SSX wanted you to fight its mountains, Steep wants you to love its mountains.
Developer: Ubisoft Annecy
Release Date: 2016-12-02
SSX (2010) was a masterpiece. A snowboarding game that blew out the scope of the snowboarding game into something grandiose. Steep, the new extreme sports game by Ubisoft, doesn’t quite reach those epic heights, but it’s certainly an acceptable replacement. “Acceptable” doesn’t mean “similar", however, as booth games come at their subjects from completely opposite directions.
SSX created a genuine antagonism between you and your snowy setting. The mountain, and every track/course/slope on it, were things to be conquered or survived. The Deadly Descents fed into this perception: Courses defined by unique hazards like avalanches that force us to flee, ice that slips us over cliffs, a deep chill that freezes any life not basking in sunlight, and heights so great that we need oxygen tanks just to breathe. The mountain is a killer, a monster, a beast, a mythical thing, a kind of Lovecraftian god whose very presence seeps life from the world -- frozen, steep, perilous, and deadly. And we choose to ascend it, then descend it. We choose to provoke this thing, then conquer or survive it. The relationship is clear: Snowboarding is a fight.
Steep is the very opposite. The mountain is a thing to be appreciated and respected. There are dangers, sure, but they’re passive dangers -- rocks and trees and big drops -- nothing that will chase you down like an avalanche or suck your life away like the freezing cold. The Mountain Stories foster this appreciation: These are various challenges designed to move us across the peak, showing off its environment while a narrator speaks as the mountain, explaining its history. This mountain literally talks to you, and that communication removes any fear of animosity between you and the environment. Even the most dangerous peaks will warn you of their dangers. The mountain doesn’t want you to die, but it does push you to challenge yourself. This is snowboarding as a means of Zen self-improvement.
So what does all this mean for the gameplay? Everything. These tonal differences filter down into every aspect of the game.
A large part of the antagonism in SSX stems from its progression mechanics. Each successful run nets us some cash, which we use to buy equipment, which lets us tackle harder slopes, which nets us more cash, which we use to buy better equipment, and so on. This is a typical RPG progression system, but it’s also a system that forces us to recognize our limitations. From the outset there are some slopes that are simply beyond us; we can’t complete them no matter how good we may be because we’re lacking the proper equipment. We’ll try our hand at them and fail, then come back with better gear and fail again, and repeat this cycle of failure until—eventually—we don’t fail. Victory is sweet, but getting there requires us to lose, and also to recognize that our skill alone is not enough to ensure a win. The truth is that we’re inadequate until we buy our way into victory.
Steep has no system of progression. Oh sure, you unlock cosmetic clothing, and you earn different types of experience depending on your actions, but none of these affect the gameplay. From the outset, every slope is beatable; there’s nothing that’s inherently beyond us. The only thing holding us back is our skill. It’s notable that the difficulty ranking of slopes doesn’t change: A three-star (i.e. Hard) slope on our starting mountain is just as challenging as a three-star slope on the final mountain. The difficulty level of the world doesn’t ramp up as it does in SSX, it’s static; because the mountain isn’t trying to beat us, it’s trying to improve us. We are the one that changes; our skill is what ramps up.
In SSX, some of the slopes can be maze-like in their construction, with several different paths leading us up, over, around, and through hills, mines, caverns, and caves. We’re encouraged to ride down multiple times, looking for shortcuts and the most optimal line that balances speed with big air for big tricks. All of this exploration stems from antagonism because every slope in SSX exists purely to be beaten. We explore so that we can better understand our enemy. Familiarity doesn’t breed acceptance; it encourages contempt.
The slopes in Steep exist as part of an open world, an open mountain, which means they don’t just exist for our pleasure. Well, they do since they’re part of a deliberately designed video game, but I’m talking matters of perception: By not marking every single downward slant as a specific course, by giving us a vast distance of unmarked land to explore, Steep makes its environment feel natural. The mountain isn’t trying to deter us; it’s just there. Exploration opens up new Drop Zones, which usually contain new challenges, but sometimes a Drop Zone is just a fast-travel point—nothing more than a peak that gives us a pretty view. We explore so that we may partake in more challenges, but we also explore so that we may gaze upon new vistas. There’s no animosity here.
There are two types of multiplayer in SSX. One is a direct competition of speed or points that obviously engenders animosity between players as well as the mountain. I’m more interested in the other type, the one that has us hiding snowflakes along the slope for other players to find. Well, not find, actually. This is how it works: We’ll drop a snowflake somewhere along the slope, and the longer it goes uncollected, the more it’s worth to the player who finds it, but if enough time passes and no one collects it, the one who dropped it gets a big reward. This encourages us to use the environment to our advantage, hiding a snowflake just below the lip of a drop, forcing others to fall into the pit to grab it. Or maybe we leap off a jump and wingsuit into a far corner, hiding the snowflake way up in the air. Even as we work with the mountain to hide our snowflakes, we’re just encouraging more animosity between it and other players since we’re using mountain to hide valued items. Even if we’re not fighting the mountain directly, we’ll still encourage others to fight it.
In Steep you can team up with other random players on the mountain, and each time they complete an event you get a little bit of experience as well. You’re not stealing that experience from them; it’s just a bonus you get for teaming up with someone. Multiplayer is a mutually beneficial relationship. You can also compete with your friends for speed and points, but within the larger context surrounding that competition, it feels more friendly in Steep than it does in SSX.
Neither approach makes one game inherently better than the other. My preference for SSX comes down to the controls and bombastic presentation (and no small bit of franchise loyalty) rather than the overarching tone. Steep is still a good game, and it’s a good game made even better by the fact that it takes a unique approach to the snowboarding genre.
In sports games, it’s easy to view the course or track as an enemy since it’s the central obstacle for our gameplay. SSX was great because it leaned into that antagonistic relationship as far as it possibly could. Steep is great because it tries something far more difficult: It makes the mountain your friend. It teaches you to love the challenge, rather than hate it.