(To all the people who started following me on tumblr after writing that last games journalism bit: Hi! I usually just write things about fighting games here.)
One of my more significant revelations to come from studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the last 9-odd years is that each successive skill level (as delineated by belt rank, for example) is typically separated from the one before it by an understanding of increasingly smaller and more subtle concepts.
That is to say, the difference between a white belt and a blue belt is the latter’s understanding of very large movements (say, a general, if shallow, understanding of a wide range of sweeps, submissions, guard passes etc.); a purple belt has a wider range of knowledge than the blue belt plus perhaps a deeper understanding of a few specific moves or positions; a brown belt understands that you have to hold your hand just so at this particular timing; a black belt understands that if you grab this part of the gi first, most people will turn this way, which lets you grab this other part of the gi at just the right timing.
When I get my butt kicked at the gym, it’s not due to my opponent’s elite strength training regimen, conditioning, or elaborate arsenal of exotic attacks; it’s that they see what’s going on at a smaller level than I do. They understand that a single technique in Jiu-Jitsu is actually a combination of several sub-techniques, each broken up into micro-movements that leave the user open to this and that and the other, even if the user isn’t aware of it. Training with a great black belt is like fighting with someone who sees you in terms of your component atoms and understands what you’re doing better than you do.
I think this differentiation extends itself to Street Fighter, as well. We all play the game with the same superficial indicators available to us; we know what character the opponent is playing, how much health and super meter he has, where he is on the screen, etc. But great players are playing with an understanding of the game that extends far deeper than that; an understanding of different aspects and resources that aren’t always so explicit.
I am trying to identify these things, slowly (mostly by playing Ryu in ST and AE); I think top players are good at reading “tension,” for lack of a better word, which I would explain by analogy as “That feeling that makes you want to jump over fireballs your opponent hasn’t thrown yet.” I think top players have a very highly-cultivated sense of pattern recognition that lets them “download” opponents very quickly by running them through a series of what are basically psychological tests to see how the opponent reacts to, say, getting thrown four times in a row. Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman tweeted the other day that fighting games teach us empathy, but in a totally psychopathic way; that’s a brilliant way of describing it.
But these are all rather higher-order concepts that I am still working on; “controlling space” is a concept that is a bit more grounded, so I shall start with that.
Space in 2D fighters
To begin with, space in 2D fighting games is a known quantity; our characters work as extensions of our wills, and we duel by extending their hitboxes into each other’s hurtboxes. We play this game inside a 2D rectangle, of sorts. At any given time, we can see exactly where the opponent is (well, except in Marvel). The goal of a fighting game is to use your resources (super meter, health bar, moveset, etc.) to make the opponent lose his health bar before you use yours.
Your characters’ respective position in space is fully observable, but the implications that has on your options are not always so explicit. When you’re in the corner, you can’t retreat backwards. Retreating backwards is the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card, or perhaps folding before the flop in poker; you see a disadvantageous situation in front of you, and you choose to sacrifice some screen space in exchange for a chance to escape the situation and otherwise reset the terms of engagement. Once you’re in the corner, you can’t do that; your opponent can decide to engage at whichever range they deem ideal for their playstyle and the character matchup. Maybe they decide they just want to park themselves at a range where it’s safe to chuck fireballs; tough shit, you’ll just have to deal with it.
(As exemplified by this Daigo video that nothingxs passed my way a while back; it’s beautiful!)
<iframe width=”480” height=”360” src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/P0sT92Pt0wc” frameborder=”0” allowfullscreen></iframe>
Once you’re in the corner, you can’t backdash out of throw or poke range; you can’t jump back to avoid a fireball; you can’t walk back to bait the poke and then counterpoke. You basically have to win an exchange of some sort in order to fight your way out of the corner, unless you’re playing a character with some kind of runaway move like a teleport (which will still probably cost you some damage). All Daigo has to do is stand there and let you make bad decisions that waste your health meter, and he’ll win, because that’s what happens when he puts you in the corner.
This, by itself, is not a particularly new line of thinking; we all know how much it sucks to get stuck in the corner. If we start thinking of our screen positioning as a resource, however, it might change the way we play our game. For starters, we can start thinking of whether we have won or lost an exchange not just in terms of resources spent and damage dealt, but also our respective positioning gain or loss at the end of the exchange.
Tracking space control in AE
In ST, fireballs are used to control space very directly; some characters’ fireballs are so fast and oppressive that you’re practically playing a bullet-hell shooter game just dodging them in order to get to a place where you can start to do damage. In AE, for the most part, fireballs aren’t nearly as powerful because they’re much more punishable. So instead of using fireballs to directly control our opponent’s movement, we can use them to improve our screen positioning.
For example: If I throw a fireball from 1/2 screen and walk behind it, I can count the screen space I’ve gained as a net gain overall; I was able to walk that much closer to you, and you will probably decide to back up further and reset the terms of engagement (instead of being stuck at a frame disadvantage from blocking the fireball while I’ve moved up to a range that makes me comfortable). Once that engagement is resolved, we’ll be the same distance we were pre-fireball, except your back will be that much closer to the corner and you’ll have taken a very small amount of chip damage, and I’ll have spent nothing to get there. Fireballs don’t have to hit you or bait a jump in order to be worthwhile. If you decided instead to focus attack to absorb the fireball and dash forward, you’ll have chosen a more aggressive option that aims to retain your screen control, but at the risk of potentially eating the damage of the fireball if you lose the next exchange.
