John Clements: Give Reality a Chance
Imagine if game designers had never seen or heard of serious Asian martial arts, and never made any game with such influences. Then, one day, a budo master or kung fu expert steps up and says, "Hey, I think you could make some really interesting things using our unique craft as a resource. We move in really neat ways that you haven't explored." I like to think that game developers would quickly see that there was something significant and sophisticated there worth examining. They probably wouldn't respond with conceited indifference -- which I've seen firsthand when I bring up the historical medieval combatives I study, teach, and practice.
People in The Know
I've been studying Medieval and Renaissance close combat for over three decades. I make my living writing and researching on the subject and operate the world's only private facility dedicated exclusively to the craft. I am no stunt fighter, costumed performer, nor showman entertainer, but an accomplished martial artist who teaches an authentic combative discipline following genuine sources. Study of these historical fighting methods is my life's passion and my career.
Now, I don't think that everyone who makes a game in a medieval or fantasy setting needs to make a 100 percent accurate hand-to-hand combat simulator any more than I want to see the next Call of Duty game stop working forever after your character dies for the first time.
I do think, however, that the hardworking developers who make these games would have an easier time (and make even better games) if they drew from more realistic sources of inspiration when it comes to medieval combat.
The funny thing is, we already know this to be true. Just take a look at the original Prince of Persia, where creator Jordan Mechner filmed his brother actually walking, jumping, and going through some rudimentary fencing motions as the basis for its rotoscoped animations and action. That game was an influential breakthrough, but later titles would essentially copy and embellish upon those sequences, and the titles after that would copy the copies -- and so on until the insightful grounding in realism of the original source was lost.
Drawing From the Source
This process is common sense; if you are doing a modern special ops game, you consult with authorities of that profession. If you're doing a boxing game, you consult with a professional boxer. If you're doing an aircraft fighter game, you consult with a fighter pilot. If you're making a game about samurai, you certainly want to get the form and movements right by working with budo experts. When you copy the copies of copies, you get ever further from your original realistic base -- which means you're adopting the same embellishments and limitations that each successive generation of copies did without looking back at the real source material to see what your real design and animation options could be.
For example, a designer might see a fighting move in a movie and think, "This looks cool. I wonder how I can devise a mechanic for players to do that?" But what of the possibility that what they witnessed is mere nonsense; an inferior action the game maker is just not qualified to evaluate? What if there are better alternatives? What if the "real thing" -- a general principle of self-defense, or some element of employing a particular weapon, or a specific combination of techniques -- is actually cooler? If the designer doesn't get the move from the right source, with a proper explanation of how it works and why, they will be missing out on how it fits in with the "game" of hand-to-hand combat, and won't be able to use that understanding as inspiration for how it could fit in with the game they're designing.
Yet this is more or less the general process I have seen for devising archaic close combat in games, and when I point this out, developers often feel insulted. Why? Aside from perhaps offending the creative sensibilities of designers, it's because I am suggesting that (gasp!) people who design games are not themselves also experts in the authentic sources of historical close combat. They have not trained long-term with accurate weapons in those methods, and they do not have extensive hands-on experience in striking realistic target materials with sharp weapons using genuine techniques, nor do they usually fit the profile of athletes conditioned to rigorous training in armed fighting skills. It seems like kind of a strange thing to be offended by. After all, most people haven't!
My job is to understand how such weapons handle, how they're maneuvered and manipulated, how they engage one another, what type of techniques and motions the human body is really capable of with said weapons, how physics affects melee combat, and how people respond (physiologically and psychologically) to violent actions. The specifics often include examples of how little-known gripping actions, armor, postures, and different footwork are all interconnected. These elements are ones I can guarantee you have never seen in any movie, TV show, game, renaissance faire performance, or choreographed routine. It's this knowledge and these details which I hope to see developers take inspiration from while building their own games -- instead of copies of copies.
Correcting Core Assumptions
When you develop a game combat system or a series of combat animations, you do so based upon a certain set of core assumptions: assumptions about how weapons and swords handle, about how armor functions, about what wounds could be causes, about how people respond emotionally to personal violence, how bodies and limbs react to injury, and about how real fighters learned martial skills.
Naturally, if you're building a combat simulator off of a relatively shallow (or even erroneous) set of core assumptions, your game won't feel right. Even if your game intends to take a more stylized approach to its combat mechanics and animations, however, it's worth investing the time to understand how the reality of combat translates into your game's core assumptions, so you at least understand what you're stylizing, and why. The martial knowledge and historical combat skills I've redeveloped permit developers to paint with a far richer palette of colors, if only the effort is made to pay some attention.
Without this realistic base, a video game animator ends up replicating the bad form capture of exaggerated stage combat, accepting impressions from pretend bouts with poor weapon simulators, or copying the ritualized movements of some traditional fighting style. The consumers in turn get simplistic strikes and rigid blocks delivered from static, unwieldy postures combined with incessant spinning, whirling, leaping, and assorted useless (and even suicidal) actions that defy both common sense and basic human biomechanics. Meanwhile, a wealth of more dynamic and sophisticated movements, wardings, and alternative counterstriking actions from genuine fighting methods remain untapped for gamers.
I regularly see weapons, particularly swords, wielded by characters in video games in which the familiar figure animations and fighting motions are primitive and crude. For example, there are 16 possible lines of striking for the typical double-edged European longsword. Yet, players are repeatedly offered only the same standard three or four strokes taken right out of Japanese swordplay or borrowed from modern saber fencing and stage combat. It's little more than how children manipulate Nerf swords. All the diverse dynamic motions and distinct manners of adeptly manipulating a real weapon -- with its wards, cuts, thrusts, slices, closures, and displacements -- are entirely absent.
Certainly, not every game with a sword needs to be a sword-combat simulator, but I am confident the software does not know how to allow players do them because developers themselves aren't aware that these things are interesting -- or even possible -- in the first place. With a little effort and attention, however, I think developers could use these realistic historical combat skills to paint with a richer palette of colors.
Devs and Demonstrations: A Deadly Combination
Whenever I demonstrate for game developers, the initial reaction is often simply "Whoa!" They've never seen someone move the way I do or wield particular weapons as adeptly, and certainly not in person instead of on YouTube. And when I demonstrate that these movements are universal and apply to all weapons, whether it's a dagger or spear or a sword and shield, something seems to click. Developers tell me, "Wow, we won't have to use the same old things again, I didn't know that you could hold a weapon that way, I didn't know that you could strike with it that way, I didn't know it was possible for someone to step and pose in such a way, moving from one to another in that way."
Realism doesn't close doors. It opens them. Designers can see that with one kind of weapon, one certain type of move can come after another or that one move has a counter, or a certain position can be interfered with, stifled, or interrupted by another. Combat doesn't have to be the familiar "parry-riposte, parry-riposte, whackety-whack-whack, swirl-swirl" pattern.
Realism is not a dirty word for combat in fantasy games; it's a center point from where everything can and should begin. Realism doesn't lock you in or freeze you in place as a game designer. It's an empowering tool that lets you say, "Wow, I've got a really strong foundation to build on now." Only once your feet are grounded in the right place can your imagination really take off.