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Art of War: Animating Realistic Sword Combat

December 13, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

Realism Plays Well with Your IK Rig

As I stated earlier, the basics of Renaissance fencing and martial arts (the discipline we call "MARE," or Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe) are pretty straightforward, and once you understand them, the rest becomes a matter of relentless conditioning and practice.

For the purpose of the animator, however, the basics can be a great starting point that will give your warriors a unique visual silhouette, without requiring the animator herself to become a scion of martial prowess.

Once you're comfortable with holding the sword, the best place to start thinking about animating a swordsman is to understand the basic stances: what we call "tip progressions" or "guards."

For the purpose of our animation, it's best to think of these stances as our idle positions.

As you begin to employ these idles, you'll notice that no matter what sequence of cuts your characters perform or what direction they face, they will always end their movement in one of these poses. They work fluidly and efficiently with each other, and they emphasize control and tactical positioning.

The four primary guards, as illustrated by John in Figure 2, are (from top to bottom) Phlug, Alber, Vom Tach, and Ochs.


Figure 2: The four primary guards: Phlug, Alber, Vom Tach, and Ochs.

What you'll also notice is that they play very well with your inverse kinematics rig. Like the algorithms that drive your rig, the weapon leads the motions, just like your IK target leads your animation. You'll also notice that the torso and arms seem to move almost independently of the legs. What's more, as you step through the footwork, you'll find that you can pivot your character around on a single foot, and stepping forward or backward is a simple matter of just mirroring your animation across your center plane.

Of course, these idles require the context of the basic cuts (called "Master Cuts") to be fully appreciated. Rather than go through the entire catalogue of idles, transitions, and cuts, I'd like to illustrate my point with a particular sequence.

In Figure 3, I start at the top in a fifth guard, called Nebenhut. Note how my leading leg is bent, and the trailing leg is straight. Also note how my feet are at a 45-degree angle to each other. Let's pretend that a new enemy has presented itself to my rear, and I want to turn 180 degrees to meet the new threat. Rather than shuffle around and swing my blade awkwardly in an attempt to maintain Nebenhut, I opt instead to hold the sword steady.


Figure 3: Example of turning 180 degrees between two guard positions.

As I begin to turn, my head and torso rotate first, followed by my trailing foot, which ends at 120 degrees (as relates to my left foot). On the third step to this sequence, I shift my weight onto my right leg, which is now my leading leg, and I deliberately bring my trailing foot to its new position. Notice that now our Nebenhut has transformed into Alber. To end the sequence, I lift my weapon out of Alber, and into Phlug.

Despite turning my entire body to face a new direction, my right wrist (the presumed target of our IK), never changed position. Also, until I lifted the weapon at the end, the sword remained almost entirely motionless. Note that for my entire turn, the ball of one foot remained planted in a single position (please ignore the general position shift at step three; a wall was in the way, so I had to move back).

This theme of always returning to our basic guards continues to manifest even as we begin striking. In Figure 4, we see John start in a Vom Tag, and then step forward into a strike. What follows is a rapid rotation of the weapon to strike again from the opposite angle. He repeats this rapid back-and-forth several times, striking at a different angle on each pass.


Figure 4: A sequence of strikes starting in Vom Tag.

Despite the change in vector for every strike, John always returns to Vom Tag before striking again. He doesn't do this because he's necessarily trained himself to perform this specific transition for its own sake; he does it because it's the most biomechanically efficient way to pass from one strike to the next. This phenomenon is particularly useful for animators, because at any point between strikes we can end our sequence without popping into an idle pose, potentially jarring players out of their immersion.

Start Real, Then Exaggerate

Exaggeration is, fundamentally, one of our jobs as animators; we make our characters perform like an actor would perform on stage or on camera. Reality is always exaggerated or altered to fit the needs of a production. But whether you're talking about Jade Empire or Call of Duty, you should always start with a solid foundation in reality. For games in medieval or fantasy settings that include sword combat, taking inspiration from the right sources (like MARE) can set your combat animation apart and make the task of animating cleaner and easier.


