It's hard to ruin the Metroid formula.

Some would argue that all video games are based upon a handful of gameplay archetypes, but certainly some remakes and reincorporations of the originals are more conspicuous than others. Chessmaster is chess with a few options. Tetris Party for Wiiware is Tetris with a few new gametypes. Shadow Complex, it seems, is Metroid with a new setting.

We praise originality when we talk about new and upcoming video games, particularly when it comes to independent game design. That we do so is hardly unusual; we love to be surprised and to learn new things about what our technology (or the budgetary constraints involved in dealing with it) has made possible.

But is it necessarily a worse thing to be fun than to be new?

Ask me how I'd rate Chessmaster: The Art of Learning and I'd probably say "poorly." Ask me if I'm glad I own it and I'd say "absolutely." It may seem strange, but one of the best things about video games is that even some of the weakest titles allow us to channel the most primal level of enjoyment we take from strategizing, exploring, mapping, discussing, and experimenting.

I can't say the same for a particularly unoriginal book, film, or piece of artwork. The unoriginal game allows me to interact with the old, to touch and bend history in a way that, for all its many problems in implementation, reminds me of what it felt like to experience it the first time. To play an unoriginal game is not merely a product of remembering, it is a process. It begs participation.

I don't blame the critics for bombing Chessmaster: The Art of Learning, nor do I blame some for faulting Shadow Complex for being a Metroid clone. But I think we as game players should learn to distinguish a poor product from a poor process. These games may represent unremarkable products, but the processes underlying them are timeless and special, and we can't blame those who take pleasure from experiencing them any more than we should blame the designers who capitalize on nostalgia.

They capitalize on it because we want them to, whether we choose to admit it or not. We enjoy revisiting the processes of the past, even as we scoff at our folly for trying to find the "new" in the old. Do we grow as human beings when we do this, when we trudge stubbornly into the past?

I'm not sure. What I do know, however, is that I love seeing the word "checkmate" on a glowing screen.

Read more on the Game in Mind blog.

Matthew Kaplan
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Dale Weir
Dale Weir
14 years ago

I have never been able to get into a chess game on a console. The interface was always lacking. I once got all excited about playing Chessmaster on the PS2, but controlling the board with a gamepad just didn’t work. I finally gave up on it and haven’t bothered with a Chess game on a console since.

14 years ago

ChessMaster has never really been a good (polished) game. Even back on the Apple II days, the interface was a bit weird and limited.

But, it is chess, and on the basic level of Chess AI it’s always been good. Now I have it on the DS. And it still works, but not as well as it should.