Physical information is characteristics of an action a character can take in a game that establishes it physically for the player. Physical information provides a closer analogue to the physical act the character is performing and making the action less vague or abstract with relation to the rest of the system. Examples of how an action can be made to feel more physical include giving it anticipation and recovery times, articulated hitboxes that more closely reflect the state the character is in, addition or subtraction of momentum as well as carrying over momentum from state to state. The opposite of imbuing an action with physical information tends to be more arbitrary flags such as type weaknesses, characters snapping onto others (especially if the snap-on range is large), having lock-ons, hitscan, randomized attacks (tend to fit similar design space as each other, function identically), “bad animations”, (list incomplete, think up more examples from games). There is a relationship between what I am coining as physical information and Game Feel or Kinaesthetics. Coincidentally many things that improve Game Feel or Kinaesthetic also give the game a greater tactical depth, which is the focus of this article.
Combat in almost all video games is built on a series of counters (MMOs with their DPS shit can suck a dick). Games are based on a series of what beats what. The most simple possible example is a binary guess, like left or right, and above that, rock paper scissors. Beyond this it is possible to further differentiate options to produce more subtle counters, such as by introducing attacks of different speeds, consisting of different startup frames, active frames, and recovery times. Attacks with short startups are more likely to counter attacks with longer startups if they’re thrown out at the same time, simply because the faster to come out attack will reach the active hitting portion of the animation sooner than the slower to come out attack. Attacks with quick recoveries are less likely to be punished, again because it is harder to attack those fast enough to catch them while they are vulnerable. By diversifying the startups of attacks, one can create a wider range of situations that play out, like interrupting a slow attack with a faster one, punishing a big attack with a slow recovery by starting your medium speed attack late so it just catches them at the end. With a diverse range of attacks time-wise, a more diverse range of counters is possible with less actual moves, because now attacks can counter each other on the basis of how the player times their inputs, so there can be different outcomes for using the same attacks.
To add further diversity, attacks can have different hitboxes relative to each other. One attack may be a low kick done while crouching, another a downward facing attack while jumping, and another might be a standing punch. These 3 archetypes represent the standard triangle of counters in King of Fighters. Jumping attacks done during shorthops go over low kicks, allowing the player to hit opponents who try to crouch and attack. Standing attacks however will punch the opponent out of the air, and typically get good startup times to boot, where jumping attacks take time to first jump then attack. Low kicks however reach really far, and the crouch usually keeps characters below the punch hitbox, countering standing punches. Add into this that there are many variations of these various attacks that all have their own ranges and speeds, and the range of counters possible gets even more dynamic. With variable hitbox positionings, it is possible to beat out faster attacks with slower ones simply by outspacing them, hitting them from afar. Things get more interesting when one considers how attacks may increase the range a character can be hit at, or a character moves during their attack.
Add this: hitboxes getting longer when people do attacks
Of course, all of these principles also apply to 3rd person action games or most other games with melee attacks. Demon’s Souls and Dark souls are really clear cut examples. In Demon’s Souls, I played almost exclusively with bastard sword or the dragon bone smasher (then zwei on my first dark souls playthrough). One thing in common about these weapons is that they all have an R2 attack that is a long range overhead swing that knocks down if it hits. Against lower level enemies, these attacks can be deadly, though they have a long startup. What I got really good at was measuring how fast the enemy was coming at me, and timing my R2 to hit them just as they came into range. Even though I had a speed disadvantage against nearly all enemies, I could triumph over them with good timing. However when I went into PvP play, I found this tactic was not only poor, but almost useless. The overhead swing has a far reach and superb damage, a guaranteed kill in many situations, but against an online opponent who could anticipate it coming, it was far harder to land. Especially because its hit area was only a straight line, allowing people to avoid it easily by moving to the left or right.
Another example from a nonfighting game is Chivalry. Chivalry is a first person melee action game, where players swing melee weapons such as swords, maces, axes, polearms, and flails. Players have 3 attacking options, a broad swing across, a thrusting attack with extra range, and an overhead attack which does a lot of damage. Without a shield, most classes must time their blocks close to when attacks are incoming, and all blocks are directional relative to the angle of defense. Within the same weapon class, most weapons have relatively the same swing speeds, but across classes there are different ranges and swing speeds, from extremely quick daggers, to slow battle axes. The most basic tactic is simply attacking first to catch the opponent in startup and avoid trading blows. Beyond that one can feint an attack and punish by attacking late, moving away from the person while their attack is going on,
Super Armor is another element of creating a more diverse range of counters, because hitstun is an important part of establishing counters in the first place. Super Armor is essentially when an attack is capable of ignoring hitstun (but not damage) usually during its startup or active phases, allowing an attack to out-prioritize other ones. This is sometimes also accomplished with invincibility frames, such as with most rising uppercut moves in fighting games. Super Armor and invincibility frames allow characters to tank or ignore hits, and attacks featuring them usually have other drawbacks to balance them out, such as dragon punches having a short range and long recovery, or super armor being broken by attacks that hit more than once (like in most fighting games) or of sufficient strength (like in smash bros, and dark souls). Attacks featuring super armor are usually given to slower characters, with the idea being that the character may take damage from trading attacks with their opponent, but their attacks are strong enough to come out ahead in the trade, in addition to stunning the opponent, possibly providing combo opportunities for greater damage, and knockdown or other positional advantages after the attack. Focus attacks in Street Fighter 4 have super armor on them, allowing them to absorb 1 hit as temporary damage, but they are powerful attacks and on counter hit or level 2 or 3 of charge, they will crumple the opponent, allowing for nearly any followup attack. Focus attacks can be used to predict incoming single hit attacks, absorb them, and counter attack for a lot of damage. Potemkin in Guilty Gear has a dash attack with a powerful finisher and one hit’s worth of super armor, which allows him to rush at the opponent and crush them, even if they attack back. In most scenarios this can overwhelm an opponent. It also provides knockdown which is really helpful for Potemkin.
It’s important to have hitstun in a game with melee combat because without it, there is no motivation to use any attack other than the one with the highest damage per second and miss as little as possible (in dark souls, that would be the R1 attacks). Having hitstun in place allows attacks to interrupt one another so that counters of speed and timing are even possible. Having the wrong amount of hitstun on an attack can similarly be frustrating, as I can attest to, playing Ganondorf in Smash Bros Melee. Ganondorf’s Down B attack in Melee is powerful, but has relatively low hitstun and long recovery times, especially true for the air version hitting the ground, which has really small quake boxes, so it is tricky to hit people with, and more frequently than not, even on a successful hit, the hitstun would be so low that the opponent could full on counter attack it before ganondorf recovered.