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Comments


Paul Marzagalli
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I was surprised to not see Neal Stephenson's KS-funded game "Clang" mentioned anywhere. It would be interesting to see a follow-up from the developers of that game to this piece, since their game is entirely about exploring swordplay through game mechanics.

Great article!

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I honestly thought this was in regards to that, especially given that IGN just ran a piece interviewing one of the sword teachers who is doing mo-cap for it.

Still, this is quite cool, something I've been thinking about quite a bit. I'd love to see this expanded into a lengthier look at the subject.

Jeff Richardson
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Of course they wouldn't acknowledge Clang. That would be in direct contradiction to Mr. Clements claim to have the only dedicated WMA training facility in the world.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Something like Dark Souls is also worth a mention-the game provides a breadth of traditional weapons with nice attempts at simulating realistic weight and heft. It may not be the most realistic system (in terms of engaging against another swordsman), but it presents a system that seems plausible.

I think CLANG! will be a fun attempt at bringing realism to digital sword duels, but I don't think it's necessarily something that will benefit a lot of controller based games (though I wholeheartedly agree with trying to at least make the hand positions and swings based on actual practiced styles).

Kevin Alexander
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I like this article a lot.

However, I've always believed the relevancy of realism as a design, poses so much more problems/complexities from a game play mechanics perspective than it ever has as an artistic/animation problem. Unfortunately, I can't see a reason to employ the later sans a commitment to the former without it feeling or looking estranged.

I'd love to see more of both.

Cordero W
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Oooor, you can go play Demon Souls or Dark Souls. There. Saved you an article.

Chris Hendricks
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For that matter, why come to Gamasutra at all? Just play good games. You'll learn everything you need to know without all of that pesky reading.

Daniel Accardi
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Cordero, I don't think Demon's Souls or Dark Souls has realistic combat. Most of it is pretty standard, if well-crafted, hacking and slashing. I was actually thinking about this in terms of Elveon, a Slovakian game that was cancelled years ago (you can find some youtube videos of it). What Elveon (and the DSs) both have is really just an appreciation for the physics of weapons. Halberds and axes feel long and heavy; swords feel lighter and quicker. When you get hit, you feel it. That's an extremely valuable quality for game combat, but it's different from realism in terms of the fighting techniques being used.

Luis Guimaraes
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Awesome article!

Rob B
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The brilliant thing about this is that because its based in reality, even when it seems strange and out there, it all makes perfect sense. Its a perfect marriage of something thats entirely logical and consistent with something original and new (At least to most people of these times.)

Im reminded of seeing a realistic display of how knights battled. Because slashing through plate metal is hopeless the swords were used for thrusts and as clubs. This would mean that theyd regularly be holding the sword by the blade either to direct a thrust or swing the hilt like a club in to a crushing blow. (It had the benefit of being able to hook on to a combatant)

As far as I can remember Ive never seen this in any game, or for that matter any TV show or movie. I always thought that was a shame. A lot of variation and originality going to waste.

Cam Kirmser
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Interesting article.

If you look at Japanese sword masters, it can be seen that, though the katana lacks a European style pommel, they are held with the strong hand against the tsuba - the analog to the European hilt - and the weak hand held at the very far end of the handle, or tsuka.

I first noticed this when I saw the miniseries Shogun back in the 80s. Prior to then, I had always thought that the katana was gripped with the strong hand against the tsuba and the weak hand against the strong. But, from watching the show - and other samurai flicks since then - it is obvious that there is a quite noticeable gap between the hands.

When you think about it, it makes sense; the sword - as this article points out - is a lever. The strong hand serves as the fulcrum and the further back the weak hand on the grip, the longer the moment arm and the more force that can be exerted by the blade.

Matthew Downey
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+1 for physics.

