Why Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, and Ezio Completely Suck at Climbing

The modern video game is plagued and homogenised by roughly five verbs. We generally only engage in a bare handful of things. We shoot. We jump. We punch. On rare occasions, we think.

And we climb.

In real life. I climb. The folks that tolerate my dribblings on social networks can testify to this fact. Roughly two years ago I walked into a local gym and decided I wanted to climb things. I've always wanted to climb things because it's one of the most natural things to do in the world. We run. We jump.

We climb.

Now here comes the boasty part. Over the past two years I've become increasingly obsessed with climbing: I train to climb, I eat to climb, I sort of just live to climb. I've gotten pretty good (read: average) and that gives me the goddamn right to be an old condescending bastard when it comes to how characters climb in video games.

Today, I am exercising that right.

Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, Ezio. Your climbing technique sucks in various different ways, to varying different degrees. You have little to no footwork. No effenciency of movement. You have no idea how to shift your weight. You have no idea of how to climb statically and you 'thug' your way through every single move on the wall.

In this article I am going to critically analyse the techniques used by video gaming's most famous climbers. I am going to provide advice. If they listen, and implement said advice, I expect they will be able to climb at a far higher level — to climb harder, for longer. Listen to me you climbing nincompoops, this is for your own good!

Ezio Auditore da Firenze

Style: Dynamic, thuggy, brutal Weaknesses: Poor finger strength, clumsy footwork, can't climb statically

Let's start with Ezio Auditore da Firenze. In a video game world where terrible climbing technique is commonplace, Ezio is probably the best of a bad bunch. He climbs with a unique flashy style. He has some level of balance. Much like celebrated free solo climber Alex Honnold, he has the ability to push past fear and ascend to great heights without a rope. He's also crazy enough to jump from these high heights into a small bale of hay. He is focused, he is accurate in his movements and, compared to other video game climbers, he has some level of efficiency.

Those are Ezio's strengths. Let's take a look at his weaknesses. There are many.

First: finger strength. Ezio, as a fit young man with hours of extensive climbing experience, has good climbing endurance. He can pull on average sized holds for a very long time and this has allowed him to make some seriously impressive first ascents — but Ezio's raw finger strength? It's brutally weak. Simply put, Ezio Auditore da Firenze lacks the finger strength to pull on small holds and this is holding his climbing back massively.

At the moment Ezio can only pull on holds that allow him to use two full finger pads. There is no way he could boulder at even a V4 level with this kind of finger strength. In order to rectify this I recommend a round of intense hangboard training.

Ezio: get your shit together.

Another major Ezio weakness is his refusal to climb statically at any time. Climbing statically is all about efficiency, about moving from hold to hold, using as little energy as possible in an attempt to conserve energy. The opposite of climbing statically is moving dynamically — jumping off holds in an attempt to reach another, usually far away hold, quickly.

True climbing efficiency requires a combination of both static and dynamic movements. Different situations require different types of climbing. Ezio, however, couldn't climb statically if his life depended on it — he simply throws for every bloody hold even when he doesn't need to! Relax bro, save your energy! Throw in a drop knee every once in a while!

I recommend some serious focus on fundamentals. 'Shoulder tap' training may be the best route to success for Ezio. Each time you reach for a hold, tap it. Then tap your shoulder before reaching for the hold to move forward. This will force you to position your body correctly and climb statically instead of throwing dynamically on every single move like a muscle bound idiot.

Ezio: you're welcome.

Lara Croft

Style: Non-existent Weaknesses: Poor grasp of the basics — keep your bloody arms straight!

In many sports women are treated as second class citizens, but climbing is a little like Tennis. Females have the potential to earn just as much as the men and top level females can compete at almost the same level as top males. Just look at Sasha Digulian, who just became the first US female to climb at the 9a grade when very few top male climbers can climb at 9b. By far the most famous young climber is a girl — the incredible Ashima Shiraishi. As Sasha herself once stated, "venga las chicas!"

Yet women usually have to climb differently from men. Physically, their bodies tend to suit a different style of climbing — they have a slightly different centre of gravity, their hands tend to be smaller, which means they're better suited to difficult climbs that involve pulling on small, crimpy holds. Female climbers also tend to be lighter, and carry less muscle meaning that big powerful moves aren't always achievable.

