Complicated Situations: Why Video Game Stories Need Multiple Conflicts
Everybody has conflicts. Sometimes they’re external—a frustrating boss, for example, or a frightening arch-nemesis bent on your destruction—and sometimes they’re internal battles with ourselves instead. Both make for compelling narratives—in fact, it’s often preferable to mix both together to keep a plot progressing.
Conflicts in video games, however, aren’t quite so cut-and-dried. Consider early games like Super Mario Bros., which are all about external combat; we don’t need to know about Mario’s internal struggle as a plumber-turned-princess-rescuer to enjoy the gameplay. But that’s not to say that the internal side of the equation has no place in video games—in fact, by nature of being interactive, games are capable of telling stories that explore internal conflicts in ways no other medium can.
Mixing the Internal and External for Powerful Narratives
We know that conflict is the heart of a good story, and especially the heart of a good game. Without a goal of some kind and an obstacle to prevent you from walking right up to it, a game would be boring because there would be no stakes. Even in walking simulators, which typically don’t have a fail state, there’s always some element of tension that makes you want to keep moving forward.
Take Papers, Please, for example. While the player determines whether things like family duty, revolution, or patriotism matter to them, it’s that conflict that makes the story interesting. Without it, you’d have a game that’s simply about doing paperwork—which, perhaps unsurprisingly, would make for a less than entertaining experience.
Conversely, there are games like Uncharted. In Uncharted 4, you’re working with your long-lost brother to recover an ancient treasure and save his life. Equally important as this, however, is Nathan Drake’s internal conflict—is his happy, safe life with Elena worth quitting adventuring for, or is glory what he’s really wanted all along? The game seamlessly explores both conflicts, folding them together neatly to expand on Drake’s character in a way that feels natural to players and keeps gameplay interesting without sacrificing depth to do it.
In the same way that few games employ only one kind of enemy—even the Pac-Man ghosts have unique characteristics—having multiple kinds of strife also keeps players on their toes. Internal and external forces are both great for creating contention in video games. By pulling the story forward with more than one kind of problem, games create more interesting, balanced narratives.
Troll and I is a special case, in that it’s a mix of multiple kinds of both internal and external struggles. You play as a young boy named Otto and a mythical troll, both on the run from bloodthirsty hunters on their trail. Each character has something unique to fear—Troll is being hunted for sport, while Otto has to learn to survive in the wilderness—but they forge a friendship based on the mutual need to survive together.
While that’s a great setup for a story, that’s not where it ends. These complications pile up on one another, tangling together to create a cohesive story to keep players entertained at every turn. Troll and I begins with one problem that compounds into many, with Troll and Otto growing and learning from each with each obstacle they overcome.
That’s why multiple conflicts, both internal and external, are so good for fleshing out a story. In games like Uncharted 4 and Troll and I, there’s a sense of constantly escalating tension because you’re never just searching for one solution. As Nathan Drake’s search for treasure continues, the lies to Elena pile up. As Troll and Otto journey deeper into the wilds of Northern Europe, they encounter harsher enemies and more traitorous conditions, but also find that their friendship and willingness to accept one another despite their differences can keep them alive.
Contention Drives Video Game Stories
Multiple conflicts can be tricky to balance, but having a mixture of internal and external problems stemming from many sources is the key to great storytelling. Even in video games, where conflict and tension can be present even without a story, it’s still essential to create a fun experience.
We might not need Princess Peach to want to avoid Goombas, and we don’t need a tragic backstory to want to progress as Mario. But those things are key to our enjoyment; you need a hero, you need a reason to move forward, and you need a reason to fight to make a good conflict worth it. Whether it’s a princess, a loving family, or the pure desire to survive, video game conflicts keep us reloading and using extra lives until we get it right.
Troll and I combines the thrill of action, the tension of survival, and the puzzles of adventure games all in one package. Preorder your copy today!