Elastic Energy: What makes a parry so satisfying?
A breakdown of one of our favorite game mechanics
From the magic rally of A Link to the Past’s Agahnim, to the now enshrined Evo Moment 37, there aren’t many game mechanics more conducive to memorable game moments than the parry. It’s a move that adds dynamism to combat, turning a defensive stance into an aggressive attack. But what exactly about it makes it so satisfying to pull off? To understand that we’re going to have to look at how different games approach the parry, and even think a little bit outside the box.
Before we get to anything else, let’s talk about the best parry in games: the tennis return.
Check out this return by Roger Federer. In it we see the essential elements of what makes a good videogame parry — there’s the anticipation of the ball, a quick wind up, then the launch of the ball far into the distance. This is accompanied by the signature POMP of the impact and reverberation of both the sound and the energy of the ball through the racket. There’s an arc to it. And within that moment there’s another arc.
When the ball hits the racket, it isn’t simply reflected or pushed away. It bends the material of the racket and the ball itself, deforming for a moment before springing away. For a split second the ball is held in place, enacting its force upon the racket, before having that energy redirected in the opposite direction. The elasticity is what defines the tennis return.
That elasticity can be replicated in more than the simple feeling of attacking. Like tennis, a good parry asks you to move towards attacks. It combines aggressive and defensive moves. It makes you more aware of the space you’re in, and has you reassess it.
Take Treasure’s Sin and Punishment series, for instance. They’re a series of rail shooters (think Starfox) that involve a mix of shooting and sword combat. While you can get through most of the game by simply aiming and dodging well, learning to reflect missiles and bombs will allow you to play more aggressively and change your relationship with the space.
Let’s look at this scene for example. In it one of the protagonists is fighting a large aircraft while dodging through lanes of laser fire. While you could time your dodges to move between pillars of laser fire and dodge the missiles, reflecting them back instead causes serious damage and finishes the battle much faster. (Check the enemy health at the bottom to get an idea of the difference in damage dealt between the gun and the missiles). Instead of the spaces occupied by the missiles being threats, they become opportunities that you intentionally move to intercept. While it doesn’t quite have the same elasticity and feedback of the act of the tennis return, it does have a similar arc and ask you to move within spaces in a similar way.
Not every game needs to imitate tennis, either. By looking at other sports — baseball, racquetball, badminton — we can get ideas of the different types of kinetic textures and arcs each of them bring. Think of the windup and CRA~ACK of hitting a baseball pitch, or the tension in the height and wide arc of badminton. Each of these are games within their own right, and the materials and feeling of each of them have been refined for decades, if not centuries. It’s no surprise that they’ve been imitated since games began.
A good example of incorporating these lessons into combat games is Team Reptile’s Lethal League. It remixes the back and forth of racquet sports — imitated within videogames since Tennis for Two — with the competitive concepts of fighting games.
What makes Lethal League’s particular style effective is the way it holds and releases tension. There are no direct attacks, instead a ball is volleyed between players, with a player being knocked out if they fail to return the ball and take a body blow. The ball can also be reflected off walls to create a more unpredictable trajectory.
Most importantly, there’s a brief pause upon each hit that gives a sense of weight and reversal of energy. Even better, as the volleys continue the speed of the ball increases and the hit pause grows longer and is accompanied by a swelling sound to communicate the build up of energy. Eventually this builds into a hit so powerful it pauses for multiple seconds as the colors of the screen distort, then the ball is released at a speed that can’t be followed by the eye. At this point players have to immediately read the angle of the return, predict the trajectory and be in the right place to return the ball with just the right timing.
This plays well into the the ideas behind the parry. There’s an arc that maintains a heavy tension, a strong feedback mechanism that provides its own, smaller buildup, and a reversal of energy that returns enemy aggression and imposes your will on them. It also provides its own spin on the ideas of fighting games. There’s a strong emphasis on reading the opponent, and spaces are controlled not by the presence of a body, but by the trajectories of the ball. It’s not exactly the same experience as the parries of Street Fighter III or The Last Blade, but it carries lessons from them, as well as other sports.
These commonalities make it a good place to begin when considering the relationships between the digital and physical, and the ways we can frame each with the other to produce a new understanding. It also works well when considered alongside ideas of negative space within games, and the ways these mechanics alter, or impose their will, on those spaces.
Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of deorbital.media (@deorbital), and clickbliss.net (@clickbliss). These essays, and video essays, are made possible by contributors from Patreon by viewers like you. Thank you.