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Games and swords: digital v analogue


Swordfights are resolutely, absolutely, analogue. It is random, chaotic, non-linear to a degree. But for centuries, millennia even, man has been imposing order on the chaos, cataloguing the actions, naming the techniques, systematising the Art of Combat. This begins with taxonomy- such as naming the positions swordsmen use or find themselves in, the blows that they strike, and the various ways in which they defend themselves. Understand this though: there are really no hard and fast rules. If I am in position A, and you are in position B, and I attack with a strike X and you are supposed to defend with action Y, you might do the right thing and win, or do the right thing and lose, or do the wrong thing and win, or do the wrong thing and lose, or do nothing and win, or do nothing and lose, or do any of the above and come to no conclusion.

I have consulted for enough game designers to know that the only accurate answer to any of their questions is “it depends”, but what they need and demand is a hard and fast instruction: if X, do Y. Games are, in their underlying mechanics, always digital. And usually binary. So making a sword fight in a game model a sword fight in reality is basically impossible. It can’t even be done sword-in-hand at the Salle, even if we were using sharp swords, because the critical stress of having someone actually trying to kill you is absent. But we can make the game such that the action sequences in the game model those in the source material precisely. The game can represent the ideal of the Art in a way that cannot be replicated in messy reality. So we cannot be accurate, but we can be true.

Let’s look at the blows of the sword. Fiore describes “seven blows”, six cuts (forehand and backhand, descending, rising, and across the middle) and the thrust. The thrusts are “of five types” (forehand and backhand, rising and descending, and one up the middle). So a total of eleven defined blows. He even goes so far as to determine the paths of the blows: fendente (descending), for instance, “breaks the teeth, exits at the knee, leaving a sign of blood”.

Fiore's lines for the descending blows.
Fiore's lines for the descending blows.

There is our paintbox: the multiple possible strikes broken down into two main types (cut and thrust), further subdivided into forehand and backhand, then again into seven lines. The rising thrust is neither forehand nor backhand. This is a gift to game design, as we can just use these ready-made definitions. And our game has all of the cuts exactly as described. We reduced the thrusts to just forehand and backhand, as we would otherwise be swamped with blow options, and in practice sword-in-hand, the critical distinction to make when defending against a thrust is the side from which it originates.

Every now and then in freeplay, someone will actually use one of the blows, just like in the book. It does happen. Every now and then. But usually the line is a little off, the exact path not quite as illustrated. So then what? When does a mandritto (forehand) become a roverso (backhand)? Where is zero? And how many people have perfect plumb and can see exactly where the line goes? And when does a fendente (descending blow) become a mezano (middle, horizontal, blow)? At five degrees above the horizontal? 15? Of course, in real life, experience and training tell you when you can treat a blow as if it were a fendente, and when you must treat it as a mezano, taking into account a hundred extra details, of which its path is just one. Beginners learn the rules and follow them precisely or fail. Advanced students break the rules successfully all the time. Swordsmanship is a spectrum phenomenon.

So let us think of the light spectrum. It is obvious that purple is not blue is not green is not yellow is not orange is not red. But where exactly does blue become green? In this area only judgement can answer, and it will vary from person to person, without anyone being demonstrably right or wrong. But for the purposes of children playing with paints, or indeed teaching beginners swordsmanship, the spectrum is useless. We take exemplar versions of the thing in question and treat it as the thing itself. The blue in the tube of paint, the line of fendente in the book before us, become the “correct” version, the only true one. And this is what happens when swordsmanship meets game design. Nuance is lost, the thousand thousand subtle variations and shades are forced together under one lump heading. And that is fine, it’s what we do for beginners every day in the Salle.

The over-simplifications we use for communicating the Art to beginners are useful. So while a game based on swordsmanship cannot ever truly replicate the Art, there is no doubt in my mind that it is possible for such a thing to be a fair representation of the Art in another medium. Simulators for flight training are not flying, but they are very useful in pilot training. The difficulty we face when translating analogue swordsmanship to digital gaming is precisely where to draw those lines, how to chop up the spectrum into a paintbox.

The blows were an easy example. Flowcharts of move and countermove are much, much harder. Not least as they presuppose that every technique attempted will be a reasonable facsimile of the technique intended, something which anyone who has ever seen a fencing match, let alone a real swordfight, knows is pretty unlikely. Deriving general rules from the Art to the game is not hard— most swordsmanship styles have at their base a “if he does this, do that” heuristic structure. But any decent game must allow a degree of uncertainty. In our game, when the imaginary attack and parry meet, there is a built-in randomizer that determines whether the attack was beaten wide or remains close— so determining whether the defender can strike freely or must enter in. Neither player can control this, though the defender is in a better position to affect it. (When Samuli, the designer, told me about this over the phone I called him a genius. He did not disagree.)

We also introduce uncertainty by limiting the number of cards in the player’s hands. This reduces the number of blows the players can make, in a way that is not realistic, but it is a necessary condition of the game. If we allowed every player to make every blow, whenever they felt like it, there would be no gameplay. Instead, we would have an endless round of bish-bash-bosh, with no real structure or tactics. It would also be impossible to hold all those cards in your hand at once.

Within the constraints of a card game, there are compromises that have to be made, that are unnecessary when holding a sword. But on the other hand, there are compromises we make in training to avoid killing our training partners that are rendered unnecessary by the non-lethal nature of the cards (we will have killer art, but not killing cards). I will be discussing all these at my Realities of Steel lecture at Ropecon on Saturday 27th July, and we will be demoing the game there on Friday and Saturday from 4-6pm, and on Sunday from 12-2pm. You can also find the game's Facebook page here; we are working on the website even now. At the end of the month we expect to go live with an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds to finish the game: the mechanics are done, but we will need pots of cash to finish the artwork, and for printing and shipping. Save your pennies, and watch this space!

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