Super Smash Bros: An Idea of Responsorial Combat and Flow

Official screenshot of Ken and Luigi in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Arguably, the “Ultimate” moniker of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate — while being a marketing term to sell the amount of returning content the game offers — can more profoundly refer to the game’s major design focus of returning back to the core differentiating features of the Smash Bros. franchise. Masahiro Sakurai, the series’s creator, has stated that one of his goals with the series, from its nascence, was to create a new form of fighting game that that would be easy to learn but rewarding to master. The main criticism, that Sakurai had about the traditional design of fighting games, was the implementation of combo systems. Combos, while designed to be hard to pull off, offer immense reward to the player who can pull them off, what with a string of attacks that lock an opponent in the chain, making them virtually unable to escape. For the longest time, this was the ultimate goal to reach within traditional fighting games: To become proficient enough to master all the combos and optimal situations, for when they should be instigated, and to create a master whose purpose is to find the setup into the combo that’ll guarantee that player the unstoppable advantage.

It’s from seeking to defy this principle of traditional fighting games that Smash Bros. bases it’s core design off of. Despite how the ridiculous the hit-stun was in the first iteration, the game was still designed to defy the expectation of fighting games to have a player-development model based entirely off of finding out the combos and when they should be used. Smash Bros. instead suggested that learning how to efficiently move one’s character, within the unique environments, is a player-development model that’s way more friendlier to inexperienced player than what’s been the traditional focus of fighting games before it. What it also proposed, in terms of what should be done to combos — the core element of player development in fighting games — after they’ve been minimized for complicating movement, was that it was more fun to base a fighting game’s attack mechanics off of a ‘responsorial’ system of combos.

The term ‘responsorial’ is an adjective typically reserved in musicology to describe a style of singing “in which a leader alternates with a chorus, especially in a liturgical chant.” It’s also known by its more layman name: Call and response. I use this term not because it struck a chord with me when I was in fine arts class, but rather because it’s pivotal to the strengths Sakurai wanted to emphasize better in the mold his series took on to break away from traditional fighting games. To put it simply: An attack is the call, and the counterattack to follow is the response. How exactly Smash Bros. does this is through its minimal focus on combos and emphasized focus on agentive movement, so there is a crucial modification to the formula that allows for more “response” where there’d usually be longer and more dominant “calls.” Continuing the musical metaphor, it’s the difference between watching a studio orchestra and being at a live concert: There’s a sense of participation in the game that’s atomized into the individual actions made by players.

Smash Bros. obviously prioritizes the importance of movement over intricacy in attack, and this can be seen in the method that attacks are structured. Because combos are never fully guaranteed (rather, there’s very few true combos, and any connected sequence of attacks that don’t leave the opponent unable to get out of them are called strings), that means there’s always a chance for the opponent to break out of a player’s sequence of attacks and initiate a counterattack: Keeping the dynamics in such a way where both players are always fully engaged and on their toes. This strays somewhat far away from the conventional dynamics of traditional fighting games where comeback mechanics are often done by single actions that are designed to prevent combos from continuing. In Smash Bros., the comeback mechanics are a part of the core movements of the game. Because of the intricate focus placed on mobility above technical attacks, the counter-play mechanics of the game develop organically from using the movement options in the first place (this is in place with the fact that the dodging mechanics are intertwined with the expansive mobility).

Smash Bros. also does one more thing uniquely in that its combat system revolves around a structure similar to sumo wrestling where the goal isn’t to lower your opponent’s health until its depleted, but rather to get your opponent to a high enough percentile of damage and launch them in such a way where they forcefully exit the arena. This decision isn’t just a historically unique one, but also an integral one for the identity of the genre of ‘platform fighters’ as it compliments well with the mobility encouraged. Launching directly encouraged a complete revolution in the approach of a design, one where aerodynamics had to be considered in a way that was never contemplated so seriously in a fighting game. Physics were as much as an element of memorization now as were strings of inputs, and it’s this that created a new type of… fluidity to the experience. A transformation of fluidity from hitting sandbags that were limited in how they flopped into sandbags that had dignity in how they flopped around the stage.

