Saturday, August 23, 2014

Blood and Steel

Close quarters combat with sharp bits of metal is a hallmark of fantasy themed video games.  In fact more often than not it's the primary gameplay mechanic in RPGs.  Obviously, trying to simulate the real thing is a daunting task, so the majority of titles opt to simplify matters by adopting pre-scripted animations of attacks.  Castle Crashers, God of War and The Witcher series fall into this category.  However there are some curious lesser known titles that deviate from this industry norm.

Rune attempted to tie mouse movement to attack button presses in such a manner that players could control the direction of their swings.  This was especially important to make use of when fighting undead enemies since they could only be slain by a well placed chop to the head.  Way of the Samurai gave players the ability to assume different fighting stances.  Thus, allowing for high, low and mid level attacks.  Blade of Darkness was somewhat of a precursor to the Souls series in that it had recharging stamina, shield blocking and target locking.  An additional feature was the ability to use directional keys in combination with presses of the attack button in order to strike foes from different angles.

Perhaps the most robust melee combat game yet made though is Die by the Sword.  While possessing multiple control schemes, the most hands-on choice allows for direct mouse control over the player character's sword arm.  It handles a bit like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, except with a far more dismemberment.

Plenty of fighting games have tried to make fencing their defining feature.  Bushido Blade, Deadliest Warrior, Infinity Blade and the Kengo series are all variations on the classic fighting genre although, as of yet, none have captured the realities of melee combat with any great degree of accuracy.  Mount and Blade does excellent work with regards to horseback combat, but like the rest of the games I've just mentioned it's still lacking a certain appeal when it comes to duels on foot.  So what can be done to improve the concept?

Well, distilled down to the essentials, melee combat is really about three forms of attack (cutting, bludgeoning or piercing).  Conversely, there are really only three forms of defense (dodging, blocking or parrying).  Injuries too can be broken down into three basic considerations; shock (temporary disruption of tissues caused by the raw kinetic force of a blow), pain (the nervous system reacting to damage sustained), and blood loss (the reduction in the supply of oxygen due to tissue damage).

This might come as a surprise to some, but inflicting an instantly fatal wound in reality is not as easy as mainstream entertainment media would have you think.  Psychological conditioning aside, only direct trauma to the brain, spine or heart kills outright.  Which means a lot of people who died by the sword (particularly the well armored) were most likely incapacitated by injures and exhaustion before being dispatched.  Of course video games tend to lack this feature for reasons usually stemming from the extremely abstract system of "hit point tokens," "health flasks," or "life bars" used to represent characters in games.  Typically, attacks don't account for the location or angle of impact either (not to mention the form of attack) which is a shame considering these factors heavily influence the lethality of a successful strike.  In truth though a fairly realistic simulation of melee combat wouldn't be all that complicated.  For example the kinds of strikes an attacker can make with a blade pretty much come down to about five:

  1. A vertical downward swing
  2. A horizontal swing
  3. A diagonal downward swing
  4. A diagonal upward swing
  5. A thrusting attack
All this might sound like an awful lot to account for in a video game, but if you're especially knowledgeable when it comes to table top RPGs the words "Riddle of Steel" might come to mind.  It's a phrase first coined in the 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian".  One interpretation might be it's a poetic expression regarding the enigma of power and how a single individual can hold dominion over many.  A more literal reading would be a reference to the closely guarded secrets used by ancient metal smiths to produce high quality weapons.  The mental connection I have with this phrase though is in association with a more-than-decade-old table top game called none other than "The Riddle of Steel."

It simulates all the things I just mentioned with surprisingly elegant design mechanics.  Additionally, it adds to the mix special maneuvers such as bluffs, feints, ripostes, binds, counters and a multitude of other tricks of the trade employed by people who did (and still do) practice swordsmanship.  The result is the most accurate representation of the real thing your going to get with paper, pencils and dice.

I find it odd that no one ever made a serious attempt to develop a video game with similar mechanics.  Especially since a little bit of programming would remove most of the tedious and time consuming bits of calculation needed in the table top game.  My personal theory is that, much like movies, stylized depictions of violence are considered preferable to grizzly realism (see the video linked bellow for an approximation of what medieval combat might have been like without the Hollywood treatment).

On the other hand there's a steadily growing demand for decisions and consequences in video games.  What better way to convey such a notion than with combat being a horrific, high stakes affair that probably won't end well for one or both sides of the conflict?  In a bit of an attempt to spotlight the human element of melee combat the Riddle of Steel RPG tosses in the concept of "Spiritual Attributes," basically phrases or short sentences detailing a character's personal convictions.  When applicable they provide bonuses to actions.  In the crux of battle this can oftentimes mean the difference between life and death.  In a video game this kind of thing could be handled through RPG decision trees common to the genre.  Alternatively, think customized character creation except with a focus on the internal rather than external.

So going back once more to the origin of The Riddle of Steel, Conan's father tells him that steel is the only true source of power.  Later, Thulsa Doom tells him that "flesh" (fanatical followers in this case) is where actual strength lies.  Ultimately, Conan realizes it is neither flesh nor steel, but his own beliefs that matter most.  A good sword will not protect against a thousand foes, nor will a thousand allies prove salvation from a well placed sword thrust.  What Conan believes in though, what drives him, what defines who he is...that (for better or worse) makes all the difference.  And any game emphasizing this sort of thing is a game worth giving a shot...IMHO.

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