71377 is a quasi-random number.

Games VS. Conflict: Part 1

July 21, 2002 essay

A general rule in storytelling is that a story must involve some conflict. The conflict can be placed in one of three categories: man vs. man (a conflict between two characters), man vs. nature (a character’s battle against some inhuman force), or man vs. himself (generally a conflict of personal ethics). Conflict creates drama, and the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 had plenty of drama. Rare these days, MGS2 tries to use its story as a backdrop for an Important Issue. One about man and machine or… something. I don’t remember now.

Stories could, theoretically, be written without conflict. Here’s an example I’m coming up with as I write:

This morning, I stepped outside and smelled a pretty daisy. A beautiful unicorn stepped out the forest and offered me a ride.
“Would you like to go to the Mushroom Kingdom, Nick?”
I said “Yes!” and hopped on. We flew through clouds and rainbows until we arrived at Mario’s Super Happy Party. We drank tea and ate pizza. The end!

So with an example to work with, let me define a few important points:

Storytelling is an artform in itself, and can be presented through different media: words, film, comics, and games, as examples. The medium chosen shapes how the story is told. A comic would probably not tell a story through poetics the way words would, or with motion the way film would. So games have to find a way to tell stories that other media can’t do. I would suggest that this relates to their use of rules and interaction itself.

Media don’t have to use stories. Film, comics, and music can exist as an artform without telling a story. But this is rarely seen since the general concensus is that media – story = boring.


Anyway, my final point is that, unlike those other media, games can’t really exist without conflict. Conflict is practically part of the definition of games. This is because games are driven by player control, and the ending thus has to be defined by some end game scenario instead of a running time or a page limit. And just like a story would be boring without conflict, a game would similarly be boring without conflict for the player.

Note I said for the player. Imagine controlling a character who has an entire story to progress through. As a player, you move the character from plot point to plot point. The story unfolds because of your interaction, but you feel empty. Why aren’t you just watching a movie?

I think this has a lot to do with Metal Gear Solid 2’s flaws. The game could be congratulated for rewarding nonviolence… except its violence is pretty hardcore and most players would be a lot more happy seeing a soldier limp around than having a large dogtag collection. But back to my point, MGS2 feels a great deal like a movie with little mini-games scattered where Action Scenes would be placed in a summer blockbuster. I don’t have much against game-like movies or movie-like games, but a piece that alternates between the two will generally come off feeling unfocused. Remind me in the future to do a piece on participant versus spectator.

Right, so conflict.

The categories of game conflict are similar but, you know, different than those of stories. They are player vs. player and player vs. game system. I assume player vs. himself is possible, but I have yet to play a game that effectively uses that mechanic. This series of articles will take a trip down conflict lane to see the sights, maybe take in a movie/game. Part 2 will start with the simpler of the two: player vs. player.

Games VS. Conflict, Part 2: Player vs. Player


Part 1

Player vs. Player conflicts are the easiest to categorize so, naturally, we begin here. This conflict comes from the direct competition of two (or more) players. We’ll go over symmetric and asymmetric conflicts, then go through the different types of games (video games, table games, and sports) and define three different categories of P vs. P conflicts: parallel, simultaneous, and alternating.

The players in conflict don’t always have to be equally equipped for a match. These types of competitions are asymmetric conflicts. In fact, many multiplayer games, especially fighters, work on this system of inequality. All fighters offer a range of characters with varied strengths and weaknesses. Players are challenged to discover those traits and use that knowledge to their advantage. War games often involve scenarios where one player controls a vast, powerful army while the second commands a small, relatively weak party. This asymmetry is resolved by giving the players different objectives: for example, the larger army must destroy the weaker one, whereas the smaller army must simply stay alive a set number of turns.

Conversely, first-person shooters generally include multiplayer “deathmatches” where players typically begin with equal statistics. Instead of pitting different character skills against each other, this style of combat levels the playing field, to use the expression, specifically to judge who can last longest. The idea is that if stats are otherwise equal, then the only variable is player skill. This is symmetric conflict. The players are given equal resources and statistics by the game.

Of course, Player vs. Player is not always a physical competition. In many instances it is less obvious. Sometimes more mental. Puzzle games like Tetris offer multiplayer competition which generally comes down to Highest Score or Last Remaining. Sometimes designers like to get “clever” and add battle elements to this type of competition. For instance, puzzle games like Puyo Puyo (and its offspring, such as Kirby’s Avalanche) offer a player a way to “attack” the opponent by performing well, even though the two players’ playing fields are otherwise separate. And there is naturally Player vs. Player competition in card games. A game like Rummy offers virtually no offensive/defensive style of play. Poker is fairly similar. Of course, where cards are concerned, most games are generally a matter of the shuffle. Power players are typically very aware of this. Players playing Five Card Stud will use a lot of psychological tricks to get the advantage… tricks outside the rules of the games, themselves, but not necessarily disallowed by them.

We’ve covered video games and table games. Now we’ve got sports left to look at. Sports can be very aggressive — football or tennis — to very… um… passive, like golf. There isn’t a great deal different between sports and combat-style video games, as far as conflict is concerned. The biggest difference is that in sports, you’re hopefully not seeking to kill your opponent. Team sports is an interesting beast because Player vs. Player becomes Team vs. Team. The team dynamic basically becomes its own entity. But very often, that entity still breaks apart into its constituent pieces; we are very aware, for example, of what the quarterback or the pitcher is doing, while at the same time we are observing the team as a whole.

Golf goes back to the situation presented with Tetris. Players play parallel to one another, but generally they do not interact. In fact, that’s what we’ll call this form of Player vs. Player conflict: parallel. We’ll classify two more: simultaneous involves, of course, two or more players directly engaging each other in “real time”. The third and final category of Player vs. Player will be alternating conflict. This relates to all games where players must take turns, such as Scrabble or role-playing strategy games. And yeah, technically golf is both parallel and alternating.

Now that we’ve covered three kinds of Player vs. Player conflict using three different kinds of games, we can move on to an overview of the remaining categories of game conflicts: Player vs. Game System, Player vs. Game Designer, and the elusive Player vs. Self.