Virtual worlds: archery in gaming

The cultural impact of archery in gaming. By Andreas Phillip

Horizon Zero Dawn (Copyright Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Archery has a well-established place in popular entertainment, and the prevalence of it in movies and TV over the past decade or so has long been noted. But there is another medium in which the sport has a big presence, and which now – whether you like it or not – has a permanent place in our culture: video games.

Quite a few games revolve around medieval scenarios or fantasy worlds inspired by the Middle Ages and antiquity. Accordingly, the presence of bows and crossbows is hardly surprising. Archers appear as combat units in quite a few strategy games; the widespread genre of role-playing games always offers the possibility of using the bow as a ranged weapon or even playing a ‘class’ of character who specialises in using the bow to knock out virtual opponents.

But archery occasionally defines entire game genres and has become a symbol for stealth games, in which sneaking around without making yourself known to enemies is one of the primary aspects of the gameplay, as well as for survival games, in which you have to stay alive with little means to do so.

Crysis 3 (Copyright Crytek)

Elements of this can be found in numerous other games, too, as genre mixtures have become normal. Bows are perfect for silently eliminating enemies and, as a supposedly easy-to-make weapon, fit just as perfectly into the genre of survival games, in which you have to provide food in the wilderness, for example. 

The bow enjoys great popularity among gamers. The hunter equipped with a bow or a firearm is one of the most popular classes in the immensely popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft. The main characters of the highly successful action-adventure series Assassin’s Creed have been using bows and arrows ever since the third instalment.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (Copyright Ubisoft)

The three latest editions take us to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Norway and England during the time of the Vikings, where the bow becomes a normal weapon. It is used both in open combat as a ranged weapon and from cover to kill enemies silently, as well as for in-game hunting.

One of the best-known video game characters of all, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, sneaks through the wilderness with her bow to grab food and resources. In Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn, we have another main character who relies almost exclusively on bows and arrows, taking on powerful machine creatures with various bows and using multiple types of arrows with different effects.  

Tomb Raider (Copyright Square Enix)

But bows don’t only appear in fantasy and medieval times, we also find them in much more modern scenarios, especially in first-person shooters. In Crysis 3 it is a powerful weapon and in Battlefield 4 the ‘phantom bow’ can be earned and used. The popular e-sports title Overwatch also features a bow-wielding character in the form of Hanzo. Even in the science-fiction scenario of Destiny 2, bows have crept in as weapons with high-penetrating power and have won many fans. 

Alongside this, there is a whole range of smaller games, including apps for tablets and smartphones, but also platforms with motion control, such as the Nintendo Wii of the early 2010s. Again and again, attempts are made to implement archery more or less usefully, often quite simply but sometimes as an important component of the respective game. Of course, smaller mini-games about archery are around, too, as well as hunting simulations such as Hunter: Call of the Wild

The list of video games with bows is long, colourful and filled with illustrious names that even non-gamers know now: the 12 parts of the Assassin’s Creed series, Tomb Raider, Legend of Zelda, Monster Hunter, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls Online, Rockstar’s western epic Red Dead Redemption 2 and countless more. 

Realism, is, of course, not usually highest on the agenda. Bows in video games are invariably ‘pimped’ to make them as interesting as possible, in most cases with enormously high-penetrating power. In Assassin’s Creed, for example, it’s easy to take out enemies over long distances with one hit – the medieval sniper rifle, so to speak. Firing multiple arrows with one shot is also often found – not because it’s realistic but because it looks cool and makes the bow more interesting as a weapon. 

You also find diverse types of arrows. Frost, fire, poison and stun arrows are not uncommon, and shooting ropes that expand the range of motion are also commonplace. There are also no limits to the imagination in terms of bows, often with different bow for each application. Most bows are based on real-life models but realism is often put aside for the sake of a badass or suitably steampunk look. 

If you also happen to enjoy the sport of archery, it won’t take more than a glance to realise that bow X from fantasy role-playing game Y couldn’t shoot an arrow a metre in real life. This naturally raises the question of how archery can be implemented in such games at all and how close it is to reality. Using a mouse and keyboard, or a gamepad, bears no relation to handling a real bow.

Accordingly, realistic archery is rarely found in video games. Mostly the mechanics are simplified and the physical limits of archery are ignored. This can hardly be blamed on the developers of the games – after all, the whole thing is supposed to be cool and fun and not become a frustrating affair with a steep learning curve. 

In most cases, archery in video games is limited to very simple mechanics. A crosshair is used to aim at an enemy, a button is pressed, and that’s it. Range, draw and other physical aspects don’t play a big role. Here and there, at least, the crosshairs are displayed in the form of a sight, similar to a recurve or compound sight, but this doesn’t change anything about the mechanics and adjusting a sight for the respective distance doesn’t play a role. 

One aspect that does come up more often is to draw the bow by holding down a button. The longer you press, the more effective the shot – but, again, this has no effect on the range. Some developers even add an element that takes the character’s stamina into account, limiting the amount of time a bow can be held at full draw. In Destiny 2, for example, aiming can only last a few seconds before the shot automatically releases. In other titles, the bow begins to shake vigorously as the duration increases to simulate the loss of power. 

One of the few games that implements archery comparatively close to reality is the role-playing game Kingdom Come: Deliverance from the Czech developer Warhorse Studios. The game generally tries to make the combat systems as realistic as possible, and archery is no exception.

Destiny 2: Leviathan’s Breath (Copyright Bungie)
Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Copyright Warhorse Studios)

The main character, Henry, starts out as a beginner who has to learn archery first, and that’s actually not easy. Drawing the bow is heavily dependent on his stamina, and especially in the early stages Henry wobbles a lot when shooting. Gradually, however, this improves as his skill improves through his accumulated experience. He also becomes stronger and more persistent over time, which allows him to hold the bow more steadily. 

Aiming, unlike in most games, isn’t done via a crosshair. You actually have to aim rather over the arrow and shoot quasi-instinctively, also taking into account the distance of the target. Hitting a moving target is actually high art in the game. Moreover, as in many other games, there are different types of bows that allow you to make quick but light hits or slower but heavy hits. In addition, there is a collection of different types of arrows, both for hunting and for penetrating heavier armour, and the developers have definitely kept to medieval templates in this regard. 

Meanwhile, the developers have implemented a simplified process via an update to the game, because quite a few players didn’t get along with the rather realistic shooting technique at all and were quickly frustrated. Of course, that’s not the purpose of a video game, so it’s understandable. 

However, those who expect the shooting technique and animations to be close to reality will be disappointed, in the main. Only rarely do you discover games in which real attention is paid to shooting technique, anchors, release or posture. If you try to discover videos, artwork or screenshots that show a clean shooting technique, you will most probably search in vain. Most often, they are rather rudimentary representations of the shooting process, which are rarely even close to being physically correct. 

But as already mentioned for the movies and series, interactive archery is primarily meant to be fun, realism and authenticity are secondary. It is more important – and gratifying – that archery enjoys such a high presence in video games at all.


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One comment on “Virtual worlds: archery in gaming
  1. Asmoth says:

    In the Destiny 2 part, you’re showing Trinity Ghoul, not Leviathan’s Breath. This is another great exemple of how a bow can be fun within a game but pretty unrealitic. This thing can shoot an arrow that split into 3 thiner arrows filled with god-like-kinda-magic electricity which is devastating for foes. And this is that unrealistic funny virtual bow that made me want to purchase a real compound and I totalty felt in love with it and the world of archery. So thank you, Bungie guys <3

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