‘Chess on the run’ is one of the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s favorite metaphors for tennis. It recurs and resurfaces in different characters’ mouths throughout Infinite Jest, Wallace’s most sprawling and best-known work. The quote is attuned to tennis as a kind of philosophy, something in dialogue with mental aspects alongside the more obvious physical ones.
Tennis is essential to Infinite Jest, and Wallace reiterates again and again that it is not only a game of moments, but of future positions. The players do not merely react or anticipate but seek to steer the game towards or away from imagined victories and defeats. Just as a chess grandmaster sees more moves into the future than a beginner can, a master tennis player can more clearly and accurately envision the future of a match and, in an instant, determine which way to steer the next collision between past and present.
It is not only a game of moments, but of future positions.
Super Smash Brothers Melee is a fifteen-year-old children’s party game for a console with a lunchbox-style handle on top. It’s also surprisingly difficult to master, and a game worth some thought: more people watched Melee on Twitch this year than any other game at EVO 2016, the world’s most popular fighting game tournament. It’s practically unheard of for a game to have the level of interest, viewership and participation that Melee does after so many years.
The question of which games are worth delving into, of where in life we can find value, is one that Wallace takes up again and again in Infinite Jest. Tennis, especially, expands to become a whole kingdom, a home for Hal Incandenza, perhaps the main protagonist of the novel, whose inability to express himself properly outside the game is the focus of the simultaneously harrowing and hilarious opening scene of the novel—a college admissions farce which ends with Hal’s calm anticipation that he will be forcibly sedated on psychological grounds, ensuring that he is well rested for the next morning’s tennis match. It’s not clear how much of Hal’s calm is a front, but it feels at least partially genuine: he cares more about tennis than he does about the collapse of his college dream—or at least he recognizes that tennis is the only place where his efforts could conceivably bear fruit. You can see this as tragic, and it is—but also, he’s better off with tennis than he would be without it. Games can be of real value, both to their players and those who witness them being played, but they bring their greatest value to those who find a way to truly live inside, or perhaps through, them.
Through seven years of playing casually, with occasional periods of more dedicated study, I know that while Melee can appear shallow to an uninformed observer, it is a game of tremendous depth. It’s been about six months since I began seriously trying to improve, and it’s surprising how valuable that time feels. I get up early in the morning to practice inputs. I stay up late watching videos. I drive to local tournaments as often as I can. A part of my mind is always analyzing, refining, trying to come up with ways to play better—but I still feel like I’m near the beginning of a process, not approaching an end. I’ve made a little progress: I know where I am in relation to the players around me, I have a better idea of how much I can do and how to push myself farther. The community has been welcoming and encouraging, and I am slowly training my mind and hands to be faster, even if I may never be good enough to have my matches broadcast to thousands of viewers. Getting better at Melee is, like getting better at tennis, a process of training mind, body and spirit—though obviously not in equal measure, or to the same extent.
Is it fair to compare Super Smash Brothers Melee to a sport like tennis?
Is it fair to compare Super Smash Brothers Melee to a sport like tennis? If someone wanted to argue that videogames are already a sport, a formal argument might run something like this: Melee is a game of reflexes, hand-eye coordination and complex muscle memory, with a deep configuration space of choice and counter-choice too chaotic to be perfectly predictable; it’s played competitively and enjoyed as a mass spectacle—therefore, Melee is a sport. An informal argument I might be tempted to make at a party takes a slightly different angle: I’ve played and watched enough sports in my life that I know one when I experience it. I’ve gotten punched in boxing, had a rib cracked in taekwondo, wrestled, raced on foot and in pools, played soccer and hockey, volleyball and basketball. I’ve never been any good at tennis, but I watch it with interest, and despite its lack of physical athleticism, Melee feels more like a sport to me than darts, bowling, curling, or other edge cases. I know what victory and defeat in sports feel like, and many of the wins and losses of Melee I’ve experienced have had that same bittersweet flavor.
