Blazblue and Engagement

Pretty sure this is from a newer version of the game.

Blazblue is quite fun. They literally give you an achievement for using training mode for over an hour. Which I did.

One of the best things about Blazblue is its continual depth; this goes for fighting games in general, but especially this one. Practicing with Tsubaki, I was beginning to realize that a simple 5BB > 2CC > 5CC > 236C > 214B > 22C combos simply didn’t cut it in the majority of situations one might encounter in a match.

To explain: the standard BlazBlue button notations come from a combination of the buttons used (as in A for light, B for medium, C for Heavy, and D for Drive attacks) plus direction notations on a joystick (look at your keyboard’s number pad and you’ll start to get it).

Let’s say, for example, you have an opponent air dash toward you. This combos will not cover it, but you’ve got quite  a few options to counter. First, 2CC can stop any threat from the air if your opponent pressed buttons. From here, you can go for an air combo, something like j.C > dj. CC > 236A > 214C, which will do quite some damage, or you can go for a variation on the normal ground combo, usually taking the opponent to a corner with a 22x (as in any attack button = X) to get charge. Whereas the former get more damage, that’s more recovery time in the air, especially if you go for air charge, but the latter give you enough time, easily, to get 1-2 charges for any further combos. The above can be augmented if you already have charge (236D and 214 C at the air combo’s end, for example, can extend the combo even further, or you can 22x and 236D to move the opponent into the corner). Typing this up, however, took quite a bit longer than an actual match’s outcome, of course; all this knowledge, and obviously a lot more, has to be done on the fly, with decision-making an instantaneous process. The only way to utilize new options, of course, is practice, since the muscle memory you need for such input is enormous (of course, every character has a limit on what combos they can create, but such knowledge comes with time).

I’m sure that I lost about half my audience here through boring tech talk about a relatively obscure fighting game series, but hear me out – I have a point.

Literally, the two ways to get good at Blazblue are such: practice, and play matches. It is simply a time thing, win or lose. No matter how much you study it, total engagement is all you can give to make yourself better. Even then, your best won’t be good enough; somebody out there is always better than you at some point, or at some time of day. You can be the greatest fighting game player in the world (see: Daigo Umehara) and still get 4th place at the biggest tournament in the world (EVO 2011).

Furthermore, mechanics eventually take a backseat to mind games and yomi once both players are equal in reflexes. What will my opponent do next? How do I counter his offense? What constitutes a good strategy in this matchup? You can be the worst character in the game (I’ll take Vega in vanilla SF4 as an example) and still beat top tier if you read the mind of your opponent. You can even lack execution skills and come out on top, or destroy the opponent’s confidence, or frustrate them. These are not part of the video game itself, but the meta-game affects the match at hands. It is a battle of two minds for dominance.

Honestly, fighting games are a weird phenomenon because they require such intense focus for such little reward; there’s no magical “cut-scenes” to tell you you are being rewarded for your work, as modern games tend to filter to us, or “endings” (yeah, they have endings, but who’s paying attention to fighting game stories, really? They’re the context for excellent art design and mechanics; aesthetics serves mechanics, not the other way around) that we care about. There is only the fight.

Can you think of another game type that is, in itself, intrinsically rewarding?

Check out this video from the Tougeki qualifiers. Note the spacing, control, and pace of the match. Watch one character, then the other. You’ll see a LOT of decisions are going on all nearly effortlessly. The beginning of the second round has nearly no attacks being made. The two opponents, trading blows in the first round, temper themselves somwhat in the second. The Valkenhayn player has obviously realized his approach last match was too reckless. Both are trying to “bait” the opponent to attack by throwing out pokes – fast, safe moves with long range – to eke out a combo. Most of Valkenhayn’s moves have so much priority that this is a match where Tsubaki has few, if any opportunities to deal; the first round shows her capitalize on his mistakes, whether it’s a planned set-up or a lucky random hit.

