Internal Conflict

Portraying internal conflict in games using game-play is tricky, especially when it is the protagonist’s problem. A significant majority of games imply the player to be the protagonist and as a result, games are more about empathy than they are about sympathy. Many games attempt to portray internal conflict by representing the conflict in a metaphysical form, usually involving combat game-play or any general player vs. evil game-play scenario. This technique fails in many ways;

  • If the player is assumed to be the protagonist than this method only portrays a struggle, when usually an internal conflict is the result of choices and complacency. This method could work if the protagonist is suffering from an addiction and trying to fight against it.
  • An example of internal conflict is the balance between needs and wants. It’s something where the conflict is resolved by supplementing both sides, not by providing a simplistic black and white protocol and going to the extreme left or right (in this case it can be catastrophic; choosing wants could cause you to die of hunger, whereas choosing needs can cause you to lead life without a soul and in constant regret.)
  • If the player’s actions are regarded as acts of the protagonist, than this method only allows players to assume the role of one part of the protagonist’s thought process. (eg. you are confidence and your enemy is paranoia.) Which is kind of contradictory of the game’s empathetic nature. When you are trying to overcome your paranoia, you aren’t thinking about eradicating it, you are thinking about reasoning with it.

This technique does have an advantage:

  • By portraying the internal conflict metaphysically it delivers a sense of urgency and pressure, which you would feel even if there is no immediate urgency to solve the problem.

If you ask me, the best way to portray the protagonist’s internal conflict is with puzzles. With puzzles, the player is expected to resolve a problem in a way that satisfies all elements whilst also utilizing all elements. When we plan to utilize only one element, we disregard the need for the other elements and what they are needed for. When we fail at satisfying all elements, it’s because we fall victim to the security of one element. For example, when a singer goes to an audition too confident, their performance can be executed well, but their interview can be seen by the judges as egotistic or cocky. When a singer goes to an audition too paranoid they might not get to perform at all, even if the interview goes well.

An Example Design:

In Portal, anything in the test chamber that prevents you from falling to your death can be portrayed metaphorically as a need. Anything in the test chamber that takes a non-continuous form can be portrayed as either a want or a resource in general. Any element that requires a resource to function can be portrayed as investment (the Aperture Science High Voltage Super Colliding Super Button). Any element of the puzzle that requires portals in order to function can portrayed as either a responsibility or a task.

This example is rather crude, a puzzle game specifically designed for the purpose of portraying internal conflict would be rather interesting though.


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