Amir Barak
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Check out some koryū schools if you're interested in traditional japanese sword-work. Tsuba is the handguard (from what I know anyway) and tsuka is the hilt itself, but yeah that's how we were taught to hold the sword anyway. Different swords are also used in different ways, that is, some are more for bashing, some are for cutting, some are for piercing, some for use on horseback... etc. etc. All of these also affect the holding and attack vectors available for the sword. Generally though I would said that it's pretty bad form to jump with a sword (at least I've not seen anyone do that seriously but I could be mistaken) and turn your back on an opponent. Also, as far as I figured it out (and from some combat duty myself in the army though with tanks not swords :P) all of theses kata and movements are there to instil reflexes not usage, you'll forget about 99% of the stuff when faced with a real opponent (or several). It's that 1% core that'll save your life.

steve smith
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I've studied and loved martial arts from both east and west, and it's great to see people talking about western longsword in the gaming industry more and more.

However, I dispute the notion that what we need in our games is more realism. People do not play games because they're realistic - they play them because they *think* they're realistic. The game's job is to sell that.

Eastern martial arts are popular because they're depicted as being flashy and elegant while also retaining explosive, supernatural levels of power. The romance of western martial arts, while beautiful, doesn't have that flash just yet.

Game developers with an interest in western martial arts would do well to go through their knowledge and find the exciting moments in the Fior di Battaglia (or your other preferred classic fighting manual), and bring them to the forefront of the in-game experience. Preserve the form but hide the boring stuff, and players will be enchanted - which is kind of our job, right?

Brett Williams
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The article isn't asking people to employ realism. It's showing people that if they started from a foundation in a realistic stance and methodology that it would actually make animating and embellishing it easier, because it more naturally fits the mechanics of how the human body works. As noted very early on in the article, the simple act of moving the characters hand to the pommel fixes a lot of animation issues with collision and the wrist position. This isn't extra work, it's actually making less work and thus a more realistic setup to build upon.

Kyle Jansen
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Very interesting read. I fully agree that games should be *based* in reality, and should be stylized and exaggerated as needed. That really applies to everything - sword combat, architecture, costume, dialog...

Alan Rimkeit
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Anyone that is really interested in learning this should go here.

http://www.thearma.org/

This is really great that realistic Western Martial Arts are being discussed. I disagree with most of the opinions above. I do want a realistic sword combat game. I am seriously looking forward to the this game Clang. I want to see how it turns out.

Patrick Miller
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(Just FYI, ARMA director John Clements co-wrote this article.)

Alan Rimkeit
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FYI, I did see that. Just providing a link to ARMA for those that are interested.

Henrik Strandberg
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Great and very interesting article! Anyone interested in the subject should check out CD Project's The Witcher (2007), which featured melee combat choreographed by experts on medieval swordfighting, and performed by professional martial artists (all combat is mocapped). For sure the choreography was designed to match Andrzej Sapkowski's literary universe and Geralt's persona - for example to accentuate the difference between the steel sword used for human enemies and the silver sword used for supernatural creatures - but I think it's a great example of an end result that applies the same kind of thinking as this article. To make it even more interesting for the player, they designed three entirely separate sets of moves, with different pacing and force behind the blows.

I'd also recommend contacting your local chapter of Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Just like some SCA members seek authenticity in terms of garb, food, crafts and performing arts, many SCAites have spent decades practicing medieval fighting - it's a brutal and efficient fighting style so likely somewhat realistic, although hardly as flashy as you'd expect a game/entertainment experience to be.

Alan Rimkeit
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FYI, ARMA dislikes the SCA with a burning passion.

"many SCAites have spent decades practicing medieval fighting - it's a brutal and efficient fighting style so likely somewhat realistic, although hardly as flashy as you'd expect a game/entertainment experience to be."

And is nothing like real sword combat at all in any way shape or form.

