This is the first of five posts discussing narrative design and its relation to game development. This information was gleaned from Evan Skolnick at his 2017 GDC narrative boot camp. Unless otherwise noted, it’s safe to assume all insights in this article come from Skolnick.
The Heart of it All
At the heart of every story is conflict. It is the one essential ingredient that turns a situation from ordinary into a series of attention grabbing events that can be concluded to an audience’s satisfaction (emphasis on can be, because not every story does this well).
Conflict is fuel for story. Without it the narrative has nothing to push it forward. The underlying conflict of any story, or even sub story can be found by asking a question in the form of the formula X wants Y but Z. X, Y, and Z are variables that any conflict will fill in. For example, at the beginning of Star Wars IV when the Rebels are fleeing the Star Destroyer, nearly any moment contains this equation.
• Rebels want to escape, but they are being shot.
• Storm troopers want to shoot the rebels, but miss.
• Vader wants the plans, but he can’t find them.
• C3P0 wants to go one direction, but R2D2 wants to go another.
These are just four example in the opening of the film. The work groups at the session found around 2 to 3 times as much.
The Main Conflict
With all the conflicts that can be found in a story one is chosen as the overall conflict, or the Main Conflict. It is this conflict that either directly, or indirectly creates reason for all other conflicts to exist. The resolution of this conflict will signal the conclusion of the story. For example, in Star Wars IV the Main Conflict is the Rebels attempt to destroy the Death Star. While this may not seem most important when compared to Luke’s embrace of The Force, it is the conflict that causes all other conflicts to come into play. Upon the destruction of the Death Star the conclusion begins. All other conflicts or story points that don’t have a conclusion (i.e. What now for Luke? Or, what about the relationship between Luke, Han, and Leia? How about Vader, he’s still out there, what’s his deal?) Are left for sequel stories; however, the film ends on a satisfying note, because the Main Conflict introduced in the beginning and running throughout the film has been resolved.
To push forward towards a conclusion of the Main Conflict, a series of sub conflicts are needed. These sub conflicts may be short, or they may span nearly the same amount of story as the Main Conflict; however, the resolution of sub conflicts does not signal the conclusion of the story. As sub conflicts resolve they begin triggering the resolution of the Main Conflict.
One of the most notable sub conflicts in Star Wars IV is Luke’s attempt to understand and “use The Force”. This sub conflict concludes when he turns off his targeting computer and takes that fateful shot. At this moment Luke is tuned in with The Force and his conflict is resolved, which immediately signals the conclusion of the Main Conflict. Luke’s sub conflict resolution directly triggers the Main Conflict resolution.
Other sub conflicts include the character changes within Han Solo. When we meet him, he cares only for himself. Throughout the film he struggles with emotions of beginning to care for Luke and the gang. He denies these emotions and leaves before the final attack. Han’s character sub plot is resolved when he gives himself over to caring for others and makes his timely return to the battle. He knocks Darth Vader off Luke’s tail, leaving Luke free to concentrate. The conclusion of Han’s sub plot, allows for the conclusion of Luke’s sub plot, which brings about the conclusion of the Main Conflict.
In contrast to sub conflicts, micro conflicts are sub conflicts that are quickly presented and resolved. Sometimes they happen so fast that the audience may not have realized there was a conflict; however, the micro conflict’s presence pushes forward the story in a natural way that fits with the overall pacing. Micro conflicts connect the story from moment to moment.
A good example of this is when R2D2 and C3P0 have their conflict over which direction to go on Tatooine. This conflict happens very quickly and results in the two droids going their separate directions. Moments later R2 is alone and stalked by Jawas. The micro conflict becomes “R2 doesn’t want to be captured, but the Jawas are too overwhelming”.
These conflicts go by very quickly, but without them the story cannot progress. Let’s stop to consider what would happen without them. Had the two droids stuck together they may not have been overwhelmed, or found a safer path. Had the droids evaded capture, they would not have been purchased by Luke’s Uncle. Without being purchased, Luke would never connect with the droids, and R2 would have never presented our hero Luke with the story’s Main Conflict. In short the story would have ended, or gone on without ever introducing Luke’s character (or the writers would have factored him in some other way). As it is, the writer’s chose this progression of micro conflicts to further character introductions for those that would eventually resolve their sub conflicts (Luke and The Force, Han and caring) and bring about resolution to the Main Conflict (Destruction of the Death Star).
To conclude, let’s over-simplify this into a couple of equations. Game developers like equations.
• Multiple micro conflict resolutions = resolution of a sub conflict.
• Multiple sub conflict resolutions = resolution of the Main Conflict.
There you have it, conflict(s) are the reason stories exist. As a rule, there is no story without conflict. Now as with any rule, it can be broken; however, one should not attempt to break the rules before they have a solid understanding of what they are, and why they exist.
Catch me for the next post where we’ll break down the Three Act Structure.