It is easy to focus on a myopic view of skill in video games as pushing a button to hit a tight timing window. It’s a common skill test. It’s a very obvious demonstrable skill. Most laypeople can easily recognize that it takes skill. However, there are a lot of other skills that are common in video games, and the purpose of these skill tests is not just to test skills in a vacuum, which is easy, you could go hop on human benchmark and do that all day, but to create a larger system of choices and interactions that test a variety of skills at once, and creates variety in the way each skill is tested.
Many defense systems in video games increasingly boil down to pressing a button with good timing, dodging, parrying, perfect blocking, etc. This style of design can be dangerous, because it can lead to combat where there are no choices or tradeoffs, just pushing a button right when an enemy attacks.
Ideally, a given situation should have multiple answers, and variables in the situation (timing, positioning, angle, etc) should make some of those answers better some of the time, and others better at other times, without ever completely solidifying on one correct way to play. Necessarily: Standing in place and pressing counter until it’s time to counterattack should never be the optimal way to play a game.
And the Souls Series knew this better than anyone. In many 3d action games, attacks are fast and can cancel into defense at any time, so there is no significant cost to attacking, and you can always interrupt your opponent because your attacks are faster than theirs. The Souls series decided to make attacking slow, and incapable of being canceled into defense, thus an attack is a commitment and subject to being interrupted by the enemy.
On top of this, attack and defense in Souls games draw from the same resource pool: Stamina. This means attacking can cost your future ability to defend yourself, and defending yourself can cost your future ability to attack. If you don’t have enough stamina to pay for a move in full, you will go into debt for overspending, and be locked out of all actions until it is paid off. Additionally, stamina limits the length of combos, so you want to engineer situations where you can attack with as full a stamina bar as possible.
The Souls series also decided to divide its defensive systems into 3 parts, dodging, blocking, and parrying. Dodging makes you move and gives you invincibility frames, letting you phase through attacks as well as move out of the way of them. You can dodge most attacks in the game by simply timing a dodge, because they are not active enough to catch you, regardless of dodge direction.
Blocking is easier than dodging, maybe. You can hold block and it will absorb any attack for a portion of stamina. If you run out of stamina while blocking, your guard will get broken and you will take increased damage from an attack. While blocking, your stamina regenerates more slowly, so you want to release block in order to refill stamina so you can attack or block some more. This can tempt you into giving up safety, and necessarily to survive repeated attacks, you must release shield to refill your stamina.
Parrying is a misbegotten mistake of a mechanic for the Souls series. Parrying has you stand in place and shove the enemy’s weapon aside. If you get the timing correct, it will block all damage, stun the enemy, and leave them open to a high powered attack that keeps you safe the entire time and stuns them afterwards. Parrying is objectively superior to dodging or blocking, balanced only in that it is harder.
How did different games handle this?
Dark Souls showed how a slower game could be skillful, but many people still don’t totally get what Dark Souls did. Hbomberguy made a whole video about Bloodborne where he claims Bloodborne teaches you how to play souls games properly, rather than sword and board. There’s an assumption that blocking is just plain easier than dodging, and maybe they’re right to an extent, but blocking is a risk/reward tradeoff just the same as dodging, and in my opinion it enriches the game, rather than detracting from it. Bloodborne isn’t a more pure version of Souls, it’s a stripped down one. And that’s certainly fun, but I also don’t think it’s as interesting as having a choice, and that choice being better or worse at different times.
Sekiro made this tendency worse by outright abandoning the core mechanics of the series, letting you cancel attacks into defensive actions, and adding a deflect to block and letting it deplete the enemy’s “health”, so now you have 2 forms of good timing, parries and perfect blocks, and the game turns into essentially 2 button DDR.
Meanwhile, Nioh went in a different direction, making dodges and blocks more differentiated by reducing how invincible the roll was, so its utility was more for getting out of the way instead of iframing through things, and making blocking cancel hitstun, so it’s an escape from multi-hits, but slowing your movement speed in block and making it so block cannot regenerate stamina at all (except in the mid stance). By differentiating these moves more, it means they’re better and worse in different circumstances, versus different enemies.
A new mod for Elden Ring, Elden Ring Reforged, decided to add deflects from Sekiro into Elden ring, and I have to ask, what’s the actual point of this? What does this accomplish mechanically, besides making dodges and blocks into an identical skill test? Dodges have the drawback that if you dodge in the wrong direction, you can get hit by a wider sweep or a more active move, so you still need to make a decision: Which way are you dodging? A deflect might make blocking harder, but now you’re pressing a button during a tight timing window, except you’re not even moving anywhere anymore.
How could Blocking be better?
Given the tension between holding block and releasing it: Wouldn’t a more logical move be to encourage people to block for longer periods of time, and to avoid holding it for shorter ones? That way, releasing block means giving up on an investment in order to catch your breath, so you need to weigh whether it’s worth it to keep holding block, or to come up for air.
One way of doing this is to have block get more powerful the longer you hold it, so you really dig in. Perhaps there are 3 stages to the blocking animation. Stage 1 can last for 3-7 frames (60fps), so trying to block at the last second will get you this one. In stage 1, all stamina damage is doubled, and you take bonus counterhit damage for getting your guard broken. Stage 2 can function like normal blocking already works. And Stage 3 can take effect after about 30-45 frames (half a second to 75% of a second). You could lower into a more serious stance, but take 2/3rds as much stamina damage, not be subject to guard blowback animations, and every hit you absorb could power up your guard counter by 5% for the next second, stackable.
In this way, guarding becomes more of an investment, and it can have bigger rewards, specifically on multi-hit enemies, or those with very active hitboxes, which is what dodge struggles against. And simultaneously, to get this higher reward, you need to engage against the weakness of guard counters, multi-hit moves, since guard counters have no armor or invincibility to help them break through a multi-hit string.
But of course, this is just one solution. I think defensive systems deserve more thought than simply having different versions of “press the button within a tight timing window”. Dodging at least has you pick a direction. Ideally game systems should be based on decisions, and should be better or worse in different situations.
Great analysis as usual, but I’m surprised you made no mention of Nioh 2’s excellent Burst Counter mechanic in a post about defensive systems in action games. I think it’d be a good topic for another post, maybe just a review of Nioh 2 in general
I think burst counter is pretty okay mostly in that it’s optional, has a cost, and has a use outside of the telegraphed red attacks.
I think the other Nioh parries are better in that they get you a positional advantage instead.
Seems like TN’s next game will focus a lot on positional advantage parries, according to this interview
I’m afraid Wo Long despite its complex stamina+energy system will be standing in place and timing your parries kind of game. But we’ll see
I think FromSoft painted themselves into a corner with the dodge roll, since when you have a button that lets you dodge every attack, there’s no real way to make a fight more difficult except by making it more annoying to learn the correct timing.
DS3 had way too many bosses do that spinning-T-pose crap so you couldn’t predict when the attack animation would end. Elden Ring tried to vary it up with those earthquake AoEs that could only be evaded with jump (which failed, because by the time the bosses started having those attacks, most players had forgotten the jump button existed).
I want to see a soulslike with no dodge roll, where you have to actually move out of the way of attacks you want to avoid, rather than pressing the magic i-frames button.