After watching a talk about Cursed Problems in Game Design, of course, my first question was: Are there cursed problems in writing?
In game design a cursed problem is created when two player promises conflict with each other in a way that can’t be resolved. There can only be compromise. More specifically, the player experience is in conflict with the objective.
- Experience: Mom wants to have a relaxing vacation and see all the sights.
- Objective: Dad wants to get to Nashville before the end of the day.
For example, a game developer tries to create a free-for-all fighting game where you have four players all fighting each other. That is the experience. But the objective is to win, and so you’ll soon find that politics has injected itself into the game. The strongest player now has to fight the three weaker players who have teamed up. And in future matches the strong player starts holding back on the fighting to avoid being singled-out.
The game has lost the promised experience of an all out brawl.
This is a problem, and one that can’t be solved. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between a cursed problem and a hard problem. Hard problems can be fixed with hard work. Cursed problems can only be accommodated with compromises.
Cursed problems in writing
So, there are actually three main lessons fiction writers can learn from cursed problems.
A cursed problem makes a good conflict for a character. The character wants an experience that is in conflict with an objective. The main character, Lee, wants to go to the dojo everyday and enjoy the pure pursuit of kung fu. Fighting is all he cares about. But another fighter named Martin is playing politics and has ganged up with the Star Fist Clan to take over the dojo. Lee tries to fight his way through the problem but is beaten. Will he keep trying to fight his way through, or can he learn to lean on his friends for help?
Story elements can add cursed problems to a story when they conflict with the needs of plot. You want to write a story about a mind reader. The reader will get to experience what it would be like to read people’s minds! But the plot is focused on a budding romance. Being able to read your lover’s mind is creepy. And it would make any misunderstanding instantly resolvable. The experience of mind reading conflicts with the objective of plot. So to solve this cursed problem, there are four methods that will lead to a sacrifice of either the experience or the objective.
- A barrier that cannot be crossed: The mind-reader can’t read his girlfriend’s mind, thus sacrificing some of the fun of being a mind-reader in order to keep the plot viable.
- A gate that makes mind reading hard: The mind-reader gets intense headaches and nosebleeds from reading people’s minds.
- A carrot that keeps them on the good side: Dad gives him an allowance if he refrains from reading people’s minds without good reason.
- Leaning into the brokenness (what the GDC talk calls s’mores): He uses his mind reading capability in order to become the perfect boyfriend. Some kind of life lesson ensues.
- A cursed problem in a story makes a great hook. When readers are deciding what to read, if they sense there’s a cursed problem, it will create intrigue. This story follows a 911 operator during her shift at work? But, the protagonist needs to move around and affect things in the world in order to resolve the main conflict. How will this story work if the character can only sit at her desk and talk on the phone?
The Eastern solution
Interestingly, I think this idea of the cursed problem helps solve a question I’ve had about anime, manga, and light novels. How are they able to have overpowered protagonists? Typically, a character than can solve their problems with one punch wouldn’t really make for a good story. That story element is in conflict with the very idea of conflict.
Well, as it turns out Asia has another way of structuring stories. There is what Japan calls kishōtenketsu, or a four-part structure. Ki introduces the characters. Shō develops the theme. Ten is a non-sequitur twist. And Ketsu resolves the conflict, not between characters, but the conflict between the twist and what came before.
Which means the overpowered protagonist contrasts really well with the ennui of daily life, and makes for a good kishōtenketsu story. Thus you have the structure of One-Punch Man. Saitama is just sitting at home reading magazines or watching TV for half the episode. A threat appears out of nowhere. He handles it with one punch, and sigh returns to his magazine to look for coupons.