Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Medieval Armor in Video Games: Sinners and Saints

The medieval (and medieval-inspired fantasy) has always been an enormously rich source of inspiration for game designers and digital artists. Some high-fantasy games – like the Final Fantasy series – draw from a wide variety of time periods and styles, mixing them together with little regard for accuracy or function in order to create a gorgeous magical style. Others, such as the Chivalry games, tout themselves as a true-to-life recreation of medieval armor, faithfully reproducing both the form and function of armor. RIFT’s designers have made a pretty good stab at combining medieval styles with fantasy flare, and the armor styles in the game are (thankfully) free of many of the major pitfalls that depictions of fantasy armor fall into. Here we’ll have a look at some of the saints, and sinners, of the world of medieval armor in gaming.

The Saints

Obviously, some games set out to be a highly realistic simulation of the medieval era, and, if the game makers have done their homework, they’re bound to get most things right. Kingdom Come: Deliverance is an excellent example of this. Although it was plagued with issues upon release, it has been significantly tidied up by developer Warhorse since launch. Its setting of medieval Bohemia at the opening of the 15th-century is a rare choice, and their spectacularly broad sandbox-style world is filled with meticulously researched equipment and armor. Broadly, the armor styles are absolutely excellent. Armor pieces become scuffed and bent over time, losing effectiveness and requiring repair – a wealthy medieval knight would have had an armorer in their retinue to maintain their armor. As well, the game allows you to ‘layer’ your armor with multiple slots on each part of the body. This allows you to wear a padded jacket (a ‘gambeson’ or arming doublet), under a chainmail hauberk, under a steel breastplate, under a colorful tabard. This closely matches the multi-layered armor outfits that men-at-arms in this era would have worn.

Another game that makes a really good stab at portraying medieval armor accurately is multiplayer medieval brawler Mordhau. You get the impression that developer Triternion have a genuine respect for the form and function of medieval armor, rather than including different styles just for the aesthetic. It is easy to miss, for example, that 15th century medieval armor is frequently asymmetric, designed with thicker and heavier armor on the left, where a knight would expect to receive a blow from a mounted enemy – or that Gothic armor gauntlets from the 14th century (before the invention of sliding rivets and complex armor articulation) frequently had extremely wide flared cuffs to permit the full range of motion. Yet Mordhau painstakingly recreates these details and many more besides. They’ve even reproduced some real artifacts from the medieval era to wear in-game, like the von Pranckh funeral helmet, complete with its spectacular painted leather winged horns!

The Sinners

Frustratingly, a lot of the most gratingly inaccurate armor in video games is often to be seen on women characters. The notorious phenomenon of ‘female armor’ does an enormous disservice to women gamers, and to female medieval warriors. Some of the worst offenders in this category include Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (Shahdee’s armor is not only functionally useless, but also appears to be made from solid, unarticulated metal!), Enclave (the exposed skin of Lady von Buckethead’s ‘armor’ would be useless against any standard medieval ranged weaponry, and also definitely cuts off circulation in several places) and Lineage 2 (can you spell ‘fan service’?). Even the beloved Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is not immune from the curse of ‘female armor’ – the Forsworn appear to have a penchant for animal-fur bikinis, despite living in the mountainous tundra of the Reach!

RIFT sometimes veers perilously close to this pitfall with exposed skin on otherwise heavily armored female sets, but manages to avoid it by offering a good selection of armor for female characters that looks like, well, normal armor. There were a number of historical medieval women that we know certainly wore armor in the field: the 11th century noblewoman Matilda of Canossa, for example, frequently took to the field in armor to lead her troops against Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in northern Italy. Although we have no surviving contemporary images of Matilda, nor surviving armor that we can attribute to her, we know that she wasn’t dressed like Lady von Buckethead, because she wasn’t killed by the first arrow that came near her.

Heaven and Hell

The Medieval era is more than just a time when people made cool armor. It was a very different time, characterized by a radically different kind of society, built on honor and feudal bonds rather than commerce and globalization. The best medieval-inspired game engage with how this society made its armor rather than just sprinkling in some shiny steel objects. RIFT’s own magical economy is well-reflected in its armor – and mercifully, it provides a much more woman-friendly armor environment. Top marks.


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