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Art of War: Animating Realistic Sword Combat

December 13, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

John Clements: Give Reality a Chance

Imagine if game designers had never seen or heard of serious Asian martial arts, and never made any game with such influences. Then, one day, a budo master or kung fu expert steps up and says, "Hey, I think you could make some really interesting things using our unique craft as a resource. We move in really neat ways that you haven't explored." I like to think that game developers would quickly see that there was something significant and sophisticated there worth examining. They probably wouldn't respond with conceited indifference -- which I've seen firsthand when I bring up the historical medieval combatives I study, teach, and practice.

People in The Know

I've been studying Medieval and Renaissance close combat for over three decades. I make my living writing and researching on the subject and operate the world's only private facility dedicated exclusively to the craft. I am no stunt fighter, costumed performer, nor showman entertainer, but an accomplished martial artist who teaches an authentic combative discipline following genuine sources. Study of these historical fighting methods is my life's passion and my career.

Now, I don't think that everyone who makes a game in a medieval or fantasy setting needs to make a 100 percent accurate hand-to-hand combat simulator any more than I want to see the next Call of Duty game stop working forever after your character dies for the first time.

I do think, however, that the hardworking developers who make these games would have an easier time (and make even better games) if they drew from more realistic sources of inspiration when it comes to medieval combat.

The funny thing is, we already know this to be true. Just take a look at the original Prince of Persia, where creator Jordan Mechner filmed his brother actually walking, jumping, and going through some rudimentary fencing motions as the basis for its rotoscoped animations and action. That game was an influential breakthrough, but later titles would essentially copy and embellish upon those sequences, and the titles after that would copy the copies -- and so on until the insightful grounding in realism of the original source was lost.

Drawing From the Source

This process is common sense; if you are doing a modern special ops game, you consult with authorities of that profession. If you're doing a boxing game, you consult with a professional boxer. If you're doing an aircraft fighter game, you consult with a fighter pilot. If you're making a game about samurai, you certainly want to get the form and movements right by working with budo experts. When you copy the copies of copies, you get ever further from your original realistic base -- which means you're adopting the same embellishments and limitations that each successive generation of copies did without looking back at the real source material to see what your real design and animation options could be.

For example, a designer might see a fighting move in a movie and think, "This looks cool. I wonder how I can devise a mechanic for players to do that?" But what of the possibility that what they witnessed is mere nonsense; an inferior action the game maker is just not qualified to evaluate? What if there are better alternatives? What if the "real thing" -- a general principle of self-defense, or some element of employing a particular weapon, or a specific combination of techniques -- is actually cooler? If the designer doesn't get the move from the right source, with a proper explanation of how it works and why, they will be missing out on how it fits in with the "game" of hand-to-hand combat, and won't be able to use that understanding as inspiration for how it could fit in with the game they're designing.

Yet this is more or less the general process I have seen for devising archaic close combat in games, and when I point this out, developers often feel insulted. Why? Aside from perhaps offending the creative sensibilities of designers, it's because I am suggesting that (gasp!) people who design games are not themselves also experts in the authentic sources of historical close combat. They have not trained long-term with accurate weapons in those methods, and they do not have extensive hands-on experience in striking realistic target materials with sharp weapons using genuine techniques, nor do they usually fit the profile of athletes conditioned to rigorous training in armed fighting skills. It seems like kind of a strange thing to be offended by. After all, most people haven't!

My job is to understand how such weapons handle, how they're maneuvered and manipulated, how they engage one another, what type of techniques and motions the human body is really capable of with said weapons, how physics affects melee combat, and how people respond (physiologically and psychologically) to violent actions. The specifics often include examples of how little-known gripping actions, armor, postures, and different footwork are all interconnected. These elements are ones I can guarantee you have never seen in any movie, TV show, game, renaissance faire performance, or choreographed routine. It's this knowledge and these details which I hope to see developers take inspiration from while building their own games -- instead of copies of copies.

Correcting Core Assumptions

When you develop a game combat system or a series of combat animations, you do so based upon a certain set of core assumptions: assumptions about how weapons and swords handle, about how armor functions, about what wounds could be causes, about how people respond emotionally to personal violence, how bodies and limbs react to injury, and about how real fighters learned martial skills.

Naturally, if you're building a combat simulator off of a relatively shallow (or even erroneous) set of core assumptions, your game won't feel right. Even if your game intends to take a more stylized approach to its combat mechanics and animations, however, it's worth investing the time to understand how the reality of combat translates into your game's core assumptions, so you at least understand what you're stylizing, and why. The martial knowledge and historical combat skills I've redeveloped permit developers to paint with a far richer palette of colors, if only the effort is made to pay some attention.

