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  • Examining Causes Of Conflict In Narrative

    [10.04.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi

  • Conflict Cause 3 - Unmet Expectations

    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

    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.

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