The Tsubaki player, noting the Valkenhayn player’s penchant for airdashes (both in and out of wolf form), uses 2CC to get a good deal of damage AND get charge – invaluable for Tsubaki’s more damaging combos. Tsubaki’s anti-air attack throws Valk out of the air; you can see his increasing caution in attacking from the air, to the point where he makes a terrible move and pays for it. Once you start throwing out attacks in hopes of retaliating, that’s when you lose. This gives Tsubaki easy combo opportunities. Valkenhayn tries a Burst to get out of the combos, but it doesn’t allow for a comeback, and Tsubaki takes the match convincingly. You can see from Round One to Two that one player’s dominating performance has led to their win. Valk got too aggressive in the first round – though this worked in punishing a few random hits, it didn’t lead to victory. Since Valk is a rush-down character, that’s what she should be doing, but she was entirely predictable, allowing Tsubaki an easy win.

As you can see, two levels of play are going on here. This intensity lends itself to the idea of “flow”. complete and utter engagement in an activity. All your brainpower is involved. It’s really an amazing feeling to perform a difficult combo in a match with absolute no difficulty or reservations. Hard work, in fighting games, is rewarded. But let your guard down for a second (as in, a pet stumbles across your gaze, thanks house cat) and you can be on the end of a total beatdown. Fighting games are what video games are all about – overcoming obstacles and reaching goals (in this case, set as “total victory in all matches”, but everybody has to start somewhere).

Why are theologians always talking about narrative in video games? That’s not what they’re about at all! Anyone who plays them – seriously, of course – knows that we play them to challenge ourselves and become better at the game in question, to dominate and master. Multiplayer games give an infinite value for that reason. Fighting games work because of this fact. Even if we’re working within the framework of a role-playing game (as in genre archetypes like JRPG and CRPG), the story provides motivation to become better at the game from your investment in the characters. You don’t want them to die, and in the process you need to keep them alive!

Engagement in interactive entertainment should come naturally; if it doesn’t, there something wrong with the product. That’s why, when I perused through Titus, I found this huge chunk of Titus 3 surprisingly apt:

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration andrenewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds (emphasis mine). These things are good and profitable for men. But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, 11 knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.

Those who believe will engage in good deeds by default. If God lives within us, and Jesus is Lord, should that commitment not spur us to total engagement in the Christian life within every context, every situation, every circumstance? A divided life is never a happy one. Take any activity, and I guarantee it works much better when you’re fully engaged, have all the details down, and from that perspective gain the ability to appreciate it all the more.

So it is in video games, so it is in real life.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • It’s funny that you knew that you lost me in the obscure fighting-game-tech lingo! But I fully connect with what you mean about the mindgame. It’s like in the movie Hero where Jet Li’s character and his opponent literally retreat into their own minds to fight the battle until one finds a weakness he can exploit. That’s truly when fighting games become fun. That’s exactly how I feel about Smash Brothers (Melee and Brawl). And if I’m honest, it’s how I hope Playstation All Stars is, too. But I’ve never gotten good enough at the “serious” fighters to be at that same tier. Though, i do recognize that it is an absolute joy. 
    And you raise a good point about Fighting Game endings. Though, I still want the stories to have some merit. That’s probably the primary saving grace of the recent Mortal Kombat. Not into the art direction or story in general. But the storytelling and the solid fighting mechanics? Sucked me right in.

    • @Mjoshua Seriously, try some serious fighters! They take a lot more effort, but the complexity of the move sets and their execution is almost a game in itself. Lots of training mode (and a good arcade joystick) is a barrier to entry. If I can learn how to use a stick, though, anybody can.

      • @Zachery Oliver What qualifies? I have Virtua Fighter 5 and King of Fighters 13 just became free on PS+. But without another solid challenger… Man, I wish I had a brother who was a serious gamer.

        • @Mjoshua Oh, those both count. All my fighting games are on stupid Xbox 360. I just bought the SF Anniversary thing, though, so I’ll be on PSN a LOT more come next year.

