Real Sword Fighting is very different to what we see in games.
The Master Sword. The Blades of Chaos. The Golden Axe. Soul Edge. All of these famous game weapons have real world historic counterparts. Weapons just like them really existed, and they were used in very real, very serious battles.
Strangely though, there’s no burgeoning demand for historical accuracy in videogame combat with bladed weapons. Call of Duty might have increasingly accurate gun models and bullet physics, but videogame swords don’t behave anything like real world swords. I decided to find out why.
To get an answer, I asked an expert. I was lucky enough to track down and interview Mihai Georgescu, a bearded Viking enthusiast (and lookalike) who has studied HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) for five years now. If you need to speak to an expert on swords, axes and other bladed weapons then he’s probably the best person in the country to approach. That’s because he is one of the most experienced bladed weapons experts out there, and he also loves games.
Asking how someone actually gets into something as crazy as swinging non-virtual swords and axes, he gave me his origin story.
“It started at my university’s club. Since I’ve gotten into Historical European Martial Arts, I’ve become more involved in the historical research of weapons as well, and how they were used. My main area of training is the German longsword, but I’ve always been passionate about Viking culture and history. I’m also a game artist and I find these things all work together quite well.”
Video of Mihai in Action (he’s the Stormtrooper).
So before we compare game combat to real combat, how much do we actually know about the real thing? How do we know what bladed combat was like?
“HEMA is about looking at the manuscripts from various fighting manuals (depending on the weapon system, they could be as old as 13th century, or as new as World War II) and learning the techniques and “plays” (a sequence of strikes, blocks, parries and counterattacks) as they are depicted. We also take part in combat, in the form of spars, usually just between two people. Group fighting is something we take part in as well, though that is a whole different kettle of fish, as a lot of the techniques we get from the manuals are for single combat only, things like judicial duels.”
So we have good historical references on what techniques were used. Do we have the equipment though? What were the weapons really like and how do game weapons compare?
“I’m glad you brought up sword weight, as this is a big bone of contention for me. Swords that were designed for combat were never heavy. A German Zweihänder (also known as a greatsword) would weigh at most 4 lbs. Longswords were much lighter still. People have the impression that European swords were heavy because that is how they are usually portrayed in media, but the reality is quite different. When training beginners, we use nylon swords, as they do not require much protective equipment to use safely (for these swords, all we really require is a fencing mask and thick padded gloves). More experienced fighters use steel training swords called feders, which were used in the past as well. These are not sharp swords and they have a curled point, to be safer to thrust with. These require additional protective gear, such as padded jackets, throat guards and similar things.”
At this point I knew Mihai was keen on venting his frustrations at the mistakes games developers make when portraying sword fighting. I also asked him about whether movie and television sword fighting was more realistic.
“The thing about swordfighting in media is that it pretty much has to be different from reality. John Howe, who designed most of the weapons and armour in Lord of the Rings, said “it’s not designed to show a real fight, it’s designed to show something exciting with swords”.”
“Lord of the Rings actually did a pretty good job, though that didn’t surprise anyone in the HEMA community. They had great people to train the actors in theatrical fighting.”
“I have a few issues with the fighting in Game of Thrones, the biggest of which is that the characters often keep their arms close to their bodies when swinging a sword (we jokingly refer to it as T-Rexing).”
“A real swordfight is over pretty quickly, the motions are very fast, and there are usually few exchanges. You can’t really have tension with a fight like that, so there’s a lot of back and forth in theatrical fighting.“
At this point my morbid curiosity had set in. I realised that I wanted to know what it was like to swing a sword and feel it cut through something. I gingerly broached the subject of what Mihai would hit with swords when he was training and I was relieved that it wasn’t some nightmarish animal carcass, or worse, handsome game journalists.
“As part of our training we do cutting tests, in which we cut milk bottles filled with water (it’s a cheap and effective simulator for soft tissue) with sharp swords. This is to make sure we are cutting with good form. The actual act of making an effective cut is a little trickier than most people assume, but a few practice runs are usually enough to get even new people used to the motion.”
