Video game characters love their bows and arrows, but I hate to be the bearer of bad news—almost all of them are terrible at archery. As an archer myself, I’ve had to spend a lot of time teaching and observing the sport, so I thought it might be appropriate to explain why, in real life, some of your favorite arrow-shooting characters at best wouldn’t be able to shoot straight and at worst would severely injure themselves.
One of the cardinal sins of archery is dry-firing a bow. A dry fire is the process of drawing the bow’s string back and then letting go without an arrow in place. A normal bow draws back to a conservative estimate of 30 to 40 pounds of tension created by the bending of the bow. As such you’re holding those pounds on your fingers. If you let that go without an arrow on it, all that energy comes rushing back into the bow, which could potentially shatter its limbs (the long ends of the bow), break the string, and/or make a god-awful sound. Think a tiny thunder roll in your hand. In rare cases, this could become dangerous to the archer, especially if the string snaps near the face, but more likely would it vibrate your arm and be more harmful to your bank account.
Whenever Link runs out of arrows, he pulls back his bowstring anyway. In the game, doing this is pretty useful to scope out enemies and such, but once he’s finished, Link just lets go of the string. Knowing how delicate weapons are in Breath of the Wild, this is a bad idea. What we see in the game as a cute little “ping” would be a disaster in real life; if your bow didn’t break, you’d have to spend the next 30 minutes checking for signs of damage. Life lesson: If you need to observe something, just use the Sheikah Slate.
If you’ve ever tried archery, you know it’s not easy. In fact, you’d be surprised at how incredibly difficult the sport is. In Red Dead Redemption 2, poor Arthur Morgan is handed a longbow and told to hunt deer with it. Not only is Arthur a complete beginner, but generally speaking, longbows are the hardest bows to consistently aim at a stationary target, let alone a frolicking one.
As a novice, there is no way Arthur would be able to shoot a deer in the head from more than 15 meters away. His release is also trash. He splays out his hand and shoots his shoulder and elbow far back enough to knock out any comrades nearby. All in all, Arthur Morgan, the beefiest character on the list, should stick to two other types of shots: the bullet kind, and the ones he takes with Lenny.
Game developers love to make a character look and feel good. Often, to get a point across, you might see an exaggeration of visual features that are important to a character. For Aloy, this is her fletchings. Fletchings, or vanes, are the feathers or plastic things you see on the end of the arrow, designed to help your glorified stick fly more predictably through the air. They’re really useful and pretty important when it comes to archery, but Aloy’s are ridiculously oversized. If you were to have fletchings that big, your arrows would be more unpredictable, as they would ricochet off the bow to the left. Or every arrow’s fletchings would be ruined, and your arrow damaged. Aloy, we get that you’re an archer—just tone down the feathers, okay?
Pit’s bow is gorgeous but comically impractical. Made out of two swords jointed at the hilt, it is the most dangerous bow on this list, and not for the right reasons. Bows aren’t nearly as elegant as you might assume. Carry a lightweight object that’s close to your own height in just one hand, and accidents are bound to happen. I don’t know of any archer who hasn’t accidentally bumped someone else or themselves with their bow, and when your bow is made out of two menacing blades, the outcome could be gory.
Another labored part of archery is loading an arrow onto the bow. In every game, show or movie, loading a bow seems swift and beautiful, but in reality it is quite fiddly. You’d need to check the orientation of the arrow was correct before “nocking” or fixing the arrow to the string, all of which takes at least a couple seconds. Orientation of the arrow matters because otherwise the arrow’s fletchings will graze the rest of the bow, compromising its flight path.
When nocking an arrow, you’d also have the bow down by your leg. I actually rest mine on my thigh to hold it steady. Even if an archer were to hold the bow away from their body when loading an arrow, bringing their arm up to shoot would mean swinging a blade past their leg to aim. Pit loading an arrow in a flurry of movement without nocking the arrow wrong or slicing himself is improbable at best, and a quick amputation at worst.
Hanzo is a really difficult character to critique, because if you’ve ever played Overwatch, you know his third- and first-person techniques are completely different. In third-person, Hanzo holds the bow upright; in first-person he holds it sideways. Holding a bow sideways deeply limits the draw length of the bow because your body is in the way. You can only pull back as far as your torso is away from the bow, whereas holding it upright means you can pull back to your face or further. It’s also hazardous to your arm’s health. I once met a girl who tried shooting sideways, who proceeded to show me a photo of the damage she did to her arm. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure Hanzo’s arm wouldn’t be either.
Normally, another issue that I would have with Hanzo would be the lack of an anchor point, which is a specific place on your body you “anchor” your hand to in every shot for consistency. Anchor points are important for any archery that doesn’t require a sight, because it helps an archer reference to where they should pull back. In Hanzo’s style of modern barebow, the anchor point will often will be on the face—you’d use a finger to touch the corner of your mouth, or a tooth.
However, I cannot fault Hanzo for his lack of an anchor point, because Hanzo is Japanese, and the Japanese have a particular version of archery called kyūdō. It’s an art form, really, and those that perform it have a different way of achieving accuracy, basically relying on dedicated practice. The masters of kyūdō don’t rely on a physical anchor point as most archers do; they pull the string back to somewhere near the face and let loose.
