A weapon rack filled with medieval swords.

Glass Sabers and Cardboard Hammers

Derûndân sagh, and welcome.

After exploring the bonds between a warrior and their instruments of destruction, today I feel like talking about the times that relationship goes sour. Weapon and armor durability has become somewhat of a taboo subject in the gaming world. While it has become present in a slew of mainstream video games, such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you’d be hard pressed to find a person who unapologetically likes durability meters on their hard earned equipment. It is little wonder why; losing a valuable asset hurts, and doubly so if that loss occurs in the middle of a life-or-death battle. In my opinion, durability mechanics have two legitimate reasons to be featured prominently: Artificial Limitation and Inventory Management.

The first way durability is used I have branded Artificial Limitation. These are the stories in which durability mechanics serve to promote enjoyable gameplay by creating puzzle-like problems for the players to solve. From a reality perspective, the protagonist could either find a weapon that could be used more repeatedly or the weapons should logically perform better than they do. The former can be seen in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us with Joel’s shivs. These are craft-able tools which can silently take out three enemies before they break. In the context of the story, it is more than slightly silly to imagine that Joel is incapable of finding a nice and sturdy steak knife laying around or just asking to borrow the switch blade his partner carries around. However, if logic were strictly followed, the game wouldn’t have nearly as tense stealth scenes or the mood establishing scavenging mechanic.

Another example can be found in Konami’s Silent Hill: Downpour where all weapons have a finite number of uses before they break. In reality, a fire axe should be able to hack through fleshy creatures more-or-less indefinitely, but the unreliability of weapons makes the protagonist, Murphy, feel more vulnerable when fighting the town’s various unspeakable monsters.

The last major use of durability systems is automatic Inventory Management, and it is designed to encourage the player to continue to play the game. This is functionally different from Artificial Limitation due to the fact it doesn’t promote choices or enhance the tone, but pushes the player to seek out new equipment to replace what they have broken. Now instead of selling their bronze sword to the vendor once they find a steel one, players instead keep it in their back pockets to dispatch weak enemies instead of wasting their steel sword on them. Once players discover that they are not making enough profit to replace their gear, they must find new places to farm or discover new ways of conserving their supplies, such as improving their characters’ ability to fix equipment. The example of durability based Inventory Management that comes to my mind is Grasshopper Manufacture’s surreal dungeon adventure Let It Die, in which all equipment quickly degrades and must be either maintained or swapped out with newer models. In my opinion, Nintendo’s Zelda: Breath of the Wild also falls into this category with its rapidly disintegrating weaponry. This isn’t inherently a bad system. Breath of the Wild, Let It Die, and games like them could be using their durability mechanics to prevent an outrageously cluttered inventory as the player amasses better and better gear.

With both of those systems in mind, are durability mechanics inherently fun? Personally, I don’t believe that breakable weapons are, but rather that they can contribute to fun. Let’s look at another mechanic which, technically speaking, serves only to limit the player. In a majority of games that feature firearms, ammunition systems are a core part of the gameplay. This is a realistic depiction of firearms, but many games ignore this feature for the same reasons many games ignore realistically degrading weapons: they get in the way of fun. However, by playing with this limiting feature, game developers are able to give their guns personality and diversity by changing the damage dealt, bullets held, and time it takes to replace spent bullets. This is why weapons like revolvers, with their tiny amount of shots and long reload times, are able to deal far more satisfying amounts of damage compared to other guns in video games. Without the limiting mechanic of ammunition, and by extension the limiting mechanic of durability, rewarding players for experimenting with play-styles is much more difficult and the worse fate befalls a video game. It becomes boring.

A fairly straightforward example of durability mechanics enabling a fun time can be found in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In that game, all weapons will do bonus damage and send the target flying backwards during the attack that the weapon goes from functional to broken. This opens up a tactic where players can plan which enemy you break their weapon on and keep some weapons in their inventory in critical condition so they can always make use of that last superpowered strike. It is a fun and inventive feature that sadly becomes less viable as the player obtains sturdier, more valuable weapons.

Another creative use of a durability mechanic is in the FromSoft game Dark Souls. Early in the game, there is a somewhat secret weapon called the Drake Sword. Part of what makes this an interesting weapon is that it uses a powerful bonus attack to encourage players to fight without a shield (a tactic that goes against the survival instincts Dark Souls tends to instill in you). What makes this relevant is that the bonus attack also lowers the durability of the Drake Sword so that it will eventually break and become far less helpful. This feature makes the weapon a very powerful learning tool, and a unique and interesting weapon, without threatening the game’s meticulously crafted progression system.

As a whole, durability mechanics alternate between being a necessary evil and being a useful tool for developers to organically limit players, often to their benefit. The savvy amongst you may have noticed that all I have said is an explanation of why durability mechanics exist, not if they are worth keeping around. That is because I am not so sure myself. After all, some of us like to use a single weapon throughout an adventure, because we like her so much and have named her Vera, and durability mechanics prevent us from doing that. Others have a pretty good idea how sturdy a steel hammer is, so seeing one disintegrate after a handful of swings brings us out of the experience. Heck, most of us just don’t want the stress of deciding if a mid-level enemy is worth getting the nicer gear out of our backpacks.

So what is your take on durability mechanics? Is it a valuable method of limiting the players to encourage creativity, or just a bit of realism as counter productive as digestive mechanics and anxiety meters? I’m pretty sure neither of those exist, but my brain insists that there is intense dramatic potential in having the main character stressing out while looking for a unoccupied toilet.

Feel free to write your facts or opinions in the comments below, and I hope to see you when you next enter the Tavern.

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