I was excited for Battlefield 3. One of the trailers for the game saw the player move with a squad through Middle Eastern city streets, winding up atop a building under fire from a 50cal rifle fired from a sniper’s nest in an office block opposite. Gradually your squad moves to a firing position and provides cover as you hit the nest with an RPG and… so on and so forth. Fairly typical modern shooter stuff, it must be said. What I really liked about it was the way the player seemed to be a part of his squad, maneuvering with them to hold lines of sight and remain in cover. Moving along an alleyway towards a car park, the player didn’t just charge ahead but waited while a squadmate took up position half-way up the alley, and then sprinted ahead of that squadmate, crouched, and covered his further movement. The authentic military tactics appealed. And then what I got in the final product was an extraordinarily average single player FPS (the multiplayer, ever the primary element of a Battlefield game, is great) in which, apart from a couple of conspicuous set-pieces, the player is an isolated figure even with his squad around him. Trying to play in a coordinated manner with your AI comrades was more likely to get you killed. Better to act alone.
What I want to talk about today isn’t so much this discrepancy between trailers and full games, but rather that squad-based movement I found so appealing. There’s something almost hypnotic about the way modern, advanced militaries teach individuals to coordinate their activity: moving in tandem, focusing on angles, timing shots and reloads with a synchronicity that creates a whole more effective than its individual parts. There’re plenty of examples of this in film, but a couple of scenes leap to mind. This kidnap scene from The Way of the Gun works to demonstrate just how professional Ryan Phillipe and Benicio Del Toro’s mercenary characters are through their use of calm, rhythmic, near symbiotic movement. And this scene from Hurt Locker in which the characters quickly move into rhythmic cooperation to make their way through an unknown, and therefore dangerous, indoor environment.
In that they prioritize physical accuracy, interpersonal coordination, bodily awareness, communication and disparate individuals falling together into a common rhythm, these movements resemble a dance. Dance and combat might seem separated by some distance, but allow me to suggest something that bridges that gap by employing elements of each: sport. Combat sports, obviously, most noticeably cross the divide, with the likes of boxing, martial arts and fencing being reliant on both an internal sense of rhythm and an outward expression of give-and-take (attack and defend) which frequently slips into a sort of coordinated, rhythmic partnership, albeit shaped around adversity. This mix of collaboration and adversity certainly isn’t absent from dance, a prime example being the breakdance battles that pit two dancers against one another in a competition of skill, style and technique. Whilst fundamentally in opposition, the individuals typically fit their routines into the same musical accompaniment and therefore simultaneously antagonize one another whilst cooperatively creating an overall show for the audience.
Meanwhile, just about every other sport also prioritizes building a rhythm to which every member of the team (if there is one) adapts. In fact, frequently it is the tactic of a defense to disrupt the rhythm of the attacking side, disturbing their flow. This is why bowling in cricket is not just a case of throwing the ball as hard as you damn well can, but of switching up your speed and direction to ruin the batsman’s rhythm, an effect you magnify by rotating fast, medium and slow spin bowlers. (Those of you unfamiliar with cricket should check out the wonderful Stick Cricket for fantastic examples of this effect in miniature). Barcelona is the greatest footballing side of this generation for a great many reasons, but not insignificant is their inordinate amount of ball possession. Dictating the play in this way prevents the opposition from gaining any kind of rhythm going forward; they are always on the back foot. This, in a sport of constant ebb and flow with very few breaks in the action, is a deciding factor. So, am I arguing that football is a type of dance? Of course not. Nor is it a type of warfare, but between all three there are thematic connections. Take gymnastics, for example, as a landmark sitting pretty much bang smack in the middle of the blurry terrain between sport and dance.
Moving back to videogames, more recently I did find a game that allows me to partake of that military style movement I find so captivating: XCOM: Enemy Unknown. For those unfamiliar, XCOM has two quite distinct elements to its play, which I call the internal and external games. The external game involves mainly resource management, building up a base, prioritizing research and kitting out your soldiers, all the while keeping up surveillance for alien attacks. Once an alien landing is discovered play moves to the internal game, a turn-based squad strategy affair in which the player controls the individual soldiers in an attempt to kill or capture a given number of alien opposition. Time, and timing, is important in both game types, with each having its own discreet rhythm. In the outer game a prominent clock runs at a real-time pace (with fast forwarding to the next alien event permitted) constantly reminding you of the tick tock until your next research, construction project, etc. will be ready. This gradual motion of time is punctuated by monthly reports from your shadowy superiors, giving the outer game a slow but regular beat inside which other events come as freestyle notes both planned and unexpected.
The internal game, being turn-based, equally comes with a ready-installed rhythm of play. At its essence, (before upgrades, special powers and so on) each character gets two moves. The first is positional, characters can move a certain distance to flank, take cover, etc. The second is an action, be it opening fire, hunkering down, reloading, or alternatively sacrificing the action for a second movement extending the distance of the first. You do this for each of your soldiers, and then watch as the enemy does the same. Taking the wide view, the effect is somewhat reminiscent of the breakdance battles I mentioned above. Two sides work within the same rhythmic constraints in an attempt to better the other. The win conditions are very different, of course, but the common factors are significant.
Of course, neither Major Charles ‘Moose’ Dickens nor his compatriots spend their time shimmying and shaking across the battlefield in my XCOM game. Not even the sharp-suited Thin Men of the alien forces advance crouched and finger-snapping, awesome as that would have been. But to use your squad effectively in this game you absolutely must cause them to behave in a rhythmic, patterned way. Every movement must take into account a series of other factors: Your character’s position. Every other character’s position. What they both mean to the positioning of your squad as a single unit. What can you target? What will be able to target you? Every movement proceeds relative to every past and potential other movement, with the landscape dictating the realms of possibility within which optimum choices procedurally evolve. One must improvise, but do so using pre-set stylized actions in a non-rigid pattern of repetition. A squad’s individual members weave through and across one another’s paths whilst, more broadly, the unit as a whole undulates towards its goal.
It’s hardly a waltz, I’ll grant you. But like every art form that went through the 20th Century’s tumultuous periods of Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction and Postmodernism, dance has been the site of so many rebellions and refits that formally defining what it actually is becomes practically impossible and, for all intents and purposes, pointless. One of the fundamental compulsions of the artist is to challenge the limits of their very medium.
Something dance surely needs though (and feel free to challenge me in the comments on this), is a body. For there to be a dance, someone must dance. While we sometimes romantically endow things like snowflakes and leaves with the ability to ‘dance on the breeze’, what they’re doing isn’t dance because there’s no will behind it. It’s passive. But then isn’t it the same for the XCOM characters, who are, after all, little more than 1 and 0’s translated in a certain way? That’s true enough, but what I’ve been getting at here is not about burly marines doing the twist. Taken as a whole, my squad is a series of limb-like extrusions reacting to impulses I send their way. The squad is me in an ambiguous new form, asserting my imagination on screen in a series of shapes and arrangements of its own constituent parts. If XCOM’‘s a dance, I’m the dancer.