One could argue that the playing experience becomes hindered by focusing too much on a philosophy of an aerodynamically influenced sense of recovery, as opportunities to punish an opponent are cut off potentially further and create a state where it feels like punishing your opponent is an impossibility. But, this is remedied by the fact that the same process that lets your opponent loosen the possibility of being rendered helpless in a combo is the same process that leads them closer to being knocked out. It works. In fact, it works so well that it feels almost as if the game’s more coincidental than fateful. What I mean by that is conclusions to instigators are a reached through a process of multiple factors to create the end of a string: There isn’t a linear tale from the initial input to the last but rather a more modular narrative. By that, I mean Smash Bros. empowers the Newtonian idea of an opposite reaction to an action, in that the reaction is given new life in the sumo model of combat the game riffs.

However, Smash Bros. couldn’t entirely shift into this new arch of fighting games, as many people used to traditional fighters needed to feel at least somewhat comfortable playing the entry title so it doesn’t alienate that audience (even if you want to make arguments that it was exclusively selling itself as a party game). So, the established mode — of continual action and minimal reaction leading to the most exciting showcase of skill — was partially preserved in the state prior to when Smash Bros. becomes high-stakes. Percentages in this state remain at a low level (as indicated to them being not so red in hue), meaning that knock-back is minimized and combos are permitted and allow the welcoming space needed to replicate that continual action with minimal or no reaction from the opponent. I should mention that I’m referring to action and reaction in context to the agency of the players and not the inputs themselves, as the inputs are just convoys in this framework.

The core philosophy of my framework is that all competitive games are precisely that based on the idea that competition is rhetorically defined as the trading of agency. This definition functions well within the context of every competitive scenario because a well tuned sense of this creates the most interesting fights. Ideally, the two major factors that are initiating the prompts that determine the actions of the players are themselves: This is what makes competition as a whole work, and it’s the outcome of which determination triumphs that tips the scales and infers judgments of the participants. By agency, I mean the ability to chose within a spectrum of limited choices causally presented to an agent (that being the player in this context). Agency is traded through the skill of each player influencing the sequence of prompts going forward that are ultimately determined by previously made actions.

The thing about trading though is that it’s intended to be a mutual relationship, where both parties are excepted to receive an equal piece of their interaction’s benefits. Competition, however, is trading that has the implicit goal of disadvantaging one of the parties so that the other may dominate. This urge for domination is arguably coded into us as human beings, but that doesn’t mean it’s our modus operandi, but rather another part of us that we can’t reject. Civilization has done a wondrous thing though, and that’s spawn the idea of sport and game to allow a social channel for this need to be supplied and developed. To spare you a history lesson, this is what leads to the need to prioritize skill above all else in competitive scenarios: It’s an attempt to strip down competition to only the agency of the two participants and the mutually agreed-upon environment in which it’s hosted.

This invisible principle it was outlines the creation of any competitive game, and Smash Bros. is no different. It’s in the development that the modes and properties in which agency is unfairly traded are modified according to artificially constructed changes in the environment said agencies are actualized in. The deciding factor here is how domineering particular limiters of the other’s agency can be with respect to the cycle of prompts that come and go throughout a match. For the case of Smash Bros., it involved a bigger emphasis on creating a call-and-response flow through the once unique attributes of sumo wrestling. There’s entire sections of the gameplay dedicated to complicating recovery systems so that it can allow a player’s skill to manifest in many ways in this new avenue of the inevitable unequal trade of combat.

Some weeks ago, I had discussed the topic of determinism with my friends, and during this time, I hadn’t familiarized myself at all with the philosophical concept nor was I introducing myself to it in an easy manner. After being told that all ideas about libertarian free will and compatibilism. This shocked me as a person who was constantly affixed to the affects of adopted philosophies rather than the content of them themselves. How can determinism be true and harmonious with human perceptions of choice and agency that are so dearly important to how we experience our lives? I had a difficult time accepting that the view that “all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will” from my outlook because it seemed so incompatible to how such irrational creatures like humans live their lives. I’m a monist: I can’t accept any philosophy that supposed that the conscious constructs of humanity are entirely fake or incompatible with how things actually are (whatever that means).

