On Realism and Immersion – Mount and Blade

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[Originally posted at Gather Your Party on 21 Feb 2014]

Video games have come a long way since the time of text adventures and vector graphics. Moore’s law blessed us with exponentially increasing processing power and with it the potential for better graphics, sound, physics and system fidelity.

Introduction

Video games have come a long way since the time of text adventures and vector graphics. Moore’s law blessed us with exponentially increasing processing power and with it the potential for better graphics, sound, physics and system fidelity. Since the advent of 3D games operating freely on physical abstracts, our ability to approximate the real world has constantly improved.

Some games focus entirely on the approximation of reality and behaviors into the digital—be it by approximating ballistics for guns, realistic flight-models of airplanes or global economical interactions of countries, these games are, for all intents and purposes, simulations.

Realistic approximation of real-world systems adds to the experience of numen; as our brains react more favorably to realistic elements more closely than abstract ones and hence the hunt for realism is also a hunt for immersion.

On a basic level, a certain amount of immersion is good for the player and the game. It lets the player more intuitively understand the mechanics in question; as the difference between what is realistically expected and the in-game result is smaller if the level of abstraction is less. Certain games, like Antichamber, even specifically subvert this dynamic by reversing what is expected and creating a challenge in abstraction.

However, a simple simulation of real world systems is not always a good game and the mindless approximation for the sake of authenticity can, more often than not, work against the game itself.

Mount & Blade – On Realism and Immersion

Mount & Blade is a genre-mix of real-time strategy, third/first-person action combat, RPG and 4x empire building game. The game gives the player a wide variety of activities to engage in depending on their playstyle and its systems are largely kept authentic in the context of its real-life approximations. Troops need food, armors have different statistics and behave differently to different damage types, towns generate varying resources depending on location, item availability is dependent on trade-routes and their safety, and so on.

Its stride for realism also translates to the hands-on combat where weapons can strike from different angles with different results, damage types, and even range. Similarly, the units have different hit and hurt-boxes or move and attack at different speeds, all decided by their statistics.

The interesting thing about all these high fidelity simulations of expected real behaviors is how the game utilizes them for the benefit of its mechanics; in other words, how the simulation elements work for the game instead of against it by creating emerging strategic opportunities for depth.

Take for example something simple like terrain and its geometry in relation to how the game handles ballistics.

In Mount & Blade the terrain is modeled in three dimensions and slopes that units can stand on are more or less analogue, at least compared to games that are modeled in 3D but feature leveled terrain (Starcraft 2). It is a trope in strategy that high ground confers an advantage to attackers and in many games this is often conveyed through some kind of generic statistics bonus. In Mount & Blade however, the simulation covers this behavior directly without using abstract numerical advantages.

Sloping terrain can be used in a variety of ways for ranged units. For one, considering projectile ballistics, units will fire in an arc which inherently lends itself for using an elevated position to gain range. Secondly, the ability to stand in an analogue way on a slope creates opportunities for overlapping firing-ranges with line of sight of the stacked units.

As units can not fire or attack through each other and require line of sight to their targets, standing on a slope can enable units in stacked formation to shoot over each others heads and maintain line of sight to the enemy. This is an inherent advantage as your output of projectiles increases while providing cover if your first file is melee units that can block returning fire with their shields or protect the fragile ranged units against a cavalry rush.

high ground

In a game that does not have line of sight, no ballistics, and in which units can fire through each other or obstacles this difference would not amount to much, hence the often used generic statistical bonuses in other games.

But it doesn’t stop there as units have different hitboxes and armors. The most vulnerable is of course the head of the unit, as we would expect from a real world context. Having an elevated position means that projectiles can fall on enemies and hit their head-hitbox, potentially delivering fatal damage. Furthermore, the projectiles can pass above shields or force the units to cover their heads against the attack, in which case they expose their torso and legs which can be used tactically by sending in infantry to make short work of the now cowering enemy that has to defend against a hail of blows from all lateral sides and above.