But whether or not fighting games are sports, we can see something of the sport of tennis reflected inside Melee, an inversion across the mirrored screen where the players now sit outside the court, sticks in hand, trying to perfectly command objects over which they exert only imperfect control. The main difficulty is envisioning the opponent’s character simultaneously as a player’s agent and the ball. If an accurate description of the heart of tennis exists, and we can recognize the same governing principles in Melee, we must admit that some kinship exists. Luckily for us, Wallace has written one:
“Real tennis was not about the blend of statistical order and expansive potential that the game’s technicians revered, but in fact the opposite—not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty. That real tennis was no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid […] that it was not a matter of reduction at all but—perversely—of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled metastatic growth—each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, n2responses to these responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.”
This quote, delivered by the narrator as a kind of historical aside about how the school’s founder met and selected their head tennis coach, is a fascinating depiction of the physical, three-dimensional world of tennis–but it is also a strikingly accurate description of the world of Melee. For Wallace, what makes tennis beautiful and interesting is the infinity of chaos that it contains, the brilliant depth of its configuration space, and the fact that the limitations on this space are not those of physics, but those of the people playing. Not only of their bodies, but of their minds. Melee, perhaps more than any other fighting game, shares a reflection of these traits.
The Smash series is unique among fighting games in how it handles movement, damage, life, and death; Melee is also unique among Smash games in the complexity and depth of its movement and physics. Characters don’t just run, walk, jump—they slide and dash, weave and glide, and carry their momentum forward with them into their attack animations. The variety of movement options, and the finely grained analog control you have over how you use them, makes it a game of fluid positions, constant movement, and reciprocal pressure before a single attack is even launched. Unlike in typical fighting games like Street Fighter IV, each successful hit doesn’t subtract a certain amount of life from a linear health bar. Instead, damage accumulates upward, acting as a multiplier to knockback that increases the probability that a future move could kill, or, more technically, expands the number of possible game-state combinations that lead to the loss of a stock.
Control of space and distance, movement as the first step to victory, is common to all fighting games, as well as to many real world systems of martial arts. In order to land a blow, you must first position yourself well enough to do so. There is no option that is guaranteed when the opponents exist in a neutral space, where neither has already maneuvered for advantage; this is what we call the neutral game. In the neutral game of Melee, there is no perfect option, no best play: there are only layers on layers of mixups, mind games, and serial bouts of rock paper scissors. Dash-dance-grab beats run-in-shield, short hop laser beats dash-dance-grab, run-in-shield beats short-hop-laser, but only if your timing is good enough to get the reflect. But the existence of these options depends on positioning, on movement, on your ability to understand what the opponent wants and is trying to do.
In the neutral game of Melee, there is no perfect option, no best play.
The game unfolds as a series of microsituations, where optimal solutions to problems only emerge after someone has already made a mistake. You only get hit if you overextend, are forced into a dangerous spot, commit to something unsafe, whiff an attack of your own, or fail to react properly to an enemy’s advance in time. Each impact briefly creates a moment in which the other player can’t input new commands, a tiny island of order in a sea of chaotic motion. If you’re fast and skilled enough, and your position is good enough, you can land another hit before the other player is allowed to input commands again. So far, so normal: speed and variety of movement aside, almost all fighting games have hitstun and combos. But what makes the Smash Brothers games unique is that, even when you’re getting comboed, you’re still making decisions, still controlling your trajectory both in the literal game and also in the configuration space of possible states.
Each player’s inputs affect which direction a hit sends their character, bending the trajectory or offsetting the expected initial position. Good players use both kinds of inputs simultaneously, meaning that every combo is actually a series of split-second reads to take into account injected uncertainty in an enemy’s position and velocity. In Melee, nothing is ever certain unless you are good enough to make it so: every successful combo is not just a series of well-timed button presses but a demonstration of precise knowledge combined with good reflexes and a feel for the game. Some combos are called ‘true’ because they always work as long as you execute them quickly enough and read your opponent’s DI–others are jankier, read-based affairs. But players of greater imagination find ways to expand the space of what’s possible, to make it harder for you to escape their combos, or more difficult for you to land sequential hits on them. Fifteen years in, we’re still finding new complexities in this old game. In the end, everything—combos, punishes, death, and damage—can be avoided except the 8 minute time limit. Eliminate your opponent’s stocks, or reach the end of time in the stronger position, and you win.
