Two samurai stand ready for their duel on a long, dusty road. In a flash, they unsheathe their swords and rush to meet their destiny. The sharp staccato of steel on steel fills the air as their blades meet. When one misses a step, the other moves in with a life-ending thrust. But wait, what’s this? The stricken samurai raises his weapon and strikes back, scoring a deadly gash of his own. The opponents match each other blow for blow, swinging until their limbs are heavy and tired, until they are covered in blood. Finally, one nicks the other on the pinky, causing him to clutch his chest and fall to the ground. Now he is truly dead.
The remaining samurai stands and shifts his weary gaze to the horizon, waiting for his body to mend so that he can continue his journey. When did killing become such a boorish affair?
Let’s talk about lightsabers. The reason they’re so awesome is that they cut through anything with no resistance -- especially living things. When video games are offered this weapon of unlimited possibilities we end up with semi-transparent glow sticks that tickle the intestines rather than separate the torso from the legs. The Force Unleashed and the upcoming Old Republic MMORPG are just two of the most recent in a long line of limp wrested attempts to give us something that looks cool but doesn’t perform to its lofty potential.
We’re left beating our enemies with swords that behave more like clubs because the thrill of making the perfect strike doesn’t outweigh the difficulty of implementing the game systems to support it. Demon’s Souls (the recent PS3 action RPG that everyone should buy) comes awful close to conveying the true deadliness of a weapon. There are still health bars to contend with, but a good many of the regular enemies will go down in one or two well-timed hits if you’ve got the right equipment. This may sound boring if you’d rather press a combination of buttons for a minute or two before dispatching a foe, but the immediacy of balancing risk and reward with each split decision does more to get the blood flowing than a perfectly executed ten button combo breaker ever could.
The difficulty lies in potentially frustrating the player with a thousand ways to die instantly and sacrificing the flow of combat in favor of a more halting, tentative approach to each battle. Modern games are often designed to maximize reward while minimizing risk, giving us plenty of reason to barrel into every room, sure the developer won’t put us in a tight spot we can’t handle. A big part of this attitude dictates how long fights last and how many ways players get to recover from slip-ups.
RPGs work a bit differently. In Dragon Age it’s not uncommon for two warriors to beat on an undead creature whose limbs are held together by the thinnest of sinew a dozen times before it finally falls to ground, limbs sadly still intact. But a good RPG is as much about positioning and maximizing stats and equipment as it is about watching the decisions you make unfold on the screen. We won’t be seeing enemies and allies dropping in one or two seconds every fight because that just wouldn’t be much fun. When your character is at the mercy of dice rolls and stats, it’s best to let the math do its thing.
This isn’t really about making every game treat its weapons realistically no matter what. Both styles have their place, but we’re finally seeing technology that has the potential to provide 1:1 feedback on where a weapon hits the body and how it would affect movement and momentum. Just look at UFC 2009 if you want to see some polygons rubbing together with next to no clipping. Very cool. Now just imagine these kind of advances turned to finally bringing us the lightsaber combat we really want. That samurai wouldn’t stand a chance.