Without this realistic base, a video game animator ends up replicating the bad form capture of exaggerated stage combat, accepting impressions from pretend bouts with poor weapon simulators, or copying the ritualized movements of some traditional fighting style. The consumers in turn get simplistic strikes and rigid blocks delivered from static, unwieldy postures combined with incessant spinning, whirling, leaping, and assorted useless (and even suicidal) actions that defy both common sense and basic human biomechanics. Meanwhile, a wealth of more dynamic and sophisticated movements, wardings, and alternative counterstriking actions from genuine fighting methods remain untapped for gamers.

I regularly see weapons, particularly swords, wielded by characters in video games in which the familiar figure animations and fighting motions are primitive and crude. For example, there are 16 possible lines of striking for the typical double-edged European longsword. Yet, players are repeatedly offered only the same standard three or four strokes taken right out of Japanese swordplay or borrowed from modern saber fencing and stage combat. It's little more than how children manipulate Nerf swords. All the diverse dynamic motions and distinct manners of adeptly manipulating a real weapon -- with its wards, cuts, thrusts, slices, closures, and displacements -- are entirely absent.

Certainly, not every game with a sword needs to be a sword-combat simulator, but I am confident the software does not know how to allow players do them because developers themselves aren't aware that these things are interesting -- or even possible -- in the first place. With a little effort and attention, however, I think developers could use these realistic historical combat skills to paint with a richer palette of colors.

Devs and Demonstrations: A Deadly Combination

Whenever I demonstrate for game developers, the initial reaction is often simply "Whoa!" They've never seen someone move the way I do or wield particular weapons as adeptly, and certainly not in person instead of on YouTube. And when I demonstrate that these movements are universal and apply to all weapons, whether it's a dagger or spear or a sword and shield, something seems to click. Developers tell me, "Wow, we won't have to use the same old things again, I didn't know that you could hold a weapon that way, I didn't know that you could strike with it that way, I didn't know it was possible for someone to step and pose in such a way, moving from one to another in that way."

Realism doesn't close doors. It opens them. Designers can see that with one kind of weapon, one certain type of move can come after another or that one move has a counter, or a certain position can be interfered with, stifled, or interrupted by another. Combat doesn't have to be the familiar "parry-riposte, parry-riposte, whackety-whack-whack, swirl-swirl" pattern.

Realism is not a dirty word for combat in fantasy games; it's a center point from where everything can and should begin. Realism doesn't lock you in or freeze you in place as a game designer. It's an empowering tool that lets you say, "Wow, I've got a really strong foundation to build on now." Only once your feet are grounded in the right place can your imagination really take off.

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Paul Marzagalli
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I was surprised to not see Neal Stephenson's KS-funded game "Clang" mentioned anywhere. It would be interesting to see a follow-up from the developers of that game to this piece, since their game is entirely about exploring swordplay through game mechanics.

Great article!

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I honestly thought this was in regards to that, especially given that IGN just ran a piece interviewing one of the sword teachers who is doing mo-cap for it.

Still, this is quite cool, something I've been thinking about quite a bit. I'd love to see this expanded into a lengthier look at the subject.

Jeff Richardson
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Of course they wouldn't acknowledge Clang. That would be in direct contradiction to Mr. Clements claim to have the only dedicated WMA training facility in the world.

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Something like Dark Souls is also worth a mention-the game provides a breadth of traditional weapons with nice attempts at simulating realistic weight and heft. It may not be the most realistic system (in terms of engaging against another swordsman), but it presents a system that seems plausible.

I think CLANG! will be a fun attempt at bringing realism to digital sword duels, but I don't think it's necessarily something that will benefit a lot of controller based games (though I wholeheartedly agree with trying to at least make the hand positions and swings based on actual practiced styles).

Kevin Alexander
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I like this article a lot.

However, I've always believed the relevancy of realism as a design, poses so much more problems/complexities from a game play mechanics perspective than it ever has as an artistic/animation problem. Unfortunately, I can't see a reason to employ the later sans a commitment to the former without it feeling or looking estranged.

I'd love to see more of both.

Cordero W
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Oooor, you can go play Demon Souls or Dark Souls. There. Saved you an article.

Chris Hendricks
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For that matter, why come to Gamasutra at all? Just play good games. You'll learn everything you need to know without all of that pesky reading.

Daniel Accardi
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Cordero, I don't think Demon's Souls or Dark Souls has realistic combat. Most of it is pretty standard, if well-crafted, hacking and slashing. I was actually thinking about this in terms of Elveon, a Slovakian game that was cancelled years ago (you can find some youtube videos of it). What Elveon (and the DSs) both have is really just an appreciation for the physics of weapons. Halberds and axes feel long and heavy; swords feel lighter and quicker. When you get hit, you feel it. That's an extremely valuable quality for game combat, but it's different from realism in terms of the fighting techniques being used.

