710397 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.


  1. […] Part 1 Part 2 […]

    Pingback by chebwords » Games VS. Conflict, Part 3: Player VS. Anything But Player — December 17, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  2. […] Part 1 […]

    Pingback by chebwords » Games VS. Conflict, Part 2: Player vs. Player — December 17, 2008 @ 11:38 am

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