(This is a follow-up to last week’s Session Report: Space Alert. They are intended to be read as a pair, so if you haven’t read the Session Report, I suggest you do so now.)
I think that session reports are important.
Allow me to rephrase that:
I think that session reports are really cool. As I tried to articulate in “Potential Emergency Minecraft,” cited by Janice Lee in her excellent essay on interface culture, games are essentially incomplete or potential narratives that only blossom into full-on narrativity when a player interacts with them–the act itself creates the narrative in real time. Because each play of a game spins its own unique narrative, watching other people play games, e.g. “Let’s Play” videos, has become an emerging method of consuming narrative, one that transforms single-player games from a solitary storytelling medium into a communal one.
Following that up with my argument for games as engines of metaphor, I think that it’s wholly possible to aesthetically appreciate a game without ever playing it, simply by witnessing its potential to create narratives that are more than the sum of their parts (i.e. emergent narratives) in the hands of experienced players. That’s exactly why I decided to begin recording a monthly series of session reports for Entropy, and to put the call out for other writers and video-ers who might want to do the same. By watching me or other writers interface with a game and vicariously experiencing the resulting narrative, we can all gain a deeper understanding of these metaphor machines, and, by extension, participate in an unconventional literary experience.
Because this is a lit site, I don’t want to just drop the session reports out there with no context, however. With that in mind, I’ve decided to follow each one up with a critical take, in which I reflect on the session or the game as a whole as I might a literary work. Taken together, this session report and critical take might be thought of as a form of review.
Vladimír Chvátil, Space Alert‘s designer, is one of the hottest names in contemporary board game design. Known to his fans affectionately as “Vlaada,” because nobody outside the Czech Republic can figure out how to pronounce his last name, he in the center of the discussion alongside Reiner Knizia (Ra, Tigris and Euphrates), Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, Ora et Labora), Stefan Feld (Castles of Burgundy, Macao) and other luminaries you’ve probably never heard of. Like all of these names aside from Knizia, Vlaada is a relative newcomer on the scene–his breakout hit, Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, was released as recently as 2006. It still stands as the #2 highest-rated game (of 69,850) on BoardGameGeek.com, an international community of hobby gamers with over 400,000 users. (Side note: Rosenberg’s Agricola is #3, while Feld’s Castles of Burgundy is #12.) Vlaada’s other most revered game design, Mage Knight Board Game, holds the #9 spot, while Space Alert sits a little further down the rankings at #62.
In the realm of metaphoricality, or the relationship between a game’s mechanics (vehicle) and its theme (tenor), there are two general trends, with most modern board games falling somewhere along the spectrum connecting them. On one hand, there are the abstracts, and on the other hand, there are the simulations. Chess is an abstract: its “protect the king at all costs” endgame and certain aspects of the movement rules suggest real-life situations and ideologies, but there is still a wide gulf between the player’s actions and the actions of real soldiers on a battlefield or nobles in a royal court.
Space Alert is much more of a simulation game, in that the actions of the player can be mapped fairly consistently and transparently to an easily grasped fictional conceit: the spaceship under siege. There is still a level of abstractness–players are not asked to dictate their character’s every step–but their broader movements and actions on the ship are openly and uncomplicatedly depicted. When the blue player moves left into the upper red chamber and plays an ‘A’ button action, it’s pretty easy to grasp how that corresponds to the guy in the blue jumpsuit dashing into that room to fire upon the enemy man-o-war that just decloaked at 9 o’clock. In other words, there’s not a lot of profundity in the metaphor itself.
There is something to the delayed-resolution system, though, the “rewind the tape” mechanic that means the resolution of a mission could play out drastically differently than how the players collectively imagined it. It has to do with being unable to course-correct a bad call as it happens, being unable, in most cases, to recognize a bad call for what it is until it’s far too late. It has to do with the luxury to agonize over your decisions being torn away from you, so that when you watch yourself marching around the ship, shouting orders at battlebot squads who aren’t even there because you forgot to take the gravolift down before hitting the ‘C’ button to activate them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. It’s out of your hands by that point, just like the action in a book or on a television screen. This is crucial to what the game brings to the table, beyond pure fun.
