I’ve never really been a big Star Trek guy. Not that I have anything against the series, it was just never shown on Russian TV when I was a kid – my first actual Star Trek exposure was the movie reboots. So, it was surprising to me that I became so invested in the latest series, Discovery – but it also showed me why I never felt compelled to get into the broader universe.
I think it has something to do with the way the series separates logic and emotion, Vulcan and Human – at least the way it seems to separate them, based on my limited knowledge. There is this constant tension between logical, rational decision making and emotional impulses in Discovery, and within Michael, the protagonist.
It never felt right to me that those two things were presented as incompatible, or more accurately as opposites, and that humanity was read broadly as the emotional and hot-headed species, given the diversity and variety within such a huge population. I have been thinking about this binary opposition a bunch recently because of two games.
Since the turn of the year I’ve been playing a lot of chess (thanks Austin Walker). As with Austin’s return to it, my first real foray into it exposed me to a completely different understanding of the game than the one I had as a kid playing against my grandfather – an emphasis on coordination, pawn structure, positioning, tension and, most surprisingly, feeling and subconscious perception.
Despite the apparent mechanical nature of the game and the overwhelming amount of computing power available to every player for analysing not just their games, but all recorded games ever played, top players constantly talk about “feeling” in control, getting a feeling that their position is terrible, or reasonable, or unclear and etc.
No one, not even the top grandmasters, can calculate every line, every possibility, every position, especially given the time pressure. And if you can’t calculate it – then you must rely on your feel for the game. So, once it’s move 8 or 12 or 15 and you’re in a position that has never been reached before (which happens in EVERY game), then all you have is your experience, your training and your feel for the game.
And so, sometimes things like Rashid Nezhmetdinov’s famous queen sacrifice happen; a beautiful move creating an unbelievable game, but one that Nezhmetdinov could not have calculated all the way through – he must have felt it, too. The short video below is a great watch that clearly explains the key moments in the game even to a complete novice like me (and some of these comments on the game show just how central humanity, surprise and emotion are to chess).
Sure, he knew that sacrificing the queen would put him in a position where his bishops were very active and somewhat protected, while black’s pieces were severely underdeveloped – but that was a temporary situation and could change quickly, especially given Rashid’s lack of a queen.
Nezhmetdinov must have felt not only that he could reach a winning position, but also that he would be able to convert it to a win. On the other hand, his opponent, as Agadmator pointed out in the video, should have felt that he was no longer winning when Rashid captured the f6 pawn, instead he was stubborn, not accepting that such an early queen sacrifice worked, so he played on as if he was winning. But, he lost, and Nezhmetdinov won one of the most beautiful games of chess ever played because his opponent’s emotional approach overruled his rational calculations.
Chess, by itself, is a mechanical game with a limited, albeit astronomically large number of outcomes, so winning a game is about tactics, knowledge and preparation. But the act of humans playing the game introduces a plethora of emotional and irrational factors, anything from players’ personal relationships and histories to their current state of mind, their preferences and dislikes. “Emotions” and “logic”, “feeling” and “calculation”, “hunches” and “tactics”, they coexist at the core of chess, as they do at the core of our lives, capable of incredible beauty and elegance or ugliness and tragedy.
Chess is not the only game I played recently that brilliantly reflects the coexistence of logic and emotion. Late last year I wrote about Swery’s game The Missing, making the point that we, as critics and players, should give time to games with unpolished mechanics or drab visuals if they are trying to say something important. It was not a particularly novel point but it did resonate with a lot of people, and in this year I wanted to continue talking about these types of games, of which The Quiet Sleep by one-man developer Why Not Games, is a prime example.
*full disclaimer, I received the game for free from the developer*
By all accounts it is not a pretty game – but it creates some incredible narratives and has a certain healing capacity that blew me away as I was playing it. Like chess, The Quiet Sleep is a very rational game – but also a game where one may find some hope, a game that uses emotions as mechanics but does not mechanise them.
