In the days before Xbox, I used to run a pub in Nottingham. After hours, we'd hook the PS2 up to the TV and play Tekken 3. We were all button-mashing idiots - with no connection to the workings of the game, matches would feel like they were decided randomly. A 60-year-old organist from the local church would win as many games as he lost.
Oh, we were happy. But anyone with an insight into the game's finely-wrought systems would have flinched in horror as they saw us jumping pointlessly around, proving that a dozen monkeys tapping a dozen Dual Shocks would, once every ten minutes or so, accidentally pull off a decent combo.Attachment 13684Since Aoife joined the team, I've been a little self-conscious about this. She knows what all the buttons do - even the bumpers - and having her in the office is like having everything I don't know scrawled across the walls. So I decided to research my way out of the pit: I went to the champions.
Leo Tan is a games industry PR. While this, of course, means that he's a despicable monster and a irredeemably corrupt, he's also a Street Fighter Tournament champ. He was a natural first stop. "I started playing Street Fighter II when I was 12," Tan recalls, "and it wasn't until I played on the SNES that I understood what was happening. But I was always obsessed, even without understanding. It takes ages to learn how to do stuff, let alone the applications of what you're doing."
So this is looking like a big ballache with no short-term fix. But when you're in the zone, Leo, what's going on in that noggin? "I'm not thinking. I mean, well I'm thinking, but not consciously. Most of my reactions are drilled, and then there are observations about your opponent's behaviour, forcing you to change your automatic reactions. I have several play books for several situations."
David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart". I'll insult Wallace's immaculate writing by summarising it here: you'll never get a satisfying autobiography from a sportsperson, because the 'zone' is a place of no language, and asking Austin to communicate her talent is like asking her to transcribe a cloud. "Simon Parkin is the only person I know who learned to play Street Fighter as an adult," offers Tan. So I email him, instead.
Parkin is a games critic with something of a talent for conjuring difficult themes into beautiful, but substantial language. If anyone can prove Wallace wrong, it's this guy. "I would sit in Street Fighter Alpha 3's Training mode and try over and over to do a fireball. Once I could Hadouken properly, I repeated the process with the slightly more awkward Dragon Punch." There's no escaping it: this is pretty workmanlike.
It was only when Parkin got humiliated in an online match ("he stopped pressing buttons, just so I could hit him") that he realised human vs human was the only way to become good. "I played for hundreds of hours, in arcades and friends' houses. I got (former OXM staffer and Street Fighter tournament player) Ryan King to offer feedback. He sent me a huge page of notes. But you can't just act on that advice, it takes more practice. You're constantly fine-tuning your muscle memory. It takes years to progress."
And with "hundreds of hours", and "it takes years", my desire to get good evaporates. One of the most important things in life is to know your limitations, and I know for a fact that I'm seriously limited in my ongoing ability to be arsed. From this point on, I'll take the comfortable, easy road. Fighting games are stupid. I never wanted to be good at them anyway.