If people want to learn the sword combat that is being discussed in this article and on the ARMA website avoid the SCA like the plague. Go to ARMA instead. There are local chapters all over the world.

A S
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Personally for me the most interesting aspects of games is the opportunity to learn something new and apply it to modify a world. A lot of things in games are arbitrary (click here to do this, 3 medallions allows you to draw the master sword etc) but including something like this grounded in reality really adds a lot to the experience. Going deep on almost any topic always turns up some fascinating insights, e.g. accurate swordplay, rock types in DF, etc.

Jeremie Sinic
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I am not an animator, but this is great food for thought for anyone I guess.
Video games have tropes like movies (you've got to check this Cracked article, which is not just funny but also accurate: http://www.cracked.com/article_19753_7-ridiculously-outdated-assu
mptions-every-movie-makes.html ), where the medium feeds on itself, leading to directors who assimilate elements coming straight from movies rather than from reality.

Christiaan Moleman
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Good article. Doing your homework makes a difference.

I think the resistance mostly comes from people *liking* showy "useless and suicidal" moves and aesthetic preference often taking precedence over realism. Judging by the moves and attire of most game characters, combat tends to be reality- and physics-free.

Anyone ever see the TV program "Weapons That Made Britain"? Was pretty interesting and touched on a lot of the same points.

Arjen Meijer
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Superb article, I have been working on a sword game for some time and got some interesting gameplay coming from it so far. Also a big plus having a professional sword fighter helping!

David Navarro
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Looks like the guys in the illustration are holding their swords wrong.

Eben Bradstreet
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It's an awkward placement for that picture, true. The weapons those gentlemen are wielding are probably not "long swords", but rather some kind of zweihander (two-handed sword). Their handles are much, much longer than the kind of weapon that I was demonstrating, or that you'd typically find.

Also, gripping your weapon by the handle isn't entirely wrong. There are circumstances where it's applicable. Generally speaking, though, it's better to grip the weapon by the pommel.

Eben Bradstreet
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Hi all, I was responsible for the first half of this article. My thanks to everyone for their positive feedback! If you have any questions or need anything clarified, don't hesitate to ask.

Alan Rimkeit
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Boss article. Props to you and John Clements.

Waqar Rasool
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i am glad i stumbled upon this article, the next game we are working on requires the main character to keep a sword. Although the game style is action arcade, Eben is absolutely right that the basics are always the same.
goodi good.

Jeff Richardson
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Not only does Mr. Clements not have have the only dedicated training facility in the world (as he claims in this article) Mr. Clements doesn't even have the largest dedicated training facility on the North American Continent.

Just on the West Coast...
Probably the largest facility in the world is Academia Duello run by Devon up in Vancouver Canada.
In Seattle Washington you have Michael Tinker Pierce and Neal Stephenson and the guys developing Clang who have their own facility.
Also in Seattle Washington you have Cecil Longino at Salle Saint-George
In Portland Oregon you have Academia Duellatoria which also has a pilot school in Phoenix Oregon.
In Eugene Oregon you have Maestro Hayes at Northwest Fencing Academy.
In Santa Clara, California you have the Davenriche European Martial Artes School.

That's just a handful from the West Coast off the top of my head.

Richard Elswick
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Chicago Swordplay Guild as well Jeff Richardson.

There are many others, smaller as well.

Europe has many as well.

For another flavor of understanding the reconstruction of western martial arts in the 14th-16th century, do a search on YouTube for "Battle of the Nations 2012". Also take a look at www.usaknights.org for additional info.

Michaelangelo Reina
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A very interesting article, I prefer to look at it as overall concepts that can be applied. I am not sure there is much space for a deeper integration unless the idea is to purposely create a fully realistic simulation of what it is to fight with a long sword, (and in a game, rarely turns out to be a long sword, or just one sword). I've been practicing KDF for over a year now, and animated on titles with sword play at the same time. I think at the end you have to do what is right for the type of game you are making first and foremost.


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