Making Combat Matter in Shakespeare and Videogames

Nearly every bit of combat in Shakespeare’s plays appears with a generic stage direction: “They fight.” On the stage, these fights sometimes actualize this generic quality. The actors clash their swords, and after their often lengthy encounter, finally return to acting the play.

Vidogames that are otherwise lauded for their dramatic storytelling face the same issue: the development of character and plot halts to make room for unrelated sword-swinging or gunfire.

“Get on with the story,” I think as I sit with either a game controller or a play program in my hand.

The problem is that, in either medium, the sign system changes when fighting starts. Dialogue and violence are two different modes of signification, and it’s all too easy for theater practitioners and game developers to let each language live in isolation, telling two unrelated stories. When complicated moral questions in the dialogue of Mass Effect, for example, fall away in a “shoot all the bad guys to win” combat scene, the two sign systems are telling unproductively inconsistent stories.

So how can theatre practitioners and game developers make combat work together with narrative? Fortunately, particularly on the theatrical side, many already work toward that synergy.

In theatre, fight choreographers and directors have two major solutions to this combat problem in Shakespeare’s plays. The first is to pull bits of dialogue from around the fight scene, and insert them between or during movements in the fight.

I’ve twice had experience with this approach. When I played Sir Clyomon in the early modern play Clyomon and Clamydes, we borrowed one line of each of the dueling characters from just before their fight in the script, and placed them after the fight’s first phrase.

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Likewise, in a stage combat class that I took, my fight partner and I chose for our final presentation the King Lear duel between the disguised hero Edmund and his evil brother Edgar. In the play’s text, it is only after the fight that Edgar reveals his identity. In our version of the scene, we moved the reveal to the middle of the fight. This helped integrate the fight more deeply into the play’s plot, and motivated Edgar to fight with more passion after the reveal, creating a more dynamic character-centric fight.

Shifting dialogue isn’t always a practical option, though. A more widely applicable practice is to clearly reflect each character’s personality in their in-combat behavior. A dishonorable character can fight dirty, for instance.

Experienced fight choreographers localize fights to the needs of particular characters, and work with the director and actors to integrate the fight and the rest of the play into a consistent narrative.

While theatre practitioners and fight choreographers have had centuries to integrate combat into the larger narrative, videogames don’t share that lengthy history. Many games that otherwise focus on plot and character development seem rather clueless about how to bring these elements to their “kill everything” streams of combat.

And unlike Shakespeare’s plays, where puns and sex jokes far outnumber fight scenes, games spend much (sometimes most) of a player’s time with gunfire and sword-clashing. So not only do many games fail to bridge the gap between combat and the larger narrative, but this failure smacks the player in the face every time they gun down a random enemy. No wonder a Bioware writer suggested adding a “skip combat” function to games If the combat was actually relavent to the larger experience, the inability to skip it would be a non-issue.

Some games do make progress toward making combat matter to the larger game. Three that have particularly effective moments are Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, and Jager’s Spec Ops: The Line.

Game of Thrones’s effectiveness comes from making a particular combat moment about the development of the friendship between two characters, rather than about killing bad guys. In a scene of episode 4 of the game, your character, Asher, has a confrontation with his close friend Beskha. Beskha is drunk on the eve of returning to a place from her past, and her frustration and anxiety at having to return become anger that she directs at Asher. They fight, and it feels like Beskha’s trust in Asher is on the line. After the fight comes a confession from Beskha about her past. So, the scene builds from an emotional source, explodes in an emotional fight, and ends with an emotional aftermath. This moment of combat is clearly a piece of the game’s character development.

Heavy Rain raises the narrative stakes of combat by maintaining the constant threat of permanent character death. The game centers on a father trying to save his son from harm. The player plays him and three other characters trying to find the boy. In combat, characters are legitimately in mortal danger. A misclick can result in incidents of death or failure that, rather than resetting the game to an earlier point, continues the story, stacking the odds against the player in their ultimate goal of saving the boy. Actions in combat have extraordinary consequences for the game’s larger narrative.

While both Game of Thrones and Heavy Rain are creative and effective in their approaches to integrating combat with narrative, their approaches are limitedly applicable to other games. Both games use quick-time-events for their combat, a system that is more controlled and adaptable (and some would say less “fun”) than shooter combat, and other systems more often seen in popular games.

Spec Ops: The Line, however, succeeds in integrating shooter mechanics with character development and narrative in ways no other game does. It injects character development into combat by altering the stock phrases the playable character, Captain Walker, shouts during combat. Early in the game, Walker’s phrases while giving orders and shooting down enemy combatants are professional and detached. “Take out that target”; “Target terminated.” After Walker experiences the first major traumatic incident of the game, however, his stock phrases change radically. “Shoot that asshole”; “Got you, bastard.”

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Not only does The Line inject character into combat, but it also presents narrative choices through the lens of combat. Where most games introduce a menu when the player reaches a narrative decision point, The Line keeps the choosing in the crosshairs. When you are told you must punish one of two criminals based on who you judge more guilty, or when you decide whether or not to put a dying out of his misery, you choose by pointing and shooting – the very means of action you have in the combat scenes. In The Line, the line between narrative and combat is constantly crossed, making for a more integrated experience.

Looking forward, I hope more games can learn how to integrate combat into the larger narrative, taking cues from other games and from theatre. I want the same for productions of Shakespeare. Ultimately, I never again want to yawn and say “oh good, another irrelevant fight scene” when watching a play or playing a game. I want to be deeply engaged with the narrative and characters, even when those characters are shooting guns or swinging swords.

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