Lots of games have unarmed fighter type classes in them. None of them are very good at capturing what it’s like to actually practice and use the martial arts. That’s today’s post. It was originally titled “Maining Monk IRL”, but I’m a woman and I’ve decided I’m going to reclaim the word “nun” and make it just as cool as “monk”. So yeah.
I’ve been doing martial arts in one form or another for almost my entire life. Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Thai Boxing. The art that I’ve come to devote myself to more fully, however, is Xing Yi Quan, a Chinese nei jia style. It’s one of the big 3 nei jia, the other two being Tai Ji Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. Of the three, Xingyiquan is the most direct, the “hardest” of the soft styles. Rather than the total enveloping softness of Taiji or the firm gentleness of Bagua, Xingyi gives and then snaps back like rattan. I’ve practiced this particular art for many years now, even had a few students from time to time.
Xing Yi Quan means “shape intention boxing” or “form mind fist”, and the name implies that we give a physical shape to our mental intent in the purest and simplest way possible, that our form is that of our mind. The style consists primarily of 5 postures called the Five Element Fist. Over and around the elements are the 12 animal postures, many of which are combinations or permutations of the elements, or specific variations designed for a narrower application. The foundation and essence of the style is found in the Five Element Fist.
In Street Fighter, Ryu throws hadokens and can levitate while spin-kicking. His only goal is to “get stronger”, which he does by fighting everyone I guess? Chun Li supposedly does Chinese martial arts, and she also throws around energy balls. She also fights everyone she sees. In Dead or Alive, Gen Fu and Elliot supposedly use Xingyiquan explicitly. This is expressed by their stance, and the animations of their attacks, which contain no innate defensive components but are simply strikes like any other in a fighting game.
The elements of Xingyi are taken from Chinese cosmology: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. Each corresponds to a movement of the whole body, like a kind of dance that expresses the underlying energy and concept of that element. These movements also constitute techniques that are designed for simultaneous attack and defense. The theory of the five elements is such that they each create one other element and destroy one other, in a pair of cycles, which represent the two potential outcomes of conflict: constructive, or destructive. Water extinguishes Fire, but gives life to Wood (trees). These are more than theoretical relationships, as they also describe how different kinds and directions of force can overcome different kinds of attacks.
In Final Fantasy 14, the Monk job repeats a 1-2-3 combo that gives a stack of “Greased Lightning”, a buff that increases their auto-attack speed and damage, and decreases global cooldowns. The goal is to keep as many stacks of Greased Lightning up at all times as they can, for as long as they can.
Xingyi, being a soft internal style, doesn’t rely primarily on muscular power in order to deal damage. A certain amount of strength is useful and helpful, but we’re more concerned with a combination of the body’s energy and with using physics and physiology to our advantage. Ours is whole-body power, which rests on a foundation called the Six Harmonies. The three internal harmonies are: between xin and yi, between yi and qi, and between qi and jin. Your heart must line up with your intention, your intention must line up with your qi, and your qi must line up with your use of force. The three external harmonies are: between shoulders and hips, between elbows and knees, and between hands and feet. We punch with our feet, pushing off the ground and rippling the force through ourselves with careful alignment of the skeleton and skillful use of the deep internal muscles. Ours is a relaxed power that explodes into a concentrated point at just the right moment, then relaxes again.
In Final Fantasy 11, Monk mostly auto-attacks. There’s also a complicated meta involving quickly donning and removing pieces of your artifact armor using macroed commands, to boost various weapon arts and other abilities.
To help develop our sensitivity to the tiny deep movements of muscles, yi and qi in others (which is required to really get good at the internal arts), neijia practitioners will often play a game with each other called “push hands”. This is actually really fun, and also one of the few acceptable ways in modern society for people to get close physical contact with another human being. Various arts have different ways of playing push hands. In Xingyi, each player extends one foot forward, placing their insteps together on the ground between them. The other is kept back in our classical stance (called san ti shi, or Three Bodies Posture). One or both hands are extended out, and the players touch wrists. There are several variations on how to play, but generally the goal is to, without moving the feet or striking with a closed fist, bring the other player to the ground. Let me tell you, push hands is a lot of fun! You learn a lot about your body’s balance, how to use muscles in a subtle way, how to read what another person is trying to do through only a tiny point of contact with their body, how to feel their intention, their energy, and decide in a split second what to do about that information. When I had my previous batch of students, we could play for upwards of an hour and not notice the time going by.
In Guild Wars, Monks cast healing magic.
There is a saying in China: “Southern fist, Northern leg.” What this means is that martial styles from the South of China are generally designed for shorter people, or for use on boats, which means their stances are very low and stable and they don’t kick very much. Northern styles, on the other hand, are designed for taller people and for use on open plains, and tend to have more aerial maneuvers, kicks, and flashier movements. Xingyi, one lineage of which originates in the Hebei province, is a Southern style, and our movements are kept very compact and small. You want to strike at such a close range, and so quickly, that your opponent can’t even see it coming or know what happened. Our highest kicks are delivered only as high as the crotch, no higher. More often, we target the knee, one of the weakest points on the lower body, with driving sweeps and drilling heels. As an American, I’m quite tall, but I have short legs. So a Southern style like Xingyi is actually perfect for me, with my long torso and arms and my short, stable legs.
