Sword Fighting in Games

Image from Chivalry: Medieval Warfare

Image from Chivalry: Medieval Warfare

Sword fighting is a big part of our popular culture. It's almost as big as the cult of the Gun. TV shows and movies like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Vikings,  or The Three Musketeers romanticise the sword-wielding hero or heroine and the art of melee combat.

Games have always been a great way for us to get in touch with our fantasies and role play the hero (or villain), and while they've done a great job of satisfying the gun-wielding hero fantasy, they've always (in my eyes, let's say) fallen short in the domain of melee combat. Don't get me wrong, there are some very fun games centred around melee combat, but I'm talking more about simulating the real life experience, and giving the player a true virtual taste of what the real thing is like!

I've both been to the shooting range a couple of times (rare in Ireland) and taken fencing in college (and, of course, played countless games) so I feel a can compare both of the real experiences with the virtual to some worthwhile degree.

With guns, the essential components are that you point and shoot. The physical impact and damage aren't part of your interaction. Games can simulate this very well. The click of a button or pulling of the Right Trigger on a controller feels analogous to pulling a gun's trigger. Going further into the realism side, games can also simulate what it's like to have to move to cover or work with a team in a fire fight. The only parts of gun fighting in games that I think aren't represented are the kickback (yes I know recoil is often simulated, but it can't give you the pain and bruising in your shoulder that comes from firing a shotgun) and reloading. Usually we just hit a button and trigger a quick reloading animation. In real life, it's actually quite difficult to load bullets into a clip  (clip into gun is easier, but I feel Gordon Freeman would have fumbled once or twice in real life), and awkward enough to chamber a round in a bolt-action rifle. The noise of firing a gun can be physically painful too, and forgetting to turn the safety off is a concern, but where's the fun in simulating that?

Bringing sword fighting into games is an entirely different prospect, though, and it's miles behind its counterpart. Why is this? There are several reasons.

Input

Well, holding and swinging a sword are easy enough to simulate, but not accurately. Your attack isn't the twitch of a finger, but a flick of the wrist, or a swing of the arms, or a kick. It doesn't feel as correct to just click to do this. We tend not to notice this too much however as we're used to pressing a button in a game and seeing something happen, so this is fine in a way, but it is straight away a large disconnect between what you do in real life and what you can do in a game.

Virtual Reality might have something to contribute here, but it brings its own problems. The Oculus Touch or the HTC Vive's controllers would allow you to hold and swing somewhat realistically. See the video below for Vive's controllers being used by a Disney animator to paint in 3D. They can't simulate the weight of your weapon, though. A claymore (sword, not mine) or broadsword will have a lot more weight and momentum than a katana blade or fencing foil, so the controls will still feel wrong.

The other problem with VR controllers would be the clash. In real life you might swing your arm all the way from upper right to lower left, but in the game your sword hits an opponent's armour, or blade, or a wall, and it stops! So your real arms are now in a different place to your game arms. You've immediately got another big disconnect in the experience. This is why I don't think VR will improve sword fighting in games at all. With that said, it could offer some neat experiences. A lightsabre or nano-blade can cut through anything supposedly, except for another blade. So if the VR game let you wield a sword like Raiden has in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and never fight somebody with a similar weapon, then the experience would be very fun, but it wouldn't be a sword fighting experience, just a sword using one.

At 1:43 in the video below these input problems are summed up very well, and humorously. Sadly, even though it passed Kickstarter, Clang was later cancelled. If you watch the video look out for Gabe Newell's cameo!

So we can't get around input with currently available technology, but there are several other areas to improve upon to give us better sword fighting in games.

Physics

As I mentioned, the clash of blades can't be simulated in the player's input device (beyond a little vibration in the controller, maybe) but it's also quite difficult to truly simulate in the computer. We use physics to bounce objects around the room after an explosion or crash or whatever. Essentially, each frame, the computer checks where an object is and what its velocity is, if it's in collision this frame it will calculate the new positions and velocities for the colliding objects on the next frame. If not, it will continue on its trajectory (usually adjusted for gravity and air resistance in some form). This happens 50 times per second or so. To be clear, a physics check is checking where something is at a given time. The collision happens if the objects' "colliders" are touching.

