A chess problem is not simply a game of chess against oneself. A game of chess proper is a back-and-forth between two players: it is a game in the same way that a soccer match is a game—a competition of skill, which produces a single winner. A chess problem, on the other hand, uses the same language of a game (the same pieces, the same moves) to effect the same end (checkmate) but for entirely different purposes: the goal is not to win the game but to solve the problem. The language is the same, but the meaning of the experience is entirely different—and not simply because the solver is playing both sides of the chess table.
As W. K. Wimsatt puts it: “I seem to have heard it said … that a [chess] problem is like a ‘fixed’ wrestling match, or that it is ‘unfair’ to the Black King. It is no more like a fixed match than a sonata is, or a detective story, and it is no more unfair to the Black King than the story is to the murder victim.”1 Put another way: the difference between a chess game and a chess problem is the difference between an ornately designed column supporting a roof—where the object has a clear, functional purpose—and a freestanding column—which, without anything as pedestrian as a clear and obvious use, calls attention to the specific beauty of the form. The chess problem is beauty mediated through the contingent formality of the conventions of chess.
Echo is a videogame best understood as a chess problem.
The game’s premise is straightforward: the player character, En, travels through a near-infinite, planet-spanning neoclassical palace in order to bring Foster, the man who saved her life, back from death. The palace is populated by En’s doppelgängers, who try to kill her on sight. The palace also records the player’s actions. Each action leaves behind a ghostly afterimage of the player’s character. Once a sufficient number of distinct actions have been recorded, the lights go out, and—following a brief, eerie period in darkness—everything resets. When the lights come back on, En’s mimics are able to perform all of the actions that were recorded on the previous cycle: sneaking in one cycle means that the doppelgängers will scuttle around ornate tables and balustrades; using an elevator frees En’s clones to do so as well; and firing En’s weapon puts a target on her back throughout the next cycle. In the most obvious sense, the title is the conceit: in Echo, the player’s mimics are constantly—say it with me—echoing choices the player made, hence, the player, ultimately, controls the board.
The experience of playing Echo, then, is not dissimilar to the experience of a chess problem. The other side of the board has no real agency outside the solver; both black and white are in the hand of a single player. But the point is not to place black in checkmate, and win the game; the point is to play both sides according to an overarching aesthetic design. The point is to “make it art.”
The parallels between chess problems and more conventional works of art are noted by Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov in his 1970 book Poems and Problems: “Chess problems,” Nabokov notes, “demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity and splendid insincerity.” Insofar as chess problems are akin to poems, the makers of chess problems are, functionally, poets.
Later, in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov would go further. Chess problems and poems both pitted the player against the author, argues Nabokov. Because art—whether chess problem or poem—is a game.
The saying goes that one plays moves ahead in chess: the nature of strategy is to plan your own turn, while predicting those of your opponent. What makes this prescience possible is the limited range of possible actions—your queen cannot move, if she is hemmed in by your pawns, and, thus, your options are reduced. At the same time, the game’s universe is constantly being redefined by your opponent’s actions—your pawn cannot move, if an enemy pawn has advanced to the space ahead. This back-and-forth extends even further as you play moves ahead, as now you’re not only shaping the board for your opponent but also for yourself.
But a chess problem has no such rhythm, for you are not playing against an opponent in real time. Because chess is a turn-based game, there is a symmetry to the constant redefinition of the board; each player is responding to the previous move, while trying to direct the board to their own design. But a chess problem lacks that temporal symmetry: it is not subject to the daisy chain of cause and effect but exists outside time as a design that only needs to be solved, or read, or understood.
Chess problems require that a player use the predictive strategy of the game (insofar as they must play as both sides) but only incidentally. The player is “playing” against themselves but not to win—a chess problem is not a problem in the same way that being down a point with two minutes of extra time left is a problem. It is a problem in the same way a poem is a problem. Solving a chess problem is like understanding that Donne’s poem “The Flea” is about sex, or untangling a Shakespeare sonnet (e.g., “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few … ”). Both are solved when the reader or the solver gets it, whether “it” is the extended metaphor or the trick move on the board.
And, like the detective story or the sonnet, the chess problem has rules. These rules can reflect conventional aesthetic concerns (e.g., the rule requiring a board represent a plausible outcome of any game is a concession to realistic mimesis), but, more often, they reflect qualities peculiar to chess. A problem may play with the concept of zugzwang (where every subsequent move made by the player is disadvantageous) by requiring a series of such moves. In that vein, there are chess problems that play with self-mates (where the perverse goal is to compel black to checkmate the solver’s own white), or deception (where an obvious first move leads the solver down the wrong path). Some chess problems even mimic the inherently symmetrical nature of ordinary play.
Echo shares formal similarities with the chess problem in that it puts the player, effectively, on both sides of the board, provides an end goal along the lines of “white to mate in two,” and then demands the player work out this solution as an abstract theoretical, and in practice.
This is Echo’s most unique feature, one that resembles how a solver must think while working on a chess problem: the player is simultaneously aware of their position in the pattern and the pattern as a whole. Certain levels have a very clear pattern, such as the “infinite” banquet hall, with an impossibly long table framed by green and white marble tile; traveling from one end of this hall to the other requires navigating the mirrored flights of stairs and alcoves that run along the length like filigree. Other levels are more vertically complex, and require the player run from “tower” to “tower” via a knot of thin catwalks suspended over a bottomless pit. And we can’t forget that the mimics’ actions (which, remember, are reflections of the player’s actions) layer another pattern on top of the level design.
