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Locomotion, Parkour, and the Illusion of Competence in Video Games

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Wednesday, Dec 9, 2009
The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.

Video gaming’s recent love affair with parkour (or free running) should really come as no surprise given the centrality of two basic forms of movement, running and jumping, to the video game experience.  In a sense, this love affair might be traced back to Super Mario Bros. whose gameplay solely derives from the notion of carefully managing velocity and gauging distances.


One of the more innovative elements of of Super Mario Bros. is one often taken for granted in contemporary gaming, and while I can’t say with absolute certainty that the idea of a “speed run” button first appeared in Super Mario Bros., it is certainly the game that brought the usefulness of such a button to gamers’ general attention.


The notion is simple: hold down a button while moving and the avatar onscreen runs rather than walks.  The application of that simple mechanic made all the difference to the Mario experience, though, since Mario’s survival depends on leaping onto turtles and over seemingly bottomless pits.  Thus, the ability to change the speed of the character in order to make a jump of just the right distance to either bop a turtle on the head or to clear a distant jump becomes the main skill that needs to be mastered in order to solve the game. 


Here we are over twenty years later and this notion of playing with speed and evaluating distances is still one of the central mechanisms that gaming depends on.  Part of the allure of the simple run fast and jump mechanics of Mario games seem to derive from a pleasure that is taken on the part of the player that is probably less intellectual than it is visceral and kinetic in nature.  While precision is essential in succeeding in running and jumping and certainly there is an intellectual component necessary to process how fast and how far a game character can run and jump, there is something about the motion itself of moving in this way that reminds us of our own bodies and how they move.  Physics are being simulated alongside a simulation of physical expression, which brings us to the recent spate of games that have overtly or less explicitly adopted parkour (literally “the art of moving”) as a more refined influence in the simulation of human locomotion.


In particular, three recent games come to mind whose gameplay largely concerns emulating parkour and simulating it for the pleasure of the player, Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, and Assassin’s Creed.  The first of these three, Mirror’s Edge most overtly references parkour as an influence on its gameplay, which is ironic as it seems in my estimation to be the least successful of the three in creating a simulation of a free runner.


Mirror’s Edge certainly attempts to immerse the player in the perspective of the free runner.  By adopting a first person perspective, the player finds themselves thrust into the simulation of running itself.  Velocity becomes immediately apparent to a player as a touch of a controller really does seem to “thrust” them forward into the world. The illusion of accumulating speed becomes much more apprehensible from behind the eyes of a free runner in a way that a third person, two dimensional perspective (like Mario’s) is unable to, since space itself seems to move past the player from this viewpoint as opposed to watching an avatar traverse it.  The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.


Of course, the problem that underlies this model is one that plagues games from the first person perspective generally.  The somewhat artificial and rather “slow” means that one has in changing perspective (with a right hand controller stick for instance) as one moves rapidly through surroundings makes it difficult to quickly evaluate what you are looking at and to gauge what elements of the environment can be successfully traversed on foot or by leaping in the air.  The right thumbstick control scheme for looking around has yet to properly simulate the movement of the human head and eyes to effect this same ability to take in surroundings rapidly.  Mario has few of these problems as the two dimensional perspective nearly guarantees a pretty clear sense of just how wide an upcoming gap might be.  The first person camera perspective with no ability to “crane the neck” or “squint” to focus quickly seems sorely lacking in this regard.  Additionally, no real sense of where your “body” is underneath you (there seems to be some sense of weight that is lacking in this simulation, reminding me somewhat of the problems that I have with Wii bowling—it simulates the motion of rolling a ball, but I can’t gauge the ball’s “weight” with a Wiimote) makes it more difficult to judge where “you” will land.


Mirror’s Edge‘s interestingly stark and washed out aesthetics are a solution to at least the problem of perspective.  Since the world is so washed out, the game’s design provides visual cues to draw the attention of the runner that indicate what are the most useful environmental details to use to move through an environment and to indicate the best routes through them.  These markers, designated by their orangish color, are fairly noticeable as they stand out in contrast to the starkness of the rest of the world.


