Fighting games have garnered a reputation as being notoriously difficult to get into and being extremely demanding of their players. They’ve been relegated to the same dark recesses of the imagination where rhythm game players and RTS masters train away hoping to chip off another precious millisecond off their reaction time. “Getting into fighting games” is popularly considered a laborious endeavour that asks effort and study of the player for the simple privilege of admission.
The justifications the community for this are usually alongside a posture I tend to subscribe to: in a faithful simulation of a one-on-one fight, it is not only expected but fair that the more experienced fighter takes the victory. Make the skill-gap wide enough, and it should surprise no one that the veteran dominates the bout so definitively as to basically make the other party’s efforts meaningless. But something about this perspective does bug me.
In actuality fighting games are designed assuming both players are of similar, if not necessarily equal, skill so that there can be a meaningful back and forth. Obviously, something has failed if a match is so lopsided that the more experienced player can negate any struggle their opponent puts forward. This is, in most cases, an unintended experience; Usually a product of bad matchmaking and low population that makes finding a proper match difficult. It’s not expected that newcomers will jump straight into the deepest side of the pool and drown lest they laboriously train to stand a chance.
All the training and practice that is associated with fighting games is not necessarily the meaning of them, but rather the medium through which you can reach the actual point of them. Through practising your offence and defence you will be better prepared to respond or force a response out of your opponent. Even in a fight of complete beginners, whoever can figure out things like standing up to block jumping attacks or teching a throw will meaningfully alter the proverbial “conversation” these two specific players are having, necessarily forcing the opponent to accept a considerable disadvantage or find an equally basic but equally-novel-to-them mechanic that will continue altering the dynamic of the fight.
At first glance, fighting games are not that different from other competitive games and sports, such as tennis or even chess in this respect. Sure, walking in not knowing anything but the basic rules might work just fine with your friends on a free weekend, but any player with enough practice will quickly dispatch those who mosey in once a month. However, where sports have an overwhelming physical component that makes a truly “fair” fight difficult given the huge advantage that a difference in height or build can be, and where board games take place entirely within turn-based systems that only reward strategy and game-knowledge, fighting games find a happy medium between both.
Fighting games exist in the moment, in the physical and mental reality of being asked to perform the role of a formidable opponent for another player. Even in titles where the much maligned motion inputs have been done away in favour of supposedly “friendlier” alternatives, the capacity to scramble in moments of high-tension remains a vital skill. Should you let your nerves overwhelm you after a surprise, defeat is sure to follow. And so, we practise. As an apocryphal quote that my atrophied mind always attributes to Call of Duty says: “Beginners train until they can get it right. Professionals train until they can’t get it wrong”.
Theory and strategy are also a vital component. Should a training-mode aficionado that has done nothing but optimise their combos clash with a player that has done nothing but pushing far into online rankings using blocking, sweeping, and throwing, the former is likely to just not be able to show off their training when faced with an opponent that has gotten this far learning to not let themselves be open to a massive combo. Though admittedly, this scenario is far-fetched because in most cases, a player with the skill to pull off the most difficult combos will, in all likelihood, have played enough of the game to know how to open up an opponent somewhat reliably. Because in fighting games, playing is the actual most important way of practising.
Practice modes are a necessary inclusion in fighting games precisely because of how important it is to be able to perform off-the-cuff in incredibly tense situations. You are supposed to step back, slow down, and work on your weaknesses. But the real practice and experience you need will always lie in the actual doing. While zeroing in on problems and polishing them to consistency is vital for any skill that requires dexterity, you can never stitch together enough slow-practices to create a whole skillset. To actually improve, you need to do the task, and in a one-to-one scenario that means fighting against opponents you will be losing to a lot.
In all of these ways, I find that fighting games are most analogous to playing music. Which might seem like an odd comparison given that it is not generally a competitive endeavour, let alone a game. But it is something that you “play” and a song with an ensemble that refuses to slow down for stragglers does have the same sense of stakes that one might associate with a video game that can be won or lost. When picking up an instrument with the intention to perform a song, the “objective” is to play every note accurately and on the beat, and mistakes really are not forgiven. To put it in terms my fellow gamers will understand: playing real music is like always playing Guitar Hero on expert and aiming for the max score. It requires both knowledge of the instrument and the piece, as well as an amount of dexterity and engagement with the moment-to-moment changes in the physicality of playing music.
