Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the Anatomy of a Great Fight

What do I say when I mean a "Great Fight?"  Here, I really do mean something beyond the literal definition of the phrase.  I'm not just talking about a good fight (that I might, colloquially, call a "great fight,") I'm talking about a once-or-twice in a series, book, or film (usually - some series really do produce many such "Great Fights")  fight.  A fight that makes you think about what it is that makes it so good.  Or makes me think about that, anyway.

As a caveat, I should add: not all fights need to be or even should be "Great Fights," necessarily.  But I do think most fights in fictional media are improved by inclusion/exclusion of most of the elements I discuss here.

Mild spoilers for Broken Blade and Star Wars IV: A New Hope.  Seriously, though, if anything about A New Hope can be spoiled for you and you're reading this blog, you should go watch it instead.

1.    It should be pretty.

This is both highly obvious and highly subjective, so I’m not going to delve into it at great length.  For me, “pretty” in animation means fluidity, relatively high detail, and high motion.  In written works, it means that the prose (or poetry) should be pleasant to read in addition to conveying on its content clearly.  In film, it means that I should be able to see what the f*ck is going on (no Bourne-style combat shaky-cam, no unlit night-fights).

This is probably also the category people are going to differ over most often.  That's fine, since it's an entirely personal, subjective artistic experience.  This fact does mean, though, that what constitutes a "Great Fight" is necessarily going to differ person to person, to some extent.  I would be surprised to find, however, that most people do not determine great fight scenes based on this personal, subjective experience (if anyone does disagree, I'd be very curious to hear about it).

2.     It should be technical.

This is the portion in which I get to be a bit of a fight-snob, but it makes me very happy when strikes are well executed and have actual, clear targets, and blocks are used at all (and, again, make sense given the strike thrown).  Spells and energy attacks should be used in a ways that make sense, but should not be constricted to a single, obvious use – after all, strikes can be used in a myriad of ways (as blocks, as feints, against terrain).  In gun fights, people should use cover, take advantage of unexpected angles, and generally abuse terrain to the fullest.  Creativity and the ability to do unexpected things should be an asset, and not an afterthought.  Neither the enemy nor the viewer should see all tricks coming.

Combat should not be static, and creativity should be rewarded (or, at least, have the possibility of paying out).  Perhaps my least favorite combat trope is the Beam O War.  In anime, this is a production company’s way of saying “we want to show that they’re struggling, but we don’t actually want to animate people DOING things, because that’s expensive.”  The Beam O War reduces combat to a single element, and a literal standstill.  It’s like a static grapple, except that a static grapple almost inevitably ends with one person doing something clever to change the situation – whereas the Beam O War is simply won by whoever has a bigger stick.  If it has to happen, it should be resolved quickly.  But what the Beam O War illuminates for me is that I really hate static combat.  In a fight, people (or mechs, or whatever) should be moving, because when they aren’t moving and being creative, they aren’t doing anything interesting.

Technical also includes the realm of visible damage.  Damage should not only be shown in some way (clothing damage, bullet-holes or burns on giant robot armor, actual injuries), but it should be cumulative and consistent.  Yu Yu Hakusho is, by all accounts, a pretty darned good series, but I found myself seriously peeved when the main character had his arm broken during a fight, and then proceeded to use that arm for the rest of the battle.  Was the arm really broken?  Was the breaking sound and x-ray shot of the bone snapping just for dramatic effect? 

People and objects should show damage, and damage that has been shown should have some sort of impact on the fight.  One of my favorite elements of Broken Blade, simple as it is, is that Delphine, despite its impressive toughness and heavy armor, almost always shows damage where it has been shot, even by the mooks who it tends to plow through in droves.  It’s a little thing, but it goes a long way.  No matter how tough your armor is, it should show at least a scratch from a bullet or a plasma rifle, and though these scratches may be trivial, they show something important – it is not that the attack was useless, but that it did not happen to penetrate.  If someone is completely unscathed after being hit with an attack, even aesthetically, you know the attack had no impact at all.  Whoever made the attack essentially wasted his or her time.  But if there are burn marks, bullet-scratches, or other small cracks, then you know that the target is just well-armored, not some deity, immune to explosions and the sullying effects of soot alike.  Unless the target of the attack really IS a deity, or has some other sort of unnatural protection, it shouldn’t appear that they’re merely protected from aesthetic damage by cheap attempts to drum up tension or a lack of budget.

It's another minor issue within technicality, but if one participant is screwing around, being excessively conservative, or otherwise holding back far more than is reasonable during a fight, it should either be a key personality point for that character or else it should be happening for a reason.  Unless the character is the sort who gets extreme pleasure out of saying “I am not left handed!”, he or she should start out using the right hand.

As an addendum to that, people should learn from fights, current and past.  If a character regularly faces the same sort of enemy, he or she shouldn’t use attacks or weapons that haven’t worked in the past if other options are available.  Basically, this could be called the “don’t be Power Rangers” rule.  At least once, a supposedly intelligent character should bust out the Megazord early, just to save time for when the monster inevitably grows to kaiju size.  It did it the last fifteen times, it’s probably going to do it again.  Similarly, characters should be REWARDED for such intelligent behavior.  I hate perhaps nothing more in combat scenes than the same tactic failing time and time again, only to succeed when tried for the eighteenth time instead of the seventeenth for an inadequately explored reason like "really wanting it to work."

3.    Something meaningful should be at stake for both parties.

I initially wanted to say “the outcome of the fight should be in question,” but I realized that this is slightly misleading.  With even the tiniest bit of narrative “metagaming,” the outcomes of many fights become obvious.  Obi-Wan can’t vanquish Darth Vader in A New Hope.  They face one another too early in the film, and their character archetypes dictate certain rules about their interactions.  A total victory for Old Ben Kenobi simply isn’t in the cards, and the audience knows it.  But the fight can still be meaningful, because Obi-Wan doesn’t need to win the actual combat to fulfill his objective.  He is, essentially, stalling for time – and he succeeds.  Thus, the dramatic tension is shifted from “will Obi-Wan defeat Vader” to “will Obi-Wan distract Vader for long enough for the rest of the cast to escape.”  Vader, in turn, does not merely have to kill Obi-Wan to win, he has to do it quickly, and what’s more, he has to realize that he is under a time limit.  Because of these conditions, the old Jedi’s failure ceases to be a forgone conclusion*, and the tension is preserved. 

This is really key for a great fight.  That may seem to be obvious, but obviously, it isn’t, because it so often is a neglected element.  When Broken Blade 5 was adapted from the corresponding manga material, I enjoyed it, but was left feeling somewhat disappointed at the end.  After reading the manga, which handled things quite differently, I realized that it was because almost none of the fights should actually have happened at all in the anime version.  Rygart should have just run away from Borcuse, since there were no villagers left to save by the time he arrived.  Rygart should have just retreated from his fight with Girghe, because his squad couldn’t afford to lose TWO members at that critical juncture.  In the manga, he had compelling motives not to retreat from both fights, but because these elements were cut for time, the whole affair became a shaggy dog story.  A shaggy dog story with beautiful and dynamic fights, admittedly, but they still felt frustratingly shallow compared to their manga counterparts, where Rygart had something at stake.

At some point, I will probably revisit this topic, since there's more depth to it than I dealt with here, of course.  A case study of fights I really like (or even a single fight) might be a good post for the future.


*I'm going to nip any arguments about Star Wars specifics in the bud and once again clarify that while the exact outcome was not necessarily obvious, my point is that it was clear that the old mentor was not going to get to kill the main (so far) villain all on his lonesome half way through the movie.

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