Granted, in Echo this cooperation between you (the player) and your echoes regularly necessitates compromising your future self for the sake of the present (e.g., using your pistol to escape a fraught situation now ensures that the next round is utterly harrowing), but the point remains: solving a level entails more than simply running and gunning. It requires an awareness of the pattern described by the player’s actions. The experience is akin to having two trains of thought running parallel to each other: one dedicated to keeping the past, present, and next round’s actions clear, while the other holds an evolving pattern of the level as a whole.
Art—whether chess problem or poem—is a game.
In that sense, Echo resists any straightforward concession to the linear flow of time, because the player is never fully present, here and now. Instead, the player works in parallel with their echoes. At the same time as she works through any given cycle, she also works through a second, future, and a wholly imagined cycle circumscribed by the choices she makes in the present.
In an essay on Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Janet Gezari describes this peculiar double-time in the context of the chess problem: “The temporal world of the chess problem is significantly different from that of the chess game because every problem is both a set of moves succeeding one another in time and a structure of simultaneously apprehended patterns.”2 The problem solver in a chess problem—or the player in Echo—runs with the daisy chain of mundane causality while nevertheless engaging beyond the immediate present, where the process of resolution and the very solution are collapsed into some single, solved eternity.
Let’s take one example: in an early level, the player’s character is presented with an ornate Roman-esque bath with a T-shaped layout. The goal is clear: the player must start at one end of the bath, grab a key at the other, and then traverse down the central lane to a door. The bath itself is broken up by tiered platforms on which En’s echoes wait—but, until they see the player walk through the water, these echoes are trapped on the island. Navigating the level, then, means simultaneously plotting a course through this round and the next (when her echoes will copy her ability to walk through water) and also through the grand conceit of the level as a whole (playing with the echoes’ ability to “remember” and “forget” that they can actually get into the bath in order to get the key and solve the level).
And it is this simultaneous apprehension of the pattern and its constituent steps that best encapsulates the game’s use of visual symmetry. Echo obviously relies on the kind of temporal symmetry inherent to the word “echo”: just as the incomplete copy of a phrase follows the original, the mimics slavishly follow the example set by En. But more obvious is the immediate, fractal symmetry of the palace’s neoclassical design, where checkerboard floor patterns, ionic columns, and the freedom from constraints permitted by digital design combine to extend Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors down into infinity. Visually, it is impossible to take in all of the pattern instantaneously: the eye observes individual details—one half of a pair of onyx columns framing each side of a hallway, each individual light in a circular chandelier—but, nevertheless, remains conscious of the mirrored design as a whole.
Again, the player’s simultaneous apprehension and participation in this symmetry serves as the defining experience of the game: at the same time as she is engaged with a constituent part (the player’s character, the portion of the level occupied at any given moment), she remains inescapably conscious of the overarching design.
But Echo is, for all that, still a game! It would be a mistake to believe that its emphasis on symmetry is somehow a part of the game’s parallels with chess problems—that would be confusing the theme for the medium. Like a chess problem, it has a point or an end goal; it exists to be solved. Without that end, the emphasis on design would never resolve itself into a finite conclusion. To be aware of each successive step and the design described by the cumulative effect of each step—for the puzzle to be a puzzle—the player needs to actually solve the problem.
And we can go beyond the mere visual or conceptual symmetry described by the player’s answer to each puzzle. Echo’s problem is a moral one: before the game began, En cynically conned Foster into sacrificing himself to save her life. That action was the starting point of a moral turn: En could not simply enjoy her freedom but was compelled by conscience to bring Foster back to life. The design, begun with Foster’s death, could, then, only resolve itself via parallelism; at the end of the game, when En is left as a ghostly afterimage, it is precisely because she remains an echo of Foster’s sacrifice.
In Speak, Memory, Nabokov dedicates an entire chapter to a day in his childhood he spent certain his father was to be shot. Nabokov père, a liberal noble, had challenged the editor of a right-wing newspaper to a duel, after an insult. After a day of utter anxiety, the boy Nabokov returns home to discover that the editor has withdrawn the insult, and there is to be no duel—but this is a feint, or a detour. Nabokov’s father is accidentally shot by a fascist at a friend’s lecture. In her essay on chess problems, Gezari notes the parallels between this sequence and a chess problem described later in Speak, Memory: the problem (white to move and mate in two) requires the solver to use their bishop to block an innocuous pawn, despite the availability of more direct attacks. Nabokov describes this move as an apparent “detour,” an unnecessary move, which, nevertheless, leads to the real solution. As Gezari notes, this structure of deferred action mirrors the design of the elder Nabokov’s death.
If we go even further, it is not simply that Nabokov understood his father’s death as a kind of pattern where the false step nevertheless foreshadows the final end—the event was only comprehensible by way of that design, just as a sonnet is only comprehensible as such via iambic pentameter, 14 lines, a particular rhyming scheme, and so on. First, we recognize patterns, and then we know what those patterns signify. In Echo, En’s sacrifice is only comprehensible once the player has seen a mirror.
This article was commissioned by Matt Margini.