But in the latest reboot of Tomb Raider, the young Lara Croft can't even climb a ladder correctly.

One of the first things you should learn when climbing is to keep your arms straight when possible. This encourages efficient movement and forces climbers to use their legs whenever possible. And this is especially applicable when climbing a bloody ladder like the one shown in the above video. Your leg muscles are much bigger and far more powerful than the muscles in your arms and back — use them!

And there are other issues — Lara Croft can't lock off properly. She can't pull in with one arm and reach with the other gracefully. That's a massive weakness. Not only does Lara refuse to keep her arms straight when she isn't pulling — major rookie error — she doesn't pull up into a locked position properly when she is trying to move upwards. Come on Lara — get it together!

This is either a technique issue or a strength issue. I prescribe a serious campus board workout in order to build lock off strength.

Hop to it Lara!

Nathan Drake

Style: Campus junkie Weaknesses: Footwork Nathan! You have legs! Use them!

Nathan Drake is a thug. He is a thug who refuses to use footwork in any meaningful way and simply powers his way through difficult moves with zero climbing technique. He is the worst.

Thug. In climbing terms a thug is a climber who relies on brute strength over technique at every opportunity. These creatures can be found in every climbing gym across the globe — in the back, doing muscle ups on a chin-up bar, doing very little actual climbing, challenging everyone to campus competitions. In short: playing to their strengths constantly and learning nothing about the art of climbing.

Campusing. It's a type of training where you climb without using your feet. Climbers often use campus training to improve their upper body strength — you may remember my recommendation that Lara Croft should try out some campus training to build up lock-off strength. Well, Nathan Drake is the polar opposite of Lara. He is already strong enough. Drake needs to start using his head. He needs to increase his climbing IQ and use his bloody feet once in a while.

Let's compare the following two examples.

First we have arguably the greatest sports climber of our time, Chris Sharma, during his first ascent of Dreamcatcher (skip ahead to 3 minutes 24 seconds)...

And then we have arguably the greatest video game climber of our time, Nathan Drake, during his first ascent of some random broken down building in Uncharted 2 (skip ahead to 18 seconds).

The moves both climbers are making in these two examples are very similar but while Sharma intelligently uses heel hooks in order to make his traversal more efficient — saving his strength for the more difficult moves at the end of the climb — Drake just bloody thugs his way through, refusing to use his feet at any point.

Nathan Drake: I realise you are inside a video game and, therefore, do not have to worry about forearm strength, or getting pumped halfway through a difficult route, but have mercy! Learn some technique for goodness sake. You may not have to deal with lactic acid, but we do!

I recommend a course of traversal training. Go to your local climbing gym, find a flat wall or a slab and attempt to climb across it using only one hand. This will force you to think about foot placement. It will force you to think about how you shift your weight across the wall. Drake: stop relying on brute strength during your climbs. One day it will fail you and you will be... um, forced to respawn at an earlier checkpoint or something.

Oh, whatever. Do what you want you brutal thug. But know this. Nathan Drake: you're an enemy of freedom. You're a bad man and you should feel bad.


Comments

    yo @markserrels, I think you should volunteer to mo-cap the climbing sequences for all videogames.

    Edit: I dont know anything about climbing. I dunno whats good technique, or bad. but now its been pointed out to me, I'll see it everywhere.

    Last edited 10/04/13 3:14 pm

    At the risk of ruining the tongue-in-cheek nature of the article, the problem is largely a technological one, rather than one of minimal research (or at least, it's not just minimal research), at least for Ezio's example. Each portion of a climbing animation must return to a state x (or at least one state of a finite list x or y or z) which is used as the starting frame for the next portion of the animation. The dynamic nature of climbing animation is misleading; it is really a lot of tiny scripted animations (obviously), and they are linked by sharing common states or frames. A truly dynamic climbing animation would be ridiculously resource-intensive... that said, I'd still love to see one in action! :)

    Mark, how does Sean from The Saboteur measure up?

    Last edited 10/04/13 3:17 pm

      I don't see how this is a problem, couldn't they just make the animations more realistic? That won't change the states.

