Combat Design

CyberFunk’s fighting was something I’d envisaged as something musical and fluid, where the characters could use their instruments and skill to defeat their enemies – sometimes literally using their weapons as clubs, while other times forcing them back with the sheer sonic potency of their sound. FLCL meets Scott Pilgrim meets The Blues Brothers, with a little techno-future-magic to make it possible and believable. The weaponisation of music was a lot of fun to work with when writing, and allowed for a lot of creativity. The issues came from designing a mechanical fighting system that could appropriately reflect it.

Combat design took a lot of work and even more time. This was mainly due to having never used Twine before, not knowing its capabilities, and even more importantly not knowing my capabilities! I’d never coded before this project, so I had no idea what anything required or how long it’d take. So I did some research.

Let me tell you reddit is a godsend. Tutorials and various combat systems flow from it. JRPG style fight scenes tempted me, with their huge arrays of items and weapons and armour, the code for cataloguing and pulling out their stats and variables and how they apply to the enemies. People had made huge completely randomly generated dungeon crawlers with them. There were pure text based ones and html css coded interactive interfaces. I started thinking of special moves and funk themed items. I started considering damage balancing equations.

And then I realised how much work I was doing on a system that was ultimately a facilitator for the story. This was not to be a battle game, but a game that had battles in it. If I wanted to spend three years making a game, I figured I’d probably be better off learning Unity…

So I started looking at simpler systems. I played games with sections where you decided when to run and when to stay still so motion detectors didn’t spot you. I played games where you had a solid three options of ‘thrust, parry, or block’ and you had to choose what was best based on the description. I played games where every combat was a flow chart that went on for ages about every single blow. I eventually elected to go for what I described as ‘a four element version of rock paper scissors’. The polished result seems to function nicely. It challenges players just enough that they have to read carefully, and consider their actions before they click. It allows each character to have their own win and loss, and allows the player to experience both sides of those characters. More than anything I felt it was simple enough that it wouldn’t get in the way of the story.

The biggest blessing and curse was that everything about it hinged on my ability as a writer. Every action you chose needed to be written, and every response to those actions needed to be written. Given that there were four characters you could choose, there needed to be four responses to those choices, creating eight pieces per round of fighting. As each musician needed the ability to win or lose, there needed to be four rounds. That made a total of thirty two different combat sections to write -per fight-. And I had too much pride to risk anyone seeing the same thing too many times, so I made sure each one was unique. I couldn’t stand the idea that anyone might get bored due to repetition, so I made myself think of new ways to use the environment, the characters, their weapons or instruments, and their dialogue to keep it interesting.

And, honestly, it was a lot of work. I got pretty fed up with it multiple times. For some reason the fight with the fandom I really struggled with in particular, possibly because that one had even more work to do, but unlike the D-Kline fight I hadn’t yet learned how to plan it out in advance. So I found myself trying to write code and write action at the same time, only to later find I’d done the wrong code and have to rewrite a whole bunch of both… It was messy as hell. But it taught me what I needed to be able to approach the ridiculously complicated fight that was D-Kline without going mad. So it was worth it, but I sure am glad it’s over.

More than anything what I’m happiest about with the combat is that it turned out to be a great narrative way to challenge players while giving them some opportunities to learn about both their characters and opponents through combat. You might fight the bouncers and never find out that they’re ex-musicians, since it’s only mentioned in one circumstance, or you might never beat the fans by making them turn on each other in a bout of starstruck jealousy, but that’s okay! Every player will have a different experience of them, every play through will unearth something new provided you do things differently. And that to me is the exact point of narrative design.

Stick around as I talk about the different scenes and the ideas behind them! First up, The Queue!

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