I suppose some good press about Ubisoft’s Red Steel demo did slip out after E3, but it was far overshadowed by complaints about the grainy graphics and less-than-impressive controls. In fact, the single most common complaint about the demo was the “canned” swordplay maneuvers: regardless of how emphatically the contoller is flailed, the game responds with simply horizontal, vertical, and diagonal slashes. “I want free sword control!” cried the masses.
Luckily for us, the masses aren’t game designers. The last time they were, Atari was on its way out the door because of the lack of software quality standards. I refrained from harshly criticizing the games controls (though even I felt they need improvement) because Ubisoft is a smart and successful company; if they felt the need to design the controls this way, there had to be a reason. It isn’t possible that the idea of free sword control simply hadn’t occurred to the development team.
I played through Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney again recently, and I decided to take Mia Fey’s advice. She urges, “Phoenix, think outside the box! Don’t ask yourself why Ubisoft would design the sword controls this way. Ask yourself why Ubisoft *HAD* to design the controls this way!” So I did. And I finally got it. I think it’s time some other people did too.
My argument makes some basic assumptions about the Red Steel which, from a quick search on the web, appear to be correct:
- The hero will wield a single sword that does not get upgraded throughout the course of the game. Why you would need to upgrade a sword anyway is beyond me.
- An integral part of the game’s development is sword training that takes place after reaching Japan.
- Sword training involves learning new swordfighting techniques.
Building a Gesture Vocabulary
First, given the complexity of any 3D control scheme, it may be better to start with a 2D example. Let’s assume that Red Steel were instead being developed for the Nintendo DS, as farfetched as that may sound. When you unsheath your sword, how should it behave? Should scribbling wildly translate into a flurry of sword strikes? If so, isn’t that the analog equivalent of mindless button mashing? More likely we, as the hero, are holding a sword seriously for the first time. Only the most basic lesson of “cut them with the sharp side” is pressing to us. With the stylus, drawing a line quickly from the left side of the screen to the right or vice-versa may be simple horizontal slice, and similar motions could cause vertical and diagonal slashes. These simple techniques form the basis of a gesture vocabulary through which we can express our gaming skill.
If any game of appreciable length were to progress with only these three techniques at our disposal, the game would not only be boring but also might lead to some repetitive stress injuries. Instead, as we progress through the game, we expect to learn new sword techniques that are executed with new, intuitive gestures. These gestures may be available at any time or could act as combo chains (imagine the ubiquitous hit counter pulsing away in the upper-right corner of the screen) or power attacks. With each new gesture representing a new, named technique, the size of the gesture vocabulary that we call to mind when fighting becomes the out-of-game analog to the amount of training we have received in-game.
In short, training leads to new techniques. Practicing new techniques leads to increased skill. This is done by expanding the gesture vocabulary available to the player.
Anyone who sight reads music, plays Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, or practices a form of martial arts seriously knows that thinking only in the present can be a fatal mistake. The mind has a buffer of actions that can be performed from muscle memory alone while the conscious mind is thinking ahead. I imagine were I to engage in actual sword fighting, this would also be the case.
Circling my enemy or facing him/her head on, I may attack with light, tentative strikes aimed at catching my opponent off guard. In the even that I notice an opening, I may lash out with a series of attacks knowing that my opponent must parry each one of them until I either make a bad strike and leave myself unguarded or become sloppy in my attacks. If my opponent uses this opportunity to counterattack, then I must be on the defensive until (s)he ceases or I notice another opening. I imagine this to be the ebb and flow of sword battle.
As I am not even an amateur swordsman in real life, I don’t have a library of techniques in my head from which I can pull on the fly to execute a series of attacks. At best, I can think, “(S)he’s not blocking, so I’ll keep swinging.” On the other hand, if I know that moving my controller in a certain pattern produces a particular kind of attack combo, I may choose to employ this pattern to attack when my enemy is at a disadvantage. Instead of thinking, “Just keep swinging!” I would think, “Okay, now do this, that, this, that, and that!” This jibes with how I imagine the situation may evolve in real life; in essence, there wouldn’t be a ton of freeform improvisation on the fly. Instead, the swordsman would think about the options available at all times and may begin to execute a series of attacks almost mindlessly while watching for any sign of a sudden counterattack.
The structure of canned attack moves allows the player to focus on the tools at one’s disposal to achieve victory. Moreover, it allows each technique to be named, memorized, and recalled at will. Using the memory of these techniques, the player can enter “the zone” wherein multiple attacks are unleashed in a combination that continues to build as long as the player can continue to think through the attack.
What if you are already a master swordsman? Wouldn’t freeform sword control be the best way to proceed? Wouldn’t it be more fun to have freeform sword control even for novice swordfighters?
One thing that gamers should realize is that Red Steel makes no claims at being a sword fighting simulator. In fact, Red Steel is no more a sword fighting simulator than Guitar Hero is a guitar playing simulator (ask any guitarist!). That is to say, at times you may feel really engaged in the game, but in real life you are still pressing buttons that the game translates into a realistic fantasy experience. The actual act of wielding a sword (or wielding an axe) is far more complex than any game meant for a wide variety of players could possibly convey. There are intricacies and nuances and intricacies upon nuances that are only understood by the most talented in those disciplines.
Freeform sword control would for most players turn into a tiring, rampant arm flailing experience. Moreover, it would be difficult to convey the hero’s slow sword mastery because any attacks you will learn are available from the start. Since I have already stipulated that there are no sword upgrades, this leads to a lack of character power/skill progression and stands at odds with basic assumption #2 above: an integral part of the game’s development is sword training that takes place after reaching Japan. If you want to get better, you have to learn. After you learn, you have to train. And after that, you might one day get good.
And let’s not forget that Ubisoft’s development team is not composed by a clan of master swordsmen. Rather than asking themselves the question, “How can I make swordfighting realistic?” they should instead be asking themselves the question, “How can I make swordfighting really fun?”
They Get It
The more I think about this, the more I’m convinced that Ubisoft really gets it and we don’t. The Wii controller is new to just about everyone right now. We all expect new, immersive ways to play games. However, as most of us haven’t spent more than an hour with the controller yet, we don’t know what it should feel like to play a game from beginning to end. We want to feel that the controller is our gun. We want to feel that the controller is our sword. Yet at the same time we expect wielding a gun or sword in a game to be much easier than the real life counterpart and still be engaging. Let’s not begrudge Ubisoft the right to act on our behalf and create a game that is intuitive, fun, and involving in ways that we aren’t yet capable of understanding. Let’s not be too harsh on them for limiting their E3 demo to a handful of canned sword strikes. Instead, let’s trust that these designers have our best interest in mind — fun — and that they know what kind of experience will help us achieve it.
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