Walking, Talking, and Running: How Fighting Games Resemble Language

On an October episode of IGN Esports Weekly, the Fighting Game Community’s Mike Ross and Smash Bros. Melee statistician Tafokints briefly discussed the differences between Melee and Street Fighter. It’s an interesting comparison that’s worth watching as a whole, but what I want to focus on are the following two statements (emphasis mine):

Tafokints: A Melee player is going to really focus on mechanics, right? Concepts like stage control and footsies become second nature in the game, because you can get away with just playing fast, and getting to mid to high level. I would say you could even get to Top 32 at a national [tournament] just by being technical, and having little understanding of the fundamental concepts of competitive gaming.

Mike Ross: Learning [Street Fighter] made [Bobby Scar] a way better Melee player…. He didn’t realize how smart of a game Street Fighter was…. He had to think about his opponent so much more in Street Fighter, like you do in Melee…. You’re not running around the stage, you’re really up close to your opponent the whole time, so you’re constantly having a dialogue with your opponent…. Once you answer to yourself what can you do, the next best question is, “What does he want?”

Just to be clear, both parties believe that their respective games have technical requirements and require smart play at the highest levels. While Melee has this large mechanical wall to climb, once you’re at the summit matches between top players can be considered intriguing debates featuring the sharpest of wits. For example, take a look at top Melee player C9 Mang0’s review of a Grand Finals match versus another one of the “gods” of Melee, MVG Mew2King. In it, he goes over the intricate dialogue that occurs at super high speeds and involves rapid-fire decisions:

In this respect, I want to posit the following: if fighting games are like a dialogue or a debate, then learning the mechanics of a game is like learning a language in the first place, and in this respect Melee is an enormously difficult language to learn. It’s like reading written Chinese, or learning Icelandic (which I hear is quite the challenge): certainly within the realm of possibility to become fluent, but mastery requires dedicated study and practice. As you improve at a language, it’s like the world opens up to you. You go from recognizing words to being able to read sentences, then novels and poetry. You discover the intricacies of how to piece thoughts together to form more complex ideas. This, I think, is where much of Melee‘s appeal comes from. To fans, wavedashing, dash dancing, L-canceling, DI, shine canceling, Scar Jumping, and more aren’t just Smash Bros. lexicon but the very grammar and vocabulary that lead to infinite possibilities of expression.

fc063347f3c29399fe8bd70ba773cbe5Basically like learning Fox

If that’s the case, however, then many players never truly learn to debate with their opponents. Those who consider the mental aspect of the game from the start will have the opportunity, of course, and that mental interaction is pretty much required at the tip-top level of Melee, but let’s go back to what Tafokints and Mike Ross had to say. Though there’s an upper limit, in Melee you can become a decent competitive threat without ever learning the mind games, but in Street Fighter you are taught to focus on mastering the art of dialogue from the very beginning. In contrast, what Melee will more often amount to is a debate where someone who is fully fluent in its language is overpowering someone who’s still just learning how to string a sentence together.

Again, to a Melee player, this is the charm of their chosen game: it is a complex and difficult yet beautiful language. Melee is a subject worthy of aesthetic appreciation, and those who reject it or see it as unnecessarily convoluted are simply not putting in the necessary work. With that being said, where Melee in a sense falls apart is when a player or indeed a game designer wants the central goal of their game and improvement at their game to be not so much the continual mastery of grammar, but a firm focus on the thrill of the debate or dialogue itself. Even if it is a simpler language, even if it takes less to learn overall, if one is able to immediately engage in the act of dialoguing, then that competitive game has achieved something rewarding. Rather than leaving that aspect to only the most skilled and talented players, it now becomes something that more people can experience. This, indeed, is where games such as Divekick, Smash Bros. Brawl, and Smash Bros. for Wii U come into play.

In the YouTube comments of the non-extended version (I don’t recommend you actually take a look), a lot of the debate descends into whether or not Melee is a “real” fighting game or not. The worn-out arguments of it being a party game without anything in common with “true fighters” are brought out, and in turn many of the defenders of Melee fall into these old traps. They will talk about how Melee is actually this enormously difficult game to learn and master because of its technical barriers, and will wear it as a badge of pride, while simultaneously talking down the other Smash games for lacking in this quality. They have essentially cornered themselves into a position where they are playing by their opponent’s rules. Whether by ignorance or by intentional scheming (most likely the former), Melee‘s detractors attack its integrity, but many of its supporters only know how to respond with, “But look at how intricate our language truly is! Can’t you appreciate that?” while failing to take into account that what some see as the true beauty of a language is when it leads to fruitful conversation.

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