Similarly the concept ties in with the fidelity and placement of unit, armor, and weapon hitboxes. A unit’s hitbox is divided into three parts considering its armor: torso, head, and legs. This means that depending on what the unit is wearing there can be weaknesses to its damage resistance on different parts of its body. A knight in full plate can easily be dispatched if he does not wear a helmet, likewise mighty cavalry units can be felled if they do not wear good leg armor.

Shield hitboxes are of special importance here as the shields can vary in size, material, and durability. A small buckler might block a few well aimed arrows but will prove ineffective against a hail of projectiles that might hit the unit in the area it is not covering. In comparison, a large tower- or kite-shield will block almost any projectile sent at the unit but is unwieldy, confers encumbrance, and features a slower speed to ready it, not to mention that it can not be raised as high as others due to their size and weight. A special mention deserves the fact that a shield placed on a unit’s back, and not readied in hand, still lends their protection and hitbox. A shield on the back can block arrows and blows exactly as the one being held in front. If the enemy manages to surround a unit, the damage reduction from a large shield on their back might just make them last long enough to gain the advantage again, but of course at the cost of encumbrance and reduced movement. It is highly recommended to equip every front-line defense unit manually with a secondary shield to reduce the chance of a back stab.

Mb_warband_2011-06-26_22-50-06-18

This fidelity extends to weapons as well which all have their own strengths and weaknesses by virtue of their in-game model and hitbox rather than a generic statistic. A shortsword, for example, might do fantastic damage and be great at parrying and deflecting blows, but it simply doesn’t have the reach to hit mounted units where it counts. With short weapons all the player is left with is slashing at their ankles or the often-armored horse. Specific polearms—certain spears, for example—do not feature lateral attacks at all and hence can be easily blocked by shields as their only attack is a thrust; their strength, however, is their long reach and thin hitbox which allows multiple stacked units to attack past their own units that can block blows for them. This tactic is especially useful for castle sieges where enemies can be funneled into tight quarters.

Given the fact that weapon attacks deflect from obstacles, shields, and even other weapons mid-swing, the length of a weapon and its hitbox becomes a crucial element in tactics and combat. A densely forested area will have an army using certain polearms—like halberds—at a disadvantage since lateral swings will often deflect from trees. On the other hand, halberds excel in open ground warfare against mounted units in a loose formation as they can potentially fell a horse in one swing without being in range of the weapons from horseback.

However, terrain vegetation is not only a threat to melee units but to ranged compositions as well, since it provides lots of cover and blocks line of sight. A small orchard can provide topside protection against an elevated ranged squad that would decimate them otherwise and force the player into a risky close-quarters engagement. Not only that, but densely forested areas often make cavalry entirely useless as there isn’t enough space to accelerate for the horses and a stationary cavalry is just waiting to be slaughtered as sitting ducks.

Another aspect of the environment is vision and effects like rain, fog, or darkness. Given that the game does not feature a traditional minimap that shows the player the lay of the land in an engagement, nor the position of enemy units, the player has to assess the situation visually by themselves and find terrain suited for combat depending on their armies’ strengths. There is nothing worse than engaging the enemy in a forest that is covered with fog, where units can emerge from any direction and move unseen to flank. Not knowing the topography can be disastrous if the player is not careful as they can send their cavalry to charge only to discover that behind a hill a river slowed their advance and made them vulnerable to enemy units. Similarly, urban engagements provide their own perils and nuances, like funneling units into killzones or ranged assault units on rooftops.

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Choosing the topography for a battle is a key part of strategy in Mount & Blade because how all these systems interact with each other, how weapons are handled and how it interacts with the realistic and lethal approach to combat, how the physics interact with ballistics and how movement interacts with mounted units and terrain elevation.

In all these cases the approximations of reality work for the game creating opportunities for tactical as well as strategic depth rather than just simply providing immersion or trying to create an experience of numen for the player.

