Old Boy, John Wick, Sifu: The design of a Pak Mei master
April 7, 2022
Sloclap is an independent games studio that was created in Paris in 2015. Its first project, Absolver, is an online action game with unique gameplay mechanics that was initially released on PC and PS4 before coming to Xbox One. Absolver has sold more than 300,000 copies to date, and millions more have tried it through the PS Plus Game of the Month and Xbox Game Pass programs.
In just seven years and two games, Sloclap has minted a name for itself as a studio that manages to almost magically capture the flow and essence of hand-to-hand combat in a video game.
Absolver, released in 2017, delivered poetic, fluid, dynamic choreography in the studio’s debut effort, making good on the game’s taglines that combat is a dance and movement is your weapon.
In Sifu, Sloclap’s much-anticipated second title, the choreographic combat of Absolver is honed through the mastery of the real-world techniques of Pak Mei kung fu, and the game is given both a compelling revenge storyline and creative aging mechanic that balances out that liquid-smooth combat with a compelling cost to in-game failure.
The result is a game steeped in praise, earning near-perfect review scores from a plethora of publications. We chatted with the Paris-based development team about the game’s inspiration, the evolution of the studio’s praise-worthy combat system, and its many influences from movies to video games.
Image courtesy of Sloclap
When Absolver came out in 2017, it impressed a lot of critics with an approach to combat that was fluid and dynamic. What lessons learned during the creation of Absolver were applied to the fighting mechanics and controls used for Sifu?
Jordan Layani, Sloclap Co-Founder, Sifu Creative Director, Game & Level Design Lead: Absolver was our first game, we had to do everything from scratch. Sifu relies a lot on what we’ve done during Absolver, but the two games have quite different goals in terms of combat design and controls.
Absolver was mainly made for 1v1 PvP, the combat was more static with a locked camera and no traversal. It was balanced with more complexity on how to defend and attack well, with a directional parry, different stances, or the gold attack timing for instance.
For Sifu, the goal was to recreate what we can see in martial art movies, with a more agile character and a lot more different actions available. So in terms of controls and fighting mechanics, we needed to make it more accessible, more direct to execute for the players so they can follow the sustained rhythm given by the game and obtain the dynamism we wanted to achieve.
What inspired the team to create Sifu?
Layani: There are three types of inspirations for Sifu on my side; a lot of martial arts and kung fu movies; the Pak Mei kung fu style I practice and all the cultural aspects associated with it; and other video games—mainly character action games like God Hand or Metal Gear Rising.
Many colleagues in the Sloclap team are passionate about kung fu and martial arts in general. We are especially fond of martial arts action movies, both old-school and contemporary.
Image courtesy of Sloclap
I’m fascinated by the game’s combat system. Video games have a long history of trying to capture the kinetic feel of hand-to-hand combat in games. What you seem to be doing reminds me a bit of what Jet Li tried to create with Rise to Honor back in the early 2000s and the fluid combat found in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’m curious, what games influenced your design decisions when building out the combat system in Sifu?
Layani: We wanted to have the kind of feel you can see in movies like The Raid, with a deep combat system that lets the player be creative. So the design decisions were often influenced by movie references and character action games like MGR, Bayonetta, God Hand, and such.
Oddly enough Batman or Sleeping Dogs were not part of our references in terms of combat design, even if they are closer to the cinematographic experience we wanted to have compared to the Platinum games.
I also have to mention Sekiro. We wanted to reflect the concept of “opening the way” to “finish” your opponent told in my Pak Mei lessons. We tried different things and in the end we designed what we called the Structure System which is heavily inspired by the posture of Sekiro.
Kung fu also, of course, has a rich cinematic history. Were there any particular films, directors, or actors that helped shape the look and feel of the game and its fighting style?
Layani:The Raid (Gareth Evans) helped to define the feel, more precisely the balance between realism and tension of combat, and the unrealistic fancy aspect needed to have something cool on screen.
Jackie Chan’s movies were references for the one versus multiple enemies and use of environment: Police Story (Jackie Chan), Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung), Miracles (Jackie Chan).
Then the game is filled with a lot of small references and inspirations from many action and martial arts movies, such as John Wick (Chad Stahelski), Fearless (Ronny Yu), The Blade (Tsui Hark), Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino), and such.
Image courtesy of Sloclap
Can you walk us through how the combat system works in Sifu?
Felix Garczynski, Sloclap Marketing & Publishing Manager: Building on our experience working on martial arts gameplay with Absolver but focusing this time on a single-player game, we wanted with Sifu to offer a unique player experience, heavily drawing from kung fu and martial arts movies. Fighting villains by the dozen in a nightclub, jumping over tables, and throwing bottles. We want the player to feel like the main character of a kung fu movie.
In terms of design, it meant for us striking a balance between credibility—realistic combat techniques, faithful animations—and aesthetics, with crisp action and immersive camera framings. With Sifu, we wanted to mix the aesthetics of classic kung fu movies with the raw close-quarters combat found in modern movies such as The Raid, Old Boy, or John Wick.
The combat system draws from these different inspirations. We want the gameplay to offer a challenge consistent with the kung fu values of training and self-improvement. And we want players to experience a progression, to feel like they are learning kung fu, improving, and progressively earning their power fantasy.
We designed what we called the Structure System, to emulate the real combat notion of impacting and breaking the stance of your opponent, his ability to attack and defend himself. It takes the form of a gauge, for both you and your enemies. If you manage to break your opponent’s structure, you will be able to finish them with a powerful takedown, which is the opportunity to display the devastating techniques of Pak Mei. But if your own structure gauge is filled, you’re unable to fight and defend yourself for a short duration and you will find yourself vulnerable to your enemies’ attacks.
