Notes on Combat and Spectatorship

To some critics, a movie with cardboard characterization, fetishized violence, and unsubtle themes must be like a video game. As noted in a recent article in Variety, the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 has been unfavorably compared to video games for just these reasons. This Variety writer is joined by some game bloggers in calling foul at the unfair characterization of games, a medium with so much more potential and some excellent examples to the contrary.

I certainly agree that games can indeed be more artful and intelligent than some film critics recognize, though I think it’s important to note two things: first, that 300 is still a record-breaking box office hit, despite being pretty vapid; and second, that intelligently written narrative games are still probably rarer than the action-driven hits. The Variety writer, for example, cites Shadow of the Colossus as a game that breaks stereotypes, and this is indeed a unique and thought-provoking game. Critically acclaimed though it was, however, God of War certainly moved more copies, and even seemed to rank more frequently as “game of the year” among online reviewers. As much as I enjoyed God of War, I can’t say that the plot, themes, or characterization are its selling points. It’s a fun game, more fully realizing the long-held game industry vision of action-packed epics than games before it, but it’s not exactly thought-provoking.

Let’s assume, then, that there is something else about such movies and games that people find enjoyable. For some movies and games, a combination of striking visuals and visceral thrill may be what people find most attractive, and so much the better if there is something thoughtful in there to boot. Given that this kind of draw seems particularly relevant to game sales and reviews, however, I find it interesting that games have not gone even further in exploring the visual style of fight scenes. As a longtime gamer and moviegoer, I’d still argue that game designers stand to learn a lot from how combat is portrayed in cinema.

Consider this: the combat systems in most video games are the button-pushing analog of Ultimate Fighting Championship. If you’re going hand-to-hand or with close-range weapons, it’s an exercise in madly mashing at your controls or quickly deploying esoteric button combinations. The prevailing emotional experience is the adrenaline rush of survival and destruction. While you certainly get plenty of this in action films as well, some filmmakers have pushed into other areas: action sequences starring Bruce Lee or directed by Akira Kurosawa aren’t just chaotic flailing, but carefully choreographed struggles. Tarantino has been perhaps the most devoted student of this style of filmmaking, exploring violence and combat as artful even beyond the usual visceral thrills.

I think games can do this, but few have ventured beyond the standard action game and fighting game conventions. Bushido Blade, for one, was revolutionary as a fighting game because mashing buttons was not nearly as rewarded as patience and precision. This approach made the experience actually feel like playing the fight scene of a classic samurai movie, and even let you play in black-and-white. Matches would be modern replays of a Kurosawa movie, with opponents staring one another down until a sudden movement brought one to his knees in a splash of red. A friend of mine recently described the game as sad, as a single hit can end the match. I think she’s right, and I think that is something games need more of. I enjoy the adrenaline rush, trash talking, and bizarre techniques of Soul Calibur 2 as much as the next guy, but for sheer aesthetic value, making a game that’s actually heartbreaking is a special achievement. Perhaps we should feel sad to see a virtual person struck down.

What really got me thinking about this was the Lost Odyssey trailer that featured a transition between intro cinematics and turn-based gameplay. The game features finely choreographed action sequences, complete with dramatic cuts and camera angles and deliberate pacing—but that pacing goes out the window when you have to stop everything to navigate menus. I can see why the meticulously strategic nature of turn-based games would certainly appeal to those who are disinclined to mash buttons, however, so I wonder if there might be a type of gameplay that would allow for some balance between twitchy combat and relatively static combat. That type of gameplay may be what is called for to replicate the calculated beauty and deliberate pace of Asian cinema.

As Warren Spector pointed out in his recent talks at the GDC and SXSW, it’s hard to leave pacing up to player control. Perhaps the way to do this, then, is to build the pacing into the game mechanics somehow, as is the case in rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. Playing to music is the most obvious way to handle this, though there are ways to give a sense of rhythm without necessarily composing a melody. (Chris Nolan’s early movies, including Following and Memento, use heartbeat-like background beats more than actual music to cue a sense of urgency in some scenes.)

This has all been very abstract so far, as I’m just working through thoughts on my mind. Let me describe a hypothetical example.

Picture a standard fighting game scenario—say, a couple of samurai-looking guys in a glade about to face off. There is some low-volume, slow music, building a sense of tension. If you are patient for a few moments and wait for visual and/or audio cues—potential distractions like a the sun flashing off a blade, or some birds taking off from the brush behind you—the battle starts in earnest. If both characters survive the first attack, the music becomes louder and faster, and characters start swinging swords at one another. It is part rhythm game and part fighting game: your buttons each correspond to different maneuvers like in a fighting game, but mashing wildly will only make your strikes far off target and leave you open. The fight involves a series of grazing blows, dodging, and parrying, but a finishing blow must also follow the pace set by the game, as the music reaches a crescendo. If a finishing blow is not struck at this time, the characters back off for a moment and begin the dance again, perhaps to a new song, offering another chance for a one-strike kill (perhaps at a higher likelihood than the one at the beginning of the match).

This is just one possible implementation of more deliberately paced and choreographed combat in games. Would it bore the seasoned fighting game players and button mashers? Possibly. Would it actually add something to a narrative game? I’d like to think so, but the real trick would be to maintain a sense of challenge while also maintaining the real gravity associated with the death of a protagonist. This, I think, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing game designers who want to create any real sense of danger in their narratives, but that’s a post for another day. My point here is just to suggest that video game combat can be about more than resource management or twitchy reflexes. When handled right, it could be a form of play and spectatorship on par with both the classics of action cinema and the most critically acclaimed action games.