Conflict

There are many misconceptions about story in games.  All good writers know that a story needs conflict or it is boring, and games seem to have plenty of conflict.  But what is conflict, really?  How does it apply to story, and what types of conflict are possible?

Purpose of Conflict

The purpose of conflict in a story is to prove the premise of that story.  If a story has no premise, no theme, no purpose, then conflict is irrelevant.  We don’t care about conflict that doesn’t teach us anything.  Any conflict that does not further the proving of the premise does not have a place in the story.

Allow me to try and explain myself better.  Every good story has a purpose for being written; something the author wants to prove; a premise.  If the conflict does not help the author prove this premise, then it will only serve to confuse the audience.  Conflict is not simply entertaining, but it is important to help prove the premise of the story.

As I mentioned in a previous post, stories have three main parts: a premise, characters, and conflict.  The premise helps define what kinds of characters are going to be in the story, and the characters help define what the conflict will be.

Types of Conflict

There are basically four types of conflict, but not all of these are good, or should be used.  I will describe them here so that they can be avoided.

Static

Static conflict happens when the characters in a story are weak, and have no interest in doing anything.  Even if they have a desire to do or change something, if they do not have the strength or the resolve to do something, there will be no rising conflict.  If the conflict in a story is static, there is no story.  Static means dead.

Characters must be created very carefully so that static conflict is not even an option.  If they do not have the willpower to fight, then there will be no conflict, and no story.

Jumping

Jumping conflict is the result of characters who lack the necessary transition from one state of mind to another.  For example, a character cannot become a murderer overnight.  To some onlookers it may seem that the character jumps, but to the audience of a story, this should not be the case.  There should be an obvious transition from one state of mind to the next, or the conflict will jump, and confuse the audience.

You may wonder why the transition must be seen by the audience.  To answer this, we must look at the reason for conflict.  Why must there be conflict in a story?  Conflict shows us the true character of a person.  Everyone hides behind a mask, but in conflict, their true self is revealed.  If there is no conflict in a story, then we will never see who these characters really are, and as a result, will not care what happens to them.  By showing the transition from one state of mind to another, we reveal the character’s true self, and understand why they chose to do something.

We want to know why the coward risked his life to save someone else.  We want to know why the honorable man robbed a grocery store.  We want to know why, because this helps to prove the premise of the story.

Slowly Rising

Slowly rising conflict shows the transition from one state of mind to another, so there are no jumps in conflict, and the conflict does not stay on a plateau.  This type of conflict requires characters who are moving from one pole to another, such as love to hate, joy to depression, indifference to sacrifice.  At every moment in the story the conflict should be escalating, but this cannot be too quickly, or there will be jumping conflict, and the audience won’t understand certain decisions made by the characters.

Let’s look at an example.  In the Lord of the Rings, there is a slowly rising conflict between Sam and Frodo after Gollum comes along and begins sabotaging their friendship.  If Gollum and Sam hadn’t treated each other so poorly, and if Sam hadn’t confronted Frodo about Gollum like he did, then it would have confused the audience when Frodo asked Sam to leave.  The conflict between the two had slowly built up until there was no alternative to Sam and Frodo parting ways.

By now you should have noticed that I love using the Lord of the Rings as an example, so if you have not seen the movies or read the books, I urge you to go watch the movies right now.  Step one to making good stories is exposing yourself to good stories.  The Lord of the Rings is one of the best.

Foreshadowing Conflict

Foreshadowing conflict is not really conflict, it is the promise of conflict in the future, which creates anticipation.  This means that if a story starts by foreshadowing conflict, the audience will stick around until the end because they will want to see the outcome of the conflict.

How conflict is implemented in an interactive story will probably depend a little on the technology behind the interactive story.  As I talked about before, creating characters that are well orchestrated is integral to conflict, but for the interactive story, a great personality does nothing if there is no algorithm to process it.  I will talk about these issues when I talk about creating the engine for interactive stories, but for right now I am focusing on just the aspects of a good story.

Conflict in Games

Now I will address conflict in games.  Some of you may still think that games have great conflict, even after reading my brief descriptions of the different types of conflict.  Some people do say that games are good examples of how to put a character in a position where they are forced to fight, but I would have to disagree.  In my experience with video games, and trust me, I have a lot of experience, most games force the player to fight because if they don’t, they will die.  This is not true unity of opposites, because there is still no real reason for the main character to fight.  What are they fighting for?  Why must they go on?

Allow me to give an example of a game which I think had great potential to show growth in a character but threw it out the window.  In the first Assassin’s Creed game, the main character, Altair, is an assassin sent to kill certain people which will supposedly end the Crusades.  The Crusades are bad because people died, right?  Let’s fix it by killing more people!  But I digress.  Altair’s reason for killing these people is not necessarily to end the Crusades, but to gain his honor back as an Assassin.  Noble, right?

But as the game progresses, Altair begins to question his assassin master, and wants to know why they are killing these people.  This is when I started to get really interested in the story.  Then there is this mission where Altair goes to kill a man who is burning books because he doesn’t agree with what the books say.  In the game, whenever you assassinate someone, there is a short discourse between Altair and the person he assassinated.  For the book burning guy, the discussion was pretty interesting.  The guy asks Altair why he killed him.  Altair responds that “Men must be free to do what they believe.  It is not our right to punish one for thinking what they do.  No matter how much we disagree.”

There are a few more lines of dialogue, then the man says, “Am I not unlike those precious books you seek to save?  A source of knowledge with beliefs different from your own?  And yet you were quick to take my life.”

This is great.  This should be the point where Altair changes and stops killing people.  Or at least, a major turning point.  But he doesn’t!  He continues mindlessly killing people.  And when he does finally confront his assassin master, it isn’t for the reason it should be.

Now of course I will admit that not all games are like this, but there are very few games I have played that do have any type of social conflict.  Mass Effect had a little, but not enough to really change any of the characters.  It was more like an afterthought.

If you disagree with my assessment of conflict in games, please, let me know.  But be nice.  I don’t really want to get into a big argument over the internet, but I welcome your comments.

To end off I will leave you with a quote which I thought was very funny, from one of the game designers for Mass Effect: “Remember: games don’t hurt people, game designers hurt people.”

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4 thoughts on “Conflict

  1. I LOL’d. “The Crusades are bad because people died, right? Let’s fix it by killing more people!”

    But seriously, an interesting game to examine for motive in killing would be Skyrim – where you really don’t have to kill any humans (other than evil ones – vampires, necromancers and such) if you don’t want to. And it does have a somewhat better-developed system of social conflict (or so I think) than Mass Effect.

    • I don’t know, I was less than impressed with Skyrim’s social conflict. It was interesting how you could act different ways towards people, such as be nice or rude, and they would react to that, but it didn’t seem to make a large difference overall.

      And about motive for killing; that wasn’t quite what I was going for in my discussion of Assassin’s Creed, but anyhow, I do agree that you can choose who you want to kill in Skyrim, but that doesn’t mean your killings are motivated. The only motivation for killing in Skyrim was self defense, all other killings didn’t really have any motivation. Of course, that game is so huge, there may be other motivations for killing people.

      • Ah, so you’re talking about world-changing/quest changing conflict. In that case, yeah, I’d agree that Skyrim’s is a bit…peripheral.

        Yeah, I guess self-defense really is the biggest motivation.

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