I was pondering this while playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and then it struck me once a philosophically uninformed friend told me that they still believe free will exists, and that they largely didn’t care if my other friends said they were wrong. This was entirely a linguistic issue rather than a philosophical one. Free will, as a concept, is largely confused with the ideas of agency and freedom of choice, and it’s this societal confusion that leads many people holding onto the concept of free will when they’d otherwise discard it if they knew the distinctions. It’d had been almost two whole years since the fifth iteration in the Smash Bros. series came out, and what surprised me is how much knowledge I had acquired but fundamentally misunderstood this rather simple philosophical problem that many believe is already solved.

Now, let me explain: Free will refers to the idea that there can be actions performed by agents that are unimpeded. Many also conceive it as the capacity to make choices where the outcome wasn’t determined by past events. Now, the issues of this should be apparent in that it supposes that there can be actions that are entirely disconnected to what preceded them, and that’s just inconceivable to me because it proposes that the agentive history of an object can be segmented into moments where its course was radically spurred by something that had either no emergence or was spontaneous. I guarantee you that if you asked random people on the street if they agreed that will is largely determined by environment and response to external stimuli (not using that jargon of course), they’d agree because it feels like common sense. However, many will likely interject to say that, while they acknowledge that, they might hold some sympathies for the idea that some decisions are just spontaneous.

I don’t blame people for wanting to hold onto that last bit of belief in free will because there are many emergent phenomenon one can experience in my life that have no traceable emergence (or at least appear so). This can lend credibility to the fundamentally supernatural idea of free will, being that actions can sometimes occur with no identifiable precedent. Personally, I think free will only works as a concept and not an existing thing, but that doesn’t mean it, or the idea of it, isn’t important to understanding the human condition. However, there’s far too many arguments in favor of determinism for it to be argued against in my opinion, so that leads me to adopting it. This seems it would’ve contradicted my effect-based outlook on philosophies, but it didn’t once I realized I was against the concept of free will the entire time. It’s just that I was never given a clear rundown of what these ideas regarding determination mean or what their implications are.

Now, where does agency and freedom of choice fit into this? In philosophy, agency is defined simply as “the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.” What it implies is that there’s not really a presupposed dimension where decisions spawn from but rather they’re always within the confines of the awareness of an individual to its surroundings. Freedom of choice refers to “an individual’s opportunity and autonomy to perform an action unconstrained by external parties.” Freedom of choice doesn’t conflict with determinism because it’s supplementary to agency, and thus resides all acts of human determination within the same realm as everything else, with no room for a supernatural free will in cohesion. Choice stays within the realm of external stimuli for influencing decisions individuals make, and this is how it complements with agency but conflicts with free will.

So, there you have it: My opinion is that a large swath of people refuse to give up belief in free will simply because they don’t understand that what they actually believe in is agency and freedom of choice. This is so powerful that it even affected someone like me when the conclusion was that I knew better the whole time. I might be vastly simplifying the arguments here for both libertarian free will, compatibilism, and determinism, but I don’t want to make this spiel longer than it has to be. This is about Super Smash Bros., and I’ll keep it that way… Agency has been a crucial concept I’ve outlined here because my previous analysis wouldn’t make sense if we supposed that free will was how game design worked. Game design works not because it embraces the idea of free will, but rather it works because it how it toys with agency and the immersive properties it holds for player experience.

The trade of agency that makes competitive games exciting wouldn’t work if free will existed because it’d break everything about the process that makes it enjoyable. Excuse me for making it a microcosm, but the sequencing of prompts that constantly shift the ball of agency in the favor of either party is the harnessing of the deterministic properties of our world to create an exhilarating experience and facilitate the feeling of competition and triumph. Free will is almost akin to an anti-agent in this context: It has little to no agentive influence, meaning that it can’t be countered by the agency of the other player, making it unfair competition. If something like it were present, that means there’s an unneeded element of randomness to it that takes away from the randomness that already comes with fluctuating efficiency of skill or the emergent properties of the environment affecting the agents in subconscious focus.

I can’t believe I figured out what makes competitive games so appealing before I figured out determinism.

Comic artist, metamodern philosopher, anti-schooling advocate, Cajun, color fanatic, & freelance astrologist. I write about your virtues and their aesthetics.

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