In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Monk is a warrior type class that doesn’t use weapons (to start with). It has no special lore or defining style or characteristics, and monks are free to learn weapon skills or magic if they wish.
Much has been made of qi over the years. Is it only a didactic concept, a synthesis of other observable processes combined into one for teaching purposes? Is it an actual energy that flows through the body? The hard-line materialist position is that it’s “not real”. Personally, I don’t find that a helpful or useful stance to take. Any practitioner of the internal arts will be able to tell you that there is something in us that could be called qi, something that we feel and manipulate. Are we all hallucinating? Has every martial artist for the past 3000 years or more simply been making shit up? Even if we were, qi as an idea is incredibly useful to us. By practicing an internal art, I’ve been forced to abandon my previous strict materialist stances and re-evaluate my outlook on the nature of the world. Maybe there’s more to what there is than what we can see with our instruments. It would be arrogant beyond belief to say that there isn’t more out there, that we presently know and can observe everything that is. We’ve seen people proven dead wrong every time they take that stance throughout human history. All the data in the universe still has to be gathered by and filtered through our tiny human minds in order for us to process it and draw conclusions. All our readings are taken by machines those same brains designed, with all our limitations. Pure and strict empiricism can only take us so far toward the truth.
In Nethack, monks are vegetarian unarmed fighters. You do a lot of damage by bumping into things and are incredibly flimsy and unremarkable otherwise. If you eat meat, you accrue a penalty to your Luck stat. You start with either a spellbook of healing or one of protection.
The internal arts are moving meditation. When applied to combat, they also happen to be incredibly dangerous and can seriously hurt people. The way we emit force can penetrate the skin and cause internal injuries. It’s important to be careful, and to seek non-violent ways of moving through life, so as not to end up in situations where we’re forced to use what we can do. When push does come to shove, it’s important to pursue a constructive resolution where possible, to inflict only the minimum possible harm required in order to bring the situation to a standstill or to teach someone something. We’re always trying to de-escalate, to be diplomatic, friendly, non-violent. We don’t really want to use what we know. Drawing sharp comparisons between internal and external styles can often be misleading, since the external styles aren’t explicitly pro-violence and often contain the same philosophical underpinnings. But the hard styles do tend to come to these realizations much later than the internal. And they do tend to be more focused on their “effectiveness” and their ability to inflict damage. The ultimate expression of this is found in American MMA, which is just straight-up bloodsport and purports to be the ultimate mixture of all the “most effective techniques”. Never mind that chasing two rabbits loses you both. Never mind that we’re all sentient beings living in a world fraught with suffering where compassion is highly important. We’re not supposed to be living weapons, breaking our bodies to “strengthen” and harden them.
In Jade Empire, everyone is a martial artist of some description. The various styles are animated to look like karate, aikido, etc. Mechanically, you select moves from a list, which mostly differ in terms of damage output and/or range. Some styles and moves are “evil” and others are “good”. Most conflicts are solved by beating the shit out of people, though there are sometimes diplomatic solutions also.
Basically, video games suck at this. The one thing they all have in common no matter the finer points of their depiction of the arts themselves, is that they all love and glorify violence. Monks are cool because martial arts look cool and flashy. Punching things is good because it gives you XP and money. It is extremely rare to hear any discussion of qi, much less any talk of ethics, of living as your best self, of enlightenment. Jade Empire does touch on some of these things, to be fair, but it does so with the incredibly simplistic moral outlook Bioware would come to be known for, along with a heaping helping of gamification. And the story is not ultimately even about martial arts; that’s just the “exotic” quality of the setting.
In many ways, video games’ depictions of martial arts are based on hard style philosophy and presentation. By offering rewards for engaging in violence, and rewards for engaging in diplomacy (sometimes), they greatly oversimplify the ethical considerations we have to keep in mind when we study the martial arts. I struggle to conceive of a way you could break down a posture like beng quan (crushing fist, or Wood) into a 1-2-3 combo or a particular kind of technique. How would you assign a damage value to something designed to envelop and enwrap (or break a joint cleanly, or knock someone off balance) like heng quan (Earth)? What sort of buffs would I acquire by performing the Five Element Linking Form repeatedly? How would you describe my “auto-attack” as I stand in wushin, waiting for my opponent to move? Would you say that the lifelong path I’ve walked (and often neglected) in doing various martial arts has “leveled me up” in some way? What level Monk am I, would you say? I’ve defeated only very few enemies in combat, so I’m probably very low level. How many “moves” do I know, five? Seventeen? A thousand? What’s on my hotbar?
Who cares about any of that?
And when will I actually get to see a supposed monk or nun in a video game engaging in meditation at all? Or be anyone other than a machine that throws punches?