Getting Defensive

Words: 2555 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

I recently finished playing through Tales of Arise, and setting aside my more general reaction(s) to the game, one thing I found myself somewhat frustrated by was its battle mechanics, particularly its dodge/counter system. Short version: during battle the player can dodge, and if this dodge is performed in such a way that the character goes through an enemy’s attack, they get an opportunity to then counterattack.

The frustration here was in how the mechanic felt odd in comparison to the stiffness of the rest of the combat, which leads me to the subject of defensive options more broadly. Because different video games have different flows to gameplay. Sometimes a game is incredibly slow and methodical, to the point of literally being played turn-by-turn. Sometimes a game is much more fast-paced and requires good reflexes. The different flows are themselves unimportant, because there is no one “correct” flow.

What we instead want to focus on are the defensive options provided to players, and how those defensive options feed particular types of flow. Some defensive options are much slower-paced or require careful setup, which might conflict with the more frenetic pace of the rest of the game. Meanwhile, other defensive options might be rapid in a way that can make a slow-paced fight drag on. So it’s important to think about the flows of these individual systems and how they mesh – or don’t mesh – with the overall flow of the rest of the game.

Important to note is that defensive systems aren’t the only thing that determine flow. But those systems do help determine how players play, simply because defense is a necessary part of strategy when fighting. As many games in particular place a strong emphasis on survival – the key is about not getting hit at all or at least as little as possible – the relative importance of these defensive options takes center stage.

Also, as a definitional issue, I’m going to be using the term “flow” and “pace” interchangeably, and these terms are vague. I’ll generally refer to the flow or pace of combat as “slow” or “fast,” but I could just as well say that the distinction is about how often stuff is happening: how often the player is attacking, how often the player is moving, how often enemies are attacking, how players are reacting, etc. There are a few different ways in which we can conceptualize the flow of combat. Is the player encouraged to be conservative or aggressive when attacking? Is the player constantly moving or staying fairly still? Is the player keeping track of a lot of enemies or just a few? Is the player expected to react quickly or do they have plenty of time? These different axes all point in similar directions, but don’t have to all work together at the same time. So just know that when I call a combat system’s pace “slow,” I’m generally meaning that the player is expected to be more patient, that aggressiveness is discouraged, and that there’s less information that needs to be kept track of. Meanwhile, “fast-paced” combat means that the player is more aggressive, more reactive, and there is more information to navigate.

To Dodge or Not to Dodge

The first thing that we want to do is get a broad overview of the basic forms of defensive options available. To clarify the term a bit, I will designate a “defensive option” as anything a player can do to avoid dying from an enemy’s attacks. While this allows for a rather wide variety of potential actions, there are some very clear patterns of strategies that show up that allow us to create some categories.

The first category is “dodging.” By dodging here I mean any way of avoiding an attack. Which means we can establish a range of possible forms of dodging.

On the simplest end might be simply moving your character out of the way of an attack, even if it just means taking a step or two in one direction.

From there we might introduce a dedicated mechanic for that movement – a dodge button, if you will. In its simplest form, the dodge button may simply be a way to move a character out of danger quickly, conferring no particular benefit.

Making it now more complex, perhaps we might make the dodge button something that makes the player invincible while they are dodging (i.e. it gives the player invincibility frames during the process). Such a system would thus allow a player to dodge through an attack, and not merely away from it.

And finally, we might make it yet more complex by not just allowing the player to dodge through an attack, but giving them a bonus for doing so (allowing for a counterattack, providing a stat boost of some kind, etc.). Such systems are often referred to as “perfect” dodges, since they require more precise timing.

Another category is “blocking.” Blocking in this context will mean a player action to defend oneself with some sort of device – a shield, a weapon, a forcefield, etc. Blocking is something that is meant to be active, in the sense that it is not merely the process of putting something between the character and an attack. Moving behind cover, for example, would fit more within the category of “dodging” (insofar as the core player action is the movement) than with “blocking.” Blocking itself can be a way to either avoid or reduce damage, and so blocking itself can result in a variety of different possibilities depending on how effective it actually is. And in turn, blocking can be something that is effectively infinite – you can block for as long as you want – or a resource that must be managed – your guard can eventually be broken or depleted in some way.

Next let’s look at “parrying.” Parrying means to somehow deflect an opponent’s attack, generally in a way that confers a special benefit to the player. Another term we could use here is “counterattack,” which might involve a special attack that can only be performed before the player character is about to be hit. Parrying in general is related to blocking, especially since the mechanic used for blocking may be the exact same as the mechanic used for parrying. But while blocking is meant to be purely defensive, parrying is meant to combine defense and offense. Parrying usually involves taking on a particular risk: parrying requires precise timing, and attempting to parry too early or too late might cause the player to take damage. In this sense, parrying is also related to the “perfect dodge,” insofar as it requires the player to put the character in danger.

We should not ignore the concept of “tanking” as a defensive strategy. While to tank – meaning to constructs one’s character using stats, skills, and equipment so that damage is minimized and the player can simply keep attacking – is generally a method for attacking, the very way in which is strives to reduce damage makes it also a defensive measure. We don’t want to ignore it simply because it too is capable of dictating the flow of combat – the very possibility of ignoring all other defensive options affects how the game plays just as much as the existence of those defensive options.

Setting the Speed

So how do these different options shift the overall flow of combat in a game?

