Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Slower Sort of Lightspeed: Battle Chess and Battle Tank

Electronics are inexorably linked to the speed of light, and with it the notion of high speed. It is implicit in the design of video games, where a flick of a controller button is expected to show up in real time on the screen. It is thus a surprise, sometimes, to go back and remember how slow video games used to be. The most memorable case is, of course, sprite slowdown - the tendency of the NES to grind to a painful halt if there were too many enemies for it to process efficiently. This tendency - a bug by any measure - is in fact one of the iconic experiences of that generation of video gaming - sufficiently so that pseudo-retrogames such as Mega Man 9 deliberately add in code for flicker and sprite slowdown for the purpose of authenticity to the gaming experience emulated.

But the idea of slowness in this era of video games extends well beyond that. Exhibit A - the tedious stretch of time that is Battle Chess - a game that exists for the sole purpose of tedious slowness. The sole hook of Battle Chess is that instead of just capturing pieces, you see the pieces battle each other. I should stress the verb here - see. This is not Archon, where the battles are controllable, rather, these are several second animations that play every time you capture a piece. Sometimes they are mildly amusing. For the first time. Add to this, however, the fact that all of the pieces walk across the board with a slow methodical plod, and, in a few lucky cases (namely when the knight moves) spend time getting out of each other's way, and you get a game of chess that is tediously slow.

I am aware of the irony implicit in complaining about the slow pace of a game of chess. Chess is not, after all, where one goes for white-knuckled thrills. But seriously, this is fucking painful.

What is strange about Battle Chess, however, is that the ostensible money shots - the animations - are in fact the most tedious portion of the game. Battle Chess is in many ways a sexed down version of Peek-A-Boo Poker, in which the ostensible game is primarily understood as a hassle distracting you from the ostensible content, namely, in Peek-A-Boo Poker, lo-fi porn, and in Battle Chess, lo-fi combat animations. The content, in all cases, is non-interactive. Effectively these games are poor quality VCRs that one has to struggle to make play the desired content.

This pattern is notable in two regards. First, it makes for absolutely awful game design - a realization that culminated in the ill-fated "interactive movies" fad of mid-90s. (An entirely parallel track exists with the equally ill-fated laser disc games of the 1980s, of which Dragon's Lair, which will make an appearance in time, is the most known). Second, and more interestingly for the purposes of a blog rambling about video games as cultural memory work, this structure is the exact opposite of actual tedium.

Actual tedium is the impatience between events. For instance, I defended my dissertation on April 30th. I leave Florida on May 26th. These intervening days are boredom. They are the very definition of boredom. Now, mind you, that is not to say I am unhappy. Merely that I am in a period between two major events. And in that in-between period, there is not a lot to do. Whereas this video game tedium is the events between waits. Of course, with Battle Chess you get the worst of both worlds.

Battle Tank, on the other hand, is a game of the sort I've discussed before - a game that is without question interesting, but not one that I am necessarily interested in. It is also a very slow game, but it is a slowness recognizable as the slowness of life. Or even, perhaps, the slowness of suspense. Battle Tank is a tank combat game. One of the things you quickly learn about tanks playing Battle Tank is that they are slow and cumbersome, and that combat between them is a long process of maneuvering to try to create a line of sight to attack with. The game thus involves much circling around, waiting for an attack.

It is a much closer simulation of my life - chasing encounters that never quite happen, despite my best efforts.

Perhaps that's why I don't want to play again.


  1. What about Battle City? That game is bitchin'.

  2. Battle City never saw a legitimate US release.

  3. What about Battle City? That game is bitchin'.

  4. Hmm why did that post twice? Also rahhh it's so good. (:

  5. Of course, when you get around to Dragon's Lair, you'll find it's in no way like the laserdisc game. Also, it's unplayable, and would be even if the attack and jump buttons weren't flipped. It's possibly worse than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

  6. I played Battle Chess on the computer. I recall the graphics being better (and much less brown), and that it was a lot of fun as a Ceiling-Cat-knows-what-year-old. ^_^