It helps that Vlaada (characteristically) takes great pains in the rulebook to establish a narrative around the game. As with several other Vlaada games, Space Alert actually comes with two rules manuals. One contains only the rules, and is used for reference when playing or relearning the game. The other, titled “How to Be a Space Explorer in Seven Lessons,” is a deep dive into learning to play the game that actually takes the players through several training missions and “simulations,” introducing rules and mechanisms gradually. It contains large chunks of illustrated examples and is deeply embedded in a frame narrative, a supposed “transcript of the Space Exploration 101 course taught at the Galactic Military Academy.” This allows Vlaada to play around with several conceits surrounding the universe of the game, such as the fact that the explorers are actually wearing brightly colored jumpsuits to enable quick recognition and that all the ships’ systems are controlled by gigantic buttons marked ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C.’ As the instructor puts it, “It was a great advance in warfare when the complicated, archaic ‘point-and-click’ weapons system was replaced by simply ‘click.'” It also allows Vlaada to insert snippets of grim humor that set the tone for the game experience to come:
“Today we will be sending you on your ﬁrst mission… What’s with all the long faces? Oh! You don’t feel like you are fully prepared. That’s a relief. I was afraid you’d somehow gotten hold of a video from one of the black boxes.”
“Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that your ship is an unstable, unreliable place that can, at any time, turn into an alien cocktail party. It’s just that sometimes it seems that way.”
The ridiculous improbability of survival is a constant motif, from the first moments of the introductory text:
“Friends and family, we are gathered here to remember the extraordinary courage and heroism the departed showed in service to their nation… Eh? Oh, sorry. Wrong group. Um… here we are!
My brave cadets, welcome to the accelerated learning course on Space Exploration. I admire the extraordinary courage and heroism you show in deciding to serve your nation. And I have no doubt you will be successful.”
The implicit message surrounding the rules explanation is: this game is going to eat you up and spit you back out. It paints a picture of a terrifying universe awash in chaos and danger in which nobody’s liable to come out a hero. You’ll be damned lucky to even survive. And it conditions you to accept these circumstances with a smile.
This might be the hallmark of Vlaada’s wildly diverse game designs. Whether it’s Galaxy Trucker, set in the same universe as Space Alert, or the malicious Pictomania, a Pictionary-esque party game that has players attempting to sketch impossibly abstract concepts, such as “Theory,” while making sure their drawings are distinguishable from similar terms like “Idea” or “Wish,” Vlaada delights in making players construct elaborate plans to overcome impossible odds, only to watch them crumble like sand castles under the indifferent chaos of the game itself. And he loves to make players laugh while their virtual life is going to hell in a handbasket.
Space Alert‘s expansion, The New Frontier, pushes the concept even further by offering a new, ultra-difficult threat color with terrifying new abilities: some of them phase in and out of existence, others skip to a new trajectory, some “beam in” additional threats that are not revealed until the resolution phase. New Frontier also introduces “double actions,” new action cards that allow two actions to be performed in the same turn…to be played, naturally, with a new mission soundtrack that gives the crew twice as many problems to deal with. And it continues the tone-setting frame narrative by introducing the topic of human cloning, complete with a new “Explorer’s Log” sheet with an optional “I consent to be cloned” tickbox and space on the back to tally how many times your explorer has been killed in action.
I’m not sure I’ve ever articulated it this way before, but it’s that laughing fatalism that makes Space Alert more than just an entertaining diversion for me. I am an anxious person. I’ve struggled with depression and suicidality, and I still struggle daily with questioning my self-worth and paralyzing indecision/nervousness about the smallest daily tasks. Space Alert is a fantastically stressful game, asking the player(s) to solve complex logistical puzzles in ten minutes of real time while being fed overwhelming amounts of new information. It’s highly improbable that it will end any way but poorly. Yet, somehow, the game embraces this hopelessness with such vibrancy, such cutting black humor, that it is impossible to feel badly about it. It is a game with real therapeutic value, one that offers a real opportunity to change your own approach to the actual stresses of the universe by offering a safe flavor of tension and asking you to deal with it, to thrive in it. There’s no time for indecision or panic attacks. When I fail, I laugh it off. And if I succeed, even under those impossible odds? Well, that’s the best feeling in the world.