I’ve recently had the interesting experience of watching myself become a villain in someone else’s story. Because only on the internet can you see what people think of you when your back is turned, except they can still say it to your face. We all love a villain, even when it’s someone we know and would never label as such, in any other situation.
So, are we talking about what makes a good villain, well, a good villain?
Of course not! We’re going to talk about weapon durability.
A Case for Weapon Durability
When a developer puts in a weapons durability system, the stated reason is usually “realism.” After all, when sword usage was more the norm, weapons dulled, broke, and required regular maintenance in order to be kept in good, serviceable condition. It makes sense, because even in our modern, everyday lives, kitchen knives sometimes need to be sharpened, so if a cooking game wanted to incorporate realism, then checking the blades and sharpening them as needed would be a part of that. It is the way of the cutting edge.
Another reason that weapon durability might be incorporated into a game is to add a layer of inventory maintenance to the tasks the player must keep track of. Like food that rots or stamina/life bars that go up and down depending on what is happening in the game, watching the wearing down of weapons, or tracking the type of weapon best suited for a particular enemy, adds more pieces to play with in the game. This can pose a unique challenge, when done right, as the player must put even more cogs into the wheel of mastering the game.
The key, of course, is that everything is best in moderation. When done well, weapon durability in games can be immersive, realistic, and unintrusive insofar that it doesn’t become distracting from the actual game. But what exactly is the realistic application of weapon durability?
In the physical world, it is not uncommon for a well-cared for sword to last for years, with some blades lasting – with their sharp edge – for thousands of years. Being a well-cared for blade means keeping the blade clean, preferably dry and well-oiled, and, of course, sharpened. While cleaning and oiling might become tedious, sharpening a blade could be as simple as offering a whetstone as an item, or asking the character to return to a swordsmith for it to be sharpened.
One of the amazing properties of steel blades is that they can be sharpened when they become dull, and dents and things can be buffed out. Of course this is to an extent; the steel must be good quality to begin with and the beating it takes needs to be reasonable for a sword, but as the above-linked example shows, well-cared-for blades can last millennia.
In terms of games, then, it’s not unreasonable to incorporate some weapon durability issues into a game, if only to make the player aware of the way they are using their weapons and to take them into consideration during play.
But what actually happens in practice? Let’s take a look at two different games and how they handle this relationship between main character and weapon.
Not too long ago, Adventure Rules published an article comparing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It’s a fabulous and detailed breakdown of what makes each game special in its own right, and what makes them such standouts in the era of open-world games. He touched briefly on weapon durability, and that is what we’ll be delving into more here, because the way these two games implement weapon durability is very different.
In Breath of the Wild, weapons degrade and break fairly rapidly. I admit I’ve only played this particular Zelda title about two hours, and in that time I destroyed a handful of bows and two swords. While Breath of the Wild certainly felt like a post-Skyward Sword Zelda game, I wanted to pull my hair out with how disposable the weapons were.
My friend showed me all the weapons she was saving for later, because they seemed like a waste to wear out on the “regular” baddies out in the world. When I asked her what “later” meant, she said she didn’t know, because there might always been a different bad guy more “worth” the powerful weapon. Another gamer I know went the opposite direction, using weapons whenever, and with whatever, because “it’s going to break anyway, so who cares?”
Enter The Witcher 3, and Geralt’s relationship with his weapons and armors is much more realistic. After all, as we discussed before, in the physical world, a good blade could last thousands of years, which is much more than the ten or so hits poor Link has before his weapon shatters into oblivion. Most weapons would, as Geralt finds out, dull, or chip, or even bend under intense battle conditions. However, while bending would be a bit of an issue, the more common chipping and dulling would be repairable, and a good warrior would do well to make sure his blades were well-cared-for.
As Ian mentioned in his article, the pressure could occasionally be felt by the player, when Geralt was in the middle of an intense battle, far away from a weaponsmith, with his swords dulled and less effective. However, the blades never (to my knowledge) broke, and Geralt was able to sharpen and care for a blade as long as he wished, and could be confident that the weapon would then be there and ready when he needed it most.
And this is where the relationship gets interesting.
Sharpening Swords and Making Friends
We’ve talked a bit about two schools of thought regarding weapon durability: using until it breaks, and caring for a weapon so it stays sharp and ready. While one might work well in a game that lends itself to a more fantasy existence, in which weapons are disposable and replaceable with fairly little trouble, when a game tries for more realism, careful attention to the wear and tear on the weapons becomes much more important.
Likewise, this is the difference between a real and fantasy relationship, be it friendship, romantic, familial, or otherwise. In a video game, or in a sim game, the characters are relentlessly there for the player, or the main character, even when they are in the wrong. Even when they are neglected. Even when they are only taken out when the player needs a little stress relief. They are, quite literally, brought into and out of existence on the whim of and in accordance to the needs of the player.
In real life, however, relationships take work, and that means realizing that, just like the weapons in the The Witcher 3, the other person needs a certain level of consideration thrown their way, even moreso after they have taken a pounding. Like a sharp sword, a friendship needs to be carefully attended to in between “stressful” points, be it an argument, or the wrong side of someone’s temper.
But like for a good sword, caring for the people we are in relationships with also takes a certain amount of what I call common-sense caring, which unfortunately is not always common sense in the real world. For instance, beating a sword against a rock, over and over, and then deciding that you’re going to add a pommel is not going to fix the issue. Instead, the blade needs to be examined and cared for.
The Witcher 3 finds a good balance in this way: when used for a long time, the blade becomes less effective. But it never comes as a surprise. The sword’s icon glows, letting you know it needs a little TLC. You need to listen to it, otherwise it’s going to be ineffective and will simply not be there for you – not be able to be there for you – even when you need it.
On the other hand, Breath of the Wild can be somewhat unrealistic in how it treats its weapons. For one, Link can keep a weapon safe in his inventory, never bringing it out, never seeing what it can do, because the player is afraid of losing it before “something important enough” happens. It’s a perfect ideal that can never be broken, never shattered, and never leave you.
Or, possibly worse, Link uses his weapons without a care until it shatters and is discarded and replaced with the next weapon, to be used as long as possible until it, too, shatters. If this were compared to a more realistic situation, the fact that Link hacks away with his weapons until he shatters would be an indication that maybe he didn’t really know how to use his sword(s) in an appropriate or sustainable manner.
It’s all so much replaceable inventory, to be relentlessly used and then raged at after breaking, before being discarded amidst confusion as to why the new pommel didn’t fix the blade.
What system do you like best? Geralt, meticulously caring for his blades even if it’s a little inconvenient for him, and even if it interrupts his adventure? Or do you prefer Link’s style of using a weapon until it’s broken, discarding it for another, and “saving” other, better, weapons for a rainy day that never really comes along?
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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