Fighting as an end in itself

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January 25th, 2009

Many games have combat, but it's usually treated as an obstacle in your path to something else. You have to kill enemies to get where you need to go, or to accumulate enough skill points. When writers make an attempt to justify it, they usually pick reasons that are unrelated to the fighting itself. Usually you're following orders, trying to get revenge, saving the world, or rescuing the damsel in distress. For example, in Gears of War 2, you've been ordered to save the world from the aliens who tortured your squadmates and kidnapped your best friend's wife. Similarly, the enemies usually are just following orders, or are so evil they apparently don't need motivation to attack you.

Sometimes when playing games like this, these goals actually make the game less fun for me. When they hammer into my head that the goal is to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, the combat just seems like a chore that I have to plow through. Surely we can create motivations that are more related to the fighting itself! Portal did a great job crafting a story that was all about learning to use the portal gun, and I think that idea can be extended to other genres as well.

Lugaru had a pretty standard action game story, so I'm working on ideas to improve on that with Overgrowth. From looking at great scenes in kung fu movies, one idea that keeps coming up is that fighting is often a performance. For example, here is my favorite scene from Legend of Drunken Master:

I found this scene interesting because not only is it one of the best fight scenes ever made, with brilliant choreography and very little special effect fakery, but there's a lot going on in the story at the same time. As Jackie Chan recovers his stepmom's bag from the thugs who stole it, she realizes that he's easily defeating these thugs in front of a large audience, and turns it into an exhibition for his new drunken boxing techniques to attract business to their fighting school. Exhibition matches would be an interesting way to add more drama to easier fights: you know that you can win, but that's not the point. How impressively can you win? This ties into the gameplay a lot more directly, because the fighting is the whole focus, and not an obstacle to some other goal. Along those same lines:

Since players are playing the game to be entertained by the fighting, I think we need new kinds of stories that can complement the gameplay without distracting from it. Here are some of the questions I'm thinking of exploring with the Overgrowth story to keep it focused on fighting:

  • Is it better to win a fight dishonorably or to lose honorably?
  • What are the consequences of sparing someone's life in a fight to the death, or killing in a fight just meant to establish status?
  • Who would dare to attack a rabbit who has killed wolves with his bare hands?
  • Does a reputation for great fighting skill make you safer or less safe?
  • What does it mean to be a fighter in a culture that hates fighting?
  • When is lethal force more effective than a show of strength?
Please let me know if you can think of other movies I could watch that show fighting in an interesting context, or if you can think of ways to write a new kind of fighting game story!