‘One Finger Death Punch’ and the Zen of Combat

One Finger Death Punch puts the art into martial arts.

The last time that I wrote about One Finger Death Punch, I wrote about it from a purely mechanical perspective — about how its deceptively simple premise hid a wealth of excellent design decisions that all work in perfect harmony with each other. I also talked about its mechanics, but from a philosophical point of view more than anything else.

Going back to the game in preparation for a Moving Pixels podcast, I’ve been reminded how excellent it still is, but also that that excellence stems from more than just mechanical harmony. There’s a purity of focus to the game. It’s the only action game that I’d think to describe as zen, but why? What makes this game from such a “disreputable developer” so much more immersive than every other action game ever made?

Ambition. It may be a tiny game from a tiny developer, but it has a much grander and a more esoteric goal than its peers. It’s an homage to martial arts movies, and an important part of that homage is making you appreciate the art in martial arts. This means that it’s not concerned with difficulty, it’s not concerned with style, and it’s not concerned with the power fantasy that most other action games emphasize. Instead, it’s more concerned with how those things impact the art of combat.

One Finger Death Punch doesn’t care about challenging you.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a challenging game. It starts off simply enough as a two button fighter in which enemies come in from the left and right. You have to hit a button corresponding to each side that enemies approach from once they get within your avatar’s range. It’s an easy concept to explain, and the game feels easy for maybe the first few fights. However, it then begins adding enemies that can dodge or block your attacks. You’ll now have to pay attention to the color of enemies as each color represents a different combo: green is right-right, blue is right-left, yellow is right-right-left (with those directions switched depending on which side they come in from). This becomes a lot to handle, and then the game starts speeding up, forcing us to handle inputting this set of commands more quickly and more efficiently.

But it’s okay if we don’t get better and faster. The game has a variable difficult, so that it speeds up when you win and slows down when you lose. Other games have changed their difficulty on the fly before, but One Finger Death Punch doesn’t wait for you to lose multiple times before it does this, and it doesn’t treat this change as an admission of failure, like the being forced to wear the tutu in God of War or the chicken hat in Metal Gear Solid V. It’s okay for things to get easier because the challenge is not the point, the point is to enjoy and appreciate the fight in the moment.

That said, One Finger Death Punch doesn’t care about you looking cool.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is stylish as hell. The characters may be pulled straight out of MS Paint, but this is a deliberate aesthetic choice and the game runs with it. The stick figures help keep the animations focused on the movement of bodies. This game isn’t concerned with realistic light diffraction or soft skin texture. This is a game about martial arts, and the art itself highlights the movement of bodies above all other aesthetic considerations.

But you won’t notice any of that while you are playing. You’ll be too focused on the approach of enemies, too focused on hitting the right combination of Left and Right buttons, too focused on a narrow slice of the screen to notice that the fighting animations actually change between battles to reflect different styles of martial arts. It’s an impressive attention to detail, but it’s a detail for an audience, not for the player. The player is focused on the fight itself, not the aesthetics of the fight, and this is exactly what the game wants.

(In this way, One Finger Death Punch reinforces my gaming-action-theory that the idea of an action in a game as being more important than seeing that action performed. I have written about this regarding SUPERHOT, but it applies here too. I know that I’m beating the crap out of guys because I’m hitting the buttons and watching their corresponding input bars disappear. I don’t have to see the action to know that it looks cool, it already feels cool.)

That being said, One Finger Death Punch doesn’t care about your power fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong, each fight does makes you feel like a badass. Whether you get through a fight untouched, feeling invincible, or if you struggle in a brutal battle that leaves you with only one health bar by its end, victory is always elating. With its excellent soundtrack that makes every fight feel like a climax, and the random mid-fight close-up kills that show you punching a guy’s heart out or breaking his neck with a kick to the chin, the game more than sells the idea of you as a martial arts master.

However, your ranking after each fight is based on your hit combo, not on your health. The game wants you to focus on landing your attacks rather than on avoiding enemy attacks. In fact, when action starts to speed up a little too fast, it’s actually preferable to take a hit, which stops time for a half-second, giving you a brief window to catch your breath and refocus to ensure that you don’t hit a wrong button. It’s better to get hurt than it is to break a combo.

This is the game telling us that it’s okay to get hurt. That pain is part of the dance of combat. A good fight scene shows the hero getting beaten and bruised, eking out a win. This is just part of what makes for a good martial arts fight. If you want to play each level to perfection, that’s your prerogative, but the game doesn’t ask you to be invincible. It would actually prefer if you got hit every now and then. It’s odd for a game to put the needs of the fight ahead of the desire of the player, but that’s what makes this game so singular. It cares more about the story of the fight than your personal empowerment.

One Finger Death Punch is a challenging, stylish, power fantasy of an action game, but all of those traits are secondary to its main concern. It doesn’t focus on any of them, and it doesn’t even necessarily try for them because those traits are really just a byproduct of its main concern. One Finger Death Punch wants you to enjoy the act of combat purely for itself, not because of how it looks, not because of how it makes you feel, not because of how it tests you skills. It wants you to lose yourself in the act, to disappear into the rhythms of the fight, to simply be in that moment unconcerned with anything else.

Any additional mechanics or systems would ruin its hypnotic attraction. Worrying about stamina management, button combos, or limited ammo would take us out of that moment because we’d be thinking about the larger meta context of the fight, how this one battle fits into a larger series of battles.

One Finger Death Punch is an action games that believes the movement of bodies is beautiful and engaging and compelling on its own, devoid of any additional context. The challenge, style, and fantasy of it are necessary for such a high-concept appreciation, but they’re not the end goal, just steps towards this larger goal. A good action game needs those traits, but a great action game is about more than just those traits. A great action game uses them to achieve a state of zen during combat.

One Finger Death Punch achieves that zen; it shows us how to put the art into martial arts.