It’s impossible to think clearly while playing Melee. There are too many options and not enough time. You have to have an intuitive feel for it, and reach. You have to play with something faster than the part of your mind that forms words. Train your mind to see the tree of options, and select the branch that favors you, in a tenth of a second or less. There are physical skills, too. I get up every morning and practice movement, ledge options, punishes. This is part of what makes it feel like a sport to me; I’ve ground out technical skills in other games, but the physicality of Melee techniques like wavedashing and dashdancing, ledge hops and chaingrabs, feels more real to me somehow. High-level Melee players spend an insane amount of time practicing these physical motions: if you search for it, you can find a video of Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman asleep on a couch, controller still clutched in his hands, fingers still moving through the patterns of a wavedash, again and again.
In Melee, as in tennis, a game is never lost before it is over. No matter what deficit a player stands at—four stocks to one, two players standing on a doubles team against one remaining player—the possibility of recovery, of overcoming circumstance, exists. And great players overcome seemingly impossible odds with surprising regularity. As Wallace describes in a practice match midway through Infinite Jest, the first step to overcoming a great player is convincing yourself it is possible to do so; mental momentum plays a real role in determining the outcome of a match of Melee. The openings that each player creates for their opponents, the impossibility of perfection: these are what makes Melee games end in something other than stalemates. And when matches of Melee end, there’s a solemn sense of something that could have gone further coming to an end in the faces of the defeated players alongside the joy of the victors.
The impossibility of perfection.
Later in the book, the academy’s tennis coach delves even deeper, revisiting the chaotic limit-world of tennis, and focusing in on the most salient thing that makes tennis a sport that ends, the limits of those who play:
The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the for: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.
This might seem a little much for a fighting game, but it resonates with me. According to Wallace, games are not a place we go to escape ourselves, but to face ourselves, somewhere animated by the game’s boundaries, our own boundaries, and what lies beyond. Games are not without their rewards, as the coach reminds his cold and tired players during an especially brutal practice: cold and heat, tiredness and weakness do not exist inside the game but only outside it, and they can be set aside.
Games allow an escape not from but to.
Games allow an escape not from but to; if you exist fully in the world of the game—which is an equally real and unreal place, whether the game in question is chess or tennis, Melee or boxing—then you have not truly escaped your problems; they are still with you. But you are acting inside a different world, a world where those problems do not exist. Tennis does not care that it is cold or hot, Melee doesn’t care what bills you have left unpaid. Those things exist in your world, but not the world of the game—and to truly play the game at your best, you have to inhabit it, not by forgetting, but by passing inside, to a place animated by different rules, where every movement can carry an optimized purpose.
A sport is a space that allows great athletes to occur. Any sport, or even something like Melee, is a place people go in search of transcendence, through themselves or through awe at the skills of others. Without them, these great players not only would not be able to entertain or astound, but they could not even fully exist as themselves, could never fully occur, as Wallace would put it. I am no great player of Melee. I lose much more than I win. But I keep coming back for those few moments when I play the way I can imagine myself playing, when I find my way inside the world of the game for a brief moment, and push my limits, overcome something I thought was impossible. Those moments, these occurrences, are probably why I play games: parts of myself I discover, pieces of my identity that only exist thanks to the artificial boundaries I have chosen to force myself into, things about myself I never could have learned without seeking to improve at these arbitrary goals. Melee has been steadily providing them for a long time now. I hope to still be playing it fifteen years from now. Maybe I’ll be a little better by then.