The Magic Of Muscle Memory For Games

Screenshot: YouTube

I’ve been practising my Street Fighter 5 combos lately, and I’ve found that the less I think about them, the easier it is to do them. On this week’s episode of Kotaku Splitscreen, my co-host Kirk Hamilton and I talked about muscle memory in games, and also music.

Our third host Jason Schreier is on holiday, so Kirk and I got to put on our musician hats and spend the entire rest of the episode comparing Sekiro to jazz. (Kidding.)

We start out by answering a listener email about losing game saves, then discuss this week’s PlayStation 5 announcement (16:49), as well as the Notre-Dame fire, which has us thinking about notable monuments in Assassin’s Creed games (22:43).

We talk about games we’re playing (32:41), which then spirals into a discussion of Sekiro, difficulty and accessibility. We close out the show with an off-topic discussion of superhero movies (1:05:27) and Kirk’s music pick of the week.

Listen here:

Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt below:

Maddy: This will either make me sound like a badarse or a dumbarse, depending on how you look at it, but something that actually helps me when I’m drilling combos is not looking at the screen and instead either closing my eyes or just spacing out while only focusing on what my hands are doing and feeling what my hands are supposed to do.

I have an octagonal gate on my fight stick — different people like different kinds of gates — but really feeling where the joystick is supposed to go is almost easier when you’re not looking at the screen.

Kirk: That totally makes sense.

Maddy: Because sometimes you’re trying to cancel moves into other moves, and the visuals on the screen are very confusing, at least to me, because you think you don’t have enough time or you do have enough time to do a button press that you actually — it’s more of just a rhythmic thing that you have to do, regardless of what’s happening on the screen.

Which is a counterintuitive way to think about a game. But yeah, as a result of that, I can do combos while literally watching Golden Girls, which is either cool or stupid.

Kirk: At the very least, it’s efficient.

Maddy: It is! It’s a good way to practise...

Kirk: One question about practising combos, which I’ve never really done in a fighting game: What’s the software doing when you’re doing that? Are you fighting a computer-controlled character? Punching a car?

Maddy: Fighting a computer-controlled character. At this point, in Street Fighter’s current iteration, there are many many different things that you can have the computer-controlled character do in response to you. You can train the computer-controlled character to do a series of moves if you want to, and it will do moves that you can then practise yourself reacting to.

I am not on the level of needing to do that, but it’s certainly something I see pros do in their streams and training videos, and it’s always very cool to watch that kind of thing.

But you can just have the computer character start out unblocked and then block as soon as you don’t complete a combo, for example, so that you can just practise completing a specific combo, or chain of attacks, into each other. And they’ll start blocking if you haven’t done it well enough.

Although also, the ticker will count up; if you haven’t gotten a certain number of hits in a combo, it’s obvious if you’re doing it right or not. But that’s just one way to make sure. There’s different things you can do.

I usually just do that. But I’m also just doing the Challenges, because I never defeated all of the challenge modes for every character. So I’m like, I could go ahead and do that. That’s within my powers to do.

Kirk: That makes sense. The whole muscle memory thing — we always talk about music and games. I think about the story of John Coltrane making a tiny saxophone that wasn’t a saxophone, it was just keys. He built it out of parts, and he would just sit around fingering notes.

Which you do anyway, right? I’m sure you do that with piano stuff, when your fingers are just — I would always do this when I was practising a lot of saxophone, which is just your fingers running through this weird subconscious subroutine that then you learn how to reconnect to your conscious brain.

Maddy: It’s so weird. I remember I’ve gone in and out of phases of practising my own songs a lot, and it’s weird how much they’re in my head at this point. It’s actually easier to play them if I’m not thinking about it. If I’m really tired, or in a spaced out type of a mood, practising songs I know how to play becomes significantly easier.

Street Fighter can actually be the same way. I feel like I’ve done so much better in matches when I manage to not be thinking at all about what I’m doing.

I also tweeted once about how Bloodborne was way easier after having precisely one beer, because it’s exactly the same kind of effect, where you have the right calibration of not giving a damn any more. You’re just like, “This doesn’t matter at this point!”

Kirk: I totally know what you mean. In jazz, we always call that having a song under your fingers. It’s like your fingers just do it for you.

There will be times when I’m going back over jazz solos I transcribed 20 years ago, 15 years ago. I won’t think about them, and I’ll just play the whole thing and be like, holy crap! I don’t even know what I just played! It’s uncanny.

Maddy: That was inside your body, but not even your brain.

Kirk: Right! It’s a weird way that your own self can surprise you. Your body almost can surprise you in a way that your brain had nothing to do with, even though clearly it is a subconscious thing. It’s just not on the conscious level. And games are so like that.

Maddy: It’s muscle memory. It feels magical.

Kirk: Right, muscle memory. Which is, I’m sure, well-documented and explained, the physiology of that, but it’s a fascinating thing.

And I totally have that in games. I’ll come back, and I’m garbage at something that I got really good at, but then will stop thinking about it — I won’t even remember what button does what, and I’ll think, “Just don’t think about it. Heal your character!” And then I’ll just press the right button.


    One of the weirdest parts of muscle memory in games is when you start a different game and in the heat of the moment you break out techniques/movements from different more familiar games with different control setups, your well established counter replaced with an awkward jump or skill use.
    When I started Devil May Cry 5 I kept accidentally destroying Neros artificial arm thingies because my brain kept trying to do something else from a whole different game.
    Fascinating part is that in time and with practice the errors happen less and less and happily coexist, allowing you to change freely between the games without much issue.

    I dislike New Super Mario Bros and similar mostly because after years or rather decades of conditioning with other Mario games, their strange, overlong air time wreck havoc on my muscle memory. I see Mario, I run, I press a button, Mario jumps, I try to jump again and turns out that Mario is still falling from the previous jump... nghhhh

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