This philosophy also extends to narrative or social NPC interactions that virtually in all cases function for the benefit of the systems and challenges in place. Be it marriage or attending a feast, the player is always interacting with the systems in a way that can be played and contributes to the challenges the game poses.

Romancing your partner in marriage isn’t just a way to add a pointless narrative device as it improves standing with their family and can bring benefits in resources through land or wealth. Furthermore, your wife or husband can become your minister and manage affairs of state as well as the household. Female characters marrying another lord will gain access to their estates as well as income and can exploit this relationship in truly medieval fashion. The players friendships and enemies in the game aren’t just there to give context to the world, they are equivalent to alliances, opponents and challenges.

Unfortunately this is also an area where Mount & Blade goes too far in its stride for authenticity and immersion.

All interactions are done in a verbose format through a conversation menu, be it upgrading your units armor or allocating skill points. Frequent, repetitive tasks like managing fiefs or equipping companions suffer the most from this, as clicking through conversation options just to exchange a helmet becomes a nuisance quickly.

The same goes for managing estates, fiefs, and business holdings. To set up a business the player has to go to the city they want to set the business in, manually find the guildmaster by walking around town and then ask him about every option of business to which he will reply at great length about the profitability of them.

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A similar problem is presented when trying to set up patrols. This consists of talking to the sheriff which presents a conversation screen with selections for patrol size and an impossibly long list of all locations in the game world. A simple screen with a map would have fulfilled the same purpose and given the player a sense of geography where they are sending the patrols to.

Granted, taking a walk around a city fulfills a purpose, namely the chance of a bandit ambush, and seeking out NPCs that are not listed in the city overview, however these things could still be present without the incessant reliance of picking options from dialogue conversation lists with verbose output for simple things like managing your budget or item storage.

Another of these annoyances is the requirement to talk to every lord after having helped them in combat to claim an increase in standing and/or honor lest they “forget” it. This means that after every successful campaign where the player accompanies the main army with potentially five or more lords, the player has to click through all the units on the map to engage in conversation to claim the rewards.

The purpose behind these UI decisions was admitted to be immersion and authenticity by the developer TaleWorlds as they wanted the player to have personal interactions with the NPCs rather than an abstract or automated system. The systems themselves are sound and absolutely fantastic providing a lot of strategy and depth, however the presentation is just simply too “realistic” and adds nothing to the gameplay itself beyond annoyance. It is here that the inclusion of realism and in immersion work against the game and the player.

Fortunately, TaleWorlds is absolutely aware of these shortcomings and has promised an improved model of interaction in Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord where repetitive simple managing tasks are relegated to an abstract interface rather than the conversation menu.

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Conclusion

Mount & Blade is a fantastic example for both sides of the coin. It features deep, interesting systems that only exist because of its authenticity, yet it also features examples that actively hinder these systems as well and prevent the game from unfolding its full potential.

Realism and immersion are a double-edged sword, and as in Mount & Blade, they have their strengths and weaknesses. Used for the improvement of challenges they can provide fantastic analogue depth, or bog the game down in irrelevant minutia that adds nothing or even hinders it.

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2 Responses to On Realism and Immersion – Mount and Blade

  1. gunlord500 says:

    Excellent review. Mount and Blade does go further for realism than most medieval style games, though I’d say it’s combat system could use some work. From what I understand of medieval warfare, for swords alone there were all sorts of different stances, attacks, and even grappling moves (like disarming an enemy) one could use. Check out thearma.org for examples. In Mount and Blade, on the other hand, you just have thrusts, horizontal slashes, and vertical slashes :p

    • tradamtm says:

      “From what I understand of medieval warfare, for swords alone there were all sorts of different stances, attacks, and even grappling moves (like disarming an enemy) one could use. ”

      Absolutely, there is a fantastic video about sword+shield single combat here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkhpqAGdZPc

      As far as I know no game so far has ever gotten shield and sword fighting right in the sense of realism, but on the other hand it doesn’t have to as explained in the article.

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