Bonus Round: Let’s Talk it Out

This is still kind of part of my series on fighting game problems, but since this post isn’t really about a problem, I’m considering it a Bonus Round.

I was inspired by a guest lecture in my FOSS class given by Cissi Ovesfotter Alm, a professor here at RIT.  She was speaking on the topic of Natural Language Processing, and the early bits of the lecture caused the strangest chain of events in my brain.  She said that conversations are cooperative, with both parties working to advance the conversation.  She also broke down language into its elements.  This initially got me thinking about dancing, particularly tango, mainly because of a friend of mine.  The artistry of partner dancing comes from cooperation, but on a technical level, everything a dancer does is a series of moves that can be broken into component parts.  But, how far is cooperation from conflict?  After all, can’t a conflict appeal to the eye in the same way as a piece of art?  I think so.

And besides, we’re not here to dance.  That’s not what this series is about.

So let’s talk about language.  The professor showed this awesome chart that I think will be extremely helpful.



Just in case the image is unavailable, we have: Phonetics (sounds), Phonology (phonemes), Morphology (words), Syntax (phrases), Semantics (literal meaning), Pragmatics (contextual meaning).  In the interest of being…uh, interesting, I’ll make the connections to fighting games as I move along.

Phonetics – Basic Inputs

Phonetics are sounds.  Sounds are the most basic form of speech.  Sometimes we toss them out on there own.  Usually, we fuse them together to make words.  Phonetics are the basic commands of linguistics.  Think about the Training Mode in your favorite fighting game.  Anything that constitutes one input (so like one icon in the queue) is like a phonetic.  Jab is a phonetic.  Roundhouse is a phonetic.  Forward movement is a phonetic, but dashing is not (it’s two commands).

Phonology- Multi-Inputs

Phonology is closely related to phonetics, but it is more concerned with meaning, whereas Phonetics is more about the physical sound.  Phonology is interpreted.  So, for the purposes of this explanation, Phonology would expand to include things like dashes and throws.  These are simple, single commands that require multiple inputs.  In SF4, focus attacks are another example of Phonology.  Techniques like Option Select and Double Tapping all work because of how the game interprets multiple inputs and simultaneous (or almost-simultaneous) inputs.  A phonological trick, if you will.

Morphology – Special Moves

Morphology expands on Phonology, as we are now dealing with combinations that gain a new meaning in sequence.  Let’s use the Hadouken motion as an example, since most people know it.

Hadouken Command


We can see that it is made up of phonetic inputs (down, down-forward, forward, punch).  We can also see that the sequence has no multi-input commands hidden in it.  If forward-punch was a command in the game, things would be confusing.  The command constitutes a word, and it stands on its own.

Syntax – Combo System

Syntax governs the position of words in a sentence.  In this case, syntax refers to links, cancels, and damage scaling.  Essentially, fighting syntax is concerned with “what can come after what.”  Can you cancel specials into other specials?  For free?  No? Why?  What about normals?  Do all normals cancel into specials?  These factors create a system in which combos can be attempted.  Note that in my description of a combo, it does not have to be uninterruptable, merely uninterrupted.  Interruption is up to the opponent.  If your combo is not tight, you simply failed at making a good combo.  That is, your statement has holes in it.

Semantics – Tactics

Semantics are about meaning in a local, literal sense.  At this point, we aren’t really zooming out anymore, so much as we are looking at actions differently.  Semantics answer the question of “what is the player doing?”  There is no context here (yet).  A blockstring is a blockstring.  Most people stop here when learning a fighting game, if not at the combo system.  A few manage to learn about aggression and turtling, and they may have some success.  That lands them here, at semantics.  They can make a sentence, and it will probably be valid, solid, and powerful.  But is it timely?  Is it the right one?

Pragmatics –  Strategy

And so here we end, with pragmatics.  Pragmatics are contextual.  They let us understand sentences like “they are hunting dogs.”  Are dogs being hunted or are they dogs who hunt?  It’s all context.  In the games, pragmatics involve switching semantics when needed.  Being aggressive is a tactic that implies some actions, but it isn’t always pragmatically useful.

Conclusion – “Why I Care”

So, if you look closely, you’ll see that as we move from phonetics to pragmatics, we transition from the game to the player.  The strategy is in the person, not the game.  If viewed as a conversation, fighting games have tons of untapped potential.  Currently, only one player “talks” at a time.  What about concurrent conversation (a shouting match)?  Or, how about a shift in focus?  Conversation is often cooperative, even if the parties disagree.  How do we construct a fight that is appealing?  Forget about combo systems and characters for a bit.  What would happen if we started with the spectacle first and reverse-engineered it?

Yeah, it’s all speculation, but it’s a bonus round.  What did you expect?  If you don’t like it, go beat up a car.

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