Fantasy has remained a preoccupation in the video game sphere since its inception. And while there are many different signifiers of the aesthetic, it is the suit of armor that has become the most pervasive. But fantasy, or rather, the reinterpretation of the medieval aesthetic, has taken numerous shapes and forms, especially within games. Its influence extends outward to inspire creators across the globe in places like Japan, Korea, and even its place of inception — Europe. Due to its long-lasting existence, the genre has become something mutable. And as a result, video games consistently betray an obsession with suits of armor.
The Dark Souls series has taken several notes from pieces of armor that exist within our very world. Most notably, the Helm of the Wise in Dark Souls bears striking similarities to the infamous “horned helmet” given to King Henry VIII by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. In a design document for the game, director Hidetaka Miyazaki and member of the design staff Hiroshi Nakamura discussed their inspirations for some of the more notable armor sets in Lordran. This included the design of the armor set associated with the Warrior starting class. In the document, Miyazaki reveals that this particular set was inspired by the cult-classic series of light novels and anime Record of Lodoss War, which, ironically, came about through the creation of Sword World — a Japanese tabletop role-playing game that was inspired by the systems and general aesthetic of Dungeons & Dragons.
But these “low-fantasy” design elements aren’t exclusive to Dark Souls. This aesthetic has predated the grueling and dreary fantasy title for upward of three decades. Seminal fantasy RPG Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together set the precedent for a space that had otherwise been populated by colorful and overly exaggerated fantasy designs in the vein of Dragon Quest (also inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and Record of Lodoss War). While (like most Japanese RPGs) it does feature some less-than-practical designs, armor sets and general attire are more subdued. Even the armor worn by the Valkyrie job class, which harkens to classical paintings of Norse mythology, is tame in comparison to the colorful and boisterous designs of early Final Fantasy titles.
Famed illustrator Yoshitaka Amano drew inspiration from a wide variety of different cultures, re-creating loose and ethereal concepts that would cement themselves as iconic touchstones in Japanese RPGs and fantasy properties. This included his designs for the Warrior of Light, the first hero of the Final Fantasy series, and the dark knight armor for Final Fantasy 4 protagonist Cecil Harvey. Each of these designs is fluid, but features the barebones iconography and design principles associated with knighthood, and by extension, the perception of medieval Europe.
Final Fantasy Tactics concept artist Akihiko Yoshida pivoted in the opposite direction, taking a more grounded approach as seen in the aforementioned Let Us Cling Together. This is illustrated through the somewhat more practical apparel of the Judges in Final Fantasy 12, despite their more ornamental helmets, which don’t seem entirely out of place given European blacksmiths’ propensity for making absurd headwear. Their armor, while ornate, is immediately recognizable, and leaves a lasting impression for these figures of absolute authority.
However, it cannot be understated just how formative Dungeons & Dragons was to the creation and establishment of fantasy video games in general. The design sensibilities of ’80s high-fantasy illustrations found in the “Dungeon” and “Dragon” magazines were on par with the character designs and advertisements that appeared in the early incarnation of console and arcade gaming. This ranged from Gauntlet’s and Golden Axe’s saucier character designs, with chainmail bikinis, and Conan the Barbarian-inspired machismo with its loincloths and furred bracers, to the immediately recognizable Diablo series.
Diablo takes interpretations of medieval armor to their Gothic extreme. While the Paladin armor was somewhat subtle in Diablo 2 — akin to something you would see occupying a German castle turned into a modern tourist attraction — this character design would eventually become something larger, and bulkier, in a similar vein to the Warcraft series. But this has always been a hallmark of Blizzard’s character design — or its ability to warp things beyond recognition into something immediately recognizable, if not grossly exaggerated. The oversized pauldrons and massive suits of armor worn by characters like Arthas Menethil from Warcraft 3 (and World of Warcraft) would go on to inspire armor designs for popular Korean MMORPGs like the Lineage series or Aion, further divorcing these designs from their original context.
Of course, there are titles that do try to play it as close to the chest as possible regarding historical accuracy. Kingdom Come: Deliverance touted itself on its historical realism, and Chivalry 2 is about as good as it gets when it comes to “accurate” medieval armor designs (certain seasonal armor sets aside). One could also argue for the authenticity of the Witcher series, with Geralt’s mix of chainmail and leather reading as more practical, if not exactly sturdy enough to weather the blows of whatever Eastern European mythological ghoul is hot at his heels. One could argue that the Dragon Age series (which was inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire and Dungeons & Dragons’ Neverwinter Nights) also skirts this line of historical realism and more fantastical designs to some degree, despite the rigidity and stylized pieces of armor from Dragon Age 2.
Despite their branching web of interpretations and mutations, all of these titles pull from the same thread: European folklore; history awash with fables like “Saint George and the Dragon”; or historical events like the War of the Roses or, as in Dark Souls’ case, petty squabbles between nobility like Henry VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
The medieval knight has been filtered through so many concept artists, designers, and programmers that its permutations in video games are similar only in their foundation — that of nobility and status, combined with an ever-present readiness for combat. These distinctions have allowed for signature interpretations of what history has given us, molding new designs that are sure to be spun around the wheel and given shape once again, in some fantasy realm yet to be imagined.