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November 2, 2015

What’s the Key to a Good Combat System?

If we’re being completely honest here, I’ve never been in a fight.  I count myself lucky that the closest I’ve ever come to fisticuffs is some guy accidentally hitting me in the stomach while I zipped up my backpack.  Even if fighting is something that’s glorified -- in games, in movies, in media at large -- it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.  People can get hurt, and I seem to recall an episode of How I Met Your Mother where the consequence of a fight was a lawsuit for assault.  Moral of the story: don’t get into a fight.  Especially with Marshall.  That dude’s crazy.

Hopefully, the closest I’ll get to throwing down is a round of video games.  I’d like to think that a person can play them without fear of getting punched in the face (unless they’re having a Mario Party session), and seeing as how games thrive on virtual conflict, it’s no surprise that they’re pretty good at it.  Slashing up demons, kicking rival fighters, grappling foes into oblivion, it’s all there.  And despite the fact that I put on airs of wanting higher-class art for the medium, that’s not entirely true; I’m no stranger to a good Heavenly Potemkin Buster.

So you know what?  Let’s take time out to talk about combat in video games -- and what makes it good.

Let’s be real here.  I said that games are good at virtual conflict, and they’re fun a lot of the time no matter what form they take.  But I’m going to go ahead and guess that if you’re reading this, you’ve had experiences that were less than ideal.  Something didn’t click, something felt wrong, something was underwhelming, whatever -- we’ve all had to deal with disappointment in one form or another.  In a perfect world, every game would be a TENOUTTATEN production.  But since the world’s not perfect, it means we have to value the good stuff that much more.

And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to value the good stuff than by understanding why it’s good in the first place.  Nothing enriches appreciation more than understanding the ins and outs of a good product -- which is exactly something a nerd like me would say, but whatever.  Something, something, artistic merit, something, something, masterful execution.  Let’s cut right to the heart of the matter by starting with a question: how is it that video games make hurting others so much fun?

I wouldn’t dream of shooting a soldier (or even holding a gun) in real life, but I was genuinely eager to play Metal Gear Solid 5 to do exactly that.  Same goes for mech-busting in Xenoblade Chronicles, or pressing a button and having anything happen in Tekken.  If a game is going to have combat between two forces -- which at this stage has to encompass a good 90% of games -- then it should be good.  It should be fun, so that there’s no time to think about how it makes violence into a defanged snake…but that’s a discussion I doubt anyone feels like having right now, so let’s move on.

I’m writing this post because I want to try and answer some basic questions -- chief among them, why video game combat is fun.  That ties into what makes the best of them so drool-worthy, no question.  And while I’ve broadened the scope of what “combat” entails from game to game, I’d like to think that there are some common traits across the genres.  So I’ll go ahead and use this space to try and nail some of the particulars.  Ready?  Here we go!

If we think of games as nothing more than functions of input and output, then we can pare this down to a couple of choice words: press buttons and make cool stuff happen.  By that I mean it’s important for the actions onscreen to feel good; that’s a hard concept to objectively explain, I know, but it’s still pretty important.  Audiovisual responses help mask the fact that for all the flash and spectacle onscreen, everything is made possible by Little Jimmy Xbox running his thumbs across pieces of plastic. 

It’s important that the action creates a perceptible feeling, even if that feeling can’t be defined in the space of a sentence.  My gold standard for this is Metal Gear Rising; it had some lightning-fast combos, yes, but landing a successful parry released an effect that I imagine Zeus would make every time he wanted to call his divine pals to the summit of Mount Olympus.

So yeah, that’s a big element for me.  But I think that a secret advantage to video games -- what makes those with the best combat really sing -- is that they can take advantage of those effects to convey information smoothly and subconsciously.  What do I mean?  Well, I’ve already gone over it before, but I’ll do it again for completion’s sake: games might not always be able to deliver the most gripping narratives, but they can compensate for that with their action. 

In the absence of characterization in a story, characterization can come from solid gameplay.  Even if his animations are decided long beforehand, you know exactly what sort of person Dante is in DMC3, 4, and even DmC.  Alternatively, you know exactly what separates Ryu from Ken -- especially with the latter’s revamps for Street Fighter V.

The next key point, I’d say, is that a good combat system does something pretty interesting: it turns careful thought into natural instinct.  The best video games create a sense of intimacy, and break down the obvious barrier between the action, the player, and whatever screen (and dimensions) stands between them.  When you play a good fighting game -- and by extension get good with it -- performing basic combos stops being a matter of regurgitating stuff from training modes and becomes second nature.  The cool action is put entirely in the player’s hands, and it’s done without having to consciously think.  I’ve always thought that the high-level players out there manage to make it look like the game is moving three times faster than it should go, so I’m guessing they enjoy it more than a plebian ever could.

I’m no expert on the brain and psychology, but I have heard that there’s a phenomenon called an “alpha-burst” that lets the player feel positive reactions whenever they land a good attack in a video game.  So if players can get in those good attacks consistently -- in a game tailor made to allow those rapid, consistent attacks -- then chances are high that the player will appreciate it, and they’ll be likely to think that the game’s pretty good. 

So on that note, I’d argue that smooth controls that let players fight opponents and not the game are critical.  And not to be that guy, but 60fps action certainly doesn’t hurt the cause.  The mission is to make the player not think by overwhelming them with stuff to process on-screen and in their heads; you’ve got a better shot of making that happen when the default speed is cranked up a bit.

The third key point is obvious: games need a challenge to justify the breadth of options a combat system allows.  But I want to take that a step further, and say that it presents unique challenges that can throw a player off their game.  Having played Splatoon a fair bit, I think this is what makes shooters -- and multiplayer, even more so -- such an enduring genre.  In the absence of AI, the human element creates randomness that forces players to adapt.  If they want to win, they have to know the ins and outs of a combat system, and apply that knowledge for any situation. 

It plays into the whole “thought into instinct” angle; overcome a challenge, and it gives the player what feels like a tactile reward for a job well done.  And since it’s entirely unpredictable, it means that it’s not just a matter of rote memorization and regurgitation.  It requires activity, even if you can beat Paint Roller specialists by just walking backward and dumping ink in their faces.  (I’m an optimist, but I’m also a pragmatic fighter.)

I think we can all agree that at the end of the day, games are all about creating experiences -- and good ones, ideally.  There are different ways to accomplish that, obviously, and the particulars can vary even within the same game.  (Look at BlazBlue as an example; not only are the fighters different, but most of them have wildly unique gameplay mechanics built into them.)  So I’m of the opinion that there’s no wrong way to do it, as long as the methods and concepts come together to make something that feels right.  That’s a nebulous sweet spot, for sure, but it’s not impossible to reach.  Look at Bayonetta.  Look at Smash Bros.  Look at that one shooter that’s really popular right now that everyone likes.

Yeah, that’s the one.

That’s about all I can say for now.  So I’m turning it over to you guys so you can weigh in on the topic at hand.  Drawing experience from whatever games you’ve played -- character action, fighters, shooters, whatever -- do your best to answer the question: what’s the key to a good combat system?  What tickled your fancy?  What do you want to see?  What do you need out of your video games?

Enter the heat of battle.  Write!  A comment, that is.

You didn’t think you’d make it past this post without a reference to Third Strike, did you?  Pfft.  This isn’t amateur hour, people.

Oh, and one more thing: I’ve started up a Patreon campaign.  It’s in the early stages now, but at least it’s up.  Read more about it here.  And then, have a look if you dare -- or you need a chaser from all the implied violence of this post.

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