From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Well, half-right.
When the first warrior looked at the first sword, he was heard to muse, “One day, there will be a game in which people can pretend to wield these.” For his prognostication, he was then obviously burned at the stake. But the words remained, echoing down the years, in the dreams of everyone who heard about the Nintendo Wii before actually playing something like Red Steel, and the Kickstarter of at least and in fact probably no more than one famous science fiction writer with a love of clashing blades and an audience demanding to know why his Metaverse idea turned into Second Life’s red light district.
Then in 1998, one company answered the call. But was the PC’s first and only mainstream attempt to give conventional controls the chop an inspiring tale of triumph… or just an epic flail?
Die By the Sword’s readme file makes for somewhat sad reading. “The VSIM technology is really the future of animation and character control,” it declares. “Die By The Sword will become a classic and forever known as the game that set the standard.” Well, not quite. “Once you play and become accustomed to the greater control of your character, you will never be able to go back to the old technology that limits your control,” it also adds, blissfully unaware that in just a few short years, creators Treyarch would give up on experiments like this and begin churning out Call of Duty sequels.
It’s a shame, because the idea is interesting, even if the game itself often struggles to be. You’re an adventurer called Enric, trapped in both a staggeringly dull undermountain setting and the shadow of 1996’s Tomb Raider, on a quest so simple that may as well be described by flashcards rather than an intro. Girlfriend. Evil Guy. Adventure. Some of the dialogue does amuse, like Enric’s opening “YOU BASHTHARDS! WHERE IS SHE?!” and the unimpressed tutorial guy who enjoys declaring things like “Reckless fool!” at the slightest provocation.
Nobody gives a kobold’s second kidney about any of that though, because the star of the show is and always was Enric’s right arm. His sword arm. It’s possible to play Die By the Sword in an arcade mode, but forget that. VSIM was all about offering skeletal animation—sometimes actually of skeletons—long before Half-Life made it the unarguable way to do in-game animation. (At this point in 3D, just about everyone else was instead using frame-based animation, sparing ragdolls endless pain.)
It’s simply described. Move your mouse, he moves his sword in real-time. Move the mouse up, he moves it up. Move it down, he moves it down. Move it to the side, and the problem of translating motion on a 2D plane into 3D becomes painfully obvious, and would become more-so if poor Enric was hurt by his sword constantly clipping through his flesh. Combat is a matter of moving to block and parry, stab and slice, with enemy limbs flying and whoever programmed the camera earning themselves a stint in Hell.
If it sounds cool, it should. This was impressive stuff for 1998, and honestly could still be impressive right now, if only as a novelty. It just had one teeny-tiny problem. “Unplayable” is too strong. “As easy to play as a piano covered with razor wire” is more fair, at least if you want to go beyond comically flailing around and pretending to be in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even so, Die By the Sword’s ambition was enough to win it many friends, to the point that it was one of the first PC-exclusive games to be considered for a movie conversion. That never happened of course, but some of the script pages do still float around.
SCENE 4, INT: KOBOLD LAIR, DAY 1
A dark, forbidding cave in the undermountain. Two KOBOLDS sit around a fire, toasting the flesh of previous adventurers and giggling to themselves in high-pitched voices. ENRIC enters, raising his sword.
ENRIC: MONSTERS! Prepare for oblivion! You BASHTHARDS!
KOBOLD 1: Eee, ‘eck, what’s this one doing?
KOBOLD 2: I do believe it is the human dance known as the ‘YMCA’.
KOBOLD 1: That ‘aint never an M.
KOBOLD 2: Assuredly. Perchance there is a YUCA in the land of light above to which I remain unilluminated. Greetings to you, noble knight. Dare I presume that you are Enric, scourge of the darkness?
ENRIC: Silence, demons! Stand and fight— shit! Ow! Shit!
KOBOLD 1: That was a good leg an’ all. Get you a bandage?
ENRIC: This happens quite often, I will be fine. Better… than you BASHTHARDS!
Enric attempts to wave his sword dramatically
KOBOLD 2: Are you inviting us to play charades! What a treat, I do love this. Okay. It’s a book… a badly handled book… a really stupid book that makes people dumber for having witnessed its flailing around…
KOBOLD 1: Eragon!
ENRIC: IT IS YOUR DOOM!
KOBOLD 2: Cheater. At least sound it out. Sounds like ‘broom’ and so on. Sigh. You humans are no fun unless you’re screaming through broken teeth for a mercy that will never come. Or on that Celebrity Big Brother.
ENRIC: Mock me not, demons! I am here on a mighty quest, to rescue my girlfriend!
KOBOLD 2: Oh, dear. Oh, how tediously cliché.
KOBOLD 1: Girlfriend? This’ll be the chick with the really big—
KOBOLD 2: Shield, yes. A fine figure of a lady. But please, do not let us get in your way. The door ahead is open, we feel no urge for combat this day. Please. Sit with us. Enjoy a little… ah, yes. Enjoy a ‘rest stop’ on this hero’s journey. We shall happily be the McDonalds of your monomyth, as it were.
ENRIC: I could use a… a drink. Have you bashthards mead?