To try to use this system to detect the clash of swords is impractical. To take just one measurement I found online, in an experiment, a sword slash was found to travel 190 cm in 1/4 of a second. So 7.6 metres every second. If the physics check is done sixty times per second that means the sword moved 12.6 cm every frame. That's a lot! The thickness of a foil is less than 1 cm, so even saying that two foils coming at each other have a combined collision-thickness of 2cm, there's a high chance that they won't be in the same place on any frame. One frame they'll be 6 cm before colliding, and the next frame they'll be 6 cm after colliding without ever having made the collision. 

So a literal physical simulation is impossible. Can we cheat? Well, yes. We have to. That same physics limitation above is why bullets aren't physically simulated in games but are instead simulated using "raycasting". This is shooting a line straight out from somewhere (a gun) at a given time to see what it touches. Most bullets in games work this way but even long range sniper shots have developed to the point where they still use raycasting but can also simulate bullet drop, wind resistance, and travel time. They cheat to deliver a very physically 'real' bullet for the player. Computer game design is all about cheating the limitations to fake realistic experiences!

So we have to cheat to make sword virtual sword fighting a "reality". 

What's been done before?

Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time (1996)

This was earliest game I ever played that had any degree of simulated sword fighting. I should actually do a retro review of that game but I'd have to get my hands on it again. Go to 7:19 in the video below to see the fencing scene.

There are very few lets plays of the game and the ones that are there just have the player spamming the attack button to win, sadly. Stamina wasn't represented in this game so this was possible, but if you played it 'properly' there was quite a bit in there. You moved your blade around the screen with the mouse and clicked to attack from that direction. If I remember correctly, right clicking would block. The attacker (who didn't get a chance in this video) would telegraph his moves a little before he made them. This is realistic and seen in games. You can't just hit somebody. You have to start by swinging your arm, and the position of the arm gives a clue as to whether you're going to attack overhead, left, right, or forward, for example. Games draw out this telegraphing longer to make it easier for the player. In real life, you try to attack as quickly as you can to not give the opponent time to successfully block. Harder enemies in games often give you less telegraphing time than easy ones.

To be clear, the Titanic game was a point and click adventure/mystery game. Not a combat game, but I saw great promise in its sword combat segment and thought that more realistic sword combat must be on its way soon. How wrong I was. About the "soon" part anyway.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 (1997)

Long name for one game. This one let you wield a lightsabre in first or third person. Sadly, it didn't have a block move. None of the Dark Forces games in the years since did either. I think this is the greatest failing of these games. You finally got to simulate real lightsabre battles for yourself, but none of them had any of the nuances of a sword fight. To not get hit you just ran out of the way, then started a swing and ran back in. Occasionally you would get in a 'lock' (a pushing battle against another blade) and have to click frantically. This mainly happened if you and an enemy were attacking at the same time. It added a token dimension to the combat, but they never tackled a real sword fight simulation and I always found the games to be disappointing on that level. Mostly you just spam the attack button and are shown a few different animations. There's little skill or decision making involved.
This is how the majority of first person games handle sword fighting and it's quite disappointing, especially considering how ignored some of the better examples have been. Examples such as..

Thief: The Dark Project (1998)

The first Thief game was a first person stealth game set it medieval times. This is the first game where I ever saw a block move as a useful part of the combat. You weren't supposed to fight in this game, but if discovered by a guard you could at least defend yourself a little. It was a rudimentary sort of block. If the enemy hit you with a sword it would hurt you, unless you were holding the block button. Satisfactorily, pressing the button made you hold your sword out across your body and if you blocked there was a great sword-clash noise. Importantly, this didn't reduce damage, as the block seems to do in a lot of games (making it pointless), but it blocked all damage. 
I though "great! We've arrived! All sword games should have blocking like this from now on". They didn't.

As Time Went On..

God of War. Great game, but in so way a sword combat simulation

God of War. Great game, but in so way a sword combat simulation

The hack n' slash genre was where sword games went to grow up it seems. You know these. God of War, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and the newly released Onikira: Demon Killer. Maybe even the Arkham games and Shadow of Mordor have these elements. These are never first person games, and while they sell melee/sword combat and deliver great sounds and visuals and their own unique gameplay, they are far from sword fighting simulations. It's a well established genre with its own merits and hit games, but it's a far cry from simulating what it feels like to fight with a sword. As a sweeping generalisation, these games show you sword combat, but you don't do it. They get away with having you perform combos like A+A+B to do a certain attack, and often press a single block button (sometimes with a direction) to block an attack, no matter what type of attack it is. The animation systems then take over to show you the pretty results, but there's no real sword combat happening or being simulated in this genre.

