Dressing the Barbarian
The first topless woman that I rescued had a fairly straightforward request in response to her salvation: “Take me and crush me with your love.” The second such buxom captive seemed more furtive in her expression: “My clothes! Where are my clothes?”
Okay, perhaps, “furtive” is really the wrong word to describe any scantily clad woman’s motives in the hyper-masculine and hyper-sexualized fantastic world inhabited by Conan the Barbarian. However, curiously, this second line of dialogue that I refer to may somewhat furtively describe the thematic concerns of the new game from Nihilistic based on the classic Robert E. Howard creation.
While near nudity may be the expected sign of the savage and primitive nature of the peoples that populate the Hyborian Age in which the Conan stories were originally set, interestingly, at the core of this new Conan tale is an emphasis on getting a barbarian-like Conan fully dressed.
This seems a curious theme given the nature of the barbarian. Clothing indeed implies civilized and civilizing impulses. Historically, it has been one of the chief visual signs that “civilized” cultures look to initially to evaluate a people’s regard for social responsibility, a concern for social acceptability, and a further regard for the rules and order that good manners and hygiene imply.
Of course, the way that Howard conceptualized Conan’s story was seemingly with a regard for the development of humans from savagery to civilization. Over the course of the many stories in the Conan mythos, Conan himself rises from a simple barbarian thief to a king. Savage instincts inform his rise to power and even his rule, but there was a clear effort within Howard’s designs for telling the whole of Conan’s life story to both display the wonder of an anarchic free-spirited man not bound by conventions but to also suggest the problems inherent in an evolving view of the world as that man matured. The mature Conan in Howard’s stories seems to recognize that holding power and authority lies at least in part in reigning in savagery. The other part may be in harnassing savagery in the name of law and order in order to gain and maintain power.
Thus, it seems appropriate in some way that Nihilistic’s video game homage to Howard’s fiction begins with a plot in which a fully armored and well trained Conan on a quest for treasure in an ancient tomb accidentally awakens an ancient evil that strips him of both his memories and his slightly more civilized attire.
As usual…Kill the ugly!
Much like the God of War franchise (a game that seems to inspire this new game in a number of its gameplay and narrative elements), the game allows the player to begin as a character that is already fully developed as an iconic badass with a fully powered set of combat moves and combos. However, after getting to experience playing as and getting to know this mature version of the character of Conan dressed in full battle regalia, the player is quickly stripped of his or her power.
Conan emerges from this tutorial sequence clad only in a loin cloth to begin the process of remembering what happened and “relearning” his abilities. In terms of gameplay, this means that the player needs to purchase combat moves and combos and practice them throughout various battlefields to re-master Conan’s legendary fighting prowess. In terms of the plot and goals of the game, it means that Conan will be spending his time retrieving the various portions of his armor (from grieves to breastplate to helm) in order to be able to exact retribution against the evil that stripped him of these things.
Howard’s Conan stories are the stuff of high fantasy. Curiously, through his interest in a character bound by no law coming into conflict with encroaching civilizing advancements, Howard’s stories find some parallels in the classic tradition of the American Western. Like the Conan stories, the Western frequently features men with savage impulses within a setting both wild and lawless that is at the same time growing more and more civilized.
Some of the more sophisticated Westerns often seem interested in plots concerning the effect that civilization and order have on the restless freedom of such men. Additionally, some of these tales frequently begin with a hero, grown civilized, returning to his more savage and lawless roots in order to test the tensions that arise between the two.
Consider for example some classic Eastwood westerns, like The Outlaw Josie Wales or Unforgiven, which begin with the introduction of a former badass gunslinger type who has domesticated and tamed his instincts. While that anti-hero has attempted to embrace domesticity (Josie Wales farms with wife and child at the beginning of The Outlaw Josie Wales while William Munny of Unforgiven has—due to the domesticating influences of his recently deceased wife—given up drinking and settled down to raise his children), he is forced to return to his lawless behavior over the course of these films.
By witnessing Josie practicing with his pistol shooting at his fence post (which he initially misses a lot before very rapidly becoming adept with it after a little practice, implying that, like riding a bicycle, killing is a skill that you never forget) and Will struggle with even mounting his horse when he chooses to join a former partner as a bounty hunter, we see how domesticated the men have become. But, while both men, like our Conan, are “out of practice” with guns and horses at the beginning of the films, they quickly fall into their former lifestyles and relearn their former skills when called upon to enact retribution for wrongs done to them personally (as is the case with Josie and eventually Will after his partner is killed) or to others (as motivates Will in part at the beginning of Unforgiven). The films seem to suggest that the civilizing influences of domestication cannot keep a good barbarian down.
Of particular interest is how films like these seem to suggest the need for savagery in helping to create civilized societies. If Josie Wales has been wronged by Northern raiders that have overstepped lawful warfare by raping his wife and pillaging his land at the end of the Civil War, and if Will has been called upon to right the wrong done to a whore victimized by a cowboy who remains largely unpunished by the local sheriff, these avengers have to “get mean” in order for moral retribution to be enacted. They curiously embody both lawlessness and the agency of moral law at one and the same time. In these worlds, if the law is to be punitive and not merely rehabilitative, it requires that there be men who judge and exact punishment on the transgressors. Such judges, it would seem, require a bit of savagery and meanness then if they are to get the job done.
Mass slaughter is appropriately messy.
This contemporary story of Conan seems to continue to embody this theme as he himself embodies a similarly savage “lawbringer.” If the game asks the player to quest to clothe the barbarian, it is not in a suit and tie but in armor well suited to his task. If the gameplay begins as a simple hack and slash button masher, it requires the player to master complex combinations and more and more sophisticated “rules” of killing. Both the theme and gameplay seem to move from the idea of basicness to sophistication and complexity.
Indeed, some complaints have arisen about the difficulty of the final boss battle in Conan. These complaints seem to stem from the seeming initially simplistic and “primitive” gameplay mechanics that are all that is required over the course of the initial levels and the vastly complex parry and dodge skill set required to defeat the final enemy, Graven. In order to succeed, the brutally aggressive style of gameplay allowed by the early levels seems tempered by the requirements of the game itself by forcing the player who wants to beat a very difficult final opponent to unlearn a more basic style of gameplay to practice a more complicated and sophisticated style of gameplay in its closing chapters.
In this final sequence, Conan’s nemesis Graven even comments on the theme of civilization and savagery—primitiveness and sophistication. Since Graven has embraced the power of the primitive gods of the Conan setting, he views civilization as a plague and disease to the Hyborian Age. As a result, he cannot understand why this barbarian would oppose him. Conan, the ever laconic hero, only briefly attempts to justify his curious relationship to the civilized world by claiming that while he certainly opposes “corrupt priests and their idols” that what Graven offers the world with his dark magic is worse.
Thus, our fully dressed barbarian becomes a necessary savage agent of civilized law. Our savage has been fully dressed for what he understands best: the kill.