KOBOLD 2: I am afraid not. At least, not within my pack. Comrade, can you provide our friend with a little compassionate comfort on his quest to rescue his lost ladylove? Some rum, perhaps?
KOBOLD 1: I dunno. I’ve got tequila…
ENRIC: YOU WILL NEVER EVEN TOUCH HER!
KOBOLD 2: Ah- No, see—
ENRIC: Enough prattle, minions of the dark one! Taste the cold steel of the finest blade money can buy!
KOBOLD 1: Best? You’re having a laugh! I’ve seen better blades… where’ve I seen a better blade, boss?
KOBOLD 2: Most recently? I do believe that would be deep up the rectum of the last hero who challenged Rolf the Ogre. Fine workmanship on the hilt. Very fine. I must concur with my learned friend, sir. That is a poor weapon for any quest. Wherever did you acquire it?
ENRIC: I did not. It was purchased on my behalf by my apprentice while I was a-wenching.
KOBOLD 2: Twas your squire bought it? Whatever did you say to upset him?
KOBOLD 1: Also, “wenching”, was we? Some boyfriend!
ENRIC: I upset him not! He was merely distracted by thoughts of his home in Wales, and his grieving widowed mother who bid him leave his village that he may join me and seek his fortune at my side. Perhaps I should have been more specific of my needs. I could have told him, “Buy me a fine blade capable of cutting mithril,” or “Boy, when I wake, I wish my first sight to be the glimmer on the slightly serrated edge of a Caredolian scimitar, that they say can carve the soul from an enemy’s flesh.”
KOBOLD 2: Specificity is a virtue, indeed. But instead, you merely said to your little Welsh friend—
ENRIC: “Dai, buy the sword.” It seemed funny at the time.
ENRIC: I now regret this decision. I regret this decision very much.
ENRIC: In fact, let us go back to your idea. OK. It’s a movie—
KOBOLD 1: Eragon!
KOBOLD 2: No, sir, no. No. Your bad pun has stirred the bile in my loins and I do declare that now I am indeed of a mind to descend to my basest level and take you upon a journey of pain from agony through to murder, pausing but briefly for light beverage refreshments and this packet of chocolate Hob Nobs made by real Hobs from ingredients better left a mystery. M’colleague acquiesces?
KOBOLD 1: Grrr!
KOBOLD 2: Indubitably. Let us then, in the parlance of our kind, proceed to ripping his bollocks off and making balloon animals. I believe that today, I am in of kitty-cat kind of mood. To arms! WAAARGH!
The result of these inevitable fights is much like the Black Knight scene of Monty Python, with limbs scattering all over the place. Or at least, that’s what it’s meant to be like. In practice, Die By the Sword is brutal from the very start, with even kobolds bouncing around in a way that’s hard to hit and the difficulty of enemies quickly scaling up. In a way, it was almost the Dark Souls of its time—a game that doesn’t really go for unfair, but also has no interest whatsoever in your pitiful concepts of charity and fair play.
Only a couple of rooms into the first level for instance, you find yourself caught in a rope trap and fighting upside down. Later, enemies waste little time pounding the ‘crap’ out of ‘you’, made worse by swings just as often ending with Enric spanking foes instead of slaying them. At least they’re cheerfully willing to throw themselves directly onto his sword. The combat engine is interesting, but the AI is awful.
To give Die By the Sword credit, as visually dull as its world is, it does mix up that action a fair amount on each level rather than resting purely on its swinging laurels. It also offered a way to focus purely on them, with an arena mode and an expansion pack that technically added a new quest (staring Enric’s girlfriend Maya), but was mostly notable for adding more arenas to fight in and extra modes to do it with— like Ogre Hockey, with two teams competing to knock a kobold into the goal.
Which didn’t at all end up feeling like an even less co-ordinated version of…
For its ideas, it was well-received at the time, if not often-played after the demo did the rounds. It still has its fans too, with a mod called Xtended making it both fully playable on modern machines and radically improved, with features like antialiasing, shader effects, widescreen support, and a mod manager to allow for things like new arenas and characters and inevitable extra violence mods.
As technically impressive as its sword engine was, by far the best way to actually play it was with the boring old arcade mode, and there are reasons beyond laziness and a lucrative Call of Duty contract that the idea hasn’t really been seen again. As with the Wii, one of the biggest problems was and remains a lack of haptic feedback—with no pressure coming back when the virtual sword hits things, you instantly lose the connection with the weapon and the game as soon as combat starts.
Another was the way that, as much as a more realistic form of interaction might sound like an improvement, it’s often more jarring to deal with the limitations of that and the gap between expectation and reality than simply to accept the abstraction of pressing B to do something cool.
Maybe one day the idea will finally be reinvestigated and given a second chance. Maybe not, if the next version or so of VR gets to plug into our dreams instead of merely starring in them. Either way, Die By the Sword stands as a valiant effort and an interesting peek down a road that games could have taken, but chose to avoid in favour of simple controls and ever more ridiculous action through QTEs and other shortcuts.
Really, the only game that springs to mind that even attempted it was Determinance, which also factored in flight to better combine the sword-fighting brutality of Highlander with the tactical finesse of an epileptic seizure. But that was about it. Unless you count Octodad.