You’ve probably been in a situation like this before. The game you’re playing offers you a chance to boost something related to your offense or something related to your defense. Which one do you generally go for?
I lean towards defense, and not just in regard to stats — it also applies to the way I control characters in games. Recalling Muhammad Ali’s iconic phrase, I’d rather ‘float like a butterfly’ than ‘sting like a bee’. Part of this is just me feeling as if that is the best way of keeping myself alive in a game. The highlight, however, is the sheer joy of dodging a series of blows from a baffled opponent. One of the most fun moments for me playing The Witcher 3 was actually in the combat tutorial, where it teaches you to dodge during the swordfighting section. I spent several minutes just enjoying the feel of jumping away from attacks dealt by my sparring partner.
The tricky part is trying to describe why I enjoy it so much. Watch footage of Pernell Whitaker, one of the greatest defensive experts of boxing, slipping away as Oscar De La Hoya attempts to land an eight-punch combination on him. Almost none of the attacks land. There is a certain beauty, something undeniably dazzling about it. It’s the sort of euphoria that people get from seeing Daigo Umehara’s famous parrying against Justin Wong during a Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike tournament.
Perhaps it also comes down to something deeper. My fixation on defense comes through just as powerfully in the real world when it comes to the way I behave in martial arts. Much like Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, my instinct is to circle, retreat, evade, rather than confront something. Adam Booth, a well-known boxing trainer, has noted that he believes an individual’s “fighting style is a true reflection of their character” — this certainly applies to my own mentality when it comes to both games and reality.
Years ago I decided to try my hand at fencing. I’d often thought that I’d be good at it — I quickly realised that I was not actually any good at all. My attacking was predictable and my parrying was clumsy. Rather than quickly deflecting an attack and then jabbing back, I would almost try to pin the other blade away from me for a few seconds before countering. I wanted to be sure that I was safe, with the opponent’s foil blocked, before I attacked — overly defensive, you may say.
I did enjoy bending back away from incoming attacks with my hands down, even though the more experienced fencers warned me not to do so. There was one occasion when I parried attacks two or three times in a row, but didn’t bother with a riposte (counter), much to the dismay of the teacher watching. They were correct, as you will know if you have experience in fencing, but it wasn’t about the efficiency for me, it was about the look and feel. Before I even started fencing, I was already experimenting with this mentality in video game dueling, when I played Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy for hours every day against others online. Rather than stepping away from blows, I would attempt a much more foolish strategy of simply ducking on the spot until the opponent’s slash had passed over my head. In both cases I was fixated on achieving a certain feel and style of defense.
No game I have ever played, however, has indulged my adoration of defense like Fight Night: Round 4. If you’ve never heard of it, the Fight Night games allow you to play as a professional boxer and create a career, winning world titles, ascending divisions, and eventually retiring. In terms of defense, you can block punches to your head or your body, or (what I normally choose) you can evade the punch by crouching or leaning away as it comes.
After every fight you get to see statistics on every punch you threw, landed, and missed. You also get to see the same statistics for your opponent, which means that you can tell just how good you are defensively as well as offensively. After every year of your career you can also win awards for certain achievements — much to my glee, there is even an award for defensive fighter of the year. It’s pretty funny how seriously I took that trophy. Whenever one of the computer controlled boxers won it instead of me, I would make sure to try and out-defend them if I ever ended up fighting them.
It’s important to note that defense can be taken to an extremity that becomes a drawback. Teddy Atlas, another well-known boxing trainer, has noted the possible problem of becoming “intoxicated” by your own defensive abilities, to the point where you let your opponent outwork you. This can happen in games too. When playing Wargroove, I spend so much time building up my own area that I neglect capturing locations, which the opponent subsequently takes with a more aggressive approach.
As good as Fight Night is, it still cannot replicate everything that I am looking for — the movement in the games, for example, can be maddeningly slow. When you watch actual fighters in matches, however, they make movements that are startlingly quick and aesthetically pleasing. Look at footage of EA’s UFC 4 game (which is far newer than Fight Night) and while there is a small improvement, the movement still looks slow and unremarkable. Ghost of Tsushima, on the other hand, seems to warrant the amount of people I have seen celebrating its combat — when I look at footage, the movement is sharp and graceful, albeit still repetitive.
Perhaps I will never play a game that captures the beauty of defensive movement as well as I would like, and honestly, I don’t really expect to ever see that anyway. With all that said, I do look forward to games managing to achieve a greater verisimilitude in this department, where I can feel more and more like I am able to approach my dream defensive aesthetic — the sort of brilliance of Muhammad Ali and Pernell Whitaker — when controlling a character.