Neal Stephenson Says En Garde!

The sci-fi author plans to make a more realistic sword-fighting game | “I’m standing here like an ass, with my sword out of the action”

Brad Stone

Stephenson wields his motion controller

PHOTOGRAPH BY KYLE JOHNSON FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Throughout movie history, swordsmen have swung, parried, thrust, somersaulted, and twirled about during combat to create an exciting visual spectacle. Consider the back-flipping Jedis in Star Wars or the charging warriors in Gladiator. Much of what we see on screen is technically bad form. “Turning your back on a man with a four-foot-long steel bar who is trying to murder you is generally not viewed as a wise strategy,” says science fiction author and medieval weapons aficionado Neal Stephenson.

Stephenson, writer of seminal novels such as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, is talking about his passion for sword fighting to promote an unusual new project. Subutai, a startup he co-founded and named after Genghis Khan’s chief military strategist, aims to create video games and other media that accurately depict sword fighting as it was practiced hundreds of years ago by skilled warriors in battle — and these days by geeks in parking lots.

On June 9, Subutai started soliciting contributions on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to develop a game called Clang — a “Guitar Hero with swords,” as Stephenson describes it. Clang will let players duel in a more realistic fashion than they do in hit games such as SoulCalibur. Subutai will also make its software and hardware tools available for others to use, hoping that the community of scholars and enthusiasts recreating the long-dormant martial art will build their own games, too. After about a week, the company raised more than $300,000 of its $500,000 goal.

“It turns out what actually makes sense in this kind of combat was figured out a long time ago, in extreme detail, by people who lived and died this way,” says Stephenson, standing in the back of a south Seattle acrobatics studio. He helpfully gives a few sword-fighting tips. One weapon on hand is a 13th century-style, two-handed long sword that, thankfully, has dull edges. Stephenson is a sword-fighting fan but not, he notes, an instructor. He says the first mistake novices make is to initiate a fight with their sword held defensively, upright and in front of their bodies. Bad idea: Your hands are exposed. “Getting hit on the hands is bad,” Stephenson says, snapping his sword toward Mark Teppo, Subutai’s chief executive officer.

A safer option, Stephenson demonstrates, is the vom Tag stance. He holds the sword upright near his shoulder, a little like a ballplayer at bat. In another stance, called posta di donna, the fighter also cocks the sword at the shoulder, but points it downward. Teppo, wielding his own sword, demonstrates various defensive maneuvers for each, like a chess player responding to an opponent’s opening moves.

Many of these tactics were developed during medieval times, sometimes for judicial reasons. If someone leveled an allegation and there were no witnesses, Stephenson explains, a duel would be set up. The accuser was required to make the first move in the fight; being put at this natural disadvantage was intended to deter spurious accusations. (Supreme Court, take note.)

Stephenson shows off a few offensive maneuvers. Striking from vom Tag with a powerful, lunging assault could cut a man in half, he says. But if the opponent were simply to back up and step out of the way, “I’m standing here like a complete ass, with my sword out of the action.” The smarter option is to redirect the assault and end with the sword tip near his opponent’s head. Proper footwork is crucially important, “or you fall down,” he says.

Subutai wants to capture all this subtle precision in its games, which will use a sophisticated, Wii-like motion controller made by a company called Sixense Entertainment. The resulting swordplay will probably look nothing like what we’re used to seeing on television or in movies. Stephenson doesn’t begrudge cinematic sword fights like those in Star Wars, which “brought the romance and beauty of this kind of fighting” back into popular culture. “Historically accurate long sword fighting,” on the other hand, “just isn’t very cool,” he says. “It tends to be over very quickly.”

The bottom line Sci-fi author Stephenson has raised more than $300,000 of his $500,000 goal to create historically accurate sword-fighting games.

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