Monday, February 2, 2009

A Brief Look at Weapon-Appendages

Nestled in the supply closet of a well traveled gamer is a treasure trove of destructive implements. The plethora of videogame weaponry is simply astounding. The weapons, meant to obliterate, eviscerate or subjugate, are intriguing artistic works in their own right. This is of course because they are designed to be visually alluring and memorable. Cloud's immense Buster Sword, Fallout's 'Fat Man,' and Gordon Freeman's 'Gravity Gun' have become easily recognizable videogame cultural artifacts. Yet there is a unique breed of weapon with a functionality and appearance well deserving of appreciation and attention: the weapon-appendage.

Any natural appendage can be considered a weapon itself. There is a simple beauty in the movement and lethality of melee combat. A character trained in the martial arts, or who happens to have an insanely large forearm, is never unarmed. Fists and fighting games have largely been associated with such weaponry, but Faith in Mirror's Edge can kick a man in the groin with startling accuracy and Mario's feet can be surprisingly deadly. I do not doubt the value of a simple swipe, there is something to say for the zombie hordes and the menace that is their shambling corpses. What most interests me however, is the blend of recognizable weapon traits with the natural characteristics of the combatants, which I categorize into three classes.

The first class of weapon-appendage is that which closely resembles a normal body part, but has the traits of more advanced weaponry. One could easily include a great deal of projectile hurling enemies in this category, but the more "technologically advanced" appendages are far more interesting. The tongue is a classic example of such an appendage. Left 4 Dead's 'Smoker' zombie has a sniper like tongue that lassos and drags in its victims. Similarly, the aptly named 'Licker' from the Resident Evil series can lash or pierce its prey with its abnormally long tongue. The 'Plasmid' wielding hand in Bioshock is another example of weapon appendage, able to hurl lightening or bee swarms at unsuspecting foes. The first class of weapon-appendage cleverly disguises the traits of classic weaponry into a compact frame while maintaining its combat utility. When wielded by an enemy, it can be equal parts shocking and disgusting.
At home in horror and the often attached to grotesque creatures, the class two weapon-appendage acts like and resembles a classic weapon such as a club, blade, or projectile. Such hideous creatures like Starcraft's 'Zerg' race exemplify this type of critter. With similar spear or sickle-like slicers jutting out of shoulders and torsos, the reanimated inhabitants of the USG Ishimura in Dead Space are particularly horrifying manifestations of the weapon-appendage combination. The idea of a creature born with such devastating and lethal weapons are naturally unsettling. What deity would breed such an abomination, let alone one who's sole purpose is to create carnage? These deadly limbs, frightening mockeries of man-made tools of war, are more suitable on enemies; thus, it is rare to see the class two weapon-appendage on a player controlled character. The closest avatar that could fit this category is Jackie Estacado of The Darkness.Many of us are familiar with the class three weapon-appendage: a weapon in the place of a limb. The pirate hook falls into the category, as do the ridiculous prosthetic weapons in Army of Darkness and Planet Terror. Perhaps the origin of the class-three weapon appendage in videogames goes back to 1987 when two powerful franchises were created: Metroid and Mega Man. Though some images of Mega Man depict him wearing a wrist-mounted blaster, freeing the use of his hand, the common rendering is similar to Samus Aran's weapon-arm. Chronotrigger's Robo joins this team in 1995 with a rocket-propelled fist. Barrett of Final Fantasy VII, Baiken of Guilty Gear and Drachma of Skies of Arcadia can also be considered wielders of the class three weapon appendage. Unlike their progenitors, these characters' weapons replace permanently lost limbs, perhaps improving on their design.I am writing this post for a couple of reasons. First, weapon-appendages are pretty awesome. That aside, the weapon-appendage is an interesting design choice. By incorporating weapons into character models, game designers create a unique being and weapon all at once. Looking at the list above, these characters are fundamentally associated with their weapons. The effect can be to shock and horrify the player, as is the case with Silent Hill's 'Pendulum', or humor the player with ludicrous weapons, such as Bayonetta's hair attacks.

A weapon-appendage can also free the design team of potential ammo and weapon modeling concerns. Bioshock's 'plasmids' are clever work-arounds to give the player a permanent weapon with all sorts of bizarre powers that has only one source of ammunition: a quick syringe to the forearm. Any class of weapon-appendage is an in-game manifestation of control. If the player controls the weapon-arm he/she feels empowered. If the enemy has a weapon-arm, the player feels more vulnerable. The weapon-appendage is a strategic and fun creative device worthy of praise, respect, and sometimes ridicule.