Luis Guimaraes
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Awesome article!

Rob B
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The brilliant thing about this is that because its based in reality, even when it seems strange and out there, it all makes perfect sense. Its a perfect marriage of something thats entirely logical and consistent with something original and new (At least to most people of these times.)

Im reminded of seeing a realistic display of how knights battled. Because slashing through plate metal is hopeless the swords were used for thrusts and as clubs. This would mean that theyd regularly be holding the sword by the blade either to direct a thrust or swing the hilt like a club in to a crushing blow. (It had the benefit of being able to hook on to a combatant)

As far as I can remember Ive never seen this in any game, or for that matter any TV show or movie. I always thought that was a shame. A lot of variation and originality going to waste.

Cam Kirmser
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Interesting article.

If you look at Japanese sword masters, it can be seen that, though the katana lacks a European style pommel, they are held with the strong hand against the tsuba - the analog to the European hilt - and the weak hand held at the very far end of the handle, or tsuka.

I first noticed this when I saw the miniseries Shogun back in the 80s. Prior to then, I had always thought that the katana was gripped with the strong hand against the tsuba and the weak hand against the strong. But, from watching the show - and other samurai flicks since then - it is obvious that there is a quite noticeable gap between the hands.

When you think about it, it makes sense; the sword - as this article points out - is a lever. The strong hand serves as the fulcrum and the further back the weak hand on the grip, the longer the moment arm and the more force that can be exerted by the blade.

Matthew Downey
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+1 for physics.

Amir Barak
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Check out some koryū schools if you're interested in traditional japanese sword-work. Tsuba is the handguard (from what I know anyway) and tsuka is the hilt itself, but yeah that's how we were taught to hold the sword anyway. Different swords are also used in different ways, that is, some are more for bashing, some are for cutting, some are for piercing, some for use on horseback... etc. etc. All of these also affect the holding and attack vectors available for the sword. Generally though I would said that it's pretty bad form to jump with a sword (at least I've not seen anyone do that seriously but I could be mistaken) and turn your back on an opponent. Also, as far as I figured it out (and from some combat duty myself in the army though with tanks not swords :P) all of theses kata and movements are there to instil reflexes not usage, you'll forget about 99% of the stuff when faced with a real opponent (or several). It's that 1% core that'll save your life.

steve smith
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I've studied and loved martial arts from both east and west, and it's great to see people talking about western longsword in the gaming industry more and more.

However, I dispute the notion that what we need in our games is more realism. People do not play games because they're realistic - they play them because they *think* they're realistic. The game's job is to sell that.

Eastern martial arts are popular because they're depicted as being flashy and elegant while also retaining explosive, supernatural levels of power. The romance of western martial arts, while beautiful, doesn't have that flash just yet.

Game developers with an interest in western martial arts would do well to go through their knowledge and find the exciting moments in the Fior di Battaglia (or your other preferred classic fighting manual), and bring them to the forefront of the in-game experience. Preserve the form but hide the boring stuff, and players will be enchanted - which is kind of our job, right?

Brett Williams
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The article isn't asking people to employ realism. It's showing people that if they started from a foundation in a realistic stance and methodology that it would actually make animating and embellishing it easier, because it more naturally fits the mechanics of how the human body works. As noted very early on in the article, the simple act of moving the characters hand to the pommel fixes a lot of animation issues with collision and the wrist position. This isn't extra work, it's actually making less work and thus a more realistic setup to build upon.

Kyle Jansen
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Very interesting read. I fully agree that games should be *based* in reality, and should be stylized and exaggerated as needed. That really applies to everything - sword combat, architecture, costume, dialog...

Alan Rimkeit
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Anyone that is really interested in learning this should go here.

This is really great that realistic Western Martial Arts are being discussed. I disagree with most of the opinions above. I do want a realistic sword combat game. I am seriously looking forward to the this game Clang. I want to see how it turns out.

Patrick Miller
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(Just FYI, ARMA director John Clements co-wrote this article.)

Alan Rimkeit
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FYI, I did see that. Just providing a link to ARMA for those that are interested.

Henrik Strandberg
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Great and very interesting article! Anyone interested in the subject should check out CD Project's The Witcher (2007), which featured melee combat choreographed by experts on medieval swordfighting, and performed by professional martial artists (all combat is mocapped). For sure the choreography was designed to match Andrzej Sapkowski's literary universe and Geralt's persona - for example to accentuate the difference between the steel sword used for human enemies and the silver sword used for supernatural creatures - but I think it's a great example of an end result that applies the same kind of thinking as this article. To make it even more interesting for the player, they designed three entirely separate sets of moves, with different pacing and force behind the blows.

