I roll under the outstretched sword of my friend, sweep his legs and rip his spine out from his body. I run, this time with my sword held above my head—which telegraphs that I’m about to throw it—so my friend blocks low, thinking that I’m bluffing and going for the “roll, sweep and rip”-move again. I can’t say if I double-bluffed or just didn’t think that far—but I did throw my sword into his face, then ran past and picked up his dropped sword mid-cartwheel. At this point everybody is screaming and laughing: I am screaming and laughing out of excitement, my friend is screaming and laughing out of frustration and a second friend, waiting for his turn to play, is screaming and laughing at the crazy spectacle on the screen.
When you play Nidhogg you play in the knowledge that this is the experience you are sharing, not just with the room but with everyone else in every other room where people are playing Nidhogg. The premise is pure: two swordsmen square off in silhouette amidst pulsing washes of pastel colors, for a quick, furious fight to the death; screaming and laughter ensues. The next time my friend materializes in front of me I make a misjudged sword-throw that he easily swats out of the air. I am now without sword, which makes me faster but also defenseless, so I decide to run—I dodge his lunge with a jump and continue past him, running. He throws his sword after me, but I duck behind it, turn around, kick him in the face and keep running. I feel like a bad-ass in the most raw and primal way, even moreso as the game’s almost tribal electronic soundtrack thumps.
In his next reincarnation my friend tries to be clever and throws his sword high, thinking that I’ll jump, which I usually do when I’m without sword, only this time I don’t, so I kick him in the face again and keep running. I am now far enough that my friend has only one chance left to stop me from reaching the leftmost part of the level that marks my victory, and he makes his last move—a jump-attack—just when a sword explodes through a window and hits him straight in the chest. Since we had the optional “boomerang swords” rule turned on, the sword I dodged in the last fight had turned around to come flying over the battlefield in just the right time. My friend makes the face you make when you fight back an urge to upend a table, but a moment later we slap our hands together—and I can’t say for sure, but it feels like the same gesture used to assure that there is no permanent damage after a real-life fight among friends.
I think Nidhogg has made me understand why people fight in real life, in a way that growing up a meek boy in safe, rural Sweden never did. There is raw power in competition. Winning is fulfilling—whether you’re confirming dominance or toppling an old master—and losing is motivating—whether your next match will be as the underdog or as the old master hungry for a comeback.
There is something decidedly masculine to me about all of this, or at least in my reaction to it. Playing Nidhogg, I felt a rush of chemicals that I haven’t felt in a long time, and I felt empowered in ways that are probably not healthy for a civilized person. When my girlfriend beat me in her first game, I felt slightly emasculated, but that’s what all that laughter is there for: to deflate those primal, almost idiotic emotions. The laughter is the civilized portion of our brain trying to counteract what Nidhogg does to the rest of it.
You constantly laugh—you laugh at the crazy thing that just happened, with the sword and the window and the jump, and you laugh at the comical ultraviolence. If you’re on the sidelines you laugh at the intensity with which the combatants flail, and if you’re playing you laugh to break the tension brewing in the back of your throat. Nidhogg is fundamentally about that laughter; not the happy laughter you give to a good joke, but the manic and true laughter you use to break down walls in yourself. I think that laughter is why some people fight. I know it’s why I play Nidhogg.