Friday, July 1, 2016

In the Eye of Argon

The concept of a ferocious, half-naked barbarian is hardly new.  There are references as far back as ancient Rome that mention Gaelic and Germanic warriors who would strip down, paint their bodies and charge fearlessly into combat.  The modern version tends to be associated with the sword and sorcery.  Codified by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, this subgenre is a mixture of ancient history and low fantasy.  Howard himself pictured the setting as the "Hyborian Age," a time after the fall of mythical Atlantis, but before the rise of Greece and Egypt.  So, what has any of this got to do with video games?  Not much until the 1980s...

After Robert E. Howard's death at the young age of thirty, sword and sorcery fell to the wayside.  When it finally saw a resurgence in the later half of the 20th century, it had changed a bit in terms of sensibilities.  The most obvious aspect being clothing.  It's true that Robert E. Howard would describe his most iconic character, Conan, wearing nothing more than a loincloth at times, but it's important to note that this was usually because the barbarian was traveling under a hot and humid jungle canopy or taking warm evening sojourn through a city in the desert.  On other occasions Conan would wear armor, furs or whatever best suited the situation.  In the 1980s though there was this thing called the nudist movement, plus painters like Frank Frazetta and Vallejo Boris, not to mention a pseudo-documentary called "Pumping Iron" staring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Basically people were spending more time at the gym and they wanted to show off all their hard work.  In other words barbarians were scantly clad regardless of concerns like hypothermia or sunburn.  Anyway...on to the barbarians in video games!

The first sword and sorcery game I every played was Conan: Hall of Volta.  It was basically a 2D puzzle-platformer that little to do with the franchise it was based on.  Two things worth noting, this version of Conan always does front flips when jumping and throws swords rather than swinging them.  Another game to come out around the same time was Death Sword.  A one-on-one fighting game, it had a wide variety of moves including a slow decapitation attack that kills in a single hit.  Incidentally, there was this little green fellow who would would always show up after a match, kick the severed head off the edge of the screen (if there was one to kick) and proceed to mumble something over the corpse of the looser before dragging the body away.  To this day I wonder what that little guy said.  Was it a silent prayer?  A curse?  The measurements for the coffin?  We may never know...

On the arcade front there were titles like Rastan (a side-scrolling action game), and Golden Axe (a classic from the beat'em-up genre).  Obviously, a big part of these kind of games is the physicality of the characters.  Showing off precise muscle definition sometimes came at a price.  No steroids here, I'm talking about titles like Sword of Sodan, a game that has some of the biggest, most detailed character sprites you'll find on the Sega Genesis.  They look cool, but they come at the expense of fluid controls.  Ironically, there's a grain of truth here in that real life body builders sometimes focus on muscle mass and definition at the expense of agility, resulting in a strong, but somewhat clumsy individual.  The movie director of the original "Conan the Barbarian" noticed this when he cast Arnold for the role and asked the then seven time Mr. Olympia champion to do more calisthenic exercises (like jump rope and horseback riding) rather than focusing solely on weight lifting.  The results were mixed, with Arnold nursing a sprained ankle through the later part of the production shoot.  He really doesn't have that "panther-ish" grace that Robert E. Howard used to describe the character.

It's actually a hard balance to find, both in reality and in the world of video games.  Take for example the 2007 Conan game by THQ.  They copied the gameplay straight from God of War which resulted in an agile and responsive character that also felt a bit weightless at times.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but (purely from a physical performance standpoint) Jason Momoa is probably the closer to the original Robert E. Howard character than any other actor who has taken on the role.  Too bad the script and directing in the Conan reboot movie gave the actors nothing to work with.  This brings me to an important part of the sword and sorcery genre that's often neglected - the weirdness.  Hypnotizing wizards, eldritch horrors, esoteric cults, forgotten ruins are just a few examples, but some campiness is almost a requirement of the genre.  Sometimes it can get pretty bad in some low-budget films like "Deathstalker," "The Blade Master," or my personal favorite (the so bad it's good) "Barbarian Brothers."  Much like how DeCamp and Carter tried to emulate Robert E. Howard, these derivative works don't hold up well against the originals.  Sometimes knockoff adaptations can take on a style of their own though.  Such is the case with the animated film "Fire and Ice."  While not a good movie (mostly because Ralph Bakshi isn't good at telling epic stories) it is unique.  I want to say more but I think this snippet of a review by Micheal Seahorn sums up my feelings quite nicely:
Bakshi’s stylistic choices make it hard not to also examine the movie in a social context, and it’s pretty eclectic. For one thing, adherence to the Frazetta style makes this one of the few fantasy flicks I’ve seen wherein the male characters are almost as sexualized as the females, give the minimalist wardrobe. Hero Larn finds himself in need of rescue several times, and despite the ceaseless efforts of the screenplay to turn her into a damsel, heroine Teegra is a pretty resourceful character. Other depictions are less progressive, though. Ice lord Nekron is pretty unambiguously gay, but his implied homosexuality – specifically, the fact that he finds Teegra undesirable – is presented as an evil attribute. And what can be said about the dark-skinned, animalistic “subhumanoids” other than an acknowledgement of how clearly fantasy often caters to exclusively white audiences?
As odd as it might sound, the recently released Age of Barbarian: Extended Cut reminds me a lot of "Fire and Ice," except if it were CGI instead of rotoscope animation.

So, what is the future of sword and sorcery when it comes to video games?  Well...it's pretty hard to have a discussion about it without at least mentioning the Conan MMORPG.  I can't say I'm much of a fan of MMOs, and RPG gameplay inherently feels a bit too abstracted for what is supposed to be a very raw and visceral experience.  The new Conan Exiles game doesn't really appeal to me for similar reasons.  If I had to chose a favorite from all the sword and sorcery games that have come out over the years I'd probably go with Mark of Kri.  Although, I personally believe the best kind of Barbarian-themed video game would be something like Red Dead Redemption except with the old west replaced Hyboria, or the Witcher except everyone has less clothes and more muscle.  When you think about the original stories, they're really about one exceptional individual carving out their own destiny and what better way to express that in video game terms than with a open world setting?  Or perhaps I should say a sandbox from an age undreamed of?

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