Shadow of War(dor): What Combat Means

I’m partway through Shadow of War, which is obviously better thought of as Shadow of Wardor, seeing as it’s the sequel to Shadow of Mordor. If that makes it sound stupid, well, blame the development team for not spotting it earlier. It’s also a little disingenuous, because war isn’t so much a shadow in this game as the main big thing that’s going on. Anyway. There’s a bunch of stuff I want to talk about, and we’ll chip away at it piece by piece. The first thing, for this week, is what combat means – or perhaps how combat means. 

When you stop to think about it, combat in video games doesn’t make a fuck of a lot of sense. If you’ve got some enemy with a health bar, the idea is that they won’t die until you run that health bar out. You can shoot them in the face, stab them, burn them, whatever, and they’re just gonna keep on going until that health bar runs out – at which point they’ll just instantly die. Now, health bars in games have a long history. To my understanding, they originate with arcade games. Basically when players came up against a boss fight, giving them a sense of how far through they were encouraged them to try again when they died. If you know you got the boss down to 10% health before dying, you’re more likely to use another quarter to try again – or at least that’s the idea. So they start off as a financial tool rather than as something that necessarily makes sense within the game fiction.

One of the consequences of the health bar is that combat becomes less about the violence against the individual body, and more about numbers. If a boss has 50 health, and your sword does 10 damage, you have to hit him five times. It doesn’t matter if you hit him in the head or the foot – five times, and he’s dead. It’s not even about whether or not you can see the health bar – in Shadow of War, the Captains have health bars, but the regular Orcs don’t. You still develop a general sense of how much damage an Orc’s going to take before dying. Anyway – the more you think about that whole five-times-and-dead thing, the sillier it gets. You could hit a boss five times in the foot, and his heart would stop and he’d just fucking die.

Compare this scene from the start of Reservoir Dogs – it’s a good example of how violence works in film. Tim Roth’s character has been shot in the gut, and he’s bleeding all over the seats and crying a bunch. He’s acting like that specifically because he was shot in the gut. By comparison, there’s a scene in Homeland where main character Carrie Mathison is shot in the arm (S3 E8). She’s in the hospital for a bit, but the bullet missed everything vital and so she’s back to field work the next day with a couple bandages. The nature of violence in film or on TV depends on how it affects the body. The nature of violence in video games depends much more on how it affects the health bar.

Obviously I’m heavily simplifying this whole process. Video games are sometimes invested in the body to some degree – in your average FPS, for example, a headshot will usually kill an enemy immediately, as opposed to maybe four or five body shots for the same effect. We also have to contend with plot concerns – so for example sometimes characters will get shot in a very non-specific way. They’ll get shot, and fall over, but you’ll never actually find out specifically where they got shot. Sometimes stories keep things very loose so they can justify whatever comes next. Maybe the character dies – and the story never told you where they got shot, so it’s unclear whether it’s justifiable for them to die immediately. Alternately, they go to hospital and then escape out into the world to complete their mission – and again, you don’t know where they actually got shot, so it’s harder to call bullshit.

The other thing to consider is that film has more of an editorial process. Watch the fight scene here from about 1:50.

You’ll notice that Aragorn kills a fuckload of Uruks very quickly. There’s a lot of jumping cuts between 2:09 and 2:16, and by my count Aragorn kills eight Uruks in those seven seconds. But you’re not plainly seeing how that fight is playing out. You’re not seeing the straightforward wide-shot moment-to-moment action that you would see in, say, a video game. The sequence is edited so that you’re not just getting a plain series of actions, you’re also getting a particular emotion or feel from the way it’s cut together. This is all very obvious Editing 101 – but if you think about it, games don’t have that editorial capability. You’re not skipping moments and having the camera jump around – you’ve got one perspective, and you’re playing through every moment in real time. In a video game, then, we can suggest that combat is less editorialized.

So video game combat is going to feel different to movie or TV combat in these two specific ways. Movies and TV can editorialize a lot more, creating a specific feel through the juxtaposition of shots as well as whatever’s actually happening in the fictional world. Plus, in movies and TV violence often revolves more around damage to the actual body. It’s not as focused on the kinda more cold, clinical logic of the health bar. These aren’t the only differences – I’ve obviously ignored the whole element of playing violence, instead of just watching it – but this is part of the conversation too.

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