Skip to main content

How Sifu’s developers made Kung Fu easy to understand

Sifu is a fairly difficult game with a simple premise: A martial artist sets out on a quest for revenge. Using the kung fu they’ve learned over the course of eight years, the hero must defeat five bosses all within the span of one life. They don’t die outright after getting beaten up, but become a bit older every time instead.

This leads to the game’s central question: “Is one life enough to master kung fu?” For what it’s worth, I’ve beaten the game and, yes, it is. But developer Sloclap doesn’t have a lifetime for players to know kung fu. I beat the game over the course of 30 hours, but was hooked immediately. From the game’s start, I felt that I knew it. That’s thanks to how easy it is to see the character’s movements and to watch them hone their martial arts skills.

In an interview with Digital Trends, Sloclap executive director Pierre Tarno and animation director Kevin Roger described the work that went into bringing Sifu‘s kung fu to life and how they made sure players would understand it.

Not for show or sport

Sifu stands out from a lot of other media that uses kung fu to market itself. The name brings back memories of old, American kung fu movies, full of cheesy special effects and bad dubbing. Those movies were loud, with actors exclaiming “hi-yah” or some other unrealistic stereotype every time they attacked. Bad guys would grunt and heave with “oofs” and “aghs” every time they were hit before being left on the ground, groaning.

While Sifu also partially markets itself as the video game version of a kung fu flick, its depiction of a martial artist in action is more akin to what I’ve seen in a dojo (I earned my black belt in Shotokan karate years ago). That’s thanks to two decisions on the part of Sloclap.

First was the choice to have Sifu‘s main character practice pak mei, a specific form of kung fu that Tarno describes as “a style that focuses on speed, explosivity, and precision.”

“When you think kung fu, you think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Tarno tells Digital Trends. “It’s super flowy and quite exuberant. This is a specific style that is very rounded; it’s not a show or sport. It’s something you do on the battlefield.”

Two characters wielding staffs face off in Sifu.

Attacks from Sifu‘s main character perfectly exemplify that through the course of the game. Their moves are about utility, not flair. Quick, close strikes characterize a majority of their attacks, their feet never leaving the ground unless it’s to kick, and even then, they never jump. Every movement is practical, but not boring. These are furious flurries of swipes, strikes, and punches, and they reflect the main character’s inner workings.

“We wanted the moves of the main character to reflect who he is,” said Tarno. “It’s a revenge story, We wanted that anger and rage to come through in his movements.”

What results is a realistic depiction of a martial artist in action. Sifu‘s main character can strategically take a group of enemies apart and without the sounds of a cheesy kung fu movie. “Realism is inherent to the style itself,” said Tarno. “We then built everything around it, including sound design, to make it feel grounded, realistic, or at least credible.”

Slowed down

For anyone who has seen a martial artist at work, Sifu‘s main character doesn’t completely look like one in action. Not because the charcter doesn’t sport the same cartoonish art style as the rest of the game, but because they simply aren’t moving fast enough.

“Pak mei is very fast,” Roger tells Digital Trends. “When you see Benjamin [a pak mei master brought on to assist with development] perform a move, it’s like, he does nine strikes in less than one second. You can’t see all of them. And because we’re not capable of seeing things that fast, my main challenge was to be readable and keep the authenticity.”

“Realism is inherent to the style itself.”

It’s not like Sifu is a slow game, either. While not blistering fast, the game’s main character can dole out moves quickly. In a flurry of hits, players can strike an opponent in their chest and neck three times before delivering an elbow to their head, knocking them face down on the ground. These attacks take some time to become recognizable, starting as a blur but slowly turning into a legible sequence of movements.

In reality, the only reason why these attacks are perceptible is that a majority of them use animated keyframes.

Keyframes are essentially pictures of how an animation should start, stop, and hit all the major points in between. A classic example of this would be to picture a ball bouncing. The first keyframe would show the ball dropping, the second would be it hitting the ground, and the last would show it at the top of its next arc.

Sifu's main character strikes an enemy.

For Sifu‘s animation team, keyframes helped ensure that when they were brought into the game, these attacks didn’t interrupt the gameplay or style. “Benjamin showed us a lot of Pak Mei techniques, we chose the ones we liked the most,” said Roger. “Because we chose one movement, though, we had to chain them with others. We started with one and continued to run through others. At the end, we had, I don’t know, maybe 200 movements with video references. We keyframed those movements, didn’t motion capture them.”

Of course, motion capture did come into play for one key part of Sifu: Its takedowns. When stunned, enemies are left vulnerable to a ruthless takedown attack, some of which use the surrounding area. The main character will block a kick, hold the attacker’s leg, and kick the other leg at the knee, for instance.

“We did use motion capture for very small parts of the game,” Roger continued, “the takedowns and finishers, because they’re more complicated movements with synchronized action and lots of contact. We made it to fit in the direction I put with the main character.”

However, it still seems that keyframing is why Sifu flows the way it does. “You can’t just [motion capture] animation and put it into the game,” Tarno explained, “because you’ve got so many gameplay constraints. There’s all these things about timing. We’d want a fast attack here, a slower one there, a powerful attack here. It’s a back-and-forth process, which is why we use keyframes, so we can stay within the style, keep the essence of the movements, while still having a cohesive gameplay experience.”

