Appraising the Art of Combat pt.1
Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 12:23PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Combat, Emergence

I've read Sun Tzu's The Art of War. I've read Sirlin's Playing To Win. I've run the gauntlet of video game competitions from the first Tetris attack to the ends of Halo's reach with Brawls and Melees in between. I've studied the strategies of games and opponents I'll never play. I see myself reflected in the glass screen and my first impulse is to do battle. A video game isn't a game without a measurable goal. An goals are only meaningful when there's some force human or machine standing in our way. This is the essence of combat. 


Making art of out video game combat. 


Video games are complicated. Every facet of design can have a range of effects on the gameplay and the player experience. After explicating mechanics, level design, depth, complexities, dynamics, player skill, how we learn, and emergence we now have access to the language and the understanding to grasp combat. Emergence describes how game rules come together to create many possible gameplay scenarios. Every formation, glitch, pro strategy, and simple use of mechanics are possible via emergence. The more complexities/rules and the more dynamics, the more emergent the potential gameplay. Combat is how players use emergence to counter emergence to achieve measurable advantages. 

Tackling concepts like the metagame of combat is more complicated still. I've even experimented some with explaining the metagame of the beginning years of Melee. But that wasn't good enough. So for this article series we'll need more terms, new definitions, and a broader view of how game design meets the human engine. 

To appraise is to assess and to estimate the nature, quality, and importance of (from This has been my custom here at Critical-Gaming since the beginning. But what is video game combat? Certainly Halo: Combat Evolved, Ace Combat, and Combat Cars feature combat. Joking aside, to combat is to fight or contend against; oppose vigorously. Combat is a fight [or] struggle, as between two persons, teams, or ideas (from By this definition all video games with elements of contrary motion (features designed to prevent the player from reaching the goal or some functional aim) have combat. But wouldn't this definition include all games? Not exactly. Simple tests, quizes, some puzzle mode challenges, and perhaps music rhythm games do not qualify. 

Though this definition of combat may seem too broad, it really does accurately describe games from StarCraft, to Street Fighter, Smash Brothers, to Tetris. Army units, hand to hand attacks, fire arms, or objects in space (2D/3D) aren't requirements of combat. The functional fight is the core, and that's precisely what this series will illuminate. 

Video games are complicated. Likewise, gameplay is the emergent end result that proves the rule. You can think of describing combat as conveying what it's like to play a game well instead of just knowing the rules. It's more than just listing the complexities. It's more than noting the interplay. And it's more than detailing the gameplay balance in theory. The experience of actually fighting in the combat zone is much harder to convey.  

Here's what the agenda looks like:


As you were solider. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
See website for complete article licensing information.