Somewhere right now there’s a guest author at some university telling an enthralled gathering of undergrad wannabes “all stories are conflicts.” That isn’t true, but fiction in European, expansionist traditions treats conflict as the foundation of storytelling. Of course stories can and do exist without conflict, especially outside the aforementioned traditions,1 but the assumed truism of literature is that “a struggle against something” is the germ of every plot. Conflict, unsurprisingly, is often the default engine of ludic storytelling as well.
Tabletop games, for instance, deal quite explicitly in conflict in a very raw, tangible way. Basic example: Chess is completed when one player’s pieces are eliminated by the other player’s pieces, it is one player set completely against the other with the goal of literally removing their opponent’s surrogate from the board. Most board and card games operate on each player’s struggle to eliminate competing players. That said, conflict is most directly embedded in role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons expands on Chess by adding several stages of arithmetic to its inner workings but it keeps deep roots in conflict. Players are set against the game master with the objective of eliminating the GM’s pieces from the board. In battle, the GM places enemy pieces against the player, or they place a cliff that a climb check must overcome, or they play the role of a dignitary who must be assuaged with a persuade or deception roll. Regardless the type of “piece” players find themselves set against, they must, one way or another, remove it from the board to progress. Conflict is doctored in a way that the players are always more likely to win than lose, and a generous GM may forgive losses or slip in a deus ex machina in response to a critical fail, but interactions are still based on conflicts.
In videogames, strategic RPGs recreate tabletop experiences more directly than any other form of digital RPG. While digital RPGs have not been able to recreate the personal dynamic of multiple player-characters from the tabletop, the developer slides neatly into the authorial role of the GM. And though all videogames owe a massive debt to tabletop and card games,2 no videogame genre replicates conflict from its analogue sources more faithfully than RPGs, particularly those strategic enough to earn the “S” at the beginning. Sure, all RPGs have the same dice and arithmetic in their guts as D&D, Ultima and their ilk−that’s their defining trait−but SRPGs go far enough to keep the board and the resource management. They are even more interested in conflicts between battling parties. What interests me is how these games frame conflict.
I’ve been dead to the world for the last week as I’ve been playing XCOM for the first time (Enemy Within, for those interested) and it struck me how much the game paralleled with Expeditions Conquistador,* another SRPG I have an established fondness for.3 Both deal directly with the player’s small, elite squad’s direct conflict with an Othered antagonist.
XCOM focuses on the titular international spy network organized to counter an alien invasion. The player never partakes or even sees the open battles between Earth and the aliens, rather their covert organization of G-men respond to attacks with small squads, develop special weapons and technology and surgically strike at key ships and personnel to undermine the alien’s attack. The calm moments between battle are spent managing resources to improve soldiers’ fighting prowess and mitigating any losses or limitations to the squad’s effectiveness.
Expeditions Conquistador focuses on a Spanish expedition force sent into Central America in 1518. The player never partakes or even sees the open battles between the warring Aztec and united smaller kingdoms, rather their small troop explores the continent, researches native peoples’ lifestyles and geography, aligns with one side of the civil war and surgically strikes at key locations and personnel to give their new ally an advantage in the war. The calm moments between battles are spent managing resources to improve soldiers’ fighting prowess and mitigating any losses or limitations to the squad’s effectiveness.
Both operate on a delicious cycle of preparation-battle-development. The player promotes experienced soldiers into officers to level them up and they loot war assets after each victory, all while the threat of starvation and mismanagement hangs over every decision, especially on ironman mode. These might seem like superficial similarities but actually they’re endemic to the genre. SPRGs, in their heavy basis in conflict—a conflict that the player is, by design, supposed to win—are engineered to make an invader out of the player.
On the one hand, Conquistador subverts this in a number of ways: for example there’s a sidequest where a healer in Tenochtitlan asks the expedition to bring him the body of someone from a town stricken by small pox so he can study the disease. If the player brings him the body, they create a small pox epidemic in the major city, if they don’t the small pox epidemic spreads throughout the satellite towns, killing just as many people. The point is that the expedition carries small pox, they can’t not carry small pox and small pox spreads because it’s a contagious disease: at no point will the small pox virus consult the player about how they feel about that. The player manages a band of invaders, and invaders, no matter what their intentions, cause problems. Conquistador coaxes the player’s arrogance to “fix history” but then refuses to show them any purely benevolent use for their power. No matter what, the player is in Central America to steal stuff for a Spanish king.
