In A World Full Of Guns, The Dude With A Knife Is King

In A World Full Of Guns, The Dude With A Knife Is King

Knives are dangerous, there’s no doubt about it. If a person with a knife gets close enough to you, he can really mess your stuff up.

And yet in the world of video games, knives have become a bit too deadly. They’re far more deadly than guns — in everything from Call of Duty to the recently released Spec Ops: The Line, guys can take three, maybe four rounds from an AK-47 and keep right on truckin’. But if you hit them once with a knife, they’re down forever.

In a far-reaching, fantastic essay over at Grantland, critic, novelist and one of the new writers on the upcoming Gears of War: Judgment Tom Bissell has weighed in on Spec Ops: The Line and video game violence in general.

Among his many musings about the game (which he liked for many of the same reasons I did) is this gem:

The game is filled to its gunwales with shooter ridiculousness. The most terrifying enemy in the game, for instance, is a guy with a knife. He runs at you, with his knife, across a battlefield whistling with small-arms fire. Your squad mates will alert you to the knife guy’s presence, which is never not hilarious. Everyone’s got automatic weapons and the dude with a knife is the single most terrifying enemy onscreen.

Har har. Bissell goes on to point out that he understands why this is necessary from a design perspective — knives (and in his specific line of work, Chainsaw-bayonets) must be more deadly than guns for balancing purposes. But he’s right that this kind of balancing stands in stark, often humorous contrast to any semblance of gritty realism. As he puts it, “the appearance of Terrifying Knife Guy bursts any fragile bubble of contemplation.”

(I enjoy “Terrifying Knife Guy” as an archetype, though I also enjoy that the official term for the Spec Ops character is “Edged Weapon Expert”. Ha.)

The farther I get from Spec Ops, the more I wonder: one of the things Spec Ops does so smartly is subvert video game norms (endless waves of enemies, mindless ultraviolence, genocidal body count) in the service of making a broader statement about war. But will a war game ever be able to do something similar without relying on the subversion of game genre conventions? In other words: Can a war video game speak honestly and truthfully about war without relying on clever self-reference, or will Terrifying Knife Guy always be there to bring things back to Video Gameville?

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter [Grantland]

Photo: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock


  • I think Battlefield 3 did Knifes correct. You can’t simply run up to your enemy and Knife them, you have to catch them unaware for the Knife to be a successful on-hit kill. If do try to knife someone from the front, you are more likely to look silly as slice once before the enemy puts a few bullets into your gut,.

    As for the ‘can a video game’ question, you should check out the Mil Sims – Arma, BF2:Project Reality. Most of the time they subvert the tropes of military FPS games. You spend more time walking and looking for someone to shoot then firing your gun.

      • I agree with this (and the knifing animation(s) makes a silent take-down actually quite satisfying (as the knifer) or humiliating (if youre the knifee)). However I do notice people that run up, shoot to injure you then finish off with a knife slash, so it still has that element of BS-ness.
        And I swear the ACB-90 (premium knife) lets you do frontal take-downs a lot easier than the original knife

    • I think CounterStrike did it right, although I only played source. Knves were rarely used, but were often used when the distance closed and some idiot was spraying with a shotgun or rifle while the knife took advantage of the panic.

    • I liked Killzone 2’s approach where the melee attack usually required a combo of 2 or 3 hits (whacks with a rifle but rather than a knife in that case). Killzone 3’s melee attacks went for the more conventional 1-hit kill, but at least they were legitimate kills – knife through the eye socket is usually going to be fatal the first time.

      • not really, a knife to the eye will cause you to faint from the shock but is not fatal by any means. I mean you might bleed to death or die from infection, but that’s it.

        • Actually you would plant many inches of sharp steel through the eye socket, through to the brain.

          That will kill you real fast…

  • I miss the days when melee kills used to mean something. The knife shouldn’t need to be balanced, it should be a last resort weapon!

  • TF@ and BF3 get it right – knife from behind is deadly – given the skill it takes to get behind your opponent in an FPS that’s a pretty decent reward

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