very few months, I inevitably load up Mount&Blade. It’s one of those games that remains perpetually installed on my computer, that I would never dare to delete in case I’m struck by the urge to play. I’ve had this relationship with Mount&Blade for about 6 years now. (Ignore the game’s alleged 2008 release date; it’s been available as a paid beta since 2004, and despite large amounts of feature and content improvements, it’s still more or less the same game.) The recent release of Mount&Blade: Warband – again, mostly the same game – provided as good an excuse as any to start playing again.
Since Mount&Blade has essentially never left my computer in the past half-decade, it’s safe to say that it offers an experience I can’t find in other games. I think we all have our own favorite games like this, even games that aren’t all that great. We have certain itches that the gaming world at large refuses to satisfy, and we’re forced to rely on a small handful of games to serve as an elongated backscratcher. In the case of Mount&Blade, that itch is simulationist medieval combat.
Simulationism – a term I steal from here – is a design attitude, and one that we’re all familiar with. It’s usually disguised under more marketable words like realistic, authentic, gritty, etc. But while many games claim to be realistic, few actually dedicate themselves to the true marker of simuationist design: tedium. Fallout 3, for instance, penalizes you if the weight of your inventory exceeds your carrying strength (as do other RPGs), but the game also offers you plenty of ways to circumvent that inconvenience. Red Dead Redemption lets you gather herbs, play horseshoes, herd cattle, and perform all manner of mundane actions, but all of this is secondary to the core gameplay (shootin’ bandits and varmints with your shield of regenerating health), and there’s always a way to avoid or skip elements that the player finds unfun – in other words, the tedium never sets in. And in all of these games, the combat itself is still action-oriented, still video game-y.
Mount&Blade, on the other hand, dedicates itself more fully to the messy, clumsy nature of medieval combat. Battles are large scale, chaotic affairs where walls of bodies slam into other walls of bodies. Stray arrows stick in eyes and take people down instantly; cavalry slam into infantry and chop them down; infantry surround cavalry and hack horse and rider to death. And all of this happens to you too. An unfortunately aimed javelin can nail you in the head and take you out of combat. If you’re de-horsed, you’re forced to move at a speed that can at most be called “a brisk walk” (you move as slowly and clumsily as any of your soldiers), and you can be overwhelmed, trampled, and otherwise suffer the inequities of medieval warfare. If one of your soldiers dies, you have to recruit a new one. If you lose a battle, you can find yourself without the army you spent hours raising, without a horse, and stuck in the middle of nowhere.
This isn’t to say Mount&Blade doesn’t make concessions of its own towards fun and playability, but the game makes it much more likely that the tedium of “authentic” combat will eventually set in. At some point, something bad will happen that will undo hours of progress. At some point, a battle will last 30 seconds because an arrow from across the map hits you in the teeth. Any game with any sort of simulationist elements makes a wager on this mundanity gamble: that the mundane elements will be more interesting than tedious. Most games actually wager very little on this as they include numerous safeguards to ensure that the mundane elements never feel too mundane. This helps keep the game “fun,” but also blunts the effects of simulationist design. Mount&Blade wagers almost everything, since the core gameplay is “clumsy medieval combat,” and every battle carries the same risks and opportunities. You might always be in danger of suffering a gruesome loss, but that’s what makes the game exciting, and makes victories all the more satisfying.
I’m not always in the mood for Mount&Blade, but when I am, I can’t find many other games that come close to the same experience. Some games offer the same sort of lethality, or the same medieval tone, or the same army-based conflicts, but never in one package, and never with the same stalwart rejection of so many video game-isms. There’s no “dash” ability in Mount&Blade, you can’t dive 15 feet forward and somersault to your feet, there’s no “healer” in your army, and you’re not going to pick up medkits midway through the battle. The game can be frustrating and certainly demonstrates the weaknesses of simulationism in addition to the strengths. But for the threat of danger to be intense and exciting, that threat – and everything bad about it – needs to be able to be fulfilled. Not every game needs to be so simulationist as Mount&Blade, but more games would be improved by more boldly implementing their simulationist elements, and not merely presenting them in glass cases.