Maybe you find that each time you go in to throw, they tech it successfully — but then they’ll backdash or step back to reset the momentum. Take a step forward to match them, and you’ve come out ahead overall, if ever-so-slightly.
Of course, screen position can be a very volatile resource; one cross-up, and you’ll have basically exchanged your screen positioning counter’s value for that of your opponent’s. This is one reason why you shouldn’t always go for a crossup, even if it’s your most highly-rewarding option off a knockdown — if you cross them up in the corner and they win the interaction, you’re now in the corner! If you have them on the Street Fighter equivalent of their 20 yard line, and you cross them up, you’re now on your own 20 yard line. With some characters, their potential mixup options off the crossup might make that worth it, but as you draw closer and closer to the corner, it could make more sense to stick to safer methods of pushing them back, with the eventual goal of getting to that sweet spot where every option they have ends in damage and getting pushed back into the corner. It’s kind of the Street Fighter version of being a “ring general” in boxing, essentially; you’re willing to sacrifice short-term damage output for the chance to get into a more advantageous position in the long run.
Why this matters
What’s the big deal? Why shift focus away from, say, drilling combos, improving reaction speeds, learning new matchups or setups or all the other things you could possibly be working on in your quest to become a better fighting game player?
Basically, it’s because learning how to pay attention to this kind of thing informs your footsies, your decision-making process, your ability to read your opponent, and so on. For example:
Footsies: If you want to push your opponent into the corner, you can walk forward and poke with the intent of forcing your opponent backwards. If you notice that your opponent is overly aggressive with trying to push you into the corner, you can step back and counter-poke to punish them. Ryu’s crouching mk basically translates into “Hey, guess what, opponent: You’re not walking forward right now.”
Decision-making: See the crossup example from before. What makes you decide whether you want to go for a crossup after knockdown or not? Screen spacing can help inform your mixups.
Reads: If I’m pushing you into the corner, I know that you’re going to be more likely to try and take bigger risks to get out of it, and I can be more conservative when you’re in the corner as a result. Once I’ve punished you for a taking a risk, I can really start to turn the heat up on aggression because you’ll probably feel demoralized about staying in the corner for so long. (Unless I know you know that I know that etc. etc.)
Ultimately, the goal of any fighting game player is to construct a working mental model of the game that drastically simplifies the game’s possibility space. In any given frame, I could decide to do THIS or THAT or THIS OTHER THING, and if you try to predict your opponent’s moves and punish based on the possibility space of Every Potential Action In The Game, you’re going to lose. Tracking player positions and treating them as yet another resource (that can confer potential advantages/disadvantages) is one of those things that lets you get one step closer to the end goal of, well, reading your opponent’s mind.
Space control in MAHVEL, BAYBEE
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot in terms of UMVC3, because I’m trying to figure out how screen control and footsies translate into Marvel thinking — the idea being that, as with Street Fighter, screen control and footsies are very much a thing in Marvel, but they take a different form, and if I don’t feel like I’m using that part of my brain in Marvel, it’s probably because I am missing something important about the game,not because “footsies” don’t exist.
Specifically, I’ve been trying to think about how to play Zero’s neutral game. He is fast and has potent mixup tools, but he’s not really a rushdown character because he isn’t as confusing or hard to block as, say, Magneto or Wolverine. After all, he doesn’t have nearly as many good throw setups, and he can’t move nearly as safely as Mags and Wolvie can, so against a top player he can’t stay on top of you 100% of the time. He has okay zoning tools, especially with the right assist (I play him with Doom-missiles and Vergil-rapid slash), so he can control space okay but he can’t really turn it into significant full-screen damage like Chris and Dormammu can, and once he’s under pressure he basically has to hope that he can get out of danger with a charged buster or die in one combo.
Lately, I’ve started to think about Zero in similar terms as Ryu; his optimal range is probably at about a half-screen distance, from which he can go in and rush down or stick around and control space, depending on the immediate situation of the match. But my goal isn’t necessarily just to land the big combo, it’s to slowly-but-surely push forward, using my assists to keep pushing them backwards. This is something Justin Wong is really good at; he’ll call assists that basically function as the Marvel equivalent of AE Ryu’s fireball, and his point character only has to make sure the assist doesn’t die and follow him in to start setting stuff up.
When I call Doom, Zero’s job is to make sure both he and Doom stay alive long enough for missiles to start coming down on the opponent, at which point Zero is free to push in forward and hopefully land a hit (or at least push them back closer to the corner). When I call Vergil, Zero’s job is to make sure Vergil doesn’t die by punishing any attempts to hit Vergil out of rapid slash (probably with a hadangeki or charged buster). Vergil pushes the opponent back pretty far on hit or block, so as long as Zero can keep both characters alive, it should be a pretty easy positional gain. Once the assist has resolved, you charge your buster and wait for the next opportunity to call the assist. If the opponent decides to attack you after your assist is out on the field, odds are pretty good they’ll run into one of your assists, your charged buster, or a random lightning—each of which can convert into a kill combo. If I get them in the corner, I’m free to keep pelting them with Doom missiles and mixing them up however I like without letting them out of the corner, and then once I’ve killed the first character, I have free 50/50 mixups into kill combos on the next two. It’s the same mentality as AE Ryu, only with assists instead of fireballs and lightning/buster/c.M instead of pokes and dragon punches. This hasn’t led in a dramatic improvement in results—not yet, anyway—but it has given me a mental framework for playing Zero that seems a bit more sensible than “rush down or zone, just don’t get hit”.