Narrative Versus Conquest – Video Games and Conflict

From “Blazblue and Engagement“:

M. Joshua Cauller: I’m gonna have to disagree with you on a point. You say that video games aren’t about narrative. But that they’re about challenge and growing skill sets. That’s certainly true for many games. Let’s just say for the point of discussion, half.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have games that just about anybody of modest skill can complete. Mass Effect comes to mind. I would add Thomas Was Alone, since I just completed it last night. Both of those games are generally quite minimal in the difficulty department. And they’re thick in compelling narrative that compliments the experience. As a result, they’re something worth writing home about.

Then there’s the increasing world of sandboxy games and general treats of creativity. The conquest element certainly lingers in the background most of the time. But narrative is of prime discussion. Especially if Christine Love has a job in this industry.

Zachery Oliver: While I understand your sentiments, that’s been the origin of most, if not all “video games”. Structured play requires two opposing forces to meet and conflict. It can be something as simple as rock paper scissors, or something as complex as Go, but each does have this dynamic tension which makes it interesting,

Most games are about the challenge; those that aren’t, from my view, are anemic. That doesn’t mean the skill set in question has to be purely reflexive, though! Taking up your line of Mass Effect, part of the game’s challenge, in effect, is getting people to do what you want. That sounds weird, sure, but I found my 30 hours consisted of getting the right party members who were most effective and aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore, micromanagement and tactics help a great deal in certain battles – I can remember one segment where I died repeatedly because I didn’t do just the right sequences of abilities (before the sentient bug queen, I think?). Dialogue trees, for those who want to be a certain kind of character (Paragon here) requires some forethought as to the results of your actions. Most gamers come into it with “game” expectations, and that’s what they can find there still. While there’s a narrative, surely, much of the game revolves around the “game” portions of said title, whatever that might consist. I find games that focus on “narrative” in the strict sense don’t involve me as much as those that require something out of me. Otherwise, you’re not making a game so much as it’s a graphic novel (Christine Love, hello!) with game-like elements.

Perhaps my distinctions are too strict. I think I should write an article about this, actually!

M. Joshua Cauller: Yeah. Mass Effect was probably a bad example. And Thomas Was Alone is still good gameplay, just with a really rich narrative aid. Same could be said of Bastion. But that’s why I’m so curious of your take on Walking Dead or To the Moon, where it’s really just a good narrative experience where most of the “game” is that you define the narrative.


Let’s examine this issue, shall we? This will be the first article in a series where I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of game mechanics and the like to reach an ultimate conclusion. (a great deal of the edits of this previously written material can be credited to an anonymous personage on the internet named DJ Orwell or Cordwainer, who rightly lambasted some of the stuff I wrote in a longer paper. So yeah, if you find this, thanks!)

A game, at its most basic, has no de nitive de nition; Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, states that one cannot see anything in common with various games, but similarities and relationships exist. However, for the sake of explanation, assume that a game is an activity wherein a particular arbitrary goal is set in advance, and this goal can only be achieved within a set of predefi ned rules. In chess, for example, two persons agree upon common rules of what the game board looks like, how the pieces are used, and what the goal of the game is. Furthermore, the obstacles created by these rules cannot be trivially overcome; they must present a challenge, for games foster the development of skill. The more complex a game’s rules are, the greater the barrier to entry and the greater the challenge.

Chess presents a greater complexity because each diff erent playing piece moves diff erently in its rules, whereas checkers only provides one type of playing piece and one type of movement. Thus, the greater the complexity of a game (referring to its rules), the greater its depth (the knowledge and time required to learn the game), which further engenders greater skill.

This statement, however, doesn’t cover exceptions to that “rule”, and to create a rule can seem insurmountable when it comes to the entire history of games. The ancient Chinese game Go, for example, has exactly two rules and one piece type (like Checkers in that respect), yet it’s objectively true that it provides a greater amount of complexity (kudos to DJ Orwell/Cordwainer for this particular insight). Of course, that game’s board also have a 19×19 playing area, in comparison to Chess’s restricted 8×8 square, and Go’s entire setup depends on the player’s strategy, but only two rules govern movement in Go. Thus, Go displays greater complexity while maintaining fewer rules.