Music isn’t generally performed in opposition to anything, other than a poetic against this-or-that. Rock music couldn’t actually be performed against Bush because what would that even mean? Finding speakers powerful enough to bring down the White House would probably make every attendant’s eyeballs explode from the sound pressure. But it is performed in reaction to other people. In the same way one would learn to perform perfect blocks about one opponent over a long set in BlazBlue, one learns to play different chords on guitar when you’re playing with a pianist so you don’t drown them out.
“The pocket” is a mythical and ethereal realm, murmurs of which are passed down by ancient jazz musicians. It refers to the perfect timing in which the bass and the kick drum attack together to create a huge *THUMP* in the piece and really emphasise the beat. Crucially though, this pocket is not exactly synchronous. You can’t just pluck the bass string exactly at the same time as the drum, this often actually leads to a muddy sound. Rather, the task of finding the pocket is individual and personalised for each drummer and bassist and depends on the tone of the latter, the groove of the former, and often even considerations such as what other instruments are in the ensemble.
The pocket can, very easily, be analogised to adapting to your opponent’s habits over the course of a match, such as learning who you can reliably expect to refuse to block during wake-up for a brutal counter-punishment, or get down to muscle memory when to tech their attempts at a grab. Developing the good instincts for a given opponent, just like finding the pocket, comes down less to a matter of exact science, and more to observational skills, adaptability, and just a dash of psychology and social skills.
One learns new mechanics in fighting games to stay in the fight for longer, by finding more things you can do in any given situation you just get to play more. As you gain mastery of this, what you will learn is that the moment-to-moment gameplay of a fighting game is little more than throwing out moves, expecting specific responses from your opponent. You wake up with an invincible move when you expect to be attacked, you do not attack right away and instead go for a counter if you expect a wake-up DP, and so on. These exchanges usually last a few seconds at most and either end with the fighters being separated or one of them getting hit. A player can then go into a combo, try and maintain an offensive position if they can’t convert, or just drop the ball altogether and eat a wake-up shoryu to the face like a total stupid idiot.
Ask any fighting game player and they’ll tell you how fun it is when a fight is so close anyone could have taken it. These close encounters happen when both players have not just a similar amount of skill, but game plans that match each other’s. When one is on the offensive, the other has studied what was needed to keep him out as long as possible. When they are on the defensive, their opponent has studied enough of the game’s defensive options to stay in the offence. This kind of “conversation” through the medium of moves in a video game is, indeed, competitive and will have to yield out a winner in the end. But until such a moment, and remembering that this is still a game (one where even the possibility of a sprained ankle has been eliminated) you have both agreed to do your best to make this match fun for the other.
Similarly, music is always a response to other players. Humans do not play music perfectly to a metronome, they naturally slow down and speed up. A band that plays well together is not a band of 4 people individually playing perfectly to a click track, it is a band that plays well to each other. To do that, you try to master individual elements, like playing at specific tempos, effect configurations that work well with the other band member’s tones, and even whole parts of a song. You can then get together and use these elements you have all practised apart to respond to each other in a conversation, this time with musical notes instead of video game moves. And you do this expecting certain responses from the other performers. The actual skills lie in adapting your musical vocabulary to the reality of each other’s performance less so than in the rote memorisation. This is not a competitive endeavour, but in the end, for the next 3 or 4 minutes you have agreed to do your best to make everybody else’s time fun and sound the best together.
Even the nature of the average engagement is similar, fighting game matches take an average of 90 seconds to 3 minutes to play out. Whilst most popular music will have you performing pieces roughly 2 to 4 minutes on average. This means that on a psychological level, they will be processed as similar types of engagement, being highly demanding sets of play that take your full attention for roughly 3 minutes.
It is through all these similarities in the way one actually engages with fighting games and music that we can use one to understand the appeal of the other. I think everyone can, to some extent, understand a love of music. Whether it be film soundtracks, anime music (which is often just licensed mainstream Japanese music but that’s a conversation for another time), The Shape of Jazz to Come, or London Calling, everyone has that one piece of music they love to exist in. They enjoy the space of mind it puts them on far past the point of knowing its every part.
