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When Violence Meets Honor in History and Games
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When Violence Meets Honor in History and Games

June 21, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

Advantages of Non-Lethal Game Combat

Non-lethal fights, in the real world as well as in fictional worlds, have different meanings and impact than combat for life and death. In movies (and medieval epics) opponents that are defeated in single combat often become the hero's friends afterward -- never in games. In many movie westerns, there are barroom brawls, often used as comic relief, but there is the deadly duel at high noon as well. Both have a place in movies as well as computer games. Rockstar missed a great opportunity by neglecting the brawling mechanic in Red Dead Redemption. Yes, there is a trophy for winning brawls in all the saloons, but I would have loved some missions that tested my brawling skills as well.

Non-lethal fighting might be used in the beginning of a game, to start things off slowly, as it is done in Assassin's Creed II. Later on, as conflicts deepen and things become more serious, combat may become lethal. This way, deadly violence, when it happens, has much more impact on the player.

Using non-lethal fighting in addition to lethal combat breaks up the strict dichotomy between safe zones and danger zones that exist in many games.

For instance, a fantasy (quasi-medieval) city would be reasonably safe: the player character might be involved in a brawl, but she will not be killed. A monastery would be completely safe, but the woods outside would be dangerous. This way, there would be shades of gray between completely safe and very dangerous areas, and the player would still know the danger she was in any time.

Dying and reloading or respawning always breaks game immersion. Losing a non-lethal fight, on the other hand, is an opportunity for some side quests: the player character may need to look for a doctor to patch her up; or visit a trainer to prepare her for the next fight; or just put in a training session by herself.

If the outcome and lethality of the fight depends on opponents, location and number and participation of bystanders, the player always has to decide what tactics and what weapons to use. An ambush by bandits would be a life or death affair, but it would not be allowed to kill a drunk assaulting the player character in a city tavern. If a fight happens, the player should often have a choice to participate or not; in some cases it might even be possible to end a fight in the escalation phase by bluffing.

Conclusion: Venetian Bridge Battles - A Ready-Made Historical Game Setting

The description of a little-known feature of Venetian popular culture may serve to illustrate my key arguments. For hundreds of years, starting with the second half of the 14th century and lasting until the early 1700s, the citizens of Venice regularly met in mock battles upon the larger bridges spanning the canals.

Fight between the inhabitants of the districts of Castello and San Nicolo on the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of the Fists). Note the sword fight among well-dressed spectators to the right. Venetian artist, 18th century. Copyright Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia, used with permission. (Click for large image)

At first those battagliole were fought with sharpened sticks; by 1600, they became unarmed brawls known as guerre di pugni, the wars of the fists. These fights that could vary in size between a few dozen to a thousand participants drew thousands of spectators who watched from rented balconies, gondolas or the roofs of nearby houses. The fights were dangerous; many fighters were severely wounded or even drowned in the canals. In 1574, 600 stick fighters gathered for a bridge battle in honor of the French king Henri III; after three hours of fierce fighting, the king is said to have exclaimed: "This is too small to be war, but too cruel to be a game!"

Venetian boxers were famed for their skill throughout Italy; but they were no professional warriors -- they were fishermen, craftsmen or shopkeepers. They took part because by fighting in the battagliole and rising through the ranks to be a capo, a leader, a simple worker could increase his social status in a way that would be impossible to achieve otherwise.

The guerre di pugni were regular combat events, fought mainly to increase personal honor. A game based on these bridge battles might be a brawler, an action adventure, a role playing game, or even a real time strategy game. It might even be transformed into a fantasy tale in which floating cities are connected by giant bridges that have to be conquered. Or it might just be an add-on to Assassin's Creed. I think Ezio Auditore would feel right at home in it.

Recommended reading

Anglo, Sydney: The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. New Haven/London 2000

Aylward, J.D.: The English Master of Arms. London 1956

Barber, Richard; Barker, Juliet: Tournaments. Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge 1989

Brown, Warren C.: Violence in Medieval Europe. London 2010

Davis, Robert C.: The War of the Fists. Popular Culture and Public Violence in Late Renaissance Venice. New York/Oxford 1994

Note: Some of these books are out of print, but may still be available as used copies. If you want to read just one, try Davis or Aylward. Great, and often surprising, reading.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

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