787424 is a quasi-random number.

Games VS. Conflict, Part 3: Player VS. Anything But Player

September 11, 2002 essay

Part 1
Part 2

Instead of looking at one specific category of game conflict, we’ll first set boundaries and thus apply definitions to three kinds of conflict: Player vs. Game System, Player vs. Game Design, and Player vs. Self.

Player vs. Game System is what we experience when we try beating a tough boss or try winning a game of Solitaire. We aren’t going against something completely physical. Instead, as players we are in a conflict with a set of rules set in motion by the designer. An enemy robot or ninja is nothing more than an algorithm. But defining your “enemy” in something like Tetris is a little more difficult to do. We’ll examine game systems more in-depth in the next article.

But right now, let’s concentrate on distinguishing it from the Game Designer. When the Game Designer is your enemy, you’re typically being set up against some knowledge that the Designer has but you don’t. This is typically the case with puzzles and mazes.

For example, even though Tetris was basically designed by one guy, Alexey Pajitnov has no knowledge that would let him win more easily than anyone else. He doesn’t know the answer to the riddle, or the secret code, or which door is the right one. The game is just as tough for him as it would be for anyone else. Conversely, the NES game Adventures of Lolo presents a series of puzzles. The designer would know exactly how to maneuver through them. For the designer, there is no challenge. But a new player doesn’t have that knowledge. Instead, the player must learn by studying the screen, or from trial and error. Once the player knows the secret, playing the game a second time is far less enjoyable.

But, getting back to Tetris… it presents an interesting situation. While you are fighting against the game system’s random piece-choosing and increasing speed, the only force lying down the pieces is you.

Watching different people play, it can quickly be noticed how some people stack up pieces better than others. Some seem to just set their pieces down randomly.

This becomes even more apparent in a game like Puyo Puyo, where the positioning of pieces can lead to chain reactions. A skilled player will build a very destructive series of reactions. So… is this shades of the elusive Player vs. Self? A player’s actions at one point will either help or hinder himself in the future. Well… I’m hesitant to call this Player vs. Self. It still is too close to Player vs. Game System: these mechanics of chain reactions were built into the rules. They were made specifically for the player to take advantage of them. Besides, this doesn’t really present the player with a personal conflict, unless the player were sadistically trying to hinder himself.

A little closer might be simulations. This is because simulations barely contain conflict at all. When you’re playing The Sims, what are you trying to accomplish? Defeating a boss? High score? The goal is generally set by the player, and even then it tends to be variable, when strange circumstances arise. Will Wright doesn’t call his Sims games “games” at all, but “electronic toys”. This is pretty accurate, since they are basically tools for the imagination. And although, as a player, you are constantly struggling against all the forces set upon you by the game system, there’s still no defined goal you’re trying to attain. Indeed, sometimes a player’s goal in a sim will be complete self-destruction.

But I don’t know of any game that offers a mechanic that is purely Player vs. Self. In theory, this would cause a player to constantly question his or her own motives. Is this the right thing to do? The ethical thing? I just did something I realize was wrong… how do I rectify it? And, really, why am I even playing?

I would love to see a game this involved. Feel free to discuss the subject on [the ill-advised and long-defunct forum – edit]. And perhaps, as the medium evolves and matures, and more people gain access to the tools, we’ll see games like this.

But let’s never discount the fun of blowing up robots and ninja. Next article: Player vs. Game System.