I'd also recommend contacting your local chapter of Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Just like some SCA members seek authenticity in terms of garb, food, crafts and performing arts, many SCAites have spent decades practicing medieval fighting - it's a brutal and efficient fighting style so likely somewhat realistic, although hardly as flashy as you'd expect a game/entertainment experience to be.

Alan Rimkeit
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FYI, ARMA dislikes the SCA with a burning passion.

"many SCAites have spent decades practicing medieval fighting - it's a brutal and efficient fighting style so likely somewhat realistic, although hardly as flashy as you'd expect a game/entertainment experience to be."

And is nothing like real sword combat at all in any way shape or form.

If people want to learn the sword combat that is being discussed in this article and on the ARMA website avoid the SCA like the plague. Go to ARMA instead. There are local chapters all over the world.

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Personally for me the most interesting aspects of games is the opportunity to learn something new and apply it to modify a world. A lot of things in games are arbitrary (click here to do this, 3 medallions allows you to draw the master sword etc) but including something like this grounded in reality really adds a lot to the experience. Going deep on almost any topic always turns up some fascinating insights, e.g. accurate swordplay, rock types in DF, etc.

Jeremie Sinic
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I am not an animator, but this is great food for thought for anyone I guess.
Video games have tropes like movies (you've got to check this Cracked article, which is not just funny but also accurate:
mptions-every-movie-makes.html ), where the medium feeds on itself, leading to directors who assimilate elements coming straight from movies rather than from reality.

Christiaan Moleman
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Good article. Doing your homework makes a difference.

I think the resistance mostly comes from people *liking* showy "useless and suicidal" moves and aesthetic preference often taking precedence over realism. Judging by the moves and attire of most game characters, combat tends to be reality- and physics-free.

Anyone ever see the TV program "Weapons That Made Britain"? Was pretty interesting and touched on a lot of the same points.

Arjen Meijer
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Superb article, I have been working on a sword game for some time and got some interesting gameplay coming from it so far. Also a big plus having a professional sword fighter helping!

David Navarro
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Looks like the guys in the illustration are holding their swords wrong.

Eben Bradstreet
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It's an awkward placement for that picture, true. The weapons those gentlemen are wielding are probably not "long swords", but rather some kind of zweihander (two-handed sword). Their handles are much, much longer than the kind of weapon that I was demonstrating, or that you'd typically find.

Also, gripping your weapon by the handle isn't entirely wrong. There are circumstances where it's applicable. Generally speaking, though, it's better to grip the weapon by the pommel.

Eben Bradstreet
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Hi all, I was responsible for the first half of this article. My thanks to everyone for their positive feedback! If you have any questions or need anything clarified, don't hesitate to ask.

Alan Rimkeit
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Boss article. Props to you and John Clements.

Waqar Rasool
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i am glad i stumbled upon this article, the next game we are working on requires the main character to keep a sword. Although the game style is action arcade, Eben is absolutely right that the basics are always the same.
goodi good.

Jeff Richardson
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Not only does Mr. Clements not have have the only dedicated training facility in the world (as he claims in this article) Mr. Clements doesn't even have the largest dedicated training facility on the North American Continent.

Just on the West Coast...
Probably the largest facility in the world is Academia Duello run by Devon up in Vancouver Canada.
In Seattle Washington you have Michael Tinker Pierce and Neal Stephenson and the guys developing Clang who have their own facility.
Also in Seattle Washington you have Cecil Longino at Salle Saint-George
In Portland Oregon you have Academia Duellatoria which also has a pilot school in Phoenix Oregon.
In Eugene Oregon you have Maestro Hayes at Northwest Fencing Academy.
In Santa Clara, California you have the Davenriche European Martial Artes School.

That's just a handful from the West Coast off the top of my head.

Richard Elswick
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Chicago Swordplay Guild as well Jeff Richardson.

There are many others, smaller as well.

Europe has many as well.

For another flavor of understanding the reconstruction of western martial arts in the 14th-16th century, do a search on YouTube for "Battle of the Nations 2012". Also take a look at for additional info.

Michaelangelo Reina
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A very interesting article, I prefer to look at it as overall concepts that can be applied. I am not sure there is much space for a deeper integration unless the idea is to purposely create a fully realistic simulation of what it is to fight with a long sword, (and in a game, rarely turns out to be a long sword, or just one sword). I've been practicing KDF for over a year now, and animated on titles with sword play at the same time. I think at the end you have to do what is right for the type of game you are making first and foremost.