So we’re at the top of the World Tree™ on the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. We just collected the next plot coupon of Master Cordova’s Galactic Tomb Tour. It’s time to leave, but first we have to fight the Ninth Sister. She was in the group of inquisitors at the start of the game, and is sort of the Nelson Muntz of the Sith. Her smack talk is clumsy and dumb, but Cal is still no match for her. He loses the verbal sparring, but then wins the ensuing glowstick fightI mean, assuming YOU win..
She’s a simple, straightforward character and works well as a mid-game boss when we need to duel someone quasi-important who isn’t the main antagonist.
Way back in 2006 – back when this site was in its infancy – I wrote an article talking about how to portray sword fights in the context of a video game. The article is a bit short and undercooked by today’s standards, but I’d like to come back to that idea and talk about it some more.
So let’s talk about…
The central problem that faces us is that lightsaber duels are deadly in a way that (say) kung-fu fights are not. Fighting games can show the combatants punching each other or even striking with blunt weapons to gradually chip away at the opponent’s health bar. But those same mechanics look absurd when applied to lightsabers. A single blow ought to be an insta-kill. Barring that, it ought to be a fight-ending injury. Minor wounds are theoretically possible, but it strains credulity to imagine two people could trade dozens of lightsaber blows and still be able-bodied enough to continue the fight.
In short, hit points do not mix well with insta-kill weapons.
Games keep trying to be more “cinematic”. We make the graphics realistic. We model real actors and animate the characters using full-performance capture that tracks facial expressions as well as body motion. We mimic the visual language, musical cues, and shot composition of traditional cinema. Our game developers are desperate to capture the splendor and prestige of Hollywood.
And then at the moment of maximum intensity – during an exciting and emotional action scene – the whole thing suddenly reverts to Bugs Bunny cartoon logic where characters are indestructible and deadly wounds just cover you in soot.
We Need a AAA Solution
Sure, we could imagine a game where mistakes result in instant death. That’s how Hotline Miami and Super Hot work. But that doesn’t really mesh well with mainstream AAA sensibilities. We’ve seen what one-hit kill mechanics look like, and it turns out it’s super frustrating. It’s the very opposite of “immersive”. It also goes against the idea of an empowerment game where you get to play as the protagonist of an action scene.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice this problem. From watching GDC talks and listening to Dev commentary over the years, I notice this recurring theme where someone decides to revolutionize the deeply entrenched melee combat conventions that so many games are built on. They spend months on prototypes, burning through their budget and trying to make something roughly playable. Eventually they’re forced to conclude that what they’ve built isn’t as engaging or as fun as what we’ve been doing for the last 20 to 30 years, and they return to using tried-and-true systems.
The CLANG project is probably the most infamous effort to fix this mess. A lot of very smart people have worked very hard for a long time to come up with something better, but in the end we always find ourselves once again mashing ⓧ to stab dudes.
My Humble Suggestion
If all of those other experienced developers haven’t been able to reinvent the wheel, then I certainly don’t stand a chance. Having said that, I think we can do a little better with the systems we have.
My first suggestion is to simply embrace the logic of Hollywood sword fights. If we’re going for a cinematic look, then let’s use cinematic cues to sell the fight. In the movies, we can tell who is “winning” because the fight choreographer shows the loser making mistakes. The current loser stumbles backwards under an attack and then spins away to recover. They fall on their back and then roll out of the way juuust in time to dodge the finishing blow. They get staggered and have to back up to recover their footing. Their weapon gets batted from their hand and they need to dive to recover it.
My suggestion is to take all the times when I’d normally wave my lightsaber through the boss and instead play one of these stumbling animations. The boss can still lose the same 5% of their oversized health bar, but we’re showing the boss accumulating mistakes rather than nonsensical lightsaber wounds.
This would make the end of the fight a lot more satisfying. As things are now, I stab them 19 times and absolutely nothing happens, and then stab #20 suddenly kills themOr worse: Stab #20 triggers the cutscene where the game designer kills them.. But if we only allow the player to strike them at the very end, that blow can feel really satisfying. The player can run them through with a special animation designed to sell this particular moment. It will look and sound like you’ve just stabbed someone with a lightsaber. The game even has this satisfying electrical “pop” sound when you execute some of the bigger foes. We could use that sound when the player deals the killing blow, making it feel that much stronger.
This will also make sure our lightsaber feels like the powerful weapon we see in the movies, and not a big padded glowstick.
I have more to say on lightsaber fights, but I’ll save it for a later fight.
Cal Kestis Wins
Despite all my talk about how satisfying it would be to run the boss through, we don’t actually get to do that to anyone in this game. Not in gameplay. Not in cutscenes. We do get to kill several varieties of Purge Troopers armed with different energy weapons, and I think those guys are more fun to fight than the bosses. But we have six lightsaber duels in this game, and nobody dies in any of them. (Or at least nobody dies by our hand. There’s going to be some kill-stealing going on.)
