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I haven’t posted anything lately. Part of this is that I now work full-time as a software engineer, so I don’t have as much time for anything, and my day job involves being wound up by computers. Part of it is that I’ve just about finished Valentine’s Day Escape, and don’t feel like actually making anything. So, here’s something completely different: what I think of breakable weapons in games.

The main reason for breakable weapons, as far as I can tell, is to add atmosphere to the game and add an extra challenge to the player. If implemented well, with a logical (in-universe) reason, I think it does. As an example, I am going to suggest Fallout 3. Fallout 3, for anyone who hasn’t played it, is set around 200 years after a nuclear war, and civilisation still hasn’t recovered. So, it’s not surprising that things fall apart – you’re using weapons (and armour) that are around that old, if not made from scavenged materials! This adds an extra challenge to gameplay: if your best weapon is almost completely wrecked, you might as well not use it. If that’s the case, it might force you to reconsider a fight, and avoid it. Finally, if you fix up a load of commonly available weapons, you have a decent source of income.

However, in Fallout 3 you can either pay somebody to fix your equipment, or fix it yourself with matching equipment found around the world. By contrast, the vanilla (normal, unmodded) version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl didn’t have anywhere that you could fix weapons or armour, forcing you to fork out for new equipment. In fact, this was frequently the first thing any modder would implement. Now, there was a bug where standing in one of the anomalies (e.g. a column of fire that only activates when something steps into it) with enough of the appropriate artifacts to protect you from those anomalies, then the anomaly would heal you and repair your armour. I never ran into this myself, mainly because the artifacts you need are extremely rare, but it was apparently never fixed, and added enough to the already bleak, eerie atmosphere of the game that it was deliberately left unfixed.

However, that fix in SoC was entirely unintentional, and the lack of options by default was a massive problem. I don’t like leaving things unfinished, so I wouldn’t add a decay mechanism without a mechanism for repairing. However, that’s not the only problem that can show up. I think that consistency is required: having melee weapons that do not degrade, while ranged weapons do, is a little jarring. For instance, take System Shock 2. As much as I love this game, and would recommend it as an example of a game with survival horror elements, the ranged weapons appear to be made from cardboard. By contrast, the wrench you start with is indestructible, as are the other melee weapons you can find. I think it does add to the game if you are forced to whack a giant spider with a wrench – it’s bloody terrifying! – but it is quite jarring to have a pistol fall apart and jam after just a few reloads while the same wrench still works perfectly hours later. By the same token, if weapons will break only after an hour of real time, what’s the point in adding this?

All three of these games are functionally RPGs (role-playing games), which generally means some exploration and managing an inventory, and they can all be pretty bleak and intense. By contrast, I don’t think that Team Fortress 2 would work with breakable weapons, being an extremely tongue-in-cheek and cartoonish game. Neither would TimeSplitters Future Perfect, which was similarly tongue-in-cheek – just watch this video of some cheats in that game! Breakable weapons would have probably ruined it.

So, in summary, I think breakable weapons really work in games where

  • there is a decent inventory system
  • the degradation is consistently applied
  • it does not happen so quickly as to break suspension of disbelief, nor is slow enough to be pointless
  • the player, or an NPC, can fix them
  • it fits the game’s setting and atmosphere.