“With cutting swords such as most European ones (either straight blades like longwords or curved blades such as sabres), it is more of a slicing motion or a “draw” cut, as you draw the blade across the surface you are cutting.”
“Swords that are curved inwardly or ones that are weighted towards the tip, such as machetes or falchions are better suited to the “chop”, which is what people seem to instinctively do. Once you have the technique down, it’s a little bit scary how easily a sword will cut the bottle. A bad cut would make the milk bottle explode and give it a ragged line across it, as the plastic simply tears. A good cut is a clean, straight line all the way through the bottle.”
“I’d say the first reaction people would have is that it’s more difficult than they assumed. Fighting out of instinct does not turn out very well, because our instincts do not involve swords, and therefore they kind of suck. So a lot of training involves drilling certain techniques to embed them in your muscle memory.”
This description of cleanly cut bottles made me wince when I considered what a sword could do to a human body. I was anxious but curious about the kind of damage a sword would do to unprotected human flesh. I guessed it would be far more serious than a conventional videogame health bar could portray.
In videogames it’s common to take damage but experience no reduction in your characters fighting ability, but seeing the damage a sword can do in real life made me question that. It seemed to me that whoever was hit first in a sword fight would always be the eventual loser. And what of stamina? Is it like Dark Souls, where just five or six swings leave you exhausted? Mihai explained more.
“Five swings is something I would expect from a chain smoker who has just put on a full suit of armour for the very first time. Swinging in midair for a long time is quite tiring, and having someone block each strike makes it even worse. Stamina is definitely something I wish I had a better indicator of on the inside of my mask when I’m sparring. “
“I’ve often found the health bar a rather unrealistic indicator of vitality in a game. Games tend to portray attacks coming from above most of all, and this is because that type of attack feels and looks more powerful. We also see this in the way games portray thrusts, with deep, extended lunges. It’s to convey force to the player. In a spar, we are not looking to kill (or maim or injure in any way) our partner. Moreover, as I mentioned above, it’s not about how much force you put behind the attack. So we never find the need for broad, sweeping motions, as these tend to open you up to a much smaller, swift motion.”
“It’s a bit difficult to note the locations of injuries in games. A fight in a game consists of two (or more) models playing out animations, and usually there aren’t any damage modifiers for different areas of the body. In a real swordfight, however, you must account for your opponent’s stance, where their sword is, where you think they will move and other such factors.”
“Take blocking, for example. In most games, you usually press the block button and the attack is blocked, no matter where it comes from. Mount and Blade and War of the Roses (And similar games from Paradox) have a more active blocking system, but it’s still a pretty static action, where the character simply places his or her sword in the relevant direction.”
“Blocking in a real sword fight is much trickier and much more finnicky. And I am fine with that divide. I think creating a realistic blocking or striking system would be unnecessarily difficult to implement. (further reading )”
“The location of the strike and the pain threshold of the individual are big factors on whether a fight ends or not. Typically, the fighters are split up after one of them scores a hit and their locations are reset. But if someone hits particularly hard, or in a vulnerable spot, the fight can be over quite quickly. Most people fight through it anyway, as adrenaline works in your favour and you might not even notice.”
“A friend has fought with a broken middle finger and didn’t notice it until he had taken his glove off. Then again, particularly strong hits (which can happen accidentally) have led to concussion, which is definitely a game over. Physical fitness is a pretty big factor. Keith Farrell of the Academy of Historical Arts in Glasgow has done an experiment about a year ago where each day he played the flute to see how his increasing lung capacity would affect his swordsmanship. And it turned out it made a huge difference.”
With my curiosity sated, we began to talk about how asymmetrical fights are in videogames. Sometimes you fight a giant. Sometimes you fight a hundred enemies. Very often, you fight someone with a completely different weapon to your own. How does that affect the dynamics of combat? And what of weapon breakages? Are real weapons unbreakable like the Master Sword from Zelda, or more like the very-much-breakable Giants Knife, also from Zelda. I could tell Mihai enjoyed this part of the discussion.
