The fighting game genre, over time, has developed mechanics that have become mainstays of core design. Basic movement is always present along with the attack/defense triangle of strike/block/throw. Every game has its own unique mechanics, sometimes coming as a suite that an observer can use to identify the game’s developer (“Oh, this game has xyz mechanic! It likely was made by…”). In between the core elements and the unique ideas, however, is a mechanic that is often considered polarizing. This mechanic is stun. Let’s talk about why this idea is in this mechanical purgatory and where it fits in the genre.

In all scenarios henceforth:

Player 1 is the aggressor and Player 2 is the defender unless noted otherwise.

Stun (or dizzy) is a state that is inflicted upon a player when their character has been hit enough to pass a certain threshold; the player’s character is unable to move for a short while and is open to damage until control is regained. Stun isn’t present in all games, but has appeared in several big ones (the most notable being Street Fighter II). In most modern implementations of stun, the inner workings of the mechanic generally flow like this: attacks from a character (for the purposes of this conversation) have two values associated with them–damage and stun values. Connecting an attack inflicts the calculated damage (based on proration, modifiers, etc.) to the character’s vitality gauge and inflicts the calculated stun to some stun threshold that may or may not be visible to the player (partially visible in Guilty Gear XX and entirely visible in Street Fighter III). Once the stun threshold has been passed, the stunned character will visibly enter a stunned state (complete with swaying animations and stars) and will be unable to move for a short time. The stunned player typically has the option to wiggle or mash to attempt to regain control of their character faster, since being stunned means the opponent can assault you risk-free if they can get to you in time. This is the general modern implementation of stun. Some games tweak some things or add some things, but the basics are right here.

Now that we know generally what stun is, we need to talk about how it works before we try to understand how it impacts games. The first big thing to realize is that stun is damage-independent. Since stun values aren’t necessarily derived directly from damage values, stunning can occur at variable times in a game. Stun having an independent value also means certain moves, tactics or even entire characters can be based around the idea of stun as a playstyle. Next is something that is variable between stun implementations; once stun actually occurs, in some games the threshold is increased by a certain percentage. What this threshold increase does is make stunning the opponent a second time in the same round more difficult to do. Characters that have an easy time stunning opponents aren’t necessarily guaranteed to stun lock an opponent into the next round.

Finally, another variable in stun implementations, is the interaction the stunning and stunned character have on contact during a combo and the resulting damage calculations. In some implementations (like Street Fighter IV), the character will immediately drop from whatever combo they’re in and enter the stunned state. If a player strikes the stunned character, the damage will be calculated as though the current strike is a continuation of the previous combo; this makes crossing the stun threshold during a combo with few attacks more damaging than crossing the stun threshold near the end of a long combo, since the assault on the stunned character will yield more damage if the combo is still considered “fresh”. In some implementations (like Guilty Gear Xrd), the character will visibly enter the stunned state during a combo, but will still be free to strike in the current combo; the aggressor can continue and finish the combo or drop it and start a new one (with a fresh combo counter and damage calculation); sometimes, they can do both if the stun happens close enough to the proper end to a combo. Implementations like this typically result in higher damage yield for the aggressor.

Let’s turn to examine the implications of the stun mechanic. Some players love the presence of stun. “It teaches players to block and rewards consistent aggression,” they say. Some players cry foul when it comes to stun. “Why should a player get punished for getting hit when the depletion of their vitality gauge already serves as their punishment?” others ask. For some players, it’s about getting rewarded for successfully attacking the enemy several times without the enemy regaining their footing. For others, it’s about receiving punishment for being punished. In the end, of course, it’s about how well the stun mechanic is woven into the fundamental fabric of the game. Stun cannot be looked at in a vacuum simply because whether it’s “good” or “bad” depends on how you can trigger it and what you can gain from it.

Does stun really teach players how to block? The answer is probably no. The reason for this is quite simple; most stun implementations do not have the stun gauge drain if a player is blocking. That is to say, if Player 1 has built up Player 2’s stun meter to some value, that value will not begin to drop while Player 2 is blocking attacks. The fact that the stun gauge doesn’t deplete during blockstun isn’t a good reason to stop a player from blocking on its own though. Blocking is a very basic technique that is powerful; you’re not taking damage outside of chip and even though your stun gauge isn’t depleting, it isn’t increasing either. If all these benefits of blocking are mostly consistent across games, why would blocking not be an attractive option when considering stun and the scenario of a player with a high stun gauge? The answer to that can be seen by looking at what happens when a player blocks. This varies from game to game, but most games have defensive resources that are consumed for blocking over long periods of time. Some games have a guard gauge. Some games have defensive gauges used to push an opponent back that deplete over time. Some games even have chip damage on normals! In the scenario of Player 2 on the defensive with a high stun gauge, blocking as a defensive option becomes less and less attractive as more resources are consumed to continue blocking while the situation for the defensive player does not improve for the most part due to the stun gauge still remaining high.

What’s more, a wrong defensive guess means that once Player 2 is opened up, they are likely susceptible to larger-than-normal damage or are left with fewer options available to attempt another shot at offense once they stop getting hit. On top of that, riskier offensive options can be employed more often in a high stun scenario because the reward is so much better for the aggressor; this means Player 2 has to consider more things to block than normal–indeed, even attacks that could open a player but could still be punishable on block or even on hit are now incredibly potent options that could yield round-ending damage. In a high stun gauge scenario, Player 2 is more likely to leverage counter pokes and mobility options because the risk/reward yield in these options is much more in their favor. Successful movement and counter poking not only has the passive benefit of slowly draining the stun gauge, but also opens up a chance for offense. In the case of games where pokes can lead to combos, this is even more beneficial because while one Player 2’s stun gauge is decreasing, Player 1 is receiving stun values of their own, taking damage and losing control of screen space and momentum. Again, stun isn’t a mechanic that you examine in a vacuum. The relationship isn’t about stun versus block; it’s how all the fundamental aspects of the game work relative to each other.

Does stun really punish players for getting hit? The answer to this question is a definite no. The vitality gauge, in the end, marks the punishment for getting hit. What stun does punish players for, though, is getting hit several times in succession. Receiving a combo into a knockdown hurts, but if a player is unable to reverse their situation or make space from that point on in a round, then stun steps in to say, “You got hit too many times, but more than that, you got hit too many times in a row.” In games with high stun resistance among characters, even knocking a character down and hitting them over and over is usually not enough to cause stun, so there are typically “problem” moves or characters that make more use of stun and can inflict the status more often. Similarly, stun makes itself visible here by saying, “You got hit by this one move/tactic way too many times…now hold this damage.” This lesson or statement on its own does not turn stun into an educational tool, however. In a line of thinking with respect to punishment, stun is more of a spotlight than a tutor. Stun highlights that there was a breakdown in defensive decision making. Stun doesn’t tell you explicitly what to do or why whatever happened happened, but simply tells both players that there is a defensive disconnect going on for one player out of the two.

Next, we’ll look at applications of stun and how they relate to current-generation mechanics.