Video games, however, present a diff erent set of challenges than normal games. While, at base, they still operate under a set of arbitrary rules and challenges, they can also provide narrative and motivation through the wonders of visual and aural artistry. Imagine a player who has absolutely no understanding of video games. First, when starting, they’ll see Mario standing still. Looking at the controller, they’ll see a D-pad and two large red buttons. The directional pad looks obvious enough; it must move Mario. The player tries it and it works! Mario walks slowly to the left and hits a wall. Well, I guess he can’t go that way, now can he? The player, then, directs Mario to the right-hand side to find that he can move right.

Moving forward, the player sees a question mark block. What is it, and what do I do with it, he wonders? Looking again at the controller, he sees two buttons once again. He tries one, and sees that it makes Mario jump. Great – so how do I use this? He can’t reach the top of the block; Mario doesn’t jump high enough. Maybe I need to hit it from below? This works, and the player receives coins! That’s great, but there’s yet another thing moving towards him. One of the first things a player sees when starting a game of Super Mario Bros. is the goomba, a malformed “evil” mushroom creature. Using the D-pad, the player move towards the goomba – what do I do? He walks into it and dies. Well, maybe I can just jump over it? His second attempt sees success, but he also lands on the goomba’s head. It dies. The player learns that enemies can be killed by jumping on their heads. In a mere few seconds (which took SO much time to explain here), the video game has taught you the majority of its rules through little more than good design. It can convey the rules because it enforces those same rules in one breath so there’s no ambiguity (well, in good games anyway). Heck, even points are given when he does both these actions, clearly visible and reinforcing the idea that these are good things to do.

In this sense, video games strike a contrast in conveyance with other games. Imagine that you do not know the rules of chess in any way. You, as a player, are presented with a chess board and all the relevant pieces required to play chess. How, in this situation, would you learn to play the game? Most likely, the rules are contained in an instruction booklet or passed down through word of mouth from persons who have played the game before. However, without such resources, no avenue presents itself for understanding the rules of chess as a speci c game – in fact, it is more likely that an entirely new game would be created than two players with a chess board recreating chess.

The ability to convey the rules in such a direct way gives the video game, by contrast, a certain intensity lacking in the traditional game model, as the rules are integrated into the logic and narrative (spoken, written, or conveyed through visuals) of a digital world. This does not mean the game requires a “story” that invests the player like a novel: rather, the game must simply motivate the player towards its arbitrary goals through whatever means the developer uses. Usually these result in the idea of “challenge”, which forces the player to use the tools provided to overcome whatever obstacles are presented. These can come in a variety of forms (such as those depicted in the conversation above), but the key factor remains the challenge. Without challenge, there’s no real games; there’s exploring a digital world, yes, but there’s no “game” that supports this exploration.

Given this background, then, we can clearly see that “video games” don’t has quite as wide an arc  as you might think. Most games do have sets of rules, some more elegantly designed (Mario) than others (Final Fantasy XIII). Some might motivate you with narrative to persevere, even in the face of horrible mechanics (Mass Effect does come to mind on that note). Even those games with excessive narrative focus (anything by Christine Love) also follow some set of rules, however limited they might be. Games where you “define the narrative” are mired in these same rules, but they fail the moment they don’t provide any challenge. There’s nothing to overcome and nothing to conquer; there’s no feeling of challenge, nor is there a reason for me to interact with the game. It could just as easily work within another medium, which I find as the greatest travesty of indie games – they fail to ratchet up the challenge meaningfully, as they are “games” made for “gamers”. They don’t take everything into account as much as they’d like you to think. In every game, you’re “defining a narrative”, so to speak, so why make these classifications?

Where does Christianity fit into this? Well, it doesn’t from most perspectives, and that’s what makes video games so fascinating. They reflect the mores of modern capitalistic societies (and I am making no judgement on capitalism as an idea, but in implementation) where, to win, one must conquer the other. That other always finds itself predefined and set in place in video games because, well, we can! That doesn’t mean the conflict and conquest comes in a predominantly violent form, but it’s most difficult to create a game where there isn’t any violence except that of the mind. Who defined violence, anyway, when we started the conversation? Could subtle mental manipulation also find its way into the definition? Tactics, strategy, challenge? These are all “violence”, in some respect, whether such violence is expressed through your avatar or in multiplayer games that don’t even have violence as a central factor (racing, maybe?)