Unfortunately, this detail while sounding reasonable on paper is less useful in practice.  Since Mirror’s Edge‘s main sequences usually involve running for your life from some threat, it still remains difficult to quickly assess the landscape and make the right decisions about where to run.  Much death results or a tendency on the part of the player to have to stop frequently to regain their bearing, which kills the fluid dynamism that free running is all about.  In Mirror’s Edge, you take on the role of a free runner but a seemingly less than competent one since she is so frequently falling off things or starting, stopping to look around, starting up again, then stopping again to look around.  All the pleasure of moving in a fast, fluid way is replaced by a frantic, spasmodic form of “the art of moving.”  Unfortunately, the mechanics undermine the simulation not only because they don’t work well but also because they call into question the authenticity of the character herself.  Faith is supposedly a world class free runner, how come she falls down all the time and seems so incapable of keeping up a regular and fluid parkour pattern


Now before getting into arguments concerning whether or not the player is as skilled as the avatar that they are playing (and ignoring also for the moment that Mirror’s Edge does provide some slight narrative justification for Faith’s relative incompetence during its tutorials – she has been away for awhile, is rusty, and needs to brush up on her skillz), I want to turn my attention for a moment to the other two games that I brought up earlier that also lean heavily on mechanics that concern moving rapidly through an environment. 


The newest Prince of Persia depends heavily on just such a mechanic.  Curiously, by distancing the player from the experience through the use of a third person perspective and simplifying the way that the player responds to the environment the game more successfully creates the illusion of both speed and fluidity of movement but also the competence of the Prince as a free runner.  I (and others, like blogger Iriqois Pliskin) have commented before on how much Prince of Persia resembles rhythm games like Guitar Hero.  Much like Guitar Hero‘s note track designated by colors onscreen that correspond to the buttons needed to be pressed on a guitar controller, several simple and distinct visual markers like gouges in a rock face signal to the player of Prince of Persia what button to push at any given time as you approach that kind of obstacle.  Like a rhythm game, this does indeed make movement in Prince of Persia feel rhythmic as timing button presses—A, then B, then A again, then X—suggests the same kind of rhythmic timing that makes the Guitar Hero experience feel like an approximation of playing a guitar.  The illusion of playing in a band or running along a wall is supported by the very real sense of rhythm and timing that the player is experiencing while inputting commands on the controller.


This tends to further immerse the player in the simulation of a physical experience of moving fast across the landscape, flipping, spinning, andkicking out in a regular way as if one actually knew what one was doing.  The illusion of movement supports the illusion of a competent acrobat and gymnast.  Furthermore, that the Prince is saved from falling by his partner in parkour, Elika, further provides an illusion of a man who knows what he is doing (who slips once in awhile) as opposed to a player who just can’t keep up with the amount of visual data being thrown at him.


Likewise, Assassin’s Creed generates a similar sense of confidence in the player in an even more simple manner.  The mechanic of holding down one “speed run” button with another button that might be termed a “do anything that is appropriate given the context” button, Altair and Ezio are both capable of some stunning acrobatics with great regularity and the illusion of a real competence.  While a button that allows a player to signal his avatar to “do the right thing” in a given circumstance might seem like a cheat, it really serves as a more important support of the player’s sense of the character that they are playing and frankly adds a level of authenticity to a confident and competent acrobatic assassin. 


Altair and Ezio basically will determine how to respond to an environmental obstacle as is appropriate when holding down this button.  If they leap towards a small square chimney, they will perch when they reach it or bound off of it quickly if the button remains pressed down.  If they are just short of hitting a rooftop as they leap towards it, they will reach out and grab it.  This is a long way from the days of Super Mario Bros.in which a jump just shy of the lip of a cliff would feature a hapless Mario falling to his death without ever reaching out to save himself, hands left stupidly at his sides.


The reason that this isn’t a “cheat” is both due to the reasonableness of the idea that a trained acrobat would try to land correctly given the circumstances but also because it maintains the fundamental principles of the mechanics of running and jumping.  The player is not passively watching Altair and Ezio; the player’s responsibility is still to judge the velocity necessary for a jump and the distance that can be reasonably leaped.  Failure is still possible if the player makes a bone headed decision about what Altair and Ezio can actually do.  It is just that they aren’t such spazzes when performing their role as gymnast for the majority of the game.  The player is left to evaluate what can be done and where to go but in ways that still allow for the character to look both competent and experienced at the extraordinary feats that they are accomplishing.  Thus, both the simulation of kinetics is maintained but also the illusion of a competent hero, satisfying both the needs of the game as well as the needs of generating an authentic character within the parameters of the story.

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