Emotionally Deep Fists

Can combat be as deep as dialog? Movement can convey just as much information just as much as a spoken word, but in the limited and defined worlds of video games what can be said has to be limited. Well written games with diverse dialog trees do a good job of allowing the player to find an option that matches how they feel, but combat is generally purely about efficiency and ease. Dialog can even facilitate changing moods, but changing combat styles on the fly is less common (and generally switches out one set of moves for another set, which are generally supplementary within similar dimensions rather than opening up a whole new perspective).

Combat also seems to distill down to an idea of “the best moves.” Combat is fairly linear (outside of competitive fighting games where many different play styles can be selected by choosing different characters). There are highest hit combos, high damage hits, etc. You don’t have the openness as has been explored with dialog. A simple example would be SMT: Nocturne. You have several endings available to you based on the dialog options you choose during the course of the game. No one dialog option is necessarily better than another, the path you choose is up to you. When it comes to combat, though, there are very clear and hard set right/wrong choices. Further, there are varying degrees of right choices. Even God Hand, which has much more free form combat, still requires the player to arm themselves with a well balanced portfolio of moves if they hope to succeed. In Devil May Cry, where your moves are more set, combat styles don’t proffer up much of a psychological profile difference, though by planning your moves/combos rather than button mashing you are rewarded with more powerful moves (perhaps that would mean Dante is a much more thoughtful brawler than his attitude would let on).

What sort of system could be used to address this communicative/immersive gap between dialog and action? It would most likely end up being determined on a more case by case basis as far as what the vision of the particular game required. Perhaps instead of tasking the player to choose the exact move they wish to execute, the would simply have to choose which “mood” they wish to attack with. It could still be largely analogous to current conventions (angry to strong, antagonistic to light, etc). An AI could determine the “best” move to make in any particular situation based on enemy types, numbers, and proximity. This could be seen as taking away some control from the player, but even now games don’t task the player with physically swinging every fist and weapon they wish to wield (and in some/many cases shouldn’t. I can’t wield a sword as deftly as Zoro, and if I play a Zoro game I want to see some fancy sword work). A balance must be met, of course. Perhaps having the AI combat director could be turned off to allow the player to simply bind moves to each button.

The end goal should always be to attach the player to the actions on screen. Specifics could be brainstormed and playtested for months, but I feel a large shift on combat conventions could help refresh the genre right about now.

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