How do stories and games capitalize on the connection between a person and their weapons?
The idea for this topic came about when I was playing 2013’s DmC: Devil May Cry. What intrigued me was a section in which the main character, Dante, gets an upgrade for his weapon. It was a fairly simple scene. Dante looks at an artifact and its power changes the sword on his back into an axe. What struck me as odd was that Dante didn’t look at his sword while it was changing. To me, that was completely bizarre. In the context of the story, Dante had been hunted sense he was a child. Not only was the weapon his only inheritance from his parents, but it was his only defense against the things that wanted him dead. Logically, his sword should be more important to him than his very arms. But when the sword warps and changes form, he doesn’t even bother to take it off his back to make sure it isn’t broken.
This experience made me think about the relationship between a warrior and their weapon. In the time periods frequented by fantasy games, the average person couldn’t afford multiple weapons unless they were part of a standing army, which most classic adventurers are not. If you only have a single weapon, and whether or not you live or die depends on that weapon, it makes perfect sense for someone to get emotionally attached to it. This can be evidenced by the practice of naming weapons, like Davy Crockett’s rifle Betsy, Edward Longshanks’ trebuchet Warwolf, or King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. Or, if you want a more modern, utterly fictional example, when Bilbo fought off a giant spider of Mirkwood and saved his friends, he gave his dagger the name Sting.
In my opinion, the trope of weapons as companions went into a decline with the rise of mass manufacturing. When a weapon is one of a hundred copies, the urge to imprint on it decreases slightly. This trend is defined by the rise of customized weapons, which are handed to the hero with a list of alterations that make it superior to what’s in the hands of the faceless mooks. Similarly, vehicles are still named and personified as they are complex and a lot more effort has to be put into maintaining them. That time investment turns into emotional investment. Once a character has had to spend the afternoon fixing the warp core drive of a spaceship or repairing the kitchen of an airship after a cannonball went through it, we can really sympathize when we see them asking the vehicle to “hold it together, girl, just a little bit longer”. Seeing a character love their ride is endearing to us because it signifies how much time they spent together.
Of course, having characters being emotionally attached to their weapons hasn’t vanished from modern works, but it has stopped being a heroic attribute. Nowadays, most characters who exhibit affection towards their weapons will be scarred soldiers who are emotionally dependent on their gear for security. While that is similar to weapon companions, it is used to indicate that the character is mentally unsound, not that they have a respect for what has kept them alive. This also ties in with the other breed of enthusiast that has emerged, which is guys with terrible haircuts who whisper sweet nothings to their knife and lick it clean after they use it.
Not only have bonds between people and weapons become cast in a negative light, but a new kind of warrior archetype emerged. This was a action hero who used disposable weapons, such as the messianic figure Neo with his trench coat full of automatic firearms. This is a fairly logical decision for a writer; if you weaken the weapon, you make the person who wields it seem more powerful. A weapon isn’t a helper for the hero, but a tool for showing off how cool the hero is. For example, Clint Eastwood’s character in Dirty Harry is famous for having a “.44 Magnum, the most powerful magnum in the world”, but in the sequel it is unceremoniously swapped out for a more powerful semi-automatic. This continues the way Harry is shown as being cool in both movies; he has no emotional connections and a bigger gun than you.
In games, the warrior and weapon dynamic is a mix of both of the above mindsets. As many gamers will attest, the type of weapon a character chooses will likely tell you more about their personality than their actual species does. So, it is easy to see how weapons can be used to flesh out a character. At the same time, almost every brand of gamer out there knows that replacing their rusty short sword with a steel longsword and eventually the sacred claymore of the kingdom is what is expected of a role playing game. From a mechanical perspective, getting better and better weapons is a good way to let a player feel like they are making progress in a story. In my opinion, this has the effect of taking personality away from the characters and makes them overly bland. Simply put, no weapon stays around long enough for the character (or player) to get emotionally invested in it.
The good news is that I have seen many solutions to the impersonal weapons that plague games. In RPGs with a party of characters, assigning each character a type of weapon can imply a connection, such as Cloud Strife of Final Fantasy and his massive swords. A more direct example of allowing the player to develop a bond can be found in the original Devil May Cry series, where each weapon is designed to be of equal standing with its peers and the player is equally capable of beating the game with any of them. This makes the player pick a weapon of their choice, and then forge their own bond with it by the slow memorization of combos and animations. I still imagine how brash and bold the twin swords Agni and Rudra were, although I will admit using a pair of talking swords as an example of projecting personality onto weapons may be cheating on my part.
An especially good example of combining companion weapons with gradual rewards comes from FromSoft’s action role playing games, such as the Souls series and Bloodborne. In those games, you choose your preferred weapon and level it up as you play the game. If you find a weapon you particularly like, you can keep it with you for the entire game by upgrading and customizing it. Personally, I like finding and keeping the war-picks. There is something satisfying about defeating the king of everything with a tool that should be extracting ore that appeals to my appreciation of underdogs.
So what do you think, fair travelers? Do you like warriors who have a custom made, well-polished rifle they call Vera or do you prefer the type who bring nothing but death and leave nothing but bodies? Does the bond between a fighter and their tool help indicate inner depth, or does it limit the character by defining them by what they happen to use? Can you think of any other characters who are made more interesting by showing affection for their means-to-mayhem? If so, please type it into the comment section below.
May you find coin and merriment, and I’ll see you when you next walk into the Tavern.