Monday, March 16, 2015

Game Stories: Yomi and the Story of Fighting Games

Whether you're a button-masher or skilled in the art of cancels, bursts, supers, and Dragon Punches, you've probably at least heard of arcade-style fighting games like Streetfighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, Killer Instinct, and Guilty Gear. At the very least, you've likely played or watched Super Smash Brothers, which shares a lot of DNA with these frenzied but also mentally intense games. Yomi is a card game designed by David Sirlin, a veteran of these games, carefully crafted to not only feel like them but also to tell its own type of tense narrative.

Sirlin's intent with Yomi is to capture the tension and mindgames that shows up at the highest levels of competitive fighting games, and to boil it down into a card game. He does this with a lot of overlapping mechanisms, which he carefully condenses into a very compact space: every character is exclusively defined by a deck of standard playing cards! With that standard 54-card deck in mind, the design of Yomi starts to layer in other elements to make a good game that also has the exciting narrative of the most intense matchups.

So what exactly goes into a good fight narrative in these games? How do you measure the story of a fight? I'd personally peg three key factors: uncertainty, hope, and inertia.

Uncertainty is what defines most of the fight: you don't make choices in a vacuum, because as you make choices, so is your opponent. If you go in for an attack, maybe your opponent was getting ready to block the attack because they saw it coming...or maybe they're starting their own attack a split-second too late...or maybe you've used too slow of an attack!

Hope is the seed of the underdog: even when you're on the ropes, you could come back with a stunning display of skill and obliterate your opponent under overwhelming pressure! Sure, there's a few situations that are pretty much impossible to come back from, but everyone loves knowing that, if you're good enough, you can still come back against all odds.

Inertia is the final piece of the puzzle: you need uncertainty to create tension, you need hope to build anticipation, and you need inertia to land the payoff. Inertia is what you get when you find the perfect exploit to hammer through a massive combo that gets everyone yelling, when you get that bam! bam! bam! moment that turns the whole game around. It's the adrenaline rush that rewards a good play with a devastating followup.

With that done, let's have a look at some of the parts of Yomi, and how they feed into the narrative of a good fight.

The Yomi Cycle
There are four moves in the game, and they're all pretty basic actions you can take in a fighting game: Attacks, Throws, Blocks, and Dodges. In a turn of Yomi, each player picks a card with one of those four moves and plays it...facedown. Then they both reveal at the same time. So you have to pick an effective move, but you also have to pick a move that's effective against the move that your opponent picked, and you can never know their move for sure. Here's how the four moves work.

  • Attacks deal damage to the other player, unless they played a Block or a Dodge.
  • Throws deal damage to the other player, and usually knock them down, unless they played an attack.
  • Blocks return to your hand after you play them, unless the other player played a throw. If the other player played an attack, you also get to draw a card. And, of course, the attack doesn't hit you.
  • Dodges let you play a free attack against your opponent, but only if they attacked you.

To put it succinctly: Attacks beat Throws, Throws beat Blocks/Dodges, and Blocks/Dodges beat Attacks. If both players play the same type of move, there's tiebreakers to decide who deals damage (in the case of attacks and throws), and otherwise it's a standoff (although if one player Blocked and the other Dodged, the Dodge is at a slight disadvantage because the other player keeps their Block).

All of this feeds into the mindgame element of Yomi, because every move has a counter to that move. (In some situations, more than one counter.) You have to think like your opponent, because you don't know what they're playing...and the move they play could completely negate your move and leave you at their mercy. It's a bit of a scary thing to throw out a Block when you know they could Throw you, although good players recognize that the opponent might also Attack right into it, which helps you. This uncertainty starts the seed of Yomi going...and the "counter" aspect also feeds into hope. No matter what your opponent plays, you can theoretically play a counterplay to it and recover, bit by bit. (This isn't universally true--there's some positions between certain characters that are a sort of checkmate--but getting to a "checkmate" situation is downright difficult and requires a massive amount of skilled play by the winner.)

The Combo System
Remember when I said that Yomi layered a lot of little stuff into a concise game? The combo system is one of those things. Mind you, it makes cards look really visually overwhelming until you've started to learn the game a bit better, but it also keys heavily into that idea of "inertia" I was talking about. Plus, it carries some tactical weight and even a bit of narrative feel as well. Combos are the part of the game where you can build a successful Attack or Throw into a massive bit of damage that cascades forward. There's a bunch of details involved, but they basically work like this:

  • When you hit with an Attack or Throw, you can add cards from your hand to build a combo.
  • Every card in the combo deals damage, as if you'd hit normally with the attack.
  • Each character has a combo limit: you can't play as many cards as you want!
  • Some characters' attacks let you "pump" them by discarding cards for extra damage. This doesn't count towards your combo limit.

This is where the inertia of the game comes from: those moments when you keep piling on attacks are exhilarating, especially if you can pull off a massive-damage special attack that demolishes half of your opponent's life! It's even more exciting if you can put together a long combo that deals enough damage to knock out your opponent. Combos are the payoff to the game, and they come with an interesting narrative wrinkle: they drain your hand. You don't get to draw cards to replace the cards you combo, so after a long combo, you're a bit out of steam and need to build back up again. It starts to create a momentum, where you build up a large hand and then try to find the right time to land your big combo!

52 Cards of Flavor and Characterization
This aspect of Yomi doesn't play into the three elements of a fight narrative that I talked about earlier, but it's important enough that it deserves a section as well. In the game, you pick one character to fight as, out of a cast of 20. Each character has a few things which set them apart, starting with a special ability. One character can punch back after being attacked, when normally a fast attack overrides a slower attack. One character can burn away life points to recover combo cards and use them again. One character deals damage every turn, unless he's knocked down. Based on the innate ability alone, each character plays differently--some have to be aggressive, some have to be defensive, and some are flexible and tricky.

The cards in a character's deck are also different! Each character has a set of unique Special Moves, usually very fast attacks that sometimes have unique abilities as well. Characters also don't have the same distribution of the four main moves: one character has a lot of Throws and no Dodges, while another character has incredibly fast Attacks. Because each type of move has a distinct feel to it (attacks feel aggressive, blocks feel protective, dodges feel sneaky, and throws feel powerful), this changes how the character feels as well. Plus, the relationships of the moves mean that characters play differently! A character with a lot of blocks will find it very easy to build up a large hand of cards, but they also need to have ways to deal with the throws that might come their way!

Closing Up
Yomi takes a lot of cues from fighting games, and does a good job of reproducing the exciting feel of a lightning-fast fight. It uses the tension from uncertainty, a hopeful anticipation, and the rush of inertia to make a game that's incredibly rewarding to play. It's a good example of a game that synergizes its narratives, making them work together in order to produce an effective and engaging type of gameplay.

For more information about Yomi, check out these places...
  • Designing Yomi: David Sirlin's article about the fundamentals of the game
  • FantasyStrike.Com: the home of the main Yomi forum and to the online version of the game, which you can try out for free
  • Yomi's Boardgamegeek Page: not as active as, but an official source of information about the game