20/20: For Honor and the Myth of the Sword

Because there are no bad ideas, only bad executions. This is a series where I take a look back at things that could have worked or could have been made even better.

For Honor’s true villain is not Apollyon (or Ubisoft) it’s the Players


Take down the system! Guns are evil! This guy believes those things. Do you?

In a bit of a departure. This round of 20/20 is less a fix and more pointing out some subtext that might have been missed but could be interesting to consider.

The great villains are walking critiques of ethos and audience members who follow them. That’s what makes them great villains. They represent real evils and extremes in humanity. Ubisoft deserves props for For Honor’s densely packed single player campaign. Despite its brevity, it manages to pack in character arcs, grand set pieces, and thousands of years of history as optional lore sprinkled throughout the game’s levels. Arguably the campaign’s most important character is the warlord Apollyon, whose actions drive the conflict that the player characters get swept up in as well as narrating the events of the story and bonus lore bits. Apollyon’s driving motivation is to create a world where warriors are not restrained by rules imposed upon them by people they could easily kill in combat. In her words, “this will be an age of wolves.”

It was upon playing through the campaign and hearing Apollyon’s voice, riddled with disdain when talking about anything outside of medieval warfare that I realized her rhetoric sounded uncomfortably familiar. Such thoughts were echoed to me by countless YouTube comments and forum posts. The exaltation of swordplay, the damning of consumerism. Apollyon’s mission is the gen­xer and millennial’s rage against their passive place in their society made manifest.

Guns vs. Swords: Morality?


Thane, a sniper and gunslinger. Kai Leng, cyber­ninja swordsman. The latter’s also a racist monster.

Do you think a sword is a morally superior weapon to a gun? I have practiced the martial arts since I was twelve. Classical ones at that. Karate, Kung Fu, and German Longsword tradition. (Notably, Jason Vandenberghe, For Honor’s creator, got his inspiration for the game’s “art of battle” central mechanic from German Longsword classes.) I will be the first to endorse the lifestyle as one that promotes physical health and spiritual welfare. Is there a right way to approach problems and a wrong way? Absolutely.

However, when regarding actual life and death combat. There is nothing more inherently honorable about stabbing or cutting someone with a blade than shooting them with a firearm. Yet the myth of the sword as a weapon of honor in of itself persists. Often hypocritically espoused by the same people who would be quick to condemn warfare in modern conflict. One type of tool for ending human life being somehow acceptable while another tool for ending a human life is taboo. This isn’t even the argument against chemical weapons or flamethrowers because the nature of the damage done to the enemy isn’t in question, only the weapon’s range from the target. This perception that hand­ to ­hand combat is somehow morally superior to close, mid, or long range combat is rooted in nothing more than shallow, surface level, perception.

Personal combat is more dramatic than a shootout and must, therefore, be nobler. So goes the thinking. I can understand this to a point. When two fighters engage each other at hand to hand range, there is an inherent risk to both combatants. To be sure, there is honor in facing someone you have grievances with, laying them out, and owning up to the consequences. Here’s the thing, that very model does not preclude firearms. The quick draw at high noon is just as much of a romanticized fantasy of combat that either didn’t happen and was far uglier in reality when it did. It doesn’t even have to refer to a form of combat. Being sincere with how you feel about a person accomplishes the same thing. Being honorable, meaning honest, about your thoughts and intentions rather than lying to save face or at worst saying one thing when you knowingly mean the exact opposite.

An Army Ranger armed with a rifle, his allegiance clear by the patch on his shoulder is no different than a knight armed with a lance, his allegiance clear by the heraldry on his shield. Honor is not in a weapon. Honor is in how, if, and why a weapon is used. One thing guns do though is make strength and fighting skill entirely irrelevant. Yes, there are gun defense techniques but the world of combat and warfare was changed irrevocably by the proliferation of firearms. With a modern rifle, an untrained civilian can kill a knight, viking, or samurai before any of them could even get close enough to do anything about it. Even though firearms don’t exist in the world of For Honor, anyone who knows her can tell you Apollyon would be infuriated by the mere existence of such a weapon because it means the sheep can kill the wolves. Now while Apollyon did not prevent gunpowder from being invented in her world, the fact that she revels in personal combat and shapes her world to be one where more sword fights happen than previously, channels a desire by many players to re­shape their own world into one without modern weapons of warfare. Yet many, for one reason or another, omit archaic weapons from their hypothetical eradication.

Looking Back

Do you feel like things were better in an era long before you were born?

Some people romanticize the past. Whether they like to look back on their lack of adult responsibility as children, the emancipation and freedom of their youthful adult lives, or even look back on eras that had cultural virtues not held today. (Or at least they think such virtues aren’t held today.) This is especially true of periods very far removed from our own experiences. Pre­industrial societies are almost unfathomable to some of us, easy to make better than they were in reality. When I was in high school, one of my peers actually asked if people “[procreated] back then?” I think I facepalmed with enough force to punch clean through my brain.

It sounds funny but it just illustrates how, for some, the idea of prior eras is so unreal that they don’t consider them to be our reality. Very easy to decide it must have been better simply because the problems of today would not exist then. And if the problems of today didn’t exist what other social ills and political injustices could there possibly be? Once again, Apollyon is in total agreement. She actively mocks any notions of civilization with excess and plenty. Not because of any disparity between the common man and the ruling class but because if everyone is fed and satisfied, they don’t fight each other for resources or position. Many people nowadays shun and spit upon the modern world and think those content with life as it is being rubes, tools, herds, . . . sheep.

Facing the Mirror

What does all of this mean? Certainly, I’m not suggesting that everyone who plays the game wants or supports what Apollyon does or even that this was intentional on Ubisoft’s part. What I do suggest is that no art exists in a vacuum and fantasy fiction attracts people based on what fantasy it is feeding. Dissatisfaction with the modern world, the rush of clashing weapons, escape from a game market saturated in modern shooters with advanced weapons, these factors can draw people to the game For Honor. In creating a grounded fantasy with no overt supernatural evil to justify charging into battle with sword held high, the writers ended up creating a demagogue whose attitudes and actions reflect and/or appeal to some of the audience’s darker desires. We all want to make the world a better place in our heart of hearts but we also have those occasional flights of fancy where we wish for a world that conforms to less noble desires. Apollyon is an example of those more troubling conscious or subconscious wishes given agency. She transforms her world into an endless brawl of melee weapon fighting but shows exactly what kind of person would willingly dedicate themselves to making that a reality. An insane war­monger who views violence as self­justified as long as it observes proper conduct.

Of course, what truly frightens me is my suspicion that even if some players did see themselves in Apollyon they would be elated rather than perturbed. I have greater faith in humanity than that though. And luckily Apollyon is not the only character in For Honor. The player character Warden of the Knights, Raider of the Vikings, and Orochi of the Samurai are all honorable in the real sense of the word. The Warden views violence as a cross to bear so others won’t have to, the Raider’s first action is dethroning a glutton starving his people, and the Orochi seeks to end the conflict between the Daimyo leaders. It was these characters that drew me in as they weren’t just heroes by default of not being the bad guy. They had strong moral compasses and showed a fascinating display of every side in a three­way war having truly righteous fighters among them.

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