  1. Can you think of any games in which a weapon-appendage is a liability?

    What if Jack from Bioshock breaks his hand, or of something short-circuits in Samus' suit? Then, the connection between weapon and body would be a dis-empowering element. I would be very interested to see a developer tackle this!

  2. This discussion isn't complete without a mention of Evolva, the most weapon-appendagey game no one's ever heard of. Every weapon in that game is an appendage of some sort, and you get to evolve them by absorbing the gibs of your enemies.

  3. Can you think of any games in which a weapon-appendage is a liability?

    Haha. That's cool. I just realized. Samus would be pretty helpless if she stumbled across any obstacle that requires two hands: a door with a key, a big valve that needs to be opened with a large wheel, a car...

    It reminds me of Edward Scissorhands, especially the dinner table scene.

  4. I can't think of a weapon-appendage that is a liability, even Samus has some grip thing that she can shoot out of her arm. The idea of a weapon-appendage as a flaw is counter to the very idea of a weapon-appendage, at that point its not really serving its purpose. It would be cool to see a situation where the choice of inserting a weapon-appendage limits other options.

  5. Weapon-appendages can also help enhance a player's sense of embodiment within the game. Metroid Prime: Corruption for the Wii is a good example. When moving Samus's arm-cannon using the Wii remote, it feels like there's a direct connection between your body and the character's body. By contrast, in Area 51 or a Time Crisis game, you aim the light gun but the character's body and gun doesn't seem to exist in the game-world. Corruption's first person view also contributes to the sensation of controlling the character's body directly.

    I can't think of any other examples, but I anticipate Deadly Creatures may create a similar gameplay experience.

  6. @ Jonathan
    I didn't mention embodiment, that is a good point. I would say even a third-person game with a weapon-appendage better personifies the player than without a weapon-appendage.

  7. "The weapon-appendage is a strategic and fun creative device worthy of praise, respect, and sometimes ridicule."

    That said, I don't see a point regarding the use of such a mechanic. Also, your first two "types" are relatively the same thing in the animal kingdom. Within games, "appendage-weapons" (as they should be called), often serve as a distraction or a demarcation in a game universe's laws. However subtle they may be these types of ideas should often be ridiculed.
    Typically these weapons come in the form of anatomical changes which, if examined, are often laughable.
    If you take a look at the animal kingdom these "weapons" are often purposeful adaptations that are unique to environment and stimuli. A chameleon's tongue, for example, or a crab's claw, are some naturally evolved functional "weapons". Of course, there is also naturally occurring defensive adaptation, such as camouflage, or a turtle's shell. Rarely in games do we get functionally purposeful adaptation. Instead we get "The Ridiculously Oversized BFG Attached To Our Avatar's Dick!!!!" How fun.

    You mentioned the lickers in RE, but that type of appendage would naturally stem from something similar to the chameleon, which moves too slowly to catch its' prey. Instead it relies on it's tongue and camouflage. The licker is just a mutant with nothing to back it's appearance up(which seems rather uninspired to me).
    Designers coming up with inane designs such as Baraka from MK, for example, need to take a closer look at exactly WHY these changes in anatomy exist and how they work within a game's universe; That is, unless you like pissing off your animators.

  8. @ Whiskeypail

    Thankfully I'm not a biologist or I would also be irked by the weapon-appendage mechanic as it seems you have been. I refer to the creations as weapon-appendages because of your point exactly, rarely do designers offer any credible explanation for their existance. Thus, they are weapons first, appendages second.

    I agree with you on designers improving their creations by asking themselves why such appendages exist. It really is a missed opporunity. On the other hand, part of the novelty of these design choices is specifically because they are inane. The class two weapon-appendage is as such because it forgoes explanation in favor of giving the player a crude mockery of a weapon/appendage. I think I'll forgive some of those designers who piss off their animators for the time being.

  9. I think my overall gripe was that designers today seem less skilled at making game universe rule sets with subtlety; Worlds where laws are implied and not simply accepted "game-isms".
    I love Earthworm Jim, so go figure.

    ...and beware the wrath of the animator...

  10. When you talk about animals. People forget that humans and other mammals are generalist. Humans live in many places that would kill us. Yet we build shelter and fires. Now we use machines. Eventually why wouldn't we make a suit that can go places with a built in weapon. The environment could be poisonous or a vacuum. Samus Aran is a prime example of an explorer of other worlds. As humans are trying to do right now.