Sifu is available now on PC via the Epic Games Store, PS4, and PS5.

Editors' Recommendations

Otto Kratky
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Otto Kratky is a freelance writer with many homes. You can find his work at Digital Trends, GameSpot, and Gamepur. If he's…
One year later, Marvel Snap is my favorite mobile game of all time
Marvel Snap card list.

One year ago today, I gained access to the closed beta for an intriguing mobile collectible card game called Marvel Snap. I’d flirted with collectible card games (CCGs) like it before, but had dropped off titles like Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra due to problems with their structure, monetization, and complexity. Within a few matches of Marvel Snap, I saw how disruptive it was into the CCG genre, circumventing many of my problems with it. I’ve been hooked ever since.
In the year since I first played Marvel Snap, rarely does a day go by where I don’t log in. On the first anniversary of its beta, I’m confident enough in the game to declare that it has become not only my preferred CCG to play, but my favorite mobile game of all time.
Why Marvel Snap stands out
Marvel Snap has been praised a lot, especially after it saw a wider release in October 2022, and everything said about it is true. It’s much faster-paced than most card games, as it’s only six turns and both people in a match play cards at the same time. This makes rounds enthralling across all six turns and quick enough that I never play only one battle when I boot Marvel Snap up. Couple that with all the potential deck builds that can be played and possible locations that can spawn during a game, and each Marvel Snap match feels very different from one another. They can be fun, frustrating, and even funny.

That’s even the case if you’re using the same deck for a while. For quite a long time, I was using a Patriot and Mystique deck that powered up cards with no abilities. As developer Second Dinner continued to introduce new cards, I started to experiment with different types of decks, like a Morbius/M.O.D.O.K. discard-focused deck, a Collector/Devil Dinosaur one where the goal is to get as many cards into my hand as possible, and most recently, a High Evolutionary/Hazmat setup that unlocks the secret abilities of some cards and greatly debuffs the enemy.
After a while in Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra, I’d feel limited in the decks I could build and the viable enough strategies I could use. Neither are issues for me in Marvel Snap. Even when certain decks dominate the high-level metagame, that doesn’t mean other types of decks aren’t viable. Additionally, the number of recognizable characters turned in the cards encourages me to experiment with and use them.
There’s also the fact that I have an inherent familiarity with the cards I use. While I casually enjoy the worlds franchises like Warcraft and League of Legends occupy, I am less familiar with them than the Marvel Universe, and thus less excited when I pull a creature that I know nothing about. As a die-hard comics fan, though, I get excited each time I earn a new character in Marvel Snap. This game also allows me to play with weirder, obscure characters -- like Hell Cow, Orka, Aero, Darkhawk, or The Infinaut -- that are extremely unlikely to ever appear in a more traditional video game.
Good cards also aren’t usually locked behind paywalls, but that’s not to say Marvel Snap’s microtransactions are perfect. The $100 offers in the store are eye-raising, but I don't feel punished for not spending.
And unlike many mobile games, Marvel Snap’s progression is fair and engaging. Daily and seasonal challenges exist to keep players coming back and they refresh often enough that it’s usually worth booting up Marvel Snap a couple of times a day whenever I have a break. The objectives are all achievable enough for those with good knowledge of the game’s systems and they reward ample credits so you typically can upgrade a card or move up a tier in the battle pass within a day.

Read more
The best GTA characters of all-time
The protagonists of GTA V pose for the camera.

Ever since the GTA franchise became what it is today with Grand Theft Auto 3, Rockstar has packed their worlds full of colorful and rich characters. While we've only been able to control male characters up until now (though that is set to change if the GTA 6 rumors are true), they have all had distinct and interesting personalities and stories. That said, sometimes it's the side characters that can steal the show too. Looking back at the entire series, we've come up with our picks for the best GTA characters of all time.
Carl 'CJ' Johnson -- GTA: San Andreas

Good old Carl Johnson, better known as CJ, is way more than just a meme. San Andreas was the second game in the series to really focus on character in a major way, and the team nailed it with their lead. Not only was the entire cast filled with bonafide actors, but CJ's personal story as a gang member whose mother is murdered was far more nuanced and emotional than the media would lead you to believe. The real draw was the relationship CJ had with the main antagonist Officer Tenpenny (who may or may not be mentioned later on). This game set the standard for how Rockstar would reveal more about the characters and world through casual conversation throughout the story.
Tommy Vercetti -- GTA: Vice City

Read more
Alan Wake 2: release date, trailers, gameplay, preorder, and more
Alan Wake.

The original Alan Wake is a game that went through quite a troubled development before it was finally released. After many iterations and changes in scope and direction, the final product was initially a cult hit but didn't hit the mass market it needed -- at least not initially. After two DLC episodes, a sequel was in the works to build upon the first game and revive some of the elements that had to be cut from the first in order for it to ship, but this was ultimately not meant to be. The sequel was canceled and a smaller downloadable game, Alan Wake's American Nightmare, was released instead.

Since then, we hadn't heard from our intrepid writer until he showed up in a very unlikely place. Featured in the AWE expansion for a completely different game, Control, Alan was back in the picture. With a remaster of the initial game catching everyone up on his first appearance, now was the perfect time to announce that the long-awaited sequel was back in development. We haven't found all the manuscript pages yet, but here is everything we know about Alan Wake 2.
Release date

Read more