Archery is among the most represented sports in games. Football and racing are up there, of course, but naming one action game without a bow and arrow somewhere in it is a difficult job. But for all the archery we see in gaming, very little of it hits the bullseye. Games don’t need to be realistic to be fun, but as an actual archer I know there are real techniques and variables that could make archery more lifelike and enjoyable at the same time.
I’m what’s known as a recurve archer. I use those bows you’ve seen in the Olympics and won a few shiny medals in my time as a competitive shooter at university. One of my first pieces as a games journalist was about how terrible gaming’s characters were at archery (opens in new tab), but it’s high time I thought up some solutions. I can’t complain and then never follow up with a fix, can I? So if archery is to be better represented in gaming, in a way that’s fun for the players and practical for developers, here are some of my recommendations.
One of the reasons archery crops up so often is because of its perceived elegance. It’s less aggressive but more stealthy than a gun, yet still practical and deadly. Back quivers, which are extremely common in games, undermine this, and I just wish that games would more frequently give its players hip quivers or bow quivers instead.
Back quivers, though badass visually, mean an archer may have no clue how much ammunition they have left. I have literally seen a back quiver archer forget to shoot their last arrow at a competition because they couldn’t see it, and every time they had to return their arrows, they struggled to awkwardly replace them on their back. Not to mention that as stealthy as archers are often represented, crouching and rounding your back too far might mean all those pretty arrows would pour out of your quiver and onto the floor. I’m looking at you, Lara Croft. And don’t get me started on your sideways bow action that would scratch all the skin off your arm. Quivers come in more variety than just on the back you know, with hip quivers being the most common these days, and technically more practical for some combat situations.
And while all those quivers look good, my lord, do arrows clatter. Honestly stealth is not a strong point of archers with loose arrows that ping off one another every time you take a step. So why don’t games use the real life solution, bow quivers? These bad boys are attached to your bow individually so they don’t clatter and are readily available for use upon seeing your target. Hip quivers can also separate arrows with extra gear so they don’t hit one another while you walk. Basically, back quivers really are the messiest and loudest of the bunch, and I wish more games knew that. So, bravo to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Horizon Zero Dawn for being amongst the biggest games to show hip quivers are cool.
Different games have different approaches when it comes to retrieving arrows you’ve fired. Some let you retrieve them without complaint like Skyrim, while others force you to stand looking at a single arrow on the floor where it’s doomed to remain forever. I’d like to suggest some more alternatives. Arrows are damaged all the time, that much is absolutely true, however if you hit a soft object like grass or some soft parts of a human or animal, they’re most likely reusable. If you hit a wall or thick bone, meanwhile, they could get stuck, bent out of shape, or even shatter. If games are going to stop me from using an arrow again I’d like to see a reason for it other than that they’re on the floor with no icon to get it back.
As someone who has fired arrows into wood sometimes, I’m used to them getting stuck, and pulling an arrow out of a trunk is hard work. A resigned “I’m not getting that back” from a protagonist would be oh so relatable to the modern archer. Do you know how embarrassing it is to miss a shot outdoors and have to call over tournament officials to extract your arrow from a piece of lumber? It stings. No, I’m not still upset about it happening to me, thank you very much.
My old archery instructor would be a little annoyed I’m recommending steering because it’s not a good practice for an archer. It’s cheeky and frowned upon, but in competitions with high stakes they’re a hail mary, making their application in life or death situations even more understandable.
Steering is something an archer may do when they loose an arrow with the immediate knowledge it’s not going to hit where they want it to. If they loose it and think “Oh shit, that’s way off” they can throw their bow arm in the direction it needs to be pushed. The idea is that if you react fast enough and give it a little boost, you could, as it’s very quickly leaving your bow, give it just enough force in the correct direction for it to be closer to your target.
Like I said, it’s not a good practice, because luck plays a part and it could push your arrow even further off course. But when you’re in a battle instead of a competition, you’ve got to use everything to get an edge. There are two ways I could see this implemented: It could be a passive ability where 5% of misses actually hit their mark and your character automatically steers. Or you could have a cooldown ability that can be applied to your next shot to hit its closest mark no matter what.
There is an upper and lower limit of how thin or fat arrows can be, but they come in a variety of sizes and materials, each with their own advantages. Among bow improvements you find in games today it would be neat if there was the same variety for arrows too. We’re conventionally used to fire arrows or electric arrows in games, but something as simple as size can have a big impact on your accuracy. If you’re going into a fort and sniping from afar, thinner arrows are better long distance, while in closer combat fatter arrows are more likely to hit their mark.
Additionally, aluminium arrows are more durable but heavier, while carbon flies better but comes at a cost of shattering more easily. Fletchings can be huge feathery things, or delicate little plastic waves, which can similarly help long or short distance shots. If you’re going to give guns all sorts of scopes and silencers, maybe give arrows some more fun aspects to change.
Again it’s time to pat Horizon Zero Dawn on the back for its bows and arrows with lots of different and very specific uses. It’s been thousands of years since people were walking around with guns, which means that bows have to fill in for them, like my favourite sniper-like Sharpshot bow and the series’ precision arrows.
One of my original frustrations with videogame archery was the common use of compound bows without release aids. It’s possible to use that sort of bow without a release aid, but it’s a little uncomfortable—and wouldn’t things be more fun if you could earn one or improve those too? Release aids do what it says on the tin. You attach the string to the aid and ready your shot. At full draw your thumb should lightly press on the trigger to fire the shot, not totally unlike a gun. There are a variety of release aids, not all with thumb triggers, but they are neat little contraptions I’d like to see more when a character runs about with a compound bow.
The advantages of a release aid in real life amount to hand protection and more consistent releases, and therefore accuracy. In a game, that could mean arrows hit their targets at a further distance, more consistently or perhaps with a higher fire rate as a nod to less hand fatigue. In some cases archers use release aids without a thumb trigger, instead opting for a trigger that releases when enough pressure is applied to the release aid. It’s really tricky, but if players opted for that variation you could give them the option loose the arrow at the top of their draw for an extra damage bonus which fades if they don’t release within the right time scale—a reward for nailing the tricky timing.
Archers in real life have idle animations. It sounds funny, but it’s kind of true. Do you know just how many times I’ve been sitting in the pub with my archer friends when one of us starts to mentally run through a bit of a shot and mimic it without a bow? It’s common practice and quite funny thinking back to how bizarre it must have looked to the locals. Additionally, we might spin our arrows, and it has a purpose. I’ve been known to idly pull an arrow out of my quiver and play with it in my hands. And sometimes I’ll spin the arrow on my palm to check if the arrow is straight. If it spins smoothly, you’re in the clear, but if you feel the point vibrate in your hand or see the arrow shaft wiggle as it spins, it’s crooked. Real life idle animations are useful, who could have known?
So those are just some of the ways archery could be slightly better represented. When we’ve got games like Red Dead Redemption 2 giving horses weirdly realistic balls, I’m pretty sure there’s time to give more consideration to archery as well.
Even if archery isn’t the best represented in gaming today, it’s still my favourite way to approach most games. From Apex Legends to Skyrim, a bow is best. Some games do a really good job making archery seem sensible, among them is Dying Light surprisingly, and its inclusion of an arrow rest that makes sense during combat. And Hanzo in Overwatch, though magical and gravity defying, acts as a nice nod at Japanese archery, kyūdō, with his style of shooting. I would just like games to push themselves that little bit further.