I’ll give Hanzo the benefit of the doubt and say he’s a kyūdō master. But what I can’t forgive is the weight of his bow. Hanzo grits his teeth and shakes like he’s experiencing an earthquake every time he shoots. This indicates that he is way too weak to be handling his bow, especially if he were trying to shoot high-quality arrows on a battlefield. You’d get really tired really quickly, and your aim would be affected by a lack of stability—not to mention the backache you’d feel the next day. Fixes include getting a new bow or going to the gym, so unless Hanzo wants to trade in his weapon, he might need a few protein shakes here and there.
Every other character on this list should be ashamed for being shown up by a 14-year-old. Ellie is the most realistic archer in any of the games on this list. Every shot looks almost exactly the same. She is consistent and precise. The further away you aim, the more the arrow drops on the way there. Arrows break, which they would in real life if you hit bone.
Ellie is no doubt the best. My only gripe with her is the back quiver, where she stores her arrows. I understand that Ellie might not have the time to find a better solution, but in general, back quivers are pretty stupid. You can’t see the arrows, for one, so if you were in a combat situation, every time you wanted to fire, you would have to reach back, maybe stab your hand on the end of an arrow, fiddle around to find an arrow, pull it out at a really awkward angle, and then shoot it. Not to mention the fact that you might not notice if you didn’t have any arrows left.
Back quivers also make collecting arrows an issue, because trying to place a stick in a pocket on your back is hard. How about when you’re trying to be stealthy? When you bend down, it’s very likely they would just slide out, clatter to the ground, and hey presto, Ellie would be dead. It would be a shame, too, as she would do well in an archery competition.
Ellie could instead use a field quiver, which goes around the waist and often has a lot of room for tools. Field quivers are unfortunately quite loud when it comes to movement, since arrows tend to rattle when loose, so my recommendation for Ellie would be a bow quiver. It’s an attachment to your bow to hold your arrows directly on the “riser” (the handle) in a fixed position. Advantages include no clattering of arrows, easy access to arrows, and a constant visual of ammunition—not to mention making the bow look a lot more impressive.
Gaming’s legendary heroine is also the pinnacle of bad video game archery. Rise of the Tomb Raider smushes so many mistakes into this one gameplay mechanic that you’re going to need to buckle up, because I can’t hold back.
Lara Croft, explorer extraordinaire, has to do a lot of sneaking around to find the very best a tomb may have to offer, as well as killing a couple of unfortunate souls on the way, and a compound bow is often her weapon of choice to get the job done. Up until now, most bows we’ve seen on this list are simply a stick and some string. Compounds are the more complex, more technical younger brother of the traditional bow. They require a complicated mixture of “cables” (string) and “cams” (rotating discs that the cables sit on), from which they get the name “compound.” They’re faster and more accurate.
A compound bow has a couple other crucial advantages that make it an accurate and deadly weapon. The biggest thing is that its draw length, the distance between the bow and the string when it’s pulled back to the face, is specific to the archer using it. It’s basically custom-fit. Once you get it back to that draw length you can’t pull it back further without damaging the bow or compromising yourself.
The problem Lara displays is something you can demonstrate to yourself with a little audience participation. If you put your left arm straight out to the side, and your right hand by your chin/jawline, the distance between those two places is about what your draw length should be. That is indeed the distance Lara’s bow comes back to. Now put that right hand by your left armpit. That’s a significantly shorter distance, right? Well, when Lara crouches down, the string goes straight through her armpit to make up for this distance issue.
The draw length being specific means you also shouldn’t draw short. The way a compound is designed means there’s an arc of “weight” to the bowstring. It’s really light when you start drawing, then gets really difficult to pull back, but becomes light again when you reach your draw length. Drawing about halfway, which Lara often does, means that holding the bow would be an incredible struggle, if not incredibly stupid. The accuracy of the shot would decrease—not to mention the fact that Lara’s arm gets in the way of the string.
This isn’t even the biggest issue I have with Lara’s shot, because Lara has a sight on her bow that she doesn’t use. When standing with the bow upright, she pulls it to the side of her face, looking down the length of the arrow to aim. That’s not necessary, and is less accurate, when you have a sight on the bow. When Lara crouches, the sight is oriented sideways, so she actually can’t see down it.
Her bow itself has another problem. There are arrow rests that can hold an arrow in place no matter what the orientation of the bow is, but Lara’s bow doesn’t have those, meaning that arrows should be falling right off of her bow in many situations. And yes, she even uses a back quiver. Ultimately, our Tomb Raider would be the worst character on this list emulate if you were going to pick up a bow.
I know that many people don’t care how accurate archery is in video games, but as an archer, this has been therapeutic for me. We’re always on the lookout to see how accurately our sport is represented in games, and are often disappointed. All I can really end this on is asking you to go out and try archery for yourselves. It’s a fantastic sport, especially if you hate running. Please, however, listen to archers when they tell you not to try the version of archery you see in games. You’d likely hurt our pride—as well as your body.
Calypso Mellor is a freelance journalist with a passion for point-and-clicks, piano, and puns. You can often find her in a field shooting a target from fairly far away, or alternatively on Twitter @imomellor.