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The Space Between Blows: The Audience's Role in Narrative Combat

POW! BIFF! ZOT! Fight scenes have been a part of narrative media for... well, as long as there has been narrative media. The Illiad, for instance, is full of the granular blow-by-blow we expect of fight scenes today, regardless of medium. So this is not a topic for which I can do any kind of justice - I'm sure there are people who have dedicated their entire careers to the study of narrative combat, and there will always be more to talk about, more to discover. Rather, this post will explore some recent thoughts inspired by (what else) a mostly-forgotten twenty-year old video game.

Oni is a third-person action game with a focus, despite the arsenal of weapons featured in the official art, on melee combat. Today, it's remembered mostly as the game Bungie made after Marathon and Myth, but before Halo. Culturally, it's a rather bizarre relic: a western attempt at making an "anime game" based on limited reference points that the creators lifted wholesale, particularly from the 1995 film version of Ghost in the Shell. Konoko, the protagonist, is blatantly patterned after Ghost in the Shell's Major Motoko Kusanagi to a degree that would make a thirteen-year-old fanfic writer blush. I was shocked to learn that the game was somehow even more derivative earlier in development - as it is, I can only assume anime's lower profile in 2001 is the main reason I've never heard about any legal action. Oni is the only Bungie game since 1994 to have had no sequels or remakes, nor has it ever been made available through Steam or Good Old Games, and I'm sure the inescapable proximity to its source material is a major factor in this.

My own history with the game goes back to my first entry into (what was then) modern console gaming with the PlayStation 2. I had bought it mostly because of references in Penny Arcade, as part of a "buy two, get one (of equal or lesser value) free" sale with Silent Hill 2 and a pre-order for Metal Gear Solid 2. (2001 was a hell of a year for Konami gaming.)  I played it a bit back in the day, but my general lack of experience with this kind of game, combined with abysmal load times and far, far too few save points, resulted in it being shelved fairly quickly. 

Flash forward to the present. As I've mentioned in other posts, I've been spending a lot more time with PS2. At one point, I asked for suggestions on which PS2 games I might have missed out on during the system's heyday, and one friend mentioned Oni. (I should point out that said friend is also one of my Paranoia players, so I should probably have been more suspicious.) Recently, partly inspired by my playthrough of GTA: San Andreas with Andy I've start a concerted effort to tackle my massive game backlog. And, given my one friend's advice and the fact that might be the game I've owned the longest without finishing, I finally gave Oni a serious shot. On the whole, the game isn't particularly impressive: an overly simplistic story, big empty spaces that serve little purpose, lazy cinematics... it's not something I'd call a "hidden gem." But one thing that's kept me from plotting six hilariously consecutive deaths for my friend's Paranoia character is the game's combat. This video goes into the system's specifics, but what caught me is a certain feeling the fights convey, one I've only ever found in a single medium: comics.

Film, comics, and both electronic and tabletop narrative games all share, to one degree or another, a certain "give-and-take" with their audiences. I've previously discussed the way a game's omnidirectionality can convey space and feeling, but this time I'm referring that concept's mirror image, the things that aren't (or can't be) seen. The way that, unlike in the live theatre, camera positioning can make three set walls feel like an whole room. The way that, when shown a few items scattered on a desk, the audience fills in the rest, so that it seems cluttered to a degree that it wouldn't if you were there in person. And especially in the way comics function. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains the concept far more eloquently than I could, but the magic of comics (or "sequential art") is not only in the panels themselves, but in the spaces between them. The reader connects the individual frames into a whole, unique to them, all based on how they fill in those gaps. Video games, though, may give comics a run for their money in this form of storytelling.

Going back to their most earliest and most primitive forms, electronic games have had to establish their worlds through implication. They were limited to what their graphics could show, and what they could display through supplementary materials like cabinet and box art, or elaborate descriptions in instruction manuals. They had to leave nearly everything up to the audience to interpolate, which results in some very strange and unique worlds without precedent. (Can you imagine trying to explain the world of Pac-Man to someone in the 1950s?) Even as technology improved, the gaps remained necessary. A handful of trees implies a forest. A few houses suggest a village. A handful of bad guys stands in for an army. The audience fills in the rest. And, just as with comics, a few hits can stand in for a whole fight.

One way fights in comics differ greatly from the movies based on them is how economical they are. Unless they're the major plot points, they could be a few panels or a page at most. (Note that I am referring to western comics here, manga can have no problem depicting fights for pages and pages, often even across multiple installments of a series.) But thanks to those blank spaces between panels, the reader can fill in all the elaborate movement going on, the calculations made, the risks taken. There's a reason close physical combat has been a consistent element of comics since the very beginning. A well-constructed comic fight scene can feel massive, while only taking up a little bit of actual printed space. The rest is all in the gaps... and in the readers' heads. Which brings us back to Oni.

Not only do the fights in Oni make me think of fights in comics, they make me think of a specific kind of fight scene: the ones where the hero is unarmed (often due to the comics code and/or the age of the intended audience), and trying to take down a group of thugs, who may be armed themselves. The hero has to plan carefully, but act instantly, choosing which threats to respond to first and how to turn things to their own advantage. But, unlike in film, the frozen panel stretches this moment out infinitely, giving the reader the chance to see, right up close, everything that's going on externally and internally for the characters. More than any other game I've played, Oni forces the player to make these calculations themselves, based on what they anticipate happening and on their own confidence in their skill level. Do you disarm the guy with the gun first, leaving yourself open to his buddies to get you from behind, or do you risk it, hoping they'll miss while you take down the threats closer to you? And if you do get them to drop their weapon, can you get to it before another bad guy does? Even games actually based on comic book fights have never conveyed this feeling to me. The Arkham series and Marvel's Spider-Man have made me feel like a powerful superhero managing multiple threats at once, but they've never made me have to think about a brawl the way that Oni does.

On its surface, you would think this kind of action is well-suited to tabletop games. In combat, players plan their moves based on their assessment of the situation and reasoning of probabilities. But, even aside from my issue with the level of abstraction and distancing effect this kind of modelling brings, the practical concerns of the tabletop make it impossible to deal with each swung fist, each block and kick. It would take forever, and each player needs to be able to take their turn. But that doesn't mean the feeling is impossible to convey, either, it becomes a matter of leaving each player in that gap between the panels, the space between blows. All it takes is that little bit more description before you cut away to the next action, just enough to keep them hanging... they'll fill in the rest, just like we all do with comics, film, and electronic games. It's in our nature.

Away from the gaming table, this is something prose writers should consider, too. No matter how close the reader's viewpoint is to the protagonist, leave a little space between the action for them to go "what would I do?" Not only will it help keep the reader invested, it will also help to keep the fight from turning into a dull list of actions and events. Everyone wants to be the hero for a moment, even (especially?) when it means making the hard choices. You just need to open a little space for them, no matter where you stage your fights. I may have returned to Oni out of sunk cost fallacy (despite never actually paying for it in the first place), but the takeaway has made it worthwhile.

- B

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