Though I am not usually a fan of turnbased strategy games, occasionally one comes along which is able to engage me with surface simplicity, and, before I know it, has me in the throes of complete addiction. Tic Tac Toe, created by Paul Neave as an apparent advertising tie-in for the popular breath-mint line, is one such game. A work that manages to reward cautious planning while retaining its power as a grim reflection on the nature of aggression, Tic Tac Toe presents an intense challenge along with questions that cannot be easily dismissed.
Much of the back-story is implied, rather than shown (and indeed, the game's lack of documentation is a strike against it). As far as I can tell, two warring nations are seeking to create a line of defense across a divided piece of disputed territory: one force represented by a militaristic cross, the other by a more open, welcoming circle. Using the mouse, each round you click to place your forces on the game board, and your opponent (either the computer, or a fellow human) responds in turn. The first to created an unbroken line of forces across the area grid, whether as a line, a bar, or a slant, is granted control of the board, and a point. If no one opponent is able to accomplish it, neither team is left with an advantage on the filled board: a poignant invocation of how advantageous territory may be rendered uninhabitable through the horrors of a perpetual stalemate.
Despite it's simplistic graphics and music that is just a bit too chirpy for the gravitas of the subject matter, Tic Tac Toe is quite intriguing: as a game, yes, but also as a work of art. For instance, while the first player to make a move clearly has an advantage, the player who makes said move must do so unprovoked. In other words, even to play the game, one must come to a reckoning with the international relations dilemma so famously explored by Waltz and Mearsheimer: Is a country justified in starting a war for no other reason than for the security of the power it may achieve? What if their leaders believe another country is about to do so? Heady stuff, considering that the game has not even started. Once it inevitably has, however (sidenote: is this a peak into the author's views on human nature?), the questions of philosophy are replaced by strategy, and are no less complicated for it. Does one belie their intentions by aggressively claiming the center of the map? Or should one start with a defensive posture from the corners? Would beginning from an apparently disadvantageous side positions possibly signal peaceful intentions? How should one respond to each of these positions? How many short-term gains must one sacrifice for a long-term victory that is ever-uncertain? And so forth.
If there is one drawback to Tic Tac Toe, it is that victory or defeat does not come until you, the player, admits it does. This works well as a philosophical interpretation of the futility of the constant search for domination, but it seems incongruent in the face of the gameplay, which demands some sort of ultimate goal. If the idea was to take a stand against conflict in general, then it doesn't quite succeed, if only since the mechanics of play are implemented so enjoyably. That said, I can only say that if you do not wish to lose hours to Tic Tac Toe, the only winning move is not to play.
Note: Before playing Tic Tac Toe, please make sure that you have downloaded the most recent version of Flash Player, that all other programs are closed, and that you have submerged your CPU in a cooling mixture of salt and liquid hydrogen.