You know, I spend a lot of time talking about movie swordplay, but do you know what’s really awesome? Video game swordfighting. For pure silliness, you just can’t beat the balls-out crazy that usually goes into game combat. Movies can get away with their silliness because of the requirements of story and characterization and all that, but games? Oh man, they’re on another level. There is almost nothing about video game swordplay that makes sense from the perspective of true swordplay.
Most of it comes down to the requirements of actual gameplay. Games are not generally played by actual swordfighters, so there’s a lot of simplification going on. Games are limited by the technology, so it’s like sparring with a particularly dumb opponent that only follows a handful of rules and you have only a couple of moves at your disposal – unless you’re on a Wii, of course, which means you can actually pretend you’re swinging a sword. (You’ll still look like an idiot though.) The aim is really to make swordplay fun and accessible and possible with a little rinky-dink controller, not to make it realistic.
In another way, the excessive silliness we see in video game swordplay is a direct result of the technology not having the same limits as physical people with swords. Hence, we get the absolute insanity of impossible weapons that could never be lifted, let alone wielded, mid-air pinwheeling, hitting five opponents at once, and other offenses against good taste and the laws of physics.
See, in live action movies you still need to deal with physics, but in video games, you basically get to make up your own rules. This is why there will likely never be a live action Final Fantasy movie, folks. Even with the best physical special effects, there’s no way you’re getting the Buster Sword on-screen as a physical object unless you make it out of foam.
Anyway – one thing that kinda bugs me about video game swordplay is that it’s suffering from the same issues as Hollywood swordplay – it’s all the same. Take a look at these games:
They all look… remarkably similar, once you get past the differences in style. The player fights multiple opponents, in which you’re dodging or moving in one direction. Highly flashy skills are used, with the usual ridiculous baseball bat flailing going on. The player can hit multiple opponents at once and generally breaks all the laws of physics while doing so. It feels absolutely, totally unrealistic and it’s about as threatening as clipping your nails. Spinning like an Olympic ice-skater on too much coffee is apparently essential. The enemies stand back and take turns at making attacks.
Now these are ostensibly very different games, but their representation of swordplay could be transplanted wholesale into any one of them with no effect on the rest of the game. And that’s just boring, after a while. The combat is frequently the big selling point of these games as well, so you’d think they’d do something more interesting with them. The thing is, there are far, far too many games (good and bad) that default to this kind of gameplay while adding nothing much to it – God of War and Heavenly Sword come to mind.
But are they fun?
Well, your mileage may vary. I do love some hack ‘n’ slash in my video games, but I often found that combat just got tedious as hell after a while – and if that was the whole point of the game, I inevitably stopped playing it. It was the games that did something new, or interesting, that kept my attention – like the original Assassin’s Creed, for example, where the swordplay was slow and visceral and definitely not the point of the game. Games like Skyrim stand out as well simply because first person fighting feels so much more personal, and satisfying.
It’s almost gotten to the stage where swordplay in games has ground itself into a rut, and only one or two mainstream titles are really trying to break the stereotype. I will say this much, though – hats off to fighting games like Soul Caliber. They’re still all kinds of silly, but at least they mix it up and give the characters different styles.