A quick description: in short, The Quiet Sleep is a tower defence game that simulates a life. Starting in childhood with your Self, represented by the brain in the top left corner, you grow, travel, work, gain hobbies, experience crises and relationships, all while managing negative emotions that can harm your Self, lower its health to zero and end the life/game.
As you play, you open up “traits” such as Adulthood, Memories of Home or Urban Living, represented as groups of hexagon spaces on which you can build towers, goals or defences. Building them requires resources that are transferred via “trains”, of which you can have a limited amount operating at any given time, representing your ability to focus. So, Towers create resources such as energy or will, or convert resources such as turning energy into chores. Goals spend resources and can built repositories of resources: a Work Shift goal builds a Cash space that holds cash resources, appearing after the Work Shift goal is finished.
Finally, Defences are spaces that counter negative emotions. Emotions can overwhelm us, and in the game they are represented by resources created temporarily in trait spaces that pop up every now and then as something happens in your life. Negative emotions can be converted into positive ones and then into resources, or managed with defences: channel your passive cautiousness into active preparation, release your anger with Painting, dispel your fear by taking a nice Walk to clear your head.
Not long into playing this game, you will “have it figured out”. At the start of my journey I was not sure how to combat negative emotions, so I panicked a few times and had some negative episodes. As I came to grips with the game, with life, as I found work and a relationship, I understood how to better manage my expectations, how to protect myself from negative emotions – and then I was coasting, transfixed by the game’s routine.
Of course, “real” life is not that simple, the game space deals in absolutes and life is much more complex, vague and unclear (and, obviously, my life experiences differ greatly from others’) – but the thought of successfully navigating your life as one big resource management sim is an alluring one.
The Quiet Sleep is phenomenal in that regard – not only does it succeed in giving you the satisfaction of manipulating it to achieve efficient resource allocation, but it also never emotionally disconnects you from the life you’re living – logic and emotion perfectly synched, as in chess. I remained invested in it, in the life I was leading, cheering when I accomplished a goal and worried when frustration and anger overwhelmed the Self.
I have no idea how it does it. It has, basically, no graphics, “rough” is probably the most generous description of its UI, and while the soundtrack provides a compelling atmosphere, it is more of a sound… track.
Maybe it’s in the little things. The game space is a life, a person, but the Self hexagon is sheltered behind the adulthood trait as you play. A little thing – but I would need to write a completely separate post to really dig into the idea that the game disassociates the self from the game space, from life’s experiences and memories, and about the multiple fascinating interpretations of that fact.
Another little thing – defences aren’t infinite, nor are they enough in and of themselves, you can’t just keep playing Chess to think away your anger and frustration. So, defences like Chess hold charges that must be replenished with resources, your Self must be an active participant. On the other hand, another little thing – converting negative emotions into positive resources takes more time than simply creating the latter, but it removes the threat the former pose.
Maybe it’s in these little things. Maybe that’s where the obvious lack of “polish” betrays a phenomenal attention to detail in the game’s attempts to represent life, in the way we can settle into a routine but get stuck in a rut, the way a new job or relationship feels exciting but also anxiety-filling as it breaks our routine, the amount of work we must put in to succeed in a relationship, all these and more are reproduced in the game… sincerely.
Maybe it’s here, in the sincere symphony of logic and emotion, elegantly combined, creating an interpretation of life that is not the most accurate, not the most beautiful or pleasant, but one that is undeniably honest. It’s here where the game separates the happenings of my life into neat little hexagons, giving me a feeling of control, letting me decide what my goals are, just like chess teaches me to focus and consider every strategy and approach to a new obstacle instead of getting an anxiety attack at the first sign of trouble. Somehow, both these clearly different games had a measurably positive and healthy impact on my life, in their own different ways.
I am nowhere near the level of grandmasters who can feel chess – and I never will be. But sometimes, rarely, I look at a position, and a move feels strong, and I play it, without trying to calculate everything. And then I look at the post-game evaluation, and the computer tells me that yes, that was a strong move. And I feel happy, and my day goes on. Time to convert some anxiety into preparedness, I guess.
Cover photo is by David Villasana, available royalty-free here.