Friday, March 22, 2013

The roots of combat Pt 2: What is combat action?

at 7:06 PM
Wow, this shoulda been part one, huh? Let's visit the definition of a combat game, as it'll make it much easier to understand the differences between the subsets. We're going to want to look at brawlers, ASWs, and modern 3D action through the lens of this definition, so we can understand how they in turn vary. "Action" is too generic a term for me, so I've decided to stick with "combat" instead - I mean, Tetris has action - it just means automated movement. Keep in mind that what I'm gonna call "combat games" are what the mainstream calls "action", "action/adventure", "hack 'n' slash", or "brawler".

So that I don't feel like I'm repeating myself too heavily, let me encourage you to start by reading my definition of platformers: . That second paragraph in particular applies to all genres: to be a combat game, it is not enough to include combat; it is necessarily to evolve and vary it as the central interactive element of play. Therefore, all we have to define is combat itself, not specifically a combat game.

I'm working on a theory that I just invented in my head, which is probably true, that any gameplay can be defined in terms of the goal and the opposition it provides to player progress. What makes a game a game is that it presents a goal, and presents opposition against reaching that goal - even if that "opposition" is just a room to walk across, or a riddle to solve. Anyway, if this is the case, and it probably is - maybe I'll get back to that - then all we need to look at to understand the experience is the nature of the goal, and the nature of the opposition. For platforming, we've already explored that definition: the goal is to traverse between two points, and the opposition is composed of universal forces. 
The goal of combat is a regular RoboCop 2 (tough nut to crack). It's kinda still just about getting to the end of the stage, isn't it? But that's too vague - that's like saying the goal is to reach the goal. Plus, while traversal is part of action/adventure, it's also key in a much larger set of games. It doesn't narrow anything down. What about survival? Again, too broad. Survival is a necessary condition of success across dozens of genres. Next thought: eliminating the enemy force? I.e. "kill everything"? Do you always have to kill everything though? What if time runs out, or you decide to retreat? I'm not sure annihilation is necessary to designate combat. Maybe if that were scaled back a bit, to simply damaging the enemy? Your goal is to hurt things? That's close. It's on the tip of my tongue. I'll have to come back to this.

The opposition is a tad easier to identify. It's got to be active and autonomous. No one can fight the entire world. Not even RoboCop. The opposition needs to be constructed from units occupying the same environment as the player, but independent from that environment. They also need to possess the ability to endanger the players survival - to drain his health, knock him off a ledge, whatever. However the failure condition is defined, these units need to be able to push the player closer to it. Simultaneously, the player needs to be able to defend himself, so they must be vulnerable in some sense. Call them enemies. Just don't call them late for dinner. So the opposition in combat is a collection of autonomous endangering units. This is broad enough to encapsulate everything from Dragon Warrior to Castlevania to Jak II, which is exactly intended. Those games all include combat, no?

No I did not make this image.
Refining the definition of combat with terms like "real-time" and "melee" thus becomes a trivial task, and we have the definition we need. Well, we have half of it at least. Still not thrilled with that goal. Wait wait - what about this: the goal is to eliminate the threat to survival? When platforming, you aren't trying to kill the holes in the ground, and in a straight up survival game (Resident Evil) you aren't expected to eliminate the threats, just evade them. And eliminating the threat itself (versus eliminating the enemies) doesn't necessarily mean killing everything - it just means engaging them while they are threatening your existence. So running away can still be an element of the gameplay (though not part of the combat itself), without defeating the nature of combat. Nailed it!

Combat is gameplay in which the player is tasked with eliminating the threat posed by an independently acting collection of vulnerable automatons. Bit of a mouthful, but maybe I'll clean it up later. IF YOU'RE LUCKY.


  1. So I kept being like "what about games like Ratchet and Clank that a fairly even combination of jumping on platforms and combatting aliens," but the I answered my own question by rereading the part about "evolving it as a central blah blah blah" and realized that the platforming doesn't really evolve but the combat does.

    1. As I was discussing with Greg just last night - yeah boyyyy we talk about these things IRL 8) - designating a primary play type for a single game isn't all that interesting, since everything contemporary is a mix to some degree. That's why I'm focusing less on defining "genres" than "styles of play". Even Ratchet and Clank does build its platforming somewhat, but do we really need to designate it as a platforming/action/vehicle-levels/rhythm-mini-games/ huh now I kinda want to play some R&C. PS2 o'clock!