        Ezio: They could, but why would they? It would basically mean animating a lot more. Small movements as well as large ones, and having them flow together appropriately would probably also double the number of base frames as well. And a slow, measured climb would look very different from a climb under pressure (arrow fire, or in pursuit etc). Much more dramatic to have him flinging himself around even for small movements, and use it for all purposes.

        Lara and Drake: Yep, they could just correct it (hypothetically anyway). I suspect though that because they're pulp action heroes, the realism of the climbing isn't really as important as its sheer action-drama spectacle :P

        Last edited 10/04/13 3:24 pm

      I remember seeing a making of for the first AC that showed how they did the climbing animations -

      - the climbers' hands & feet were given anchor points.
      - the wall had corresponding anchor points on it.
      - the climber had a radius in which their limbs could reach.
      - all limb anchors had to follow 2 rules 1) they had to stay within that radius, and 2) when not moving, they had to line up with a wall anchor.
      - then it was just a matter of moving the limb anchors to meet a wall anchor when the movement happened.

      as far as i recall, the animation itself was done dynamically, following a few simple rules (eg: certain joints can only bend certain ways etc)

      bit more process intensive than a straight climbing animation, but it looked way better.

      Edit: spelling.

      Last edited 10/04/13 3:25 pm

    Is this an actual climbing term? "Thug"? It's as if a wall is meant to be treat with kindness and respect, you politely dance together with the wall as you climb, yet Nathan Drake just barges in like a Thug and carelessly grabs at the wall with his sweaty meaty palms and thrusts himself up it without any thought or consideration.

    ...yeah I guess that makes sense.

    Ticked me a 26 last night!

      On Lead?

      Most i've done clean is 23 outdoors and indoors, not clean i've ticked a 24 outdoors and a 25 indoors.

    No critique of Cole McGrath, or does he climb perfectly?

    Personally, I'm a fan of the way Alex Mercer does things, no need for technique, just run up the side of the building.

      I, too, was wondering about the absence of Cole. I'd like to see his style critiqued as well.

    Mark Serrels Climbing Simulator 2014, Buy the game standalone or with Climbing Wall peripheral.

      Can't wait for the xXx_ClImBiNg_SiMuLaToR_420BLAZEIT_xXx dubstep video.

      Surely to sell these days it'd have to be something more like "Serrels Xtreme Cliff Face Challenge!!!" and feature a cast of characters from other games as well as Mark; a climbing race between Mark & Kratos for example or failing that, women in bikinis for no reason whatsoever

    Drake's problem is that he keeps on trying to climb stuff that won't hold him. It seems every time he jumps onto or grabs hold of a platform it crumbles away beneath him. Maybe he should lay off the junk food and drop a few kg's.

      Or climb in the safety of his local gym. His main problem seems to be that he chooses ancient temples and crumbling mountains as suitable venues for his sport.

        Would probably be easier if said venues weren't on fire and/or full of people shooting at him at the time, too. That would probably detract somewhat from his otherwise perfect climbing technique.

      I know, right? Did you see Donut Drake? That's where he's headed in a few years...

    Hahaha, great piece Mark. I can't help but cringe when seeing people climb with bent arms now :P

    I know jack about climbing (although I did find the top of more then a few trees as a kid) but even I noticed just how poorly Lara moved around. She has NO foot work whatsoever. She does the same little shuffle with her feet when she moves from ledge to ledge every time, Kind of a hop-shuffle-hop-shuffle. It just looked Bad!

    Still a top game though!

    I thought Aveline in AC liberation looked quite graceful when she climbed, but that might just be in comparison to Ezio...

    Considering the games they feature in, I think this analysis actually makes sense.
    Although he's an assassin, Ezio is introduced as a bit of a show off and his climbing style matches his bravado, although it might be more appropriate if his climbing became more refined in his later games.
    In the Tomb Raider reboot, isn't Lara supposed to be inexperienced? Then her climbing style makes sense in context. She hasn't had time to learn better ways to climb, even if she's doing a lot of it.
    As for Nathan Drake, he's basically an adventure hero anyway, more spectacular than effective.
    A fascinating article, Mark, and whether or not the styles were intentional, it's interesting to have some insight into what real life climbers notice.