The Ninth Sister ends up losing a hand and getting blown off the platform, so we can probably assume she survived and will return in the sequels. That’s fine. I like that the writer is leaving themselves some things to use later and not painting themselves into a corner. We know that sequels are inevitable for successful EA games, and it’s nice that the writer is allowing for that. The Ninth Sister wasn’t super-interesting this time around, but there’s plenty of room for her character to grow. The dialog hints that – despite her considerable size – she’s actually the runt of the sisterhood in terms of Force power. She’s a trash-talking tryhard with a desperate need to prove herself. There’s a lot a writer could do with that when they’re ready to give her the screen time. Her simple personality makes her inappropriate for use as a main villain, but she does really well in the role of a Starscream-type secondary threat.
Next up, we’re headed back to…
The Night Sister shows up and again demands that Cal leave. An interesting note about this character is that she seems to be the only person on the planet with a Romanian accent. I actually like the accent, and I wish the other natives featured the same. Okay, I admit that accents are hard and no accent is better than a bad one. I realize I’m being really nitpicky. I’m just saying it would have been a really cool bonus detail to have the accents consistent across this culture.
As we’ll learn later, this woman is named Merrin. She tells Cal to leave, and he threatens to strike her down if she attacks him again. In return, she raises an army of undead to attack him. So now Cal has to cut down groups of undead between groups of angry shirtless natives.
Once again, Cal needs to carve his way through a bunch of dudes who just want him to leave their territory. And once again, nobody seems concerned that Cal is exhibiting the behavior of a Sith Lord.
Here’s the problem: Cal is going to continue to invade the Nightbrother territory and murder their defenders for most of this chapter. If I stop and complain about it every time he kills another soccer team worth of indigenous people, we’ll all lose our minds. So to keep this short, just scroll back up and re-read the preceding paragraph once every 30 seconds or so. We’re using the honor system here, so I’m trusting you to do the right thing.
Wait, Did You Say “Zombies”?!
Yeah, I guess Star Wars zombies are a thing now? And you can create them using the Force? I don’t know. I’ve never seen the Clone Wars showI’ve heard it’s actually good. so maybe this is normal these days.
Curse those darn millennials and their sacrilegious perversion of the sacred texts of St. Lucas!
I kid. It’s fine. It seems a little weird to me, but I’m glad we have non-living mooks to fill out the combat encounters rather than just more tribesmen for Cal to murder.
Now that Cal has mastered the double jumpHe learned it on his last visit to Kashyyyk. It’s actually called “Jedi flip”., he can finally clear that gap on the bridge that brought his quest to a halt the last time we visited Dathomir. He jumps across, walks a few more steps, and then tumbles into a trap that sends him sliding to the bottom of the world. Now we need to spend the next hour or so of gameplay climbing back out of this hole.
I found it hard to hear the dialog over how loud the level designer was laughing at me.
Cal eventually pushes through Night Brother territory and then has a huge set-piece encounter with an enormous dragon… bat… thing. First you battle it in a cave like a boss fight. Then you have a scripted chase sequence up a cliff face. Then a cinematic / quicktime sequence where you alternately ride it and fight it in the air. Then a final showdown on the edge of a cliff. This is easily the most elaborate sequence in the game. The devs obviously spent a lot of time and money creating this creature that isn’t related to the story and isn’t affiliated with any of our villains. This whole thing is just fireworks.
That’s not wrong in the context of a video game. Sometimes it’s okay to have an action scene for it’s own sake. This is a lot like the Rancor fight in RotJAlthough the Rancor was Jabba’s pet, and Gorgara is just local wildlife. The Rancor helped to show how powerful, resourceful, and cruel Jabba was, while Gorgara is just his own thing.. Still, this scene could’ve had more punch if the threat was telegraphed and built up beforehand, and if beating GorgaraNot to be confused with Gorogoa. was somehow a necessary part of Cal’s quest.
If you’re here for a tense Soulsian experience focused on unforgiving melee combat, then you’ll probably be a little annoyed at how scripted the Gorgara sequence is. But if you’re here for an Uncharted style action blowout, then this is the fireworks show you’ve been waiting for.
I guess I liked it.
 I mean, assuming YOU win.
 Or worse: Stab #20 triggers the cutscene where the game designer kills them.
 I’ve heard it’s actually good.
 He learned it on his last visit to Kashyyyk. It’s actually called “Jedi flip”.
 Although the Rancor was Jabba’s pet, and Gorgara is just local wildlife. The Rancor helped to show how powerful, resourceful, and cruel Jabba was, while Gorgara is just his own thing.
 Not to be confused with Gorogoa.
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