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Early games suffered from an apparent disconnection between a title's intended narrative content and the reality of the played experience. I say "intended narrative" because many early works provided only a cursory, and predominantly overlooked, attempt at a narrative framing of gameplay. The box art and inserts (manuals, goodies and such) provided an introduction to the game world before a player dove into the digital realm. From my memory, I rarely recall looking through all the ancillary dirt surrounding my soon-to-be nugget of computer entertainment. However, the tradition of providing packaged extensions of the game's narrative space continues to this day in limited editions and pre-order specials. As a cataloguer of this material I rarely interact with the games in a digital space. I am circumscribed to a physical and textual relationship with the material and the game packaging forces me to confront arguments relating to the "whole package"; judging a game by its box art and tantalizing screenshots alone. The post below explores the concept of "box art rhetoric" as it relates to the presentation of board-game-like computer games.
Each game presented here is arguably made more engaging by the text and images present on its box. The first selection, Master Reversi by Instant Software, features a surreal landscape and an astounding epic game of Reversi (or Othello) in progress. The prospective player, and purchaser, of this title might want to join in with the heroine on the cover, hopping into her shoes or perhaps those of the white player/sun god on the horizon. What's compelling about this cover is the disconnect between the actual game's presentation and the visual arguments attempted by the box cover. Master Reversi was released in 1981 for the TRS-80 so the game does not feature any aspect of the narrative present on the box save some approximation of white and black circles. In this case the cover's imagined landscape, with its remote locale and puzzling visual narrative (is this game some ancient ritual? Why is she wearing vestments mirroring the other competitor?), provides a weight and mystery to a much simpler on screen board game. Although it is "state of the art", that text is much less compelling given the image above and its potential narrative connotations; technological advancement is definitely not the most compelling aspect of this piece.
In the same vein, this box for TrianGo moves the play of an ostensibly simple board game into the far reaches of the cosmos. The description on the back makes a puzzling claiming that the game stems, "from the mists of antiquity, shrouded in the mysteries of the Orient...played in the midst of galactic space!" Given that it's apparently inspired by the ancient game of Go, a relationship that neither the box art nor the screenshot seem to bely, the framing of a contest in space is a bit confusing. Here again are the computer and the player as competitors in some grand board game struggle. The player is competing against a machine with the "knowledge of Ancient Masters", magic and fantastic entertainment awaiting the player's faithful installation. On the back is a screenshot of gameplay, a feature ignored by Master Reversi, that is quite removed from the fantastical imagery of the box's front cover. Similar forms are present, a vague notion of the relationship between art and screen is preserved with the stellar contest's mapping onto a flat plane, but it remains apparent that the artist's portrayal has a distinct advantage over its bland, pixelated analog.
Ignoring the rather misplaced juxtaposition of Go and galactic grid-based conflict, it is still hard to argue with the attempt to market this title through a specific visual rhetoric. Both titles so far map the play experience onto something much grander than the computer's potential rendering of the game. Each box functions as the sole argument for initial interest in the title, and as such, needs to provide the most compelling mediation of the game's ideas to the player. TrianGo, with an ethereal hand making moves on a mystical grid, draws the player's attention to the power of the machine opponent and the otherworldly theme of the game; providing a stark contrast with the actual two dimensional, low resolution version shown on the back. Master Reversi takes this concept even further, its cover acting as the only visual clue to the game's actual played experience. In both instances, the games' boxes stand as the only discussion possible with a potential user.
The last example starts to enter the middle ground between a complete dependence on box art imagery and the actual visuals of the game. Battle Chess, Interplay's first wholly developed and published title, was considered one of the most graphically advanced computer games in 1988. As the box text explains, it featured "over 4 megabytes of animation" and could actually be toned down to represent more conventional chess games. The mildly hyperbolic claim that "it took 2,000 years for someone to make chess better" reeks of a confidence in the work and perhaps a misplaced understanding of improvement. Regardless, the title's cover and screenshots are now working in tandem to bring the player into the game's virtual space. The conflict on the cover is mirrored on the back through explanation and visual presentation of in-game animations and play modes. Visual imagery is similar, you can see how the characters' illustrations line up with in-game assets; pixelated screenshots are beginning to function as their own arguments for the game's purchase.
Some of the same tropes of the earlier titles still exist. The computer is again a magical and god-like entity, calling on a repertoire of over 30,000 opening moves meant to humble and intimidate the player (apparently Interplay added more advanced chess algorithms in later releases). And again is call for the player to map this experience into a grander arena, for the first time chess's inherent violence and combat are freed from "the mind's eye" and realized in a virtual realm. Battle Chess is an inversion of the previous titles' rhetorical fixtures; the game's appearance is the reason for interest and discussion by players. The earlier titles had to rely on this "mind's eye" to bridge the gap between a game's actual screen presentation and the narrative ideas running underneath its surface. With computer graphics' steady improvement embellished box art moved toward a more even representation of a game's content instead of presentations rooted in grandiose renderings of galactic Go games or desert contests for the mastery of a Reversi board.