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Video Game Swords Are Cooler Than Video Game Guns

Swords add a personal level to combat that guns often don't.

by Leif Johnson
Mar 26 2017, 3:00pm

I'm a white male player of video games who doesn't care for games with a heavy emphasis on shooting guns. Swords and big hammers are more my thing. This loses me a lot more cool points than it earns. Consider my conversations with my ten-year-old nephew, once starstruck at the realization that my 30-something ass scribbles about video games professionally for money, who asked me piles of questions about my kill-death ratios in first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield.

"I, well, I don't really play them," I said, affecting my most avuncular tone. "I lean more toward fantasy sword and sorcery. Diablo. God of War. Skyrim. The Witcher. That sort of thing."

He just blinked and wrinkled his nose and walked away, much as other kids might if I told them that CB radios were more rewarding than Instagram. I now get the impression he's ashamed we share a fraction of the same DNA.

I don't hate shooters or the people who play them; if you play them, more power to you! It's big business, too. Four of the five top games on Steam right now are shooters in some sense of the term. And there are some I genuinely love, like the most recent incarnation of Doom. (Here's proof!) It's just that, in video games, at least, they strike me as kind of boring compared to a good sword, dagger, or big friggin' warhammer. I'm clearly reducing this point to absurdity, but almost every time I play a modern realistic shooter I can't shake the feeling I'm doing the same thing in each one in different clothes. I see some dude in the distance, I point a stick of varying size at him, and a boom goes off. If all goes well, he dies and insults my mother on the voice channel. It doesn't matter if we're talking Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, Gears of War, Rainbow Six Siege, this pattern never varies.

A sword or any kind of blade, though, is a different matter. You have to get in close—intimately close—for that kind of thing. I find some thrill in that added danger. Someone out there is no doubt already itching to bring up that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the world's most reckless archaeologist offs a scimitar-wielding giant with a Smith & Wesson pistol, but to me that scene illustrates the very reason why I find guns in games so unappealing. They come off as the easy way out. And the great thing about video games is that Indy's Smith & Wesson doesn't necessarily have to be greater than the sword.

Image: CD Projeckt Red

Just a couple of hours ago I finished a review of the new stealth game Styx: Shards of Darkness, in which a tiny goblin skulks about slitting the throats of guards three times his size, the chance of death never farther away than his pervading stench. It's great fun, and in a way it wouldn't be if the little bugger could just infinitely snipe at everyone from the shadows. Or take the Dark Souls series, where success usually relies on your ability to dodge and go for a killing blow at the precisely correct time, all while standing as far apart as nervous dancing partners at the junior prom. I push this attitude to such an extent that I usually play the massive tank Reinhardt in Overwatch, getting endless satisfaction out of pummeling the folks around me with their projectiles. In World of Warcraft I even do away with the blades, preferring to play a tubby monk who wallops orcs and trolls with his fists.

I've often wondered if this attitude has something to do with my background. I'm not really all that opposed to the idea of real-life guns: on the contrary, I grew up on a Texas ranch and did things years ago in the name of protecting livestock that would probably make my friends in San Francisco weep and turn their heads in shame upon seeing me. I'd probably fired several thousand rounds before I learned how to file a tax return. I've always been a crap shot with a handgun, but toss a rifle in my hands and I'm something to be reckoned with. By virtually any associated stereotype, I should be the kind of guy who spends his afternoons in Call of Duty and uses a Twitter avatar with the Gonzales "Come and Take It" flag with the cannon swapped out with an AR-15.

And yet. I sometimes think that familiarity has something to do with my preference for whacking baddies with a big piece of steel in games rather than riddling them with bullets from afar. For much of my early life, guns weren't really a fantasy. I grew up in a part of the country where I could toss aside my controller, walk out on the front porch, and fire a random shot toward the hills and have zero worries it would hit anyone. (The familiarity idea falls flat when I realize my many friends who've served in the military have no such inclinations.) But facing down a hated opponent, a couple of feet away, armed with only my wits and a bit of sharpened steel? That almost never happens anymore. In a video game, at least, victory in those circumstances always feels more earned than it does with a cheap shot from afar. Pippin Took had the right of it: "The mightiest man may be slain by one arrow." And what a bastard of a shame that is.

I know, of course, that I'm far from alone in this preference for swords and the like over guns in games. I'd even go so far as to say that this preference is part of the reason why fantasy video games continue to thrive well after the genre's boost from the Lord of the Rings movies should have worn off. Guns feel like a symbol of so many of the wrong things in the world today—death or pain from a source we sometimes don't even see. Swords in video games grant at least the illusion that we always have some agency in our own fate. We can see the danger coming, and if we're up to it, we can face that challenge and perhaps defeat it. And in today's world, that's a damn powerful idea to cling to.