On the other hand, XCOM frames Earth and the player’s secret organization as defenders, not invaders. However, research and development comes from salvaging materials from fallen enemies and adapting it for the player’s army. Just as Expeditions Conquistador follows the Spanish king’s looting party, XCOM’s commander succeeds or fails on their ability to pillage. Granted, money comes primarily from other human organizations (council countries at the end of each month or as rewards for successful missions) but most valuable materials—energy sources, raw materials, weapons or weapon fragments, new areas of research—come from killing aliens and taking their stuff. Even those above materials can be sold for human currency if the player’s weapons budget can’t keep pace with the aliens’ attacks. This is an invader’s strategy.
Pre-Napoleonic France, for instance, had been economically depressed since losing the Seven Years’ War halfway through the eighteenth century. France’s Legislative Assembly, the country’s governing body after King Louis XVI’s overthrow, declared war against Austria in 1792 to recoup some of their losses and unite France’s more extreme reformists against a common enemy. The result was a disaster: Austria and their unlikely Prussian allies held off the French and further pressurized the country’s revolutionary sentiments.4 Five years later, Napoleon pushed the Austrian army as far back as Vienna. Much had changed in the interim, the Assembly’s French army was divided between revolutionists and royalists and officers made up entirely of the former aristocracy had almost completely fled the country after the king was deposed. But one of the key differences was that the Assembly was invading with a national deficit where Napoleon invaded with France’s first surplus in decades.
War is expensive but Napoleon was not just an efficient general, his wars turned a profit. Napoleon was an art thief. If you’ve ever wondered how the Louvre, a museum in France’s capital, came to acquire Egyptian, Roman and Italian artifacts and artwork it’s because Napoleon’s army stole them all.5 The museum even briefly changed its name to Musée Napoléon during his reign due to his massive contributions. Napoleon was hardly the first or only dictator to finance his expansion by looting, he just modernized the process.6
At the risk of reducing history, my point is that Napoleon could finance his invasion by taking stuff where Austria/Prussia, despite handily defeating French troops just five years earlier, gained nothing from their defence. Defenders don’t actually gain anything from protecting their own stuff. They don’t lose it, which is reason enough to defend, but they aren’t in any better a position no matter how aptly they repel their attackers. Conversely, theft puts invaders in a better position to continue invading. Looting can’t sustain an empire, but it can provide the necessary bump to take the next hill.
So, to return to our SRPGs, the player must be in the position of the invader to foster the RPG’s ever-important sense of growth. XCOM—the organization and the game—might tell the player that they’re on the defence, but that isn’t really true. There’s a mission that takes place in St. John’s, Newfoundland where the player’s squad must investigate a mysterious attack against the city. The squad discovers a breed of alien that makes zombies out of its victims. The player must activate a beacon and escape the map before a bomber razes the city and all aggressive zombie beasts within it. It’s a real cool level, but the player isn’t really defending St. John’s so much as they are counter-invading the alien’s new territory. The player’s war acquisitions are dedicated to continued counter-attacks against the aliens. They must never search the remains of St. John’s for survivors, they don’t have to provide aid for the displaced civilians, establish a state of emergency, repair sewage and water treatment facilities, account for and rebuild structures, upgrade infrastructure for subsequent attacks or anything other than move to the next map to conquer. In short, the player doesn’t have to live in the city after they defend it, they take the stuff they need and move to the next location. Like an invader.
The key plot missions take place on the attack, save for one mission where XCOM HQ is attacked, but the player still never has to administrate the aftermath. Again, it’s just onto the next staging point. In Conquistador, the player is charged with tracking down enough valuables to satisfy their king’s greed. If the player does not conclude their expedition with enough valuables, King Carlos will just send another, more driven expedition. One that will undoubtedly tramp all over the player’s diplomatic agreements. Valuables, however, aren’t much good except to give away in exchange for medicine, food and equipment. Y’know, important things. The player’s expressed purpose is currency collection, a currency that is only useful in improving their party’s battle efficiency. Again, improvement and development is built into most RPGs, but emphasis is placed on abstract development like experience, where SRPGs like XCOM and Conquistador are centred on material acquisitions from formal conflict.