“Because different weapons are designed to do totally different things, fighting someone with a different weapon can be quite daunting. A sword can do things an axe can’t do, and likewise for the axe. It is even worse fighting someone with a weapon you are not familiar with at all. For example, I really dislike sparring against baskethilt broadswords. Using a longsword, I have the advantage of range, but the broadsword is much quicker and the fighter behind the sword is offering much less of a target than a longsword fighter. Axes are even further removed from that. They offer no hand protection and have a very small striking surface, but it is also very easy (and quite satisfying) to hook your opponent’s blade, leg or neck.”
“Weapon breaking was not a very common occurrence. We are talking about weapons that were primarily made of steel (and German steel in particular was of very good quality). Even axes and spears don’t break too often, as they are usually made of hardwood, though it is more likely for them to break than a sword. Heavily used swords might see a breakdown of the leather grip, or the hilt itself, or the tip might break off.”
“Fighting against someone with even a small shield (such as a buckler, which was a round steel shield about 10 inches across) is quite difficult. Larger, wooden shields were usually best countered by axes (which I was pleased to see reflected in the Mount&Blade games), but facing someone so well defended can be quite intimidating, especially in HEMA, since we cannot replicate things like shield breaking or embedding a weapon into the shield. If I had to pick, I’d prefer using a shield and sword, because facing that weapon combination is not pleasant.”
This had been fascinating, but now I really wanted to drill down to the main point of the discussion: was game sword fighting anything like real sword fighting at all, and if not, should sword fighting in games change? Or is it sufficient for game combat to be simple, accessible fun? Finally, if I was to experience a real sword fight, what state would I be left in afterwards.
“It depends on what your swordfight was supposed to accomplish. For judicial duels it was very rarely a matter of life and death. Of course, lethality was much more in the realm of war, but even then, things were not quite that simple. We are so invested in the image of the “knight in shining armour”, but personal armour was more often than not heavily decorated, painted and covered in expensive materials. This made the knight or the noble very noticeable and, as they were such valuable people, they would be kept alive and taken hostage rather than killed.”
“I think games miscalculate how lethal other weapons might be. Very often, one finds clubs as a standard bottom tier weapon. But consider that a club takes far less time to train with, you don’t have to worry about not hitting with the edge, and armour was designed to protect more against cuts and thrusts… Swords were also a rare sight in medieval times. The way swords are portrayed in media is a bit like the Need For Speed games: everyone drives a souped up car. Swords are definitely lethal in the right hands and with the right intent, but so are other weapons.”
“I’m not sure what game is closest to reality in terms of mechanics, since pretty much all of them are very far removed. There have been a few projects that popped up on Kickstarter (CLANG, for example), but so far nothing concrete has happened. That said, I really enjoy the stance mechanic in The Witcher series. Realistically (at least in longsword), you can do any attack from almost any stance, but at least the stances in The Witcher are somewhat based on real stances. I also think Nidhogg did a great job in capturing the tension and the quickness of a swordfight, even though it is greatly simplified.”
“I don’t think games should become more realistic in this domain. Believable, yes, but if I want a realistic sword fight, I will have one in real life (reality has great force feedback).”
“I would like to change quite a few things in games regarding weapons. I’d like to see artists think more about how weapons work before they design something that just looks cool but is little more than a hunk of steel. I’d say I would also like to see less “crazy” fighting (spinning leaps and kickflips), but I enjoy it too much. I would, however, like to see more “grounded” fighting in more historical games. The media has done a fair bit of damage in terms of establishing incorrect stereotypes about swordfighting, and I think games can correct some of that.”
I learned a lot in my discussion with Mihai, and I must confess that his enthusiasm for the art of fighting (the art, not the game) is infectious. I might not be swinging a real Zweihänder any time soon, but if a game attempts more realistic sword combat I’d be excited to play it.