      This was my first thought, while I realise it's merely an article pointing out what's not quite right about the various techniques I'd say in Lara's case that's probably a case of design success.
      Cool read either way, I assume the Drake thing might be because it simply doesn't look as 'rad' to climb properly or something, or who knows maybe it's another conscious design choice, sums up Drake pretty well. :P

    Hello, potential american comrade who's been redirected here by North America Kotaku! Enjoy our non-crazy layout and the absence of a shitton of articles!

      UK user here. Only version of Kotaku that works at work - and to be honest the one with the best layout. Comment section and username rules are also much much better.

    tl;dr: they'll never climb as well as the prince.

      http://cdn.popdust.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/prince-holding.jpg

    I'd love to see an analysis of other climbers. Prince of Persia has been mentioned. Mirror's Edge could be interesting. Even something as odd as GIRP.

    That bent arms one with Lara Croft is likely a result of the mocap process. The ladder used in the original motion capture probably had slightly different rung spacing to the ladder in the game environment, and the animator probably simply adjusted the hands to match the game ladder without shifting the body as well to keep the arms extended at the right time. When you're editing mocap it is much more of a repetitive technical job than keyframe animation where you are actually making the movement and acting choices yourself, and it can be quite easy to lose focus of the actual purpose of the movement and just go through the motions.

    Either that or the motion capture actor was just bad at climbing ladders :p

    http://fc04.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2011/045/5/3/tomb_raider_alternate__descend_by_xtremejenn-d39ipxw.jpg

    Well, at least the cosplayers can rappel and climb :P

    haha great article, I remember something similar a while ago about all the games recently going all out on Archery (some doing it hopelessly).

    Out of curiousity Mark, any games you consider that have got climbing perfect? (or close enough)

    My main issue with Lara Croft's climbing in the latest game is her use of an ice axe. Sure, dry tooling is a thing and it can be pretty handy, but if you're going to use an axe on rock you want to place the pick as carefully as you can, not ram it full speed into a rock and hope it stays there, 98% of the time it's going to bounce off and make your wrist hurt like hell. This is exacerbated by the Vertical Limit style jumps to catch yourself with an axe.

    Honestly if I could climb like Nathan Drake with the ease that he does why would I want to know how to climb properly? You could just brute force everything because you have massive strength and unlimited energy reserves.

    If I could have a superpower it would to never fatigue/unlimited energy. No sleeping, no eating, no drinking, never being short of breath, just keep on going like you only just started.

    soo, in the interesting of Fair play, i propose that we repeatedly shoot the author of the article (bullet or arrow, his choice), ram a metal spike thru his side, bashing him up a lil, then allowing him to perform said climbing maneuvers.

    I figure for a bunch of people who get shot/stabbed/kicked/punched/eviscerated/Resurrected/fall to their deaths on a insanely frequent basis, i think they did pretty good. shit, if i got shot repeatedly, i'd be more inclined to crawl into the fetal position instead of try and scale a sloid rock wall

      Hahahaha! I like this post.

      I do not, however, like this idea!

    Good article, but it glosses over the basic fact that many concessions have to be made to the fact that these are video games. Action games, even. People play these games for action, so things have to be faster, more explosive, more brute force to suit the audience.

    It's just more pleasing to this type of audience to see someone brute force their way through a climb.

    Can you imagine watching Drake slowly finesse his way up one of the thousands of climbs he makes using the correct technique with more legs and heel hooks and all that? It would take forever. It would make the character look weak and tired. Even if it is accurate.

    Another point: some of the animations showcased are due to player input. In the second Drake video embedded to show how he doesn't use his legs at 00:08. True, but that's because the player his holding up and hitting the jump button. This is the "hurry up" animation. If you see the same video around starting at 01:18, you can see him using his legs more on the climb. Probably still not great technique, but the point stands.

    This kind of thing you can see in any video game if you're very familiar with the subject matter. A lot of times things just aren't realistic. Sometimes it's a lack of knowledge on the developer/designer part. But often, they know it's wrong, but decide to do it wrong because it looks better, plays better, is more fun, or for a variety of other reasons.

    Couple things you're forgetting. Ezio is an assassin. He is trained for speed, not endurance. And in the Tomb Raider Reboot, Lara is in survival mode. She's also not had the same back ground as the previous Lara. She's comes from a wealthy family and is simply a archeology major fresh out of college. She IS a rookie. I will agree that Drake uses his hands way too much.

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