Fighting Games and the Power of Motion

It’s strange what can become normal when disbelief is suspended. So much of what is culturally understood about guns, government, science, other people, and so on is informed by the liberties taken by popular fiction. Fiction reflects reality. People can tell fiction from reality, but each still informs the other. Video games have tried with varying degrees of success to capture a somewhat accurate reflection of reality in a number of ways, but one area that they still tend to fall short in is in portraying a sense of physicality. Digital avatars are most often a neutral blob of pixels waiting to be unceremoniously shredded apart, or they are inorganic and plastic representations with barely any feeling of tangibility (Mark Filipowich, “The Gamer’s Dressing Room”, Game Church, 14 January 2014.). Graphical fidelity feels like a natural excuse, but the relatively low-fi Walking Dead series is able to communicate the pain, exhaustion, and physical terror of its characters through the smallest audiovisual cues and Twine artists like Merritt Kopas and Kaitlin Tremblay are also talented at communicating a sense of physical presence in their textually based games.

That said, after watching several matches from this year’s Evolution Championship Series (EVO) — a tournament of fighting games featuring several titles from the last few years — I’ve come to appreciate how fighting games, perhaps more than any other genre, portray the beauty of human motion. To play a fighting game, a player must have a deep knowledge of their character’s range, hit boxes, mobility, and use of space. In short, the player must come to know the strengths, limitations, and movements of a human body. Oddly, the more sophisticated these games become, the more intimidating they are to newcomers and therefore the narrower their appeal. Yet, in spite of the increased specialization that they seem to demand, no other games so aptly convey movement and physical presence.

It makes sense given that fighting games are often based on athletically demanding real-world martial arts. The brevity, fluidity, and explosive motions of Tekken are particularly pertinent. Tekken matches are fireworks displays. The game’s massive cast show off power, speed, and technique to varying extents, and each fighter mixes up a unique set of moves and hit conditions. The fun of watching a Tekken match is in watching the sharp, dance-like parries of characters before they have an opportunity to burst into a combo. Likewise, learning the game means both learning and appreciating the movements of each character, both those that one wants to play as and those that one will eventually be matched against.

Granted, fighting games are as hyper-stylized and as extravagant as any video game, but even in the deliberately cartoonish King of Fighters or manga-inspired Street Fighter, play is understood through a character’s ability to move. The aesthetics of human motion are paired neatly with the style of play (Zolani Stewart, “Martial Artists: How Fighting Games Can Look As Good As They Play”, Nightmare Mode, 20 August 2012). These games are essentially plotless, but a narrative is composed by tone, setting, and the balletic movements of their characters.

There’s a conversation to be had about culture being more comfortable beautifying human motion through violence and combat than anything else, and the kinds of narratives contained in most fighting games are not beyond critique (Hannah DuVoix, “Venus in Mars: Gender Equality in Fighting Games”, Ontological Geek, 5 July 2012). But fighting games also offer a space where violence can have meaning. The Mortal Kombat series, particularly entries beyond the 16-bit era, foster a sense of the inelegant brutality of fighting. Not that Mortal Kombat is any more realistic or mature than any other game — my favorite character remains the guy with the weaponized frisbee hat — but the way that characters fumble clumsily against blows and the way that the camera savors cracking bones and agonized howls all speak to the inevitability and endlessness of the violence offered by these games’ world (Mark Filipowich, “The Self Perpetuating Violence of the Mortal Kombat Series”, bigtallwords, 18 December 2013). While most fighting games tap into a fantasy of possessing amazing physical abilities, the gothic body horror of Mortal Kombat’s violence, while over-the-top, speaks to the fear and grotesqueness of pain.

Tangentially, fighting games operate in much the way that a well-made action film ought to. For example, The fight choreography of The Raid: Redemption and its sequel directed by Gareth Evans mixes the athleticism and spatial awareness of 1970’s Jackie Chan martial arts comedy with the wincing hyperviolence of Mortal Kombat. While the quality of the action has distracted some from the brilliant Scorsese-esque gangland drama, especially found in The Raid 2, it’s hard to deny that the fights work well because of how gruesome they are. Compared with most horror movies, The Raid isn’t even that bloody, but watching a badguy’s knees bend the wrong way or a blackened bullet wound ooze green pus crawls into the audience’s mind (Cynthia Fuchs, The Raid 2 Is a Ballet of Contorted Bodies,”PopMatters, 28 March 2014). Viewers can relate to glass slipping into an on-screen characters skin because they have an ever-present understanding of their own bodies, even if they’ve never experienced that kind of injury. Similarly, audiences can be thrilled by the fight scenes even in the likely case that they aren’t able to perform the same stunts as the martial artists on screen because motion is relatable and there’s something mesmerizing about watching human bodies move fluidly. The Raid combines the grace of movement with the unseemly force of injury in a way that the best fighting games balance according to their own aesthetics.

Most games universalize movement across playable characters, or they abstract it with layers of hidden dice or menus. On the other hand, fighting games are based on diversifying movement across a wide cast. Even though just about every character in every fighting game featured at EVO is able to leap six feet in the air, hurl fireballs from their palms, and juggle human bodies in the air, the common denominator is that they all explore a range of human motion. Movement ranges from BlazBlue’s sleekness, Skullgirl’s strangeness, to Mortal Kombat’s ferocity and all points between and beyond. Fighting games are more deeply centered on physical movement than any other game and that highlights the myriad of ways that motion can be presented.