I was never a very outdoorsy kid. I didn’t climb trees or jungle gyms. The one time that I tried to jump from the top of a tall slide, I landed in such a way that my knee hit my jaw, and I burst into tears. The one time that I tried to jump from a swing, my shirt got caught in the chain and tore as I leapt away. Yeah, I wasn’t a very outdoorsy kid.
I bring this up because it seems the most natural explanation for why I’m so fascinated by climbing in video games. I love climbing in games. It’s part of why I always enjoyed Prince of Persia as a kid, and it’s one of the central reasons that I fell in love with Assassin’s Creed.
The Assassin’s Creed games have always epitomized the art of the climb for me. They strike a great balance between the speed of a fun action game and the methodical slowness of an actual climb. I don’t have to think about where I put my hands, the assassin does all of that strategizing for me, but he also moves slowly enough that I can watch and appreciate his every step and grab. Assassins don’t bounce or fly up the side of a building. They climb with impressive precision.
I cringe when others suggest that Assassin’s Creed should play more like Shadow of Mordor or the Batman: Arkham games. Talion, from the former game, jumps up sheer walls with too little effort. His climbs are fast, but boring. With his grappling hook, Batman feels too above it all, like the act of climbing is beneath him, so he’s just going to skip it. Nathan Drake puts in the effort, but he’s a little too wild and haphazard (which admittedly makes him fun in his own way). The heroes of Infamous stick to the world like they have been vacuumed to it, making climbing, again, too easy.
I don’t want to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, I don’t want to be Superman or even a super man. I don’t want that much power. I just want to climb stuff fast enough not to be bored, but slow enough that I can still appreciate the precision of the movement.
I do understand how Assassin’s Creed can seem slow in comparison to its peers, but that’s kind of its point. Assassin’s Creed has always been a series fascinated by movement and how we interact with a world. Complex animations have always been a series highlight, from the way our body twists when running to the many ways that we can execute a guy in combat. The act of climbing is just as important as the act of killing.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is going to add a grappling hook, and while I remain cautiously optimistic about it, I also worry that a grappling hook is the first step in turning movement into a chore, something to be done as quickly as possible. I worry that in the mad dash to “keep up” with the likes of Batman and Shadow of Mordor, Assassin’s Creed might lose sight of what makes it unique (and better) apart from those games.
In those others games, the world exists as an obstacle, something that’s always between you and your objective. In Assassin’s Creed, the world exists as an objective of its own, a jungle gym in which I get to jump and climb like an outdoorsy kid.
I wonder if the solution is, instead of speeding up the movement, giving players more to think about while moving.
Grow Home is another Ubisoft game interested in movement and the art of the climb. It strikes a wonderful balance between speed and complexity. The right and left tiggers/bumpers control your right and left hand respectively. You hold the button to grab the environment. Intuitive.
The fun comes from the fact that your robot can grab hold of anything. Its hands are like magnets, latching perfectly onto any rock or plant, gripping it like a vise until you let go of the button. So you don’t have to look for handholds, but you still have to focus on the rhythm of climbing, left, then right, then left, grabbing, and letting go. This requires more thought than just holding a control stick forward, but it’s not so intensive that it becomes arduous. The game remains fun throughout.
If these mechanics can make the act of climbing fun enough to carry an entire game, why not apply them to that other franchise that’s partly defined by climbing? Would that be too much work? Do people not want to think about movement, and would prefer to just… move?
I think it’d be fun. But then, I just like climbing stuff.