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Pretty sure this is from a newer version of the game.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