I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.
Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.
Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.
The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.
Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.
Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.
Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.
In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term. It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless. I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.
The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.
These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.
Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.
Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.
In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.
All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.
That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?
The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.
Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.