One Finger Death Punch: Precision Violence

There’s a lot of chat around violence in video games, and most of it is boring. If video games somehow result in actual real world violence (they don’t), then the scientists will eventually prove it beyond any reasonable doubt, and we’ll set about worrying then. Aside from that, we don’t really need to acknowledge the existence of those special interest lobby groups that blame video games for violence and aggression. It’s fear mongering, it’s stupid, and (worst of all) it’s uninteresting. Today, we’re going to talk about something different: how the mechanics in One Finger Death Punch impact the game’s representation of violence. 

So the premise of One Finger Death Punch is basically those fighting stick figure animations from funnyjunk turned into a game. There are dudes that run at you, and when they get in range, you have to use the mouse button to death-punch them. If they’re on the right, you use the right mouse button, and if they’re on the left- yeah. You can see in the picture below that a dude on the right is in range (the red punchy thing is lit up), so we’d be able to punch him. But the dude with the bow on the left isn’t in range yet, so if we clicked the left mouse button, we’d get a miss and stagger a little, and during that stagger-time somebody would come up and punch us in the jeans – kinda similar to the stagger mechanic in Dark Souls, if you’re familiar.

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So this punching mechanic revolves around two ideas.

  1. The player only has to trigger a move, rather than executing it.
  2. Accuracy is more important than flailing.

The first idea is basically suggesting that you as a player don’t have to make the character execute some super-complicated Mortal Kombat-esque button procedure to do a triple-double-uber-back-slash. You trigger an attack with a click, and the character executes the particulars of the attack himself. There’s a similar thing in the Arkham games – there’s lots of fucking around with extraneous gadgets and shit, but at the very core of the gameplay, you left-click to attack, and you right-click to counter. Everything else, all the practical details of arm-breaking and slamming heads into walls – Batman works all that out for you. The second idea is that you shouldn’t be button-mashing. If you mis-click when there’s nobody in range, you’ll stagger, and probably get punched – so you’re actively punished for button-mashing, right. This is again in contrast to the Mortal Kombat approach, where button-mashing is sometimes a viable strategy.

These two ideas combine to depict violence in a very particular way. Just as with anything else, the mechanics involved in playing violence suggest things about what violence is actually like. The suggestion in One Finger Death Punch, I’d argue, is that violence is about speed and control on a cognitive level just as much as it is on a physical level. The player is like a wound coil in this game – there’s a limited window between an enemy coming into range and an enemy getting close enough to punch you, and in that window, you have to hit them first. But not only do you have to hit them first, you have to hit them precisely. You click once, and that’s it – because if you’re clicking wildly or uncontrollably, you’ll miss another window somewhere else, because you’re busy staggering. In that sense, not (over)attacking is just as important as attacking. Violence (or at least successful violence) is precise and highly controlled.

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If you think about the game as creating this depiction of precise and controlled violence, it makes sense as to why it’s only one of two buttons that you’re using. That’s about streamlining the process – if you want to make something super-precise, you make it as simple as possible, so that it’s really easy to get really good. The cognitive process is heavily stripped back, allowing you to centre your focus. Basically there’s less extraneous shit to worry about. There are complications to the idea, in the brawlers and the dudes you need to hit multiple times with particular combinations – left left right right etc – but there are enough visual clues in that regard to keep the process simple. Motherfucker’s either on the left (use the left button) or the right (use- yeah).

There’s also an interesting little wrinkle in One Finger Death Punch. Every now and then, you’ll be punching some random dude, and it’ll go into a slow-mo power shot, where (as below) you get an x-ray view of breaking bones, or you throw the dude into the sky and he lands on a spear and gets impaled – something designed as a sort of visual reward, but also as a pause in the combat. We’ll leave aside the ‘gratuitous violence as visual reward’ thing, because we’re nearing the tail-end of the conversation (but yes, there are further Mortal Kombat-related comparisons we could be making), and focus on the ‘pause in combat’ side instead.

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A big part of the game is this idea that you’re always switched on and highly controlled. In terms of attention, it’s a demanding game. There’s very little space for you to relax. These little power moments provide you with a mental break – they release the player from being an agent and allow them to become a spectator. If you’re watching the game, you’ll notice background buildings being destroyed, blood exploding out of dudes, the specific karate chop used to dispose of some asshole – but if you’re playing, you don’t really notice any of those things. Well, at least I don’t. You don’t have time to enjoy the spectacle, because you’re busy kicking ass.

These power moments, then, release the player from their high-intensity focus and allow them to relax into being a spectator – only briefly, but for long enough to enjoy this visual expose of exactly how cool they are. Yes, there are conversations around gratuitous violence as reward, and they’re kinda howling at the gates right now – I’m not justifying anything one way or the other, I’m just saying that this is how the game is designed. This is how the power moments are meant to function. It’s a neat way to briefly let the player appreciate the spectacle of their actions without compromising the integrity of their focus. We can sit down and hammer out the gratuitous violence conversation some other time: for now, what I’m really getting at is this interesting space for visual spectacle in the midst of demandingly active play.

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