"This isn't flying. This is falling with style."
Gravity is a pernicious reminder of our physical limits. It's the thing that keeps us rooted to the ground, it pulls our bodies downwards, makes us slow, ages us. The dream of flight, then, is a rejection of that limitation -- see me? I can fly, man. I'm free, I can do anything!
And yet, I've found that when playing games, it's not the flying that I find most exciting. It's the moment that comes after -- when I re-engage with gravity and come tumbling back towards earth. Flying in video games is great, but I love to fall.
Gravity Rush, a splendid new adventure game for the PlayStation Vita, opens with a scene depicting an apple, tumbling to the ground. Sir Isaac Newton may be nowhere to be seen, but the scene's intent is clear: This is a game about falling, pure and simple. And man oh man, does this game do falling well.
The game's central, brilliant idea is to give the player the ability to change which way is "down," and so which way the protagonist Kat will fall. Another way to think about this is that the player is able to change the axis of the world on a whim. Video games have granted a lot of cool powers over the years, but this is among the coolest.
It's an extraordinary thing, this game's sense of freedom, of kinetic motion. With a double-tap of the right shoulder button, Kat launches into the air, wind blowing her hair behind her, skydiving upwards towards the wall of a skyscraper. She lands (three-point lands, obvs), and runs up the wall, only to "fall" off the edge of the building and go tumbling towards the horizon.
It's discombobulating at first -- the "grav-boot" concept is nothing new to most people who play video games, but the idea of falling sideways off the lip of a skyscraper is. I was impressed with how quickly I got my head around the concept, and how much joy I found in simply getting around Gravity Rush's city of Heckesville. (It doesn't hurt that the game is gorgeously drawn, wonderfully animated, and features a lush and beautiful musical score. Despite a few flaws, mostly to do with repetitive combat, Gravity Rush is a game that I have yet to tire of playing.)
It's crucial, however, that Kat isn't actually able to fly. Her gravity-shifting powers can only run for so long before she begins to tumble downwards, waiting for them to recharge so that she can fall back upwards again. If Kat were given the power of flight, the game wouldn't be half as interesting, exhilarating, or fun. It's the falling that makes it magic.
In the underrated Just Cause 2, players are set loose on a massive (and I do mean massive tropical island, tasked with causing as much mayhem as possible. They're given all manner of tools and weaponry, but only two tools that matter -- a grappling hook that can latch on to any surface, and a parachute that can be opened and closed an unlimited number of times.
Immediately, what would have otherwise been a game about stealing jets, driving jeeps and shooting dudes becomes a game about flight. Or more specifically, a game about falling, with style. The number of techniques combining the pull of the grappling hook with the resistance of the parachute are nearly endless -- there is no end to the joy of flinging protagonist Rico Rodriguez about like a little G.I. Joe character attached to a rubberband. And if and when you get bored of that, you can always hop on the back of an airliner, fly to the top of the skybox, and jump.
The gunplay in Just Cause 2 may be questionable, the A.I. idiotic, and the missions may be repetitive. But the sensation of falling -- seen in this video at around the 2:00 mark -- never gets old.
Valve's Portal games are among slickest falling games ever created. They're admirable not just for their tight design and sense of humour, but because they have some of the most focused falling in video gaming. When you fall in Portal, you fall with a Purpose.
Similar to Gravity Rush, Portal requires players to re-think their trajectories in order to progress beyond otherwise unpassable obstacles. But where Gravity Rush is mostly about action and high-flying acrobatics, Portal is about measured movement and problem-solving.
Back when I reviewed Portal 2, I talked about the game largely in terms of dominoes. A puzzle in the game is a lined-up row of dominoes, with you as the first domino in the bunch. Portal regularly executed a slick combined thrill of first realising the solution to a puzzle, then throwing yourself through it.
One of the coolest additions in Portal 2 was protagonist Chell's "long fall boots," which let her fall from any height and land unscathed. Chell could fall any distance and, with a simple couple of blasts from her portal gun, wind up back where she started. I quickly learned to take it on faith that Valve wouldn't lead me into a situation from which I couldn't recover. I was free to fall as I pleased.
So many other great games explore our constant dance with gravity -- Trials HD can at times feel like juggling, the aptly-named Gravity Hook requires constant slingshotting to move upwards, ever farther from the ground, and death. Max Payne 3 is at its best when its protagonist defies gravity, leaping down a stairwell while blasting away at his foes below, and the best platformers, from Mario to Journey, aren't as much about the jump itself as they are about the trajectory that follows.
"This is falling with style."
That now-famous quote at the start, of course, is from Toy Story. At the beginning of the film, Woody had dismissed his new rival Buzz's first flight as not flight at all. "That wasn't flying' Woody sputters. "That was… falling, with style." And yet later in the film, when Buzz saves Woody, this same line is delivered with a wink -- for one moment, Woody and Buzz actually are flying. And while the rules of reality won't stay changed (Buzz can't fly in Toy Story 2, for example), for this one moment they transcend gravity and soar to safety.
We've all dreamt of flying; that moment in the dream when we think, "This is impossible, and yet here I am." But it will always be the fall that wakes us up, crashing back to consciousness with adrenaline in our gut and a gasp on our lips. It's the falling that brings us back to earth.