The player will start with an offensive kit able to deal with any opposition, but it will take you some time to learn the different properties of the techniques available to you. You can mix strong and fast attacks to build combos, on a single enemy or going from one opponent to the other. And as you progress and unlock new skills, you will have more options available to fit your playstyle and how you like to approach challenging situations. You will be able to knock your enemies down, push them back into their allies, stun them, or disarm a threatening foe. It will be particularly useful as you start fighting more and more opponents at the same time.
Image courtesy of Sloclap
How did you tie the game’s animation style into the combat system to deliver something that makes players feel in control of the action and as if they’re mastering martial arts?
Garczynski: We have worked with a kung fu master, Benjamin Colussi, on the design of the animations and the different combat moves of our main character. Our game design team defined a list of moves they wanted to integrate into the game, and they then worked with Benjamin, capturing his interpretation of every single movement for the main character in order to reproduce it by hand using keyframes. We also took two days in a motion capture studio to directly capture all the coordinated takedowns with Benjamin and a stunt artist.
This way of working ensured that the main character’s more than 200 movements and animations are very authentic, they are the translation of Pak Mei actual techniques and moves and they create the sensation of feeling the blows, whether you’re taking or giving them. You can find more info on our collaboration with Benjamin below.
What made you decide to base the game’s combat on Pak Mei kung fu as opposed to another form, or a fighting system that’s a bit broader like Wushu?
Garczynski: Pak Mei is a southern style, more grounded than the northern ones. We wanted an efficient style, mostly percussive, and explosive. It’s exactly what Pak Mei is. Also, it’s ferocious, there is an incredible energy that works well with the revenge story of Sifu.
A lot has been said and written about Sifu’s mesmerizing combat system, but the game has a lot more going for it beyond the slick combat system. How does the aging system work and where did the idea for it come from?
Garczynski: Kung fu or “gōngfu” can refer to any discipline or skill achieved through hard work, practice, and patience. Kung fu as a martial art carries the concept of endless self-improvement, of a mastery kept alive and relevant by permanent practice. In that sense, a single life is never enough to know or have kung fu.
In Sifu, our hero, although they’ve been training their whole life, is only 20 years old. They are driven by a burning desire for revenge and will have to face a dangerous group of assassins, who have become prominent figures of the city and are based in well-defended strongholds. Our young student does not have the luxury of an entire life ahead of them to improve their kung fu, and as they depart on their path of revenge, at dusk, they will have to find and defeat all of their enemies in a single night.
As we have already shown before, our hero has one powerful tool to help them on their quest: an ancient pendant that can heal them back to life. But nothing is ever free. That pendant has to be fueled with life energy, and every time they get back up, they will age.
That means that you will start the game with a limited resource that you must manage carefully if you want to reach the end of your quest. Aging will not make you weaker, but it has a slight impact on your abilities: as you get older, you will trade maximum health for offensive power. Your character’s model will also showcase how old you are, and you will be able to contemplate the consequences of your actions. But getting older has no drawbacks to your abilities and you will be able to complete the game at any age.
The ability and combo unlocking system forces players to choose what matters most to them for the long play of the game, extending beyond a single death. What made you decide to give the character’s mastery of his fighting skills this ephemeral quality?
Garczynski: Skills can be both unlocked for a single run, allowing the players to try different options and to open up more possibilities for tackling difficult situations, but they can be also permanently unlocked to allow players to have their favorite skills available right from the start of a new run.
Image courtesy of Sloclap
How did you go about designing the “gang-ridden suburbs” and the “cold hallways of corporate towers” for the game’s setting?
Garczynski: Each of the five main settings for the game is directly linked to a traditional Chinese element. The ones you mention are respectively linked to wood and metal/gold, and you can see how they inspired the visual identities of each of these levels. As you can also notice while exploring the game, each of the environments progressively evolves from a grounded reality to more fantastical and magical atmospheres. Besides the artistic effect, it is a mirror of the game’s story and lore, which mixes both a detailed and documented representation of reality with fantasy elements.
Were there any particular design challenges you overcame that you’d like to walk us through here?
Garczynski: One specific challenge we faced when designing the combat system was making it possible for players to fight many enemies at once without being overwhelmed. If multiple enemies repeatedly attacked at the same time from different directions it would make the player’s life completely impossible. We adapted by creating a “ticket” system with one main opponent and secondary enemies in fight situations, to help make the fight readable for players. We also designed the defensive options to help the player manage the flow of combat: dodge to create space, deflect to block an enemy in his tracks and interrupt his combo, and avoids allowing the players to maintain an offensive rhythm without interruption.
Image courtesy of Sloclap
You used Unreal Engine for both Absolver and Sifu, what drew you to the engine initially, and why was it a good fit for your second title?
Garczynski: Unreal Engine is very powerful and flexible. The ability to modify the engine to suit our needs was an important part of why we chose to work with Unreal Engine, starting with our first project, Absolver. Unreal Engine’s Blueprint visual scripting system is also very useful in production, allowing designers to implement mechanics themselves, whether it’s for prototyping or for actual features.
What impact did designing for PlayStation 5, and its plethora of next-gen features, have on Sifu?
Garczynski: We designed Sifu to offer a smooth gameplay experience on both PS4 and PS5, but the integration of the advanced features of the PS5 such as the haptic feedback as well as the possibility to have a 4K resolution and close to no loading time really brings value to the experience on PS5.
Thanks for taking the time to chat. Where can people learn more about Sloclap and Sifu?