When a lot of people try to make the jump from listener to performer, they sometimes find the activity of performing not as fun. Requiring too much effort for the satisfaction they get out of it. It stands to reason that those who stick with it do it for the simple reason that this activity that requires a lot of effort to engage in is fun in and of itself. It is fun to play.
This is, of course, the be-all-and-end-all of video games in the popular imagination. That they are something that is fun to engage in, it is a manner of play designed entirely to derive enjoyment. This is of course, somewhat reductive, not to quote the endless works that have been written pondering how much the “fun” can be taken out of game in the service of highly specific artistic statements. Games aren’t always fun, sometimes they can be meditative or somewhat uncomfortable. But the core, the soul of the medium, is always the fun of turning a Goomba into a really gross looking pancake.
The way people approach fighting games can easily be roughly mapped into these two categories as well. With a large portion of players enjoying watching and engaging with the theory of games, far and above actually playing them, often finding the manual skill or mental load of them too much for their taste. Whilst others cannot get enough of the rush that comes from being given no quarter in a game where, by all rights, they stand just as much of a chance at victory as the other person.
None of this is meant to imply these two hobbies are especially linked in any way, or that these similarities are unique. The way one would play the same part of a song repeatedly just to practise transitioning from one section to the next is more or less the same way one would program a dummy in a fighting game to do an attack in order to practise its punishment. And these both are very similar to how one would practise the same turn whilst learning to drive. It is an aspect of mastering any skill. Just like music can be incredibly similar to dancing due to the timing and mostly pre-composed nature of both arts with improvisation according to your partners. Just how fighting games will share similarities with actual fighting sports such as fencing.
And of course, all games tend towards optimisation. Just like chess has recorded its centuries of strategies and famous openings, fighting gamers perfect option selects and study frame data, and musicians will study the theory of how some notes go together and how to draw specific strange noises out of their instruments such as prepared piano or double handed guitar tapping.
Rather the central idea behind this piece is that human experiences are similar to each other. In that similarity we can find ways to understand each experience better as a result. Video game players often stick only to learning and analogising themselves with movies and more traditional styles of games. The former makes sense as they share a myriad of similarities in presentation, and the latter can trace a direct influence in the earliest moments on the medium.
However, the medium has evolved in such a way that it can encompass games as varied as DDR, Ace Attorney, Minecraft, and Street Fighter without issue. And that requires an extension of our vocabulary to understand these modes of play. Would it be such a controversial example to say that an on-rail-shooter would have much to learn from the actual rides on rails at an amusement park like Disneyland? We even see a direct line of dialogue between the current trend of escape rooms in the real world, and games that simulate the same type of experience such as the Zero Escape franchise.
With this in mind, the way society engages with fighting games makes a lot of sense. While everyone in the world likes music, not everyone is willing to put up with what is necessary to make music. This makes the amount of people on the spectator end far outnumber those on the performing side. Similarly, while fighting games remain iconic of the medium —take for example the fact that the game awards still feel pressured to have them as a main category for credibility’s sake— player counts are just not that high. While a fightstick remains as visually distinct as a Les Paul guitar to the average person, that same person is likely to only know 1 or 2 people who own either one if that.
And yet, it also makes their persistence through unpopularity and a die-hard fanbase make sense as well. Just like underground music persists through this day, with bands distributing their own CDs and printing pressings of a hundred records at most, fighting game locals with less than a hundred attendants can be found throughout the world. The passion that the fans of these disciplines feel towards getting to actually do these activities sees them pulling off crazy feats of organisation and logistics just to gather the few who would be interested nearby in the same spot.
But where I think this thesis works best of all is in answering the core question behind all of those guides and instructions of how to break into the genre: Why would you do all of this just to play a video game? And the answer is because it’s really fun to try really hard, to the best of your physical and mental abilities, to not make a single mistake for 3 minutes. If the activity itself is fun, if the result is gratifying, and the process of improvement is kinetically pleasing, people will work for days and weeks just to have a few moments of undisputed greatness. And really, what is the appeal of a real fight if not that same kind of thrill seeking? The argument for this version of fighting is that I would very much like to keep my teeth.