Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How To Do Action (AKA Starships FTW)

I love action sequences. Like some people with their obsessifications, I'm an action sequence snob. It doesn't come up very much in my day to day life, for some reason.

While I love all kinds of action sequences, the kind that consistently catches my attention best is action between starships.

I understand that there are those of you who disagree with me. You like kung-fu, or classic Western shoot-outs, or armies fighting armies, or anime characters powering up for fifteen minutes. However, I like starships. And I will explain why by explaining some components of a good action sequence. I think you'll agree with me, although perhaps not on the starship thing.

I won't cover pacing or half a million other things, because nobody's paying me to write a book. So I'm sure you can think of a lot of things I won't cover.

Who Would Win in a Fight, Elvis vs All the Beatles?

If you're familiar with action sequences, you've probably heard a thousand variations on "X vs Y". It extremely popular among nerds to try to compare "power levels". We're pattern analysts at heart.

But aside from a moment's entertainment, that's really not our goal. We're not testing who is most powerful. Because a good action sequence isn't about power.

It's about how the participants react. The pattern produced by the interaction.

For example, the ever-popular Batman vs Superman debate. Superman, being a totally retarded power level, is basically invulnerable to everything Batman could conceivably do to him. But that's the point: in trying to match Batman up, they have to twist and contort what happens in the most delightful ways. The concepts and patterns of action we associate with Batman do a wicked little dance to do what needs to be done, stretching to their limits.

And we learn a whole lot more about what it means to be Batman.

The same basic idea holds true for every kind of action sequence, from clashing armies to Wile E Coyote chasing the road runner. The point of an action sequence is not to compare power levels. It is to see how the patterns interact.

A starship (or any large installation) is best at this. It has more complicated patterns to walk: not only does the starship have a pattern, but all the major crew members have patterns and they all interact in wild and wooly ways. Because all these patterns come packaged as a single combatant, you don't have to worry overmuch about painstakingly arranging for them all to be around at the same time. In fact, most of the time you painstakingly arrange for some of them to be MISSING, because they dominate the overall flow of the situation too much.

It's Only a Flesh Wound!

Most of the time, a combatant has pretty straight forward capabilities. Their pattern in an action sequence is not particularly complex. They have a gun, or a phaser array, or whatever, and they use it.

One way to stir things up is to give one or more combatant a handicap. This alters the situation, lets you see how they act in unusually trying circumstances.

This handicap is usually an injury, but it can also be a weapon malfunction or being drunk or whatever. The problem I have with injuries is that any injury significant enough to really screw up the hero is also significant enough to END him. Humans just don't regrow that well.

Spaceships can handle it, though. Spaceships don't feel pain, and they can always go to drydock to repair even massive injury. Spaceships are great that way. Also, they have the advantage of being strictly fictional, which means they can continue to survive even hideous injuries.

So it's easier to impare a starship rather than a human, at least if you want to use them again.

Over the Planet, Off the Asteroid, Nothing but Net

A vs B really isn't very interesting - it's just two patterns interacting in a straightforward way. What gets interesting is introducing other elements. Handicaps are one such element, but I actually prefer everything else.

For example, holding hostages, fog, racing across rocky terrain, fighting on top of a train... also, fighting hordes of faceless enemies falls into this category, too.

When it comes to visceral add-ons, people and space ships have it about tied. Both can race through rocky terrain, both can protect others or worry about hostages, both can jocky for position. Space ships tend to prefer having only a few complications that are incredibly important, while humans tend to suffer flurries of related complications. IE, a space ship will slowly fall towards a black hole, but the human equivalent would be leaping from rooftop to rooftop, clinging to trellises and so forth. Which is "better" is a matter of taste and pacing, but either can be used for either kind of combatant, it's just a matter of expectation.

Spaceships do have the advantage of having a bunch of crew (or not-so-crew), and the crew can interact in unusual ways. Also, a spaceship can suffer from a wide variety of weird side effects because it is strictly fictional and considered very complicated.

Winner Take All?

The last (or first?) element of an action sequence is the emotional bond. There's a lot of techniques you can use outside of combat to build an emotional bond, but when it comes to a good action sequence, I find that forming an emotional bond due to the action sequence is much more effective.

