Stories, drama, change — all are about conflict. Either causing it or remedying it. Either way conflict is an integral part of a game’s creation. Even language carries conflict as its an imperfect rendering of our ideas in another form. So no matter what we create it’s at odds with either the world we bring it in to or its purpose in that world.
“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Games, especially video games are never without conflict. This doesn’t mean they’re all about the shooty shooty and the boom boom. Rather that conflict can be inherent in the rules putting the player at odds with the computer, or in the story where a character is at odds with the world or another character.
Video games because of their ability to handle tasks and calculations unseen and unchecked by others are perfect for rebalancing conflicts to weight them in the favor of the player or players or towards itself. Whereas board and card games because they’re calculated by the players typically are not due to fairness. Fairness is never an aspect of conflict though. It can be used as a justification for it, but is not a cause. Which brings us to the focus of this episode — the causes of conflicts, and how they relate to writing, storytelling and video games.
By conflict I don’t mean documented times when nation states, groups or people are actively fighting and killing one another, though I am basing my arguments off the concepts of Peace & Conflict Studies and not narrative studies. So conflict is when two or more things are at odds with one another. It’s a very nebulous phrase in part because I’m talking about people, but I’m also talking about rules, logic, computers, and games. For now though, bare with me, as I go through the three types of conflicts and how they appear in video games and stories.
Nature provides us with countless examples of conflict. From plants growing to be the tallest to get the most sunlight or their roots spreading out to collect all the water. To wolves hunting elk or fighting over territory. Resources are things both real and ethereal. The latter being something like a job. Games have characters compete for a variety of resources. They can be people, places, things and that includes something as nominal as points.
Formula 1 has you competing for money, sponsors, and poll position. Halo 5 has you competing for weapons, ammo, points, locations, kills, and to be the last one standing. No Man’s Sky has you competing for resources in a more direct fashion. The harvest cycle you’re perpetually stuck in has you at odds with both the Sentinels and a universe that wants to limit your ability to find and collect those resources.
Competition for resources really is the most basic of drives. It’s the easiest means of conflict. There are plenty of TV shows, movies and other media where that conflict has been the main driver. The characters are all after some McGuffin like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or are competing for something be it a job, a trophy or even the affection of another. Conflicts of these types don’t have to be with anyone or anything in particular. Existence itself creates a drive as we see in survival games with the need to find shelter, food, warmth and weapons as we do in games like The Long Dark.
Writing conflicts about resources tends to mean pitting one or more characters against each other, with no option for compromise. Either one party gets the McGuffin or no one. There’s no ability to share it. As we saw at the end of The Hunger Games when Katniss and Peeta plan to take nightlock together. More on resource conflicts in a bit.
If you’ve ever worked as part of a team then you’ve inevitably experience this form of conflict to some degree or another. Any time we’re planning to do something with another person it’s easy for this sort of conflict to arise — all because we each have an idea of how something should be done. When grocery shopping, do you start in the closest section or go for bigger, heavier items first so they’re at the bottom of the cart. Do you get frozen and cold products last or as you come to those aisles? You may want to just start in while your partner wants a more systematic approach to loading your cart. Instant conflict of methodologies.
Batman and I disagree on a lot of things. Namely how he uses his time and resources to fight crime. He fights crime at a low level rather than using his billions and his business to remedy the causes of inequality as well as systemic issues to leave crime as the only alternative for people in need. Whereas he wants to punch them till they stop.
Neither method can be seen to reduce crime immediately. In part because Batman is only working to apprehend criminals after the fact, and my method is about providing people better opportunities so crime isn’t considered an option. Using one’s fist may be immediately satisfying whereas combating the causes and not the symptoms is smarter economically but not as kinetically satisfying.
Games do often offer a variety of philosophies or methods to completing a task. Simulation and strategy games are prime examples, but the variety of ways for players to interact doesn’t mean there’s a conflict. Rather that’s left to the story in a game. We see competing methodologies or philosophies occur in a number of ways through games.
The first would be through the antagonist. Professor X and Magento have opposing philosophies and methodologies throughout the majority of the X-men comics, cartoons and movies. Both want acceptance and to live free, but one wants to do that through peaceful means and the other by fighting. Of course there are times when both Professor X and Magneto encounter a mutual adversary, aligning them so they are more rivals rather than antagonists. With the new party taking the place of antagonist. See William Stryker from X-2 for example. Thus, rivals are the second way we see this conflict arise.
In the case of rivals neither party is necessarily characterized as evil or bad. Rather they’re each competing for the same thing. And we see this in every genre. Romance stories with multiple suitors. Action and Comedy has characters chasing a McGuffin. Thrillers and capers with criminals going after the same target. There are countless examples of this very thing. Oddly, the example that jumps to mind for me first is the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad flick, Jingle All The Way. Make of that what you will.
In games we see conflicts between philosophies and methodologies most often occur between party members in RPGs. The Baldur’s Gate series and most Bioware RPGs have this mechanic to some degree or another. Some of them make it so if you have particular party members than you can’t have others. In other games if your team’s reputation is too high or low then you can’t group with potential party members.
