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Fighting with Strangers

The lonesomeness and intimacy of Tekken.

Published onJan 10, 2021
Fighting with Strangers

I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing Tekken 7’s online ranked mode even before the pandemic shut me in my room. Something about it still compels my ADHD-inflected brain like few things can. The immediacy and richness of the haptic response, the innumerable permutations of ducking punches going under flying kicks, the exhausting drama of rematching the same unspeaking stranger over and over again. It took me about 200 hours of practice before I could play like a beginner. Now, another 1,300 hours later, I’m starting to get decent.

In that first week of self-quarantine, which seemed to begin officially when the president's rambling, confusing address to the nation signaled to everyone that it was time to panic, I remember encountering a Bryan player who’d changed his Steam handle to “pwning lockdown scrubs.” I felt an immediate glint of recognition. Tekken had always been a game that seemed to demand an excess of free time from its players—perhaps, the community around it likes to joke, to the exclusion of having a real social life. In that moment, none of us were sure we had social lives anymore; we had all become lockdown scrubs. A bleak time was dawning: a perfect time to play Tekken.

For all the competitive depth to be found in the game’s preposterously oversized cast (2,500 character matchups and counting), there’s a starkness to it. It makes no effort to bring you on board; there’s no tutorial, not even a brusque text manual on the basic concepts. All you get is two martial artists squaring off in the shallow water of a caldera. The air looks cold and thin, and each character has like a hundred moves. What are you going to do about it? You’ll probably try to digest some YouTube advice from people who’ve already spent years and decades digesting Tekken. You ought to spend time in practice mode, studying entire move lists of frame data, grinding combos, and programming the training dummy in order to test out hyper-specific scenarios. I did some of that stuff. But mostly I just jumped compulsively into ranked and tried to fight, often well past the point when my focus and even my enjoyment slipped away behind the familiar haze of brain fog. At least it was better than reading Twitter.

I like to call Tekken a serious conversation that you have with another person without exchanging a single word. There’s no text or voice chat, just the other player’s handle, their character, their costume, and the way they like to fight. Two randomly paired players can rematch one another for as long as they both want to—I’ve gone hours against the same stranger. There’s always an ebb and flow to those encounters. A power dynamic. A sense develops of what they’re feeling: frustrated, goofy, zoned out. Thanks in part to the enormity of what each character offers, no opponent is ever quite the same as the other.

Do you see? It's a kind of anonymous, long-distance intimacy. The only way to get the upper hand is to discover something about what the other person likes to do—their habits, their preferences, the gaps in their experience. Sometimes your insight will be something easy to articulate that they nonetheless don’t know about themselves: they might tend to follow a certain move with a particular other. Sometimes, you can’t even express these moments of connective understanding to yourself. A flash of kinetic inspiration strikes and your fingers enter a command before you even know what it is, but you already feel the win, already know on some preconscious level that you’ve read between the lines of someone’s cognition. There’s too much of Tekken, and it happens too quickly, to play it entirely consciously; at best, you try to consciously modify your own unconscious reflexes. Every week, thousands of strangers head each other off at that particular pass in games like Tekken, and I take that as evidence that even locked alone in our bedrooms, the stuff of intimacy is always close at hand.

In November, an update to Tekken 7 significantly improved the game’s netplay. Even a match connected from California to New York feels nearly as crispy and lag-free as one played locally on a single console. The game really needed this, the community agreed, especially in 2020. The resolution by which we try to read each other’s minds has increased. Fingers twitching and hearts pounding, we stare into the glare of our screens and fight.

Florence Walker:

I really enjoyed this piece! It’s an incredibly compelling core idea expressed in a very compelling way. I think it’s really fitting, too, how you move back and forth between the specific language of Tekken and fighting games and the more personal language of relationships and the body - it mirrors what you’re talking about in a really cool way!

If you wanted to push this further, there’s a lot here about the intimacy of Tekken but less about the lonesomeness. I’d be interested to hear more on the ways Tekken match-ups fall short, or perhaps how they compare to other kinds of parasocial relationships given the vast landscape of online interactions the pandemic has plunged us into. You give a sense of this throughout the earlier paragraphs, but I wonder if it’s worth drawing into the last 2-3 paragraphs and making it more explicit?

Joshua Trevett:

Good thought, thank you!