Think of something like blocking. When the player is given the option to block, that in and of itself slows down the pace of combat. Movement becomes less important than simply holding a button, waiting for an attack, and then retaliating when there is an opening. Blocking encourages patience. This principle is especially true if blocking is something that completely negates damage: you can be completely safe as long as you are holding down the button.

This fact that blocking can slow down the pace of the game may then push a developer to come up with ways around blocking. Perhaps you can only block from one direction, and thus still need to be careful of attacks that come from behind. Perhaps enemies sometimes have attacks that cannot be blocked, and thus you still need to be ready to react quickly when those attacks begin. Perhaps you are limited in how much you can block, to prevent you from holding the button down infinitely. The inherent pacing that blocking brings to a game can therefore be offset by other elements in the game. But that pace is still set in part by the mechanic on its own: as long as you can block, some part of the game is encouraging you to play a bit more slowly and patiently.

It might be easier to see this slowness in comparison with a dedicated dodge mechanic. Let’s say that a game does not allow you to block at all. Instead, you have a button which allows you to dodge attacks, and that is your only defensive option. In such a game, the playstyle is expected to be much more reactive, and as a consequence faster-paced. How fast will be determined by all sorts of rules regarding how that dodging works – the easier it is to just spam the dodge button, the faster the pace of combat will be. But that means as a consequence there is little need to be patient. Whereas blocking encourages waiting for an opening, dodging may involve strategies like memorizing enemy patterns or getting around an enemy to strike from behind.

Meanwhile, a defensive option like parrying will establish a similarly reactive pace of battle like with dodging, but in conjunction with the need for careful timing and patience as with blocking. In one sense, we might call this a sort of middle ground. But key to this is how the player moves. Parrying – much like blocking – will generally require the player to be stationary. This on its own creates a less frenetic pacing for combat, as the player’s focus is concentrated on timing. If dodging requires a good deal of information about when an attack is coming – figuring out which way to dodge, and then hitting the correct button and moving in the correct direction – then parrying requires less information in this respect. Moreover, since parrying and blocking are often linked to similar mechanics, parrying can potentially piggyback off of the slower and more patient pacing that is set by blocking.

The overall flow of combat is of course not set solely by these defensive options. Firstly, as noted already, the way in which these options are set up can create a fairly broad range of pacing. Secondly, plenty of other elements – how quickly enemies attack, how many enemies there are, how quickly the player can attack – are all going to go into this equation as well.

We should also keep in mind that defensive options are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many games incorporate more than one or even all possible defensive mechanics. And those different mechanics may work better in response to particular threats. While I’ve argued that different mechanics encourage different forms of pacing, it does not necessarily follow that including multiple defensive options creates a sort of chaos.

Instead, we want to focus on two things. Firstly, what is the core defensive mechanic of the game. Even when games provide multiple options for how to defend yourself, there is generally going to be a particular mechanic that will be the “default” for how the player attempts to avoid damage. It is that mechanic which will do the most to help set the basic pace of the game. If a game allows players to dodge and to block, that doesn’t mean that the game is perfectly in the middle in terms of pace, nor does it mean that the game can’t decide what pace it wants. Instead, if the player is going to find more success blocking that dodging, then that will signal that the combat’s pacing is slower and thus the player should play more patiently. Conversely, if dodging gets far better results on a consistent basis, then blocking is going to take a backseat and the combat’s pacing will be faster.

Secondly, we want to think about how well these different mechanics are incorporated so that different strategies are viable. Sometimes a developer puts in multiple options not by accident, but as a literal way of giving choice to the player. If you prefer being patient, then blocking can be your go-to strategy. If you are just naturally impatient, then you might gravitate towards dodging. And so on and so on. So insofar as multiple options imply multiple possible approaches, we want to ask to what extent those different approaches are all viable. How effectively can you play without blocking, or without dodging, or without parrying? If some of those strategies aren’t completely viable, then it signals one of two things: either that it’s not the game’s core defensive mechanic (i.e. you might be need to reconsider how you’re playing), or that there has been a mistake in trying to incorporate these various systems (i.e. the developer was trying to make the playstyle viable and messed up).

The value of thinking about these defensive systems from a player standpoint is helping us to sift through the information that we are given by the game. When we are provided multiple options, we may naturally focus on one option because it fits what we prefer. But that preference may not match what the game’s systems expect. In other words, if a game’s core mechanic is dodging, and we prefer to block, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment because we will find that our strategy doesn’t always work. It may be possible for us to succeed regardless, but it will be an uphill battle.

Note that this disappointment doesn’t imply a failure on the part of the game’s design. Having a core defensive mechanic is fine, and punishing players for not using that mechanic is fine. It only becomes a problem if A) it is not clear that that mechanic is the core mechanic, and thus the player has no way of knowing they are “playing the game wrong,” or B) the intent behind the design was to allow for multiple playstyles, so that any preference was supposed to be viable.

But by stepping back and thinking about what is expected from us in playing – what options are available to us, which ones work best, when do some not work, etc. – we can better learn how to play games and adapt our strategies.

Concluding Remarks

I began this essay by discussing a potential mismatch between systems: sometimes a game’s defensive mechanics don’t mesh with the rest of the game’s combat in some way. While talking about pacing in the abstract is relatively easy, it’s still a vague concept. It is more so something that is felt than something that can be calculated.

But thinking about the pacing of combat in this abstract sense can help us to understand the nature of intent versus execution. It is by seeing what options are available, how much emphasis is placed upon those options, and how viable those options become for the player that we can discern what the intention is for the developer, and critique those intentions through the lens of execution.

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