Dating Sims are the other big time when differing methodologies and philosophies are causes of conflicts. Of course it’s never seen in such a light, rather it’s a matter of saying the wrong thing, making the wrong decision and you’ll deny yourself one of the potential romantic partners. But that’s because they are meant to have disagreed with you on a philosophical level. Or… it’s a result of our third cause of conflicts.
When it comes to Dating Sims and other games trying to simulate the relationships part of those relationships are the expectations characters have. When someone acts against those expectations that’s when conflict occurs. So we get the potential partners being turned off or dismayed by the player character’s choice. We all find ourselves in conflict with others when we have expectations about how they’ll behave. If it’s someone close to us than more often than not the conflict is bigger than if it’s some stranger on the street. Of course we may be more explosive and confrontational with the stranger if there are other issues under the surface simmering.
Our expectations result in assumptions and misunderstandings. We assume certain things will happen, and we can misunderstand the motivations of people and groups. Our personal ability to roll with unmet expectations and changes affects how we react, but that’s not stories or storytelling.
For that, we should look at multiplayer games like League of Legends. Part of the toxicity of that game comes from the expectations players have of their teammates. If someone doesn’t kill a creep or an opposing player as expected than they’re apt to respond harshly and may incite a conflict with their own teammate.
In that case it’s poor behavior and a lack of coping mechanisms that account for the conflict, along with a culture that allows such to continue. But again that’s not necessarily the conflict we see in stories or games. It’s one around games and games culture, but not within the game itself. That’s because focusing on conflicts that arise from expectations require intimate stories, and for that to happen you need in-depth characterization.
Take for example, my perennial favorite games to mention — Firewatch and Gone Home. The conflicts between the characters in those games is one of expectations.
Henry in Firewatch expects Delilah to act a certain way and to have his back as she’s his supervisor, supposed friend and confidant. The conflict arises, never overtly mind you, as the situation increasingly fails to resemble the facts that Delilah is telling you. So both you as the player and Henry as the player character are in conflict with the world and your only source of contact. All because we assume we can trust Delilah and expect her to tell us the truth.
In Gone Home, while the player character Katie Greenbriar is never in conflict with the world or any other characters, we still experience a story in which the other characters, Katie’s mother, father and sister are in conflict with one another and themselves. Each of the other Greenbriars has expectations for the others and to some degree themselves. Janice, the mother, expects a certain amount of romance and attention from Terry, her husband. Terry expects to be a successful writer. While both parents expect Samantha the youngest daughter to go to college after high school and presumable be heterosexual. And Samantha has expectations for her girlfriend and potential future with Lonnie.
In games the closest we get to not meeting expectations involves random numbers, or dice rolls, when we’re not playing against other people. It’s the frustration we feel upon completing a raid in Destiny 2 only to get some crappy loot. Or when we miss a shot with a 82% chance of hitting in X-Com 2. It’s minute, and limited in its effects on the story because generally we have a chance of recovering or getting that loot later.
As writers we can do more for a game. We can layer the conflicts.
Layering conflict sounds easy, but it requires forethought and if not some outlining then definitely editing. But everything requires editing. In part to make sure all of the conflicts within the story and clearly indicated.
That’s not to say they have to be spelled out for the player, give them some credit. They do pick up a lot of what you’re implying through dialogue, characterization, lore, etc. Of course it helps if art and gameplay reiterate and support the conflicts of the story. But for there to be conflict caused by expectations then more often than not your game is going to require multiple characters. Not necessarily for the player to inhabit, but for them to interact with. Expectations are great ways of allowing for plot twists, but they can lead to some characters being little more than tropes. More on that in a future episode.
Antagonists can be the perfect mirror to the protagonist or player character, note the two aren’t always the same, but again more on that in a future episode. Their differing philosophies or methodologies can put them at odds, especially if they’re competing for resources.
At this point I should point to a good example of a video game antagonist but I’m struggling to think of one that fits this argument. Part of the reason for my struggle is how one dimensional most villains or antagonists are presented as. Especially in relation to the player character.
In the most recent Wolfenstein games we’ve seen Wilhelm Strasse and Irene Engel as both vile and contemptuous characters who are both unremorseful and irredeemable. Not to mention Nazis. And while there are times when they and the player character B.J. Blazkowicz are after the same resources, they are diametrically opposed in terms of philosophies in so far as the Nazis are fascist murdering assholes and Blazkowicz and the resistance aren’t.
But in those games there’s never a conflict of expectations between those villains and the player character. Those conflicts are reserved for intra-team drama. Such as Irene Engel’s issues with her daughter Sigrun Engel. The Wolfenstein games ups its writing by layering such conflicts not just upon the Nazis but the resistance. Blazkowicz is confronted by the racism inherent in America and how it so readily led to the invasion of the Nazis. That any successful overthrow of the Third Reich is going to require change too on the part of American citizens. A return to the status quo before the war isn’t enough.
In the end the conflicts in your game and your story are going to be varied, and should be so. It provides not just a depth of character, but the ability for the player to explore and experience more in terms of theme, plot, and potentially even gameplay.