        • @Zachery Oliver Yeah? Why more next year?

        • @Mjoshua Well, I don’t actually HAVE the games on hand. Someone’s probably getting it as a gift somewhere down the line…

  • I’m gonna have to disagree with you on a point. You say that videogames aren’t about narrative. But that they’re about challenge and growing skill sets. That’s certainly true for many games. Let’s just say for the point of discussion, half.
    On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have games that just about anybody of modest skill can complete. Mass Effect comes to mind. I would add Thomas Was Alone, since I just completed it last night. Both of those games are generally quite minimal in the difficulty department. And they’re thick in compelling narrative that compliments the experience. As a result, they’re something worth writing home about.
    Then there’s the increasing world of sandboxy games and general treats of creativity. The conquest element certainly lingers in the background most of the time. But narrative is of prime discussion. Especially if Christine Love has a job in this industry.

    • @Mjoshua While I understand your sentiments, that’s been the origin of most, if not all “video games”. Structured play requires two opposing forces to meet and conflict. It can be something as simple as rock paper scissors, or something as complex as Go, but each does have this dynamic tension which makes it interesting,
      Most games are about the challenge; those that aren’t, from my view, are anemic. That doesn’t mean the skill set in question has to be purely reflexive, though! Taking up your line of Mass Effect, part of the game’s challenge, in effect, is getting people to do what you want. That sounds weird, sure, but I found my 30 hours consisted of getting the right party members who were most effective and aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore, micromanagement and tactics help a great deal in certain battles – I can remember one segment where I died repeatedly because I didn’t do just the right sequences of abilities (before the sentient bug queen, I think?). Dialogue trees, for those who want to be a certain kind of character (Paragon here) requires some forethought as to the results of your actions. Most gamers come into it with “game” expectations, and that’s what they can find there still.
      While there’s a narrative, surely, much of the game revolves around the “game” portions of said title, whatever that might consist. I find games that focus on “narrative” in the strict sense don’t involve me as much as those that require something out of me. Otherwise, you’re not making a game so much as it’s a graphic novel (Christine Love, hello!) with game-like elements.
      Perhaps my distinctions are too strict. I think I should write an article about this, actually!

      • @Zachery Oliver Yeah. ME was probably a bad example. And Thomas Was Alone is still good gameplay, just with a really rich narrative aid. Same could be said of Bastion. But that’s why I’m so curious of your take on Walking Dead or To the Moon, where it’s really just a good narrative experience where most of the “game” is that you define the narrative.
        Obviously, this is one of our game preference divides. But it’s also one of the core discussions going on in games. So it’s probably worth having.
        On the other side of the coin, I just started Dishonored. And I have almost nothing to say about the narrative other than that it’s less obnoxious, in-your-face, and revenge-filled as the previews led me to believe. The gameplay  – and the emphasis on Stealth, on the other hand? Completely worth talking about.

        • @Mjoshua I have been trying to get into adventure games (Sam & Max), but maybe I just don’t get it. I don’t like trying to figure out the developer’s logic when it comes to solving puzzles, or dumb puzzles that anybody can solve. Too hard or too easy, for the most part. I am trying, though!
          The revenge advertising turned me off, really. I’d like to play the Thief series first to get a look at how this works (I own them, just haven’t touched them yet) and then see if it’s my cup of tea.

        • @Zachery Oliver Never got into Same & Max. Most point and click adventure games bore me. I have Machinarium and Botanicula, but I’m not sure if I’ll get to them. They’re cute and neat and fascinating, but I’m just not into the “clickuntil you find something that’s a part of the puzzle” gameplay. I’ll probably try those games if I get enough motivation and time, though.As for D and Thief, I fully agree about the advertising. And as good as the art design is, I still kinda hate it for being so overly dark. Probably why I like Fallout so much. It made the apocalypse realistic and funny!

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