Rather, Christianity equals a grand metaphysical conflict against sin, and much of its weapons involve God’s conquest of the mind and the heart rather than a physical conquest. Taking a look at Galatians 5, we see this clearly:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

“Crucifying the flesh” seems a harsh phrase, but it’s a matter of life and death! Life is full of opposition. Especially in Christianity, there’s a struggle everyday to do the work of the Spirit and not the work of the flesh. Jesus engages in mental conflict with Pharisees and others who would seek to challenge God’s will. That it ends in an act of self-sacrifice does not seem like conflict, but it conflicts with the ways of the world by subverting their traditional way of thought – intellectual warfare of the highest order. God conflicts with us because we are sinful and He is pure and clean. Conflict abounds and takes many forms.

Video games make these conflicts readily apparent in their very nature. It’s why I find them more fascinating than novels or movies, for I am an active participant in this conflict. And I am continually improving in fighting the good fight, even with set-backs.

Continue to Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • A detailed synopsis of what makes Mario better than chess! 🙂
    I started playing To The Moon today (over lunch) with this conversation in mind. I was really curious where the “game” was and the “straight narration was.” 
    Apart from some brilliant narrative interruptions to the standard “go here, do this, make a decision, and keep moving forward,” I am starting to notice something that really separates it as an interactive experience that’s different from pure narration. I am starting to connect with the house that you’re in. Many RPGs are just levels. But there’s a personal connection being made with the setting and you’re interacting with it, unlocking it’s secrets. It reminds me of Gone Home in that way (which I’m also greatly looking forward to): But that element of place also makes interactive experience expressedly engaging: Have you ever watched a movie and said, “I wonder how you get around in that world?” I don’t think I have. Back to To The Moon: It seems that the “conquest” is the mystery of the old man’s life and how to get him to the moon. You have to figure it out and get him where he wants to go. And that’s far more exciting to “conquer” than most RPGs (to me, at least).  
    You wrap up the point of this post well by emphasizing that core fact: being an active participant in the reconciliation of the story. That’s why I love games with great narration (especially truly redemptive narration).

    • @Mjoshua It’s that emotional connection that makes Final Fantasy VII the favorite game of just about everyone who started playing games in 1997 – not just because it’s the first game they played, but because the game IS good and IS great at being active in the reconciliation AND identifying with Cloud’s identity crisis.

      • @Zachery Oliver I tried really hard to get into FFVII. Played about 24 hours into it in 2001 and got stuck. And hated the graphics. Then a year later, got about 28 hours into it and then just lost interest.  I was one of those weirdos who liked VIII more. Blasphemy, I know.

        • @Mjoshua To be honest with you, FFVII is objectively better, but I like IV and VI more. An advocate for VIII, though, isn’t very common.

        • @Zachery Oliver Yeah. That was my 18-year-old me’s opinion. I’d proably feel different if I played it now. But I won’t I’ve kinda sworn off Final Fantasy unless they do another 12. Similar could be said for MGS. I just hate their latest console iterations so much that they truly are dead to me.

        • @Mjoshua I’ve only played MGS2, so can’t comment on that. Still, I don’t think FFXIII is entirely horrible – it has its own charm (I will write a review about this, probably!). Anyone expecting a certain “kind” of Final Fantasy should be looking at Mistwalker games – after all, the creator of Final Fantasy heads the creative direction of their games.

        • @Zachery Oliver Yeah. MGS2 starts to get at the problem of emphasis on a broken and ridiculous story. But MGS4 is the most grievous offender. The story stops making sense when they make cute 17-yo girls naval captains and have armless protagonists holding weapons with their teeth. Then it just goes downhill from there. I seriously have no clue how that game got such high marks.The last I played FF8 was when I was a teenager who didn’t yet hate JRPGs, so my former bias is relative. Mistwalker games like Lost Odyssey?

        • @Mjoshua I’d say MGS2 makes perfect sense if you think of it as the first “post-modern” video game. It’s a bizarre deconstruction of being the protagonist of a video game…or a massive troll, whatever you want to think. Don’t know about anything beyond that in the series, although MGS4 sounds insane. MGS3’s supposedly the best one.
          Yes, play Lost Odyseey. It’s excellent! If you hate JRPGs, then Blue Dragon won’t be your style. I am looking forward to playing The Last Story.

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