Where are the games that took the ideas of Thief and ran with them? They're few and far between. What could we have had by now if sword fighting in games had been building from 1998's Thief all this time? It's hard to say. We could have an entirely unique genre of game today and it's a minor tragedy that we don't, I think. Maybe the market was just never there, but I haven't seen many attempts along the way either.

In Recent Years

We've started to see an effort in the last few years to breathe new life into sword fighting in games and evolve the gameplay that Thief hinted to us well over a decade before, but while they're improvements, and a lot of fun, they are still quite limited.

Mount & Blade: Warband (2010)

Note that the very similar Mount & Blade came out in 2009. I played Warband, not the original, so I can't speak to sword combat in the first game.

This game is still my favourite example of sword combat. It's a fantastic game and what sold me on it first was the combat. Swords are far from the only weapons, and each have their own strengths, speeds and weights, but the  basics are similar across all melee weapons. The developers really went out of their way to show off something unique and not enough people know about this game. I never even heard of it until 2014 and a Free Weekend on Steam.

An attacker will telegraph their hit, say by raising their sword over their head if they're going to attack overhead, or to the left for a slash from your side. The length of time they telegraph for is only ever a split second, but the enemy's skill level will make this time shorter or longer. You're not locked onto your opponent. You're free to look and move in any direction, so after they telegraph, you could just step back out of the way, or you can block in a meaningful way. You hold the right click to block, but that's not enough, you need to block up, down, left or right (assuming you don't have a shield, in which case your block covers most directions at once) by moving the mouse correctly up, down, left or right to block the attack. You basically want to look towards the enemy's weapon to block it. Then you can riposte (fencing term, meaning counter-attack) with an attack of your own in the same four directions. Move your mouse a little to the right while attacking and you'll slash from the right, and so on.  And when I say riposte, I don't mean that the game now allows you to attack. You can choose to attack whenever, but getting hit during your swing will stop your attack so you have to use timing wisely. You can even kick to wind your opponent to get a clear opening for a powerful attack, but the kick is short range so it's hard to hit with. There's a lot going on here.
One-on-one fights against the computer in this game are the closest I've ever come to feeling like I was fencing in UCD again, without facing a human opponent. In the options menu you can simplify the blocking to just always work, but that destroys this amazing gameplay.

The flaw is that most players, and especially in multiplayer, just spam the attack button and hope to come out on top. Players don't necessarily engage with the amazing mechanics provided for them. Possibly because they haven't been trained to in games in general to because this game is so unique.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare (2012)

This came along a little later. While Mount & Blade is a strategy/RPG game, this is focussed purely on single level skirmishes (90% of them in multiplayer, though you can practice against bots). This game went further and added a feint move. For a small stamina cost, you could try to trick a player into blocking. Blocking with a blade works as a single move when you click. You click to block, and block for about a second, then have a second of recovery before you can block again. This makes the feint pretty useful to force a block then attack during the recovery time, but it's not very realistic as a real opponent could just hold their block.
With a shield you can hold your block indefinitely unless you are kicked, but without the shield you automatically drop the block. 

Nicely, you can also use mouse wheel down to perform an overhead smash, or mouse wheel forward to stab forward. This feels pretty good to use and also does a little to remove some of the button mashing problems, but again, this game suffers in large multiplayer battles from players just charging and clicking, without using any blocking or feints in most cases. 
Also, because you can't hold a block, if you're outnumbered you've no way to block two attacks at once and will nearly always lose. This encourages swarm tactics as the main gameplay and a lot of the sword fighting nuances are lost. If players are outnumbered, you'll usually just see them running backwards away and blocking, hoping to find some friendly players. (Perhaps these types of games should make it so if you're running backwards and hit a low obstacle you fall over).

The part of this game I find the best for sword fighting are the one on one multiplayer duels against a human opponent. Since you can't get bum rushed by one guy, you can actually focus on them and use feints, kicks, and parries much more effectively.

So those are two good sword games. They do a lot to "cheat" and deliver a lot of the realities and considerations of sword fighting into a virtual space, but they still don't come close to simulating real sword fighting. Nothing I've seen so far has been able to balance the strategy, the mind games, the body language reading, the stamina factors, the shock to your arm of a blade impact, the stances, speed, and reactions of real sword fighting. 