For example, Jackie Chan is usually very endearing outside of combat, but it's his zany use of scenery and his panicky-almost-pacifistic fighting style that makes him so likable as a combatant.

There's a lot of ways of making an audience emotionally connect to a combatant, but I find that they are almost all variations of a single theme: fighting in the face of long odds. Winning is optional.

Their demeanor while they do this is somewhat important, whether they are funny, determined, horrifyingly efficient, etc, etc. But when it comes to demeanor, the important part isn't what the demeanor is so much as the fact that it's unique.

Conan and Jackie Chan are both very effective at getting the audience to invest in them, to want to see more of them. They do it by being almost the only person in their world with their demeanor, occasionally with a single similar combatant for that "clone fight" everyone likes so much.

Starships don't have an attractive face most of the time, and their combat dynamic is often a bit fuzzy unless the writer goes out of his way to be transparent. So most audiences don't really think of them, emotionally, as living beings. Which is the only reason I can think of to not be in love with starship combat. :D


This article was silly, but I hope you liked it. Feel free to comment.

PS: As usual, blogger posted this at the time I first started writing it, NOT when I posted it. What's up with that? Time travel?


Patrick said...

This is actually what I find redeeming about Naruto, or perhaps Hellsing, which are unique amoung Shonen in keeping my attention into my twenties. In both instances, the human characters have the mobility and resilience of spaceships, and are extremely dynamic in what they do. The ninjas will have a clone that is a decoy from some technique that interacts with the physics of the other guy's technique, or Alucard will turn his arm into this demonic dog mass, and a gun will pop out of that. The particular affinities and icons of the characters' skills related to their personalities as well, maybe less direct than Chan jumping through a ladder, but quite effective.

Mory said...

The trouble I have with starship battles is that the strategy is hard to predict. Starships are ridiculously complex things, and I can't be expected to know everything a starship can or can't theoretically do. In contrast, a man-on-man battle has clearly defined rules: We can always see the weapons they're holding, we can see how badly hurt they are (and on which parts of their bodies) from a glance, etc. Starship battles are tremendously awkward by comparison.

For my part, I say nothing beats a good superhero battle. The rules can be strange, but they're usually pretty clearly defined. Character A has flight and healing powers, character B has teleportation, character C can make small illusions and read moves planned in advance, etc. It only takes a second to explain what each character's abilities are, so you can try to predict what's going to happen.

My favorite recent example of this sort of fight was the comic book series World War Hulk: X-Men. It was a four issue battle of Hulk vs. all the X-Men, with everyone using their powers effectively. Sadly, this sort of well-done strategy game is rarely written- more often powers are almost totally ignored and all the fighters resort to punches and kicks. It sort of takes out the whole point.

To summarize: What would win in a fight of starships vs. superheroes? Superheroes.

Craig Perko said...

Naw, that's just because you don't understand starships!

Seriously, I think that the reason superheroes are so popular is because their capabilities are unique but easy to introduce. In, say, Star Trek, you'll run across a large number of the exact same ships. That's for good reason: introducing a new ship takes time and a lot of tactical explanation. (It's the same reason you see a specific set of fantasy races over and over.)

A superhero, on the other hand, he uses his powers and you can instantly assign them. Ships (and species) aren't so easy, so there have to be fewer different types or you'll just spend all your time introducing them.

I still prefer starships, however, because you really can't severely injure superheroes without extremely long-lasting repercussions, and superheroes don't have an internal dynamic that's very complicated. IE, a superhero's liver never says, "she can't take much more o' this, capt'n!", and his lungs never go on vacation with a green-skinned bimbo.

Craig Perko said...

Oh, hey, this is clearer:

A starship is the equivalent of a whole superhero TEAM, not just one superhero. It takes about as long to get comfortable with a starship as with a whole team of supers.

Superhero teams have the benefit that they can "swap out components" very easily - just bring a new hero in or whatever. The equivalent of getting hit with a torpedo is to stun or knock out a specific superhero.

However, a ship's "body" is much more crunchy: the systems are more tightly interconnected. It's harder to "connect" a superhero team adequately. It's rare that you can "reroute power" or whatever.