Even a comparatively innocent game like Shining Force requires the player’s acquisition of land and stuff. Shining Force follows a town of disaster refugees (demonic awakening, in this case) pioneering a new land. The player’s army is invited to the new territories they explore but nonetheless improvement hinges on acquiring treasures from other places. On its own, this isn’t much. Most games move the player along new areas and into new places. Link loads up on gadgets by grave-digging and the assassins of Assassin’s Creed shape the world by charting city after city. Exploration and mapping are a part of plenty of games. But in SRPGs, mapping is inevitably framed as a conflict. The artifacts Link is claiming don’t belong to anybody and he isn’t using them to mass equip a standing force, even a merry band in a story-driven RPG aren’t growing at the pace of their invasion, the monsters they fight are monsters designed in their nature to attack adventurers. The player isn’t an organized invader against actual people.
These games most often deal in formal conflict, and even when the game masks or justifies the player’s aggression, they are nonetheless the aggressor. Maps impose a cultural understanding on space and videogames magnify the politics of maps because they don’t have to work around any real geography: they more purely politicize space.7 However, SRPGs more than other games associate progress with conquest. Progress depends on the material acquisition of a enemy’s things. Importantly, this is an enemy developers created for players to defeat. XCOM veils the behavioural necessity of killing and looting behind its counter-invasion narrative and Expeditions Conquistador comments on the mechanics of invasion, but the genre still structurally positions the player as the invader.
This is perhaps most blatant in King’s Bounty, where the player takes the role of the King’s treasure seeker. The player gathers up resources for his king in exchange of more advanced troops that will gather up more and better resources. Among the most useful resources the player can acquire are wives who are able to equip more items, enabling the player’s troops more combat bonuses in their pursuit of bounty…for the king. The principle drive is other kingdoms’ stuff. Similarly, Eador: Masters of the Broken World puts its player in the role of a god seeking to forcibly unite the shards of the universe by taking possession of all the resources on each shard and bringing them back together.
This is all reminiscent of the tabletop player’s competition with their game master: the GM places pieces on the board for the player to overcome. And like conflict as a narrative drive, it isn’t that this is necessarily a weak or harmful method of storytelling—it sure as shit can be, but it isn’t necessary—it’s just leaned on so heavily that it’s assumed to be the only way to structure the genre. It isn’t even that forcing the player to adopt the role of invader can’t be done effectively or critically−as I mentioned, Expeditions Conquistador is subversive because it’s aware of what it’s asking of its player and Final Fantasy Tactics uses the protagonist, Ramza’s position as a noble to make a point−but the problem, as ever, comes when a single template becomes the default.
At the very least, it behooves the potential player of these games to be aware of how and why they’re engaging with the belligerent pieces on the board and take note of the structure of the conflict. Balancing a tabletop or strategic RPG is an incredibly difficult process and as much as anyone I want to celebrate the rare games that really nail it. They are among the most rewarding and memorable of any. But it’s important to remember that the player is supposed to grow at the pace of their glorious war until they win it. Sometimes it isn’t enough to be told you’re the good guy when you’re picking valuables off dead things.
1 “The significance of plot without conflict.” still eating oranges. June 15 2012.
2 von Spreckelsen, Amsel. “On Mediating the Gap Between Tabletop and Screen.” Ontological Geek. May 30 2014.
3 Filipowich, Mark. “Expeditions Conquistador and Post-Imperial Arrogance.” The Border House. Jun 18 2013.
4 Schneid, Frederik. “The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.” EGO. Jan 27 2011.
5 Charney, Noah. “5-Minute History of Napoleonic Art Looting.” Blouin. Oct 24 2011.
6 Zabaglio, Bruno. “The Founding Of The Louvre Museum And How The Napoleonic Wars Affected Its Collection.” Cincinnati Artists Blog. Jun 23 2009.
7 Polansky, Lana. “The Edge Of The Ocean.” Bit Creature. Jul 9 2013.
Further reading: Coberly, Bill. “Good Luck, Commander: XCOM and Pacific Rim.” The Ontological Geek. Aug 16 2013.
Ligman, Kris. “We who are about to die salute you.” Dire Critic. Apr 8 2014.
Farr, Denis. “Ken’s Invisible Crotch.” Five out of Ten. 2.
Floyd, Christopher. “On Fear and Death.” un amour numérique. Oct 16 2012.