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How the bow became the perfect video game weapon

You're given a bow in Far Cry 4 almost immediately, and it's the most enjoyable weapon in the game.

The last Tomb Raider game was improved by its bow. It was the weapon I used the most, even when it wasn't the optimal choice for many situations. Far Cry 3, likewise, had a great bow.

A good bow, properly implemented, can improve even mediocre games, as Crysis 3 showed us. It was a great weapon in The Last of Us, once fully powered up. If a player would like to feel like a total badass and there's a bow in your game? They have a destination. The bow is aspirational.

Why is the bow the best weapon in gaming?

What makes the bow such a satisfying weapon in games? It's a relatively simple device, designed to move kinetic energy from your arm muscles to some form of cable to create tension that is then suddenly released, dumping all that energy into an arrow that is then driven into its target. It's human-powered, unlike the chemical energy that's behind the explosion in every gunshot.

Which is the fun of the bow, especially in open-world titles, where you're hunting the most dangerous game. You're putting yourself at a disadvantage in many ways when you go with the bow. And the idea that you're using a silent weapon that's powered by your own muscles to take down a better armed, and in some cases armored, enemy is exciting.

The act of sneaking up on someone and placing a well-aimed arrow through their skull is exciting in a way you don't get with a conventional firearm.

I could teach one of my kids to aim a gun and pull a trigger, but hunting your enemy with a bow and arrow implies that you're strong enough to accurately draw and fire, and that you've been trained in the use of the weapon well enough to kill cleanly.

The bow also gives you a sense of vulnerability. When you draw before firing in many games you have a limited time to aim your shot and loose the arrow before your muscles tire. Your aim may degrade. If your finger slips, the arrow may fly off into the distance at best, and alert your enemies at worst. It feels stressful, which makes the thrill of a good shot a much bigger deal than using a sniper rifle.

Drawing the arrow takes at least a second or two of preparation, and your tactical options are limited as you line up your shot and wait to fire. It's a way to stay armed while feeling weaker than the enemies or animals you're trying to kill, and that sense of danger can be thrilling. It can feel like taking on your opponents with one arm tied behind your back.

It's also an interesting balancing problem. It's a devastating weapon, but in many games you have to hit the head to kill your target with one arrow. So you have a powerful weapon that requires accuracy and can kill silently, but leaves you open to attack while preparing your shot and while switching to another weapon or nocking another arrow. You're vulnerable before, during and after you take your shot with the arrow. It requires you to think about placement, aiming and then possibly exit strategies. It's the thinking person's method of execution from range.

Many games also give arrows realistic drop at longer ranges, which means you have to be highly skilled in the use of the virtual bow to get long-distance shots. It's a meta-challenge for anyone who wants to make their kills with a bit more style. The torque bow in Gears of War showed you the progression of your shot as you pulled back; you could clearly see the time it took you to get a shot ready as the outlined trajectory grew longer and straighter. Getting a kill with a weapon that requires both time and skill to fire, every time, is like a middle finger to the enemy. Or, better yet, two fingers.

All these things add up to make the bow one of the most interesting weapons in gaming, and it's great that it continues to enjoy such a renaissance in so many games. It takes skill from the player to use well, but the rewards can be great. There is nothing that beats a good run with the bow, taking down each enemy with an arrow, moving silently from target to target.

Here's to the bow, and may it stay in games forever.

Note: This story was partially fleshed out during a conversation with Twitter user ZeroAsher.

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