Turn-Based Action Games Are Strange and Great

by Nick Dinicola

1 April 2016

The action in an action game doesn’t have to make sense for a viewer as long as it makes sense for the player.

Action in an action movie moves fast. Games have always tried to emulate such action by moving just as fast while demanding that the player learn to keep up. Fighting games, like Mortal Kombat X or Street Fighter V, demand that players learn an intricate series of button combinations and also be dexterous enough to input them on a moment’s notice. A character-action game like God of War or Devil May Cry demand of us the exact same thing, but against AI opponents instead of other players. Action demands speed, usually.
I must have slow reflexes because I’ve never been able to play a fighting game effectively, and I always want to play those character-action games on Easy or Normal. Or I can play games like RONIN and SUPERHOT, action games that slow their action down until they become more like puzzle games, albeit puzzle games in which we perform awesome stunts of acrobatic murder. Games like this allow more people to participate in the action, since we don’t need fast reflexes to keep up with the battles. The action moves at a pace that us normal folks are used to, and then when sped back up, we see just how impossible those action scenes really are.

RONIN is a turn-based game that casts us as a ninja out for revenge against the family that wronged him. Things move in real-time until we enter combat, then time stops until we make the first move. At that point, everything happens at once. We jump, guards shoot, and other ninjas cut through the space in front of them. If we die, if we get hit by one of those bullets or by that other ninja’s sword, we have no one to blame but ourselves because we could see what was going to happen before it happened. We could see the laser sights of the machine gun adjacent to us, so we should have known that we’d be cut down by lead if we tried to jump in that direction.

The speedy action of a ninja movie becomes a turn-based strategy game. This allows me to carefully plan out a route through a hail of bullets. At normal real-time speed, these decisions must be made in a split second, faster than I’m certainly capable of thinking, but when slowed down like this, anyone can be a ninja. Anyone can dodge bullets until the gun runs out of ammo when that person has all the time in the world to plan his jumps, resulting in a more accessible action game.

But an interesting thing happens when you slow this kind of choreographed action down to this extreme a degree. You come to realize that the idea of an action is more important than seeing the action itself, at least when we’re a participant in it.

When I’m watching a fight, it’s important to show me each move being performed in a clear and precise manner. This allows me to understand how one movement leads into another movement; how a kick leads to a flip, how a spin leads to a new position, how a punch leads to a win. We have to see moves clearly to understand what the move means, how it fits into the larger story of the fight. To miss a move is to miss a plot beat. However, if we perform the action ourselves, we don’t need to see it as clearly because we already know what’s supposed to be happening.

This is obvious when watching a replay of a level in SUPERHOT, which allows you to rewatch your actions sped up to normal speed.

During gameplay, SUPERHOT is a shooter in which time moves only when you move. This gives you plenty of time to take in the positions of all of the bad guys around you and to properly plan your elaborate attack: Throw a cue ball at Baddie 1 to distract him, then take his gun and shoot Baddie 2, dodge a bullet from Baddie 3, throw the gun at Baddie 4 to block his bullet, grab a nearby baseball bat to kill Baddie 1… and so on. It’s an action scene that requires us to hit multiple precise beats in a row. When it all works, it feels awesome, but it doesn’t look as awesome upon rewatching it because you can see our hesitation.

When watching someone play a level of SUPERHOT, you’re watching someone work through a puzzle. It’s a puzzle whose pieces are action movie tropes, but it’s a puzzle nonetheless. This means that we move and act in fits and starts. We don’t naturally know that there’s a guy behind us. We turn to see him, and then get shot while we’re turning. On our next attempt, we know he’s there, and we know how to act accordingly. Our grand action scene is not really a fluid, well-choreographed dance, but a series of improvised test-runs, stitched-together into something that just happens to be successful. We’re not really all that elegant.

The lack of action choreography becomes even more obvious when we watch the replay sped up to normal speed. It’s often hard to keep track of the action because things move too fast. There are times when I watch a replay, and I can’t quite understand what’s going on. Why did those two guys seem to die at the same time? It’s hard to follow the action because the game doesn’t care about framing the action. We see everything from our first-person perspective, so the game camera makes no attempt to help a viewer understand the flow and story of the fight. The end result is an action scene that is confusing and awkward to watch, but it is confusing and awkward in ways that don’t matter at all. It might be hard to understand the fight when watching the replay, but we already understand it because we lived it.

RONIN also moves in fits and starts. A fight that in a movie would last two minutes ends up taking us ten minutes to accomplish because we agonize over strategy and the direction of each jump and attack that we are planning out. It’s a slow process, which means that we lose the visual fluidity that defines a ninja fight. Because we’re always pausing, we can’t see how the momentum from a fall allows our ninja to swing through a window and to the other side of the room, but we still feel that momentum because we’re taking it into consideration when we plan our next move.

This is all to say that the action in an action game doesn’t have to make sense for a viewer as long as it makes sense for the player.

SUPERHOT makes one very obvious concession to the player that perfectly highlights this fact. When we disarm an enemy, his weapon flies into the air for us to grab. When playing in slow motion, the act of disarming and the act of grabbing usually happen within a second of each other, and the moment that we click to grab to the weapon, it is immediately in our hands to use. We need that kind of immediate access to the weapon because there are likely other guys around us, and we need the visual of a weapon in our hand to let us know that this new combat option is available to us. But when things happen this fast in slow motion, they naturally happen even faster in real-time. So fast, in fact, that we break reality: What you’ll see during a replay is us holding the weapon while it is still in the air coming towards us. We’re holding it before we’ve even grabbed it.

This make for a clumsy visual, but it doesn’t actually matter. The idea of grabbing an opponent’s weapon out of the air as he drops it is, to be frank, really fucking cool. SUPERHOT knows this and makes a point to allow you to do it. It might look weird later, but we know what we did. And we know that it was really fucking cool.

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