If I could explain it in just one way, I'd sum the problem up thus: In real sword fighting, you could be thinking of striking, but worried that you're becoming predictable and that your opponent might be ready to parry and riposte while you're off balance in a lunge. You sacrifice your block for an attack, and it also costs you stamina. Real sword fighting is as much about dozens of tiny choices every moment as it is about delivering well-practised attacks. In games, while stamina is now often taken into account, most players still just attack madly because left clicking isn't as hard as as a lunge attack. Some fighters I've known in real life do attack just wildly, but in real life you can beat them easily with just a little skill whereas in a game, they've often just chosen the winning tactic. 

The Future

There is a greater awareness coming back to the mechanics of sword games, and many different titles in the coming years will try to tackle to problem in their own unique ways. I'm excited to play all of them.

For Honor

This game looks like a lot of fun. I can't wait to try it. I would say that its focus is on delivering large scale sword battles. This is pretty unique. We tend to see the large battle in a cutscene or the background and then just fight a couple of guys in the game. It has a new(ish?) take on sword combat where you attack or defend from one of three zones on your body: up, lower left and lower right.

You read where the opponent is aiming for by their body language, and you try to defend into your corresponding zone by moving the control stick to that area. I see this as being more of a step towards sword combat from a hack and slash game than I see it as a sword fighting simulation, but it's still great to see. The emphasis seems to be too much on a broader battle and third person action (I think first person is important to simulate any real life action, personally) to convince me that this is the game I was always pining for, but it looks awesome for what it is and I can't wait to try! I particularly appreciate that you have to read body language and adjust your block to succeed. This is very important.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Now these are the guys I think are going to come closest to delivering a good sword fighting experience any time soon. You can see from the video above that they take it very seriously.

I backed them on Kickstarter because of the promise of delivering unique sword fighting. The currently available build is Alpha 0.4, the first version where you can see their sword fighting in action. I played it today (and many of the other games I mentioned) as prep for this article.

Even at the early stages, I can see a lot of promise in the fighting. I was able to slash with the left mouse, stab with the right, or block with Q. All of this from 6 different zones. You are locked onto your opponent, something that serves to simplify your movement and direct your attention. I'm not sure if I like this, though. You only fight one enemy at a time currently, but I wonder what happens when there are multiple enemies.

You can do the normal things like feint, block, attack, but depending on your timing with your block or movement you can also sidestep or dodge a strike and then counter-attack, all through a smooth procedural animation system. It is the smoothest flowing combat I've seen and there's enough going on that there is really room to improve your skills through practice (and the RPG stats level-up system in the game), but I would have preferred a non-locked camera. You need to be able to check your surroundings in a fight, even just quickly. I presume the game will have a disengage kind of command, because most of the game is free roaming anyway, but it wasn't in what I played today. There was also no kick, though that may appear. What I didn't love was that I seemed to sometimes be able to just hold block to defend an attack from any direction, and other times I couldn't, so I'm not sure which way the game is going with this. See a gameplay video from the alpha below.

To wrap up, where are we lacking?

Knowing where to block is probably the single largest gap between real sword fighting and what most games do. In reality, you could hold a block, but there's nine directions you could get attacked from (assuming the enemy is only in front of you then it's left, right, or middle times high, low, or middle; 3x3), and then they could 'disengage' the attack and stab around your parry anyway (with certain weapons like a foil or epee, look it up) to nullify even that block. Most games just let you press block and you're fine.

Games are supposed to be 'fun' (many say, anyway). When I shot clay pigeons in real life, the shooting wasn't great fun. It hurt (the kickback is enormous)! The fun part was seeing a moving target down range explode into clay fragments. Shooting guns in games is fun because we've nailed how they sound and the environmental destruction and death animations.
When I did fencing, I found the most fun part was successfully parrying an attack (giving me the satisfaction of knowing that I was smart enough and quick enough to deflect a real physical attack) and for bonus points, landing the riposte. A bit like how in tennis the most fun part is the back and forth, not the actual scoring of a point.

I think that most people who have designed sword fighting in games must not have done fencing, or if they did then they didn't remember what was most fun about it. Most of the time the systems seem to be designed around causing damage. I think it should be more about the clash of the blades. The back and forth. You really only need to hit a person once with a sword to end the fight. That should be the result of successfully winning the more fun part of the fight, not the whole focus of the fight, if you ask me. Certainly it would make for a more unique angle to your sword fighting game, and we definitely have the technology to fake these results well, as long as they're well balanced and play-tested.

Food for thought.. For more, read this great (and shorter) PC Gamer article on the subject.

Until next time..