Thursday, October 29, 2009

Play by the Sword

By C.T. Hutt

When I was about five years old, my grandmother read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in its entirety. That very year, my older brother loaned me J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series when he was finished with them. I was hooked: as long as there was a chance of high adventure and sword play, I was willing to stick my nose into almost any book. My enthusiasm for swords and sword fighting was not limited to the literary world. Growing up on a farm, kids have to make their own fun and my brother and I did so in fine style. We spent entire summers hammering crude cross handles and makeshift shields out of scrap wood scavenged from the workshops and barns in the area. Our weapons made, we would battle for hours, smashing away at each other’s faux weapons until they broke or we were called in for dinner. We must have put my mother through no shortage of worry, but it was fun, some of the best fun I’ve ever had.

It is no surprise that video games were quick to tap into young peoples’ interest in medieval armaments and fantasy. The Legend of Zelda was a huge success, and with good cause. In its time, it had awesome graphics and brilliant game play. These qualities where all but lost to me at the time as I was much more concerned with the sheer awesomeness of not only getting to see a dragon on my TV screen, but getting to slay it with my own hands. Other titles like Ninja Gaiden and the first couple of Final Fantasy games also grabbed my attention early on. They were, after all, adventure stories involving swords, and that was enough for me. The 1987 release of Sid Meier’s Pirates! Included not only a sword fight mini-game but scurvy buccaneers as well; you better believe I played that game through a couple hundred times on my parents’ old Mac.

Flash forward to the late nineties, my cup runneth over. Innumerable RPGs littered the medium; the Samurai Showdown and Last Blade series made a splash in the fighting game scene, and strategy games like Warcraft put entire armies of blade-wielding minions at my disposal. Weapons were upgradable; some of them glowed with magical power, and some of the best RPG’s like Bioware’s Baldur's Gate even allowed you to build a character from the ground up to specialize in almost any conceivable armament. It was a golden age of the controller and the sword, yet still, I was not satisfied. I wanted more from the experience.

It’s not that any of these titles fell short of video game greatness; they just never quite hit swordplay greatness. The player hits a button or clicks a mouse and the avatar swings a sword, damage is then assigned with a numerical representation displayed in a health bar. It just wasn’t enough: guns are a point and click mechanism, hence the enormous successes of ever so many first person shooters, but swords are much more complex. A gun shoots in one direction at a time; the swing of a sword is a much more elegant piece of physics. Its lethality is not only based on where it hits its target, but how fast it is moving, and how much weight you’ve put behind it. I can certainly appreciate the difficulty of putting such considerations into programming language, but without them I feel that the medium hasn’t quite captured the experience yet.

There have been several notable exceptions. Square Soft’s 1998 release of Bushido Blade 2 made a big impression on me. It was not so different from most of the other early 3-D fighting games with two major exceptions: one, your characters were armed. Two, if you managed to score a good hit on the other player with your weapon, they died. Even between two skilled opponents, matches typically lasted less than fifteen seconds. Many people didn’t like this kind of pacing, but I thought it was brilliant. After all, in the real world, if someone slashes you with a katana, it tends to kill you. Also in 1998, the developers at Tantrum Entertainment released Die by the Sword, a platform adventure game where you controlled the actual movement of your avatar’s sword arm, allowing you to thrust, parry, and slice to your heart’s content. This was a brilliant addition to the game, but a difficult dynamic to master. Translating complex swordplay to the keyboard never quite panned out. Both of these titles fell by the wayside of video game deployment, but I felt they had important things to offer the medium.

In 2006, I watched demonstrations of the Nintendo Wii and felt a new glimmer of hope. Here was perhaps the greatest development in gaming since the turn of the millennium. With motion-sensitive controls our avatars now not only responded to the manipulations of buttons and joysticks but the movements of our bodies. A crucial gap between gamers and the worlds they explore had been bridged. Playing the original Wii Sports I couldn’t help but think: if this system lets me toss around a bowling ball, what’s to say it won’t let me swing a sword? The release of Zelda: Twilight Princess got me all aflutter, but the end result was something of a disappointment. Sure, you swing your arm and Link swings his sword, but only in a few different ways. So far, swordplay on the Wii hasn’t really come into its own. Developers haven’t yet put all of the pieces together.

Hope springs eternal. Red Steel 2 for the Nintendo Wii is due for release in the first quarter of 2010 and it promises to utilize the full potential of the Wii MotionPlus, which should help sword play feel more like sword play and less like hitting buttons. Until then I will just have to goad my brother into a stick fight when we get together for Thanksgiving.

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