Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Insert "Playing With Yourself" Joke Here (Conflict and Conquest of the Crystal Palace)

The smart strategy, when naming your video game, is to avoid promising too much. The classic games do this - Super Mario Bros promises nothing whatsoever beyond that it is in some way better than Mario Bros, a feat that, let's be honest here, is not a massive stretch. Likewise, Mega Man promises nothing other than a man that is somehow greater than normal. Other games take this to a drastic extent - Castlevania has no meaning outside its own diegesis, and thus promises nothing whatsoever.

On the other hand we have games with excessive ambitions. The first and foremost of these is licensed games - things like Barbie, Conan, or The Addams Family, all of which strongly suggest that they will offer pleasures in some way akin to their namesakes. The fact that they never, ever do is why nobody sane ever buys the video game tie-in for something. At another extreme is Color a Dinosaur, a game that makes a strangely ambitious promise, as we have discussed. And then there is the first of today's games, Conflict.

This is such a ridiculously broad title as to be comical. Conceptually speaking, the word indicates a struggle between two or more persons or forces. It is a term that can encompass the soaring and epic heights of bidding on eBay, or the slogging banality of war. It is a term that we use euphemistically more often than sincerely. "The Iraqi Conflict" and all. Despite the manifest flaws in the word, however, it is essential - it captures not only a vital part of human experience, but a vital part of linguistic expression. Conflict is what creates and polices the spaces in between signifiers. At the risk of offering a poor man's Derrida, it is the conflict between opposing concepts - good and evil, male and female, liberal and conservative, chaos and ceremonial - that lend each side any meaning. The task cannot be accomplished by mere negation - "not conservative" is not a synonym for liberal. It is only because words conflict with other words that their meanings can be spotted.

Conflict is a necessary consequence of multiplicity. No two words, even roughly synonymous ones, are fully coincidental. "Bad" and "evil" mean the same thing? Yes. But they also mean a wealth of different things. But we can extend this further. A word has no meaning standing on its own - it is in the context of language that a word produces meaning. Thus "word" in the preceding sentence does not carry a meaning identical to the same word in this sentence. To define conflict as opposition of two forces is excessive and redundant. It is sufficient to say that two forces exist.

For me, conflict conjures my cheerily abandoned Wikipedia days. Wikipedia accretes through conflict. Multiple editors cannot write out of agreement. Instead, the frictions and tensions surrounding an article slowly, inexorably create valuable content. The problem is that it creates content not by expending editors' time, but by expending the editors themselves - letting the inevitable conflicts chew them through. It's a process that is necessarily ugly. No policy can hope to guide a process like this, because policy would exist to make the process run smoothly. Wikipedia isn't about smooth process. That's the awful truth of it. Eventually, I couldn't do it. The encyclopedia would write itself without me. I was gloriously inessential. One step off the treadmill and I was free.

Of course, that's arguing on the Internet for you - something I've tried hard to give up. It's masturbatory conflict. Conflict that exists not to advance anything but itself. I used to believe in the power of the cutting witticism, the sly point that made it worth it. But you never persuade. I learned to play not for my interlocutor, but for the audience. But then, if I'm playing for the audience, why include the interlocutor I can't control? Sneakier options exist. Chief among them, art.

As a game, Conflict is a turn based strategy game - seemingly rich, but like most turn based strategy games, a hopeless case for casual play. This is not a flaw. These games do not seek a wealth of players. Instead they seek a dedicated core of players - a few people who will play them religiously. The best have well-achieved this - games like Civ 2 and Nethack that are still actively and passionately played by people. Done right, these games create a connection between game and player more intense than any other.

Game and player, of course, make a set of two. So some conflict must exist. Some tension. We've discussed this theory - the non-coincidence of game and player. But what do we make of a game that is literally defined by non-coincidence. A game that describes itself, right on the box, as being about the inability of two objects to be defined without hostility.

No. Hostility is not the word. I want some synonym. It is not hostility I want. Conflict is beneficial as often as it is harmful. Perhaps even moreso. To say that we exist in conflict with our games is not to suggest that we do not like them. Art conflicts with the viewer. This is perhaps why "conflict" is our euphemism of choice to describe far nastier things.

Here's a nasty thing we describe with that particular euphemism. "Conquest." Conflict is self-sustaining. Look at video games, or arguing on the Internet. Because conflict occurs as soon as you have two concepts, anything conflict generates in turn, by being a concept in relation to other concepts, further conflict. Conquest, on the other hand, is not. Where conflict multiplies, conquest collapses ever downward - where once there was you and me, now there is me and my new subject. Conflict is what happens when a man invades China and becomes Chinese. Conquest is what happens, apparently, when a man invades the Crystal Palace.

Conquest of Crystal Palace threatens to be another generic side-scroller on a system that is defined by a surfeit of generic side-scrollers. And then it carries through on its threat. A slight tinge of RPG elements does not outweigh a slight clumsiness in jumping mechanics, and the game never escapes the gravity of the generic. This is of course a terribly unfair criticism, made in hindsight. We didn't know how generic this was in 1990.

If the turn-based strategy game is a genre defined by its long-spanning colonization of the player's time and its role as a constant interlocutor, the side-scroller is defined by its end. The point is simply to get your avatar from the start screen to the end screen. It is a genre of conquest every bit as much as turn-based strategy is a genre of conflict.

If my life of conflict is the impotence of Internet arguing, what is my life of conquest? My life of making other into self, as opposed to losing self into other? The question's tough. Conquest has glamor, but it's an ugly sort. This dichotomy, in some ways, captures politics. Conquest is an essentially conservative goal, at least in the American sense of conservativism. The desire to render the world like us, because we are the best. I am very poor at American exceptionalism. My preference is for conflict - a massive spawning of difference and alternative.

But we just established a binary there, while we weren't looking. Conflict vs. Conquest. We've done this game before. We're getting good at it. The next step is to observe that conflict is thus defined by conquest, and visa versa. We can only have tension between two objects because of the possibility of the dialectical unification of conquest. We can only conquer because there is something else.

Without conquest, conflict devolves to stasis, every concept held still by the tension between it and its neighbors. This is the unhappy masturbation of Internet argument. If conquest, unchecked, is brutality, conflict, unchecked, is... nothing. The empty void of heat death. The game over screen, when all lives and struggle have been exhausted.

I gave up Internet argument for that reason. Now it's strictly blog posts for me. Imagined readers, who may all be spambots leaving comments about how I might like their blogs despite the fact that their blogs have nothing whatsoever to do with anything I write about. I've no idea if you exist. If I am in conflict with you, it is only in our heads. All that I experience here, I have conquered. And if I feel conflicted about this hill of beans?

Well that's to be expected.


  1. Yeaah. those spam bots are irksome.

    This post was...uh. ok i'll admit I didn't read it all. Kinda wall-o-texty for me. >_>

  2. I will confess to a modicum of curiosity as to what posts I have inadvertently made that are not walls of text.