It’s completely ridiculous. But it happened.
In 2007 I dreamt about a video game for the first and last time. Actually, it happened twice, but the dream was the same.
I’m climbing the tallest building in Assassin’s Creed, in full control of every movement I make. The holds rest on the pads of my fingers; my footwork helps me maintain balance. I’m not afraid of the height or the potential fall. I’m simply enjoying the act of moving on holds; the lucid, present feeling that comes with focused, difficult climbing.
In 2007 I had become obsessed with the idea of Assassin’s Creed. When told by the developers that Altair the assassin could use any ledge, and scramble up any wall in the game’s environment, my imagination exploded in multiple directions at once. My excitement was such that I legitimately had dreams about a video game. Bizarre.
When I tell Philippe Bergeron that I used to dream about the video game he helped create, he laughs. Politely I think.
Nowadays climbing — actual proper physical climbing either outdoors or in climbing gyms — is my obsession. I climb three to four times a week. I train to climb, I eat to climb. Outside of work and games my life, for the most part, revolves around climbing.
It was an obsession that started with a video game. And for that reason during my hands on with Assassin’s Creed 3, the first thing I look for is something to scale.
“With Assassin's Creed 3 that was something the behaviour team really wanted to get into. They wanted to change the entire behaviour code on how the assassin climbs.”
In Assassin’s Creed 3 you are climbing on a new set of completely unpredictable surfaces. This changes things.
In previous games the climbing — technically — was fairly straight forward. Scaling a building designed by an architect, isn’t all that different from climbing a ladder. Straight up. Left, right. No need to shift weight, no need for tricky footwork. No need for real climbing technique.
Climbing a tree. Or climbing rock. That’s a different proposition altogether.
“We needed to change the Assassin’s behaviour in order to do that," explains Phillipe, the game's Mission Director. In Assassin’s Creed we could always climb architecture but things don’t always work the same way in nature.
“We reworked it from the beginning.”
It was for that reason that Jonathan Cooper, the lead animator on Assassin’s Creed 3, ordered everyone on his team to try rock climbing. He even managed to drag the game’s lead programmer along. Getting a definitive feeling for the precise movements climbers make on unnatural surfaces was of extreme importance.
“Jonathan really got into all that stuff,” says Phillipe. “They actually went out and did some rock climbing. They got the team to do it and they filmed each other and then used that to create coded animations to support it. Actual rock climbing is a huge inspiration for the behaviour team.
“Some people went climbing to prepare for the first Assassin's Creed, but this was the first time they actually got into it. I remember them coming back and saying 'wow, that was really hard'. They were all competing, trying to see who could get to the top first.”
Actual climbing: that was a starting point, but animations based solely on first time climbers scaling plastic holds? I’m sure Jonathan and company did a marvelous job, but climbing is a precise art and efficient movement is paramount. The team needed something more, and relied upon a number of reference videos to get the movements correct — particularly when it came to the natural environments the Assassin has to scale.
Crack climbing, the act of scaling a single crack on an otherwise blank wall, was a particular inspiration. In real life crack climbing is a dangerous, skin shredding business that involves wedging fingers, and sometimes entire forearms into the face of a cliff, shifting your body weight, trying to make unwieldy holds feel positive — it’s an overwhelmingly physical, technical style of climbing.
The first wall I spot in Assassin's Creed III features a crack climb. My objective is in the opposite direction, but I scale it anyway. The animations ring true, and feel weighty which, in turn, makes the act of climbing feel legitimate. Of course, the Assassin climbs far too easily, without thought for safety, and his forearms never tire — but there is a real feeling of authenticity about the climbing.
It makes me wonder if there would ever be space for Ubisoft to give more control back to the player, to make climbing feel more like a ‘game’ and less like a seamless form of traversal.
“It would be a different game,” explains Phillipe. “It wouldn't be Assassin's Creed. It would be... not like survival horror, but something along those lines, where there is actual danger. If you lose your grip you're going to die. I can visualise a game that could do that, but it wouldn't be Assassin's — because our scope is large and we try and reach a broader audience."
Phillipe Bergeron uses the example of Assassin’s Creed III’s naval warfare — to begin with the team responsible for that section of the game prototyped a far more in-depth sailing sim, complete with complicated controls and micro management.
“It just didn't fit with the way you controlled the Assassin,” he says. “The controls were too technical, it was too difficult. We had to scale it back, I don't want to call it arcade mode, but we had to make it more casual with the control scheme and the approach.”
The same goes for climbing. Assassin’s Creed is not about one specific thing, it’s grand in scope and bringing cohesion to these multiple different elements is paramount.
What’s more important, arguably, is making the act of climbing on trees, or on rock, tangible. Everyone understands how to climb a building — we can instantly parse the visual cues. In the city it’s relatively easy to comprehend what an assassin could climb.
With actual rock? Things are a little more complex. A major part of climbing involves analysis — what can you hold? How can you position your weight? Do you have enough strength to push through to the next jug? Strong climbers can crimp on holds so small they’re barely visible, but for a game like Assassin’s Creed III, things need to be far simpler. The environments must appear natural; yet crystal clear concise information must be communicated with regards to what can actually be climbed.
“We have visual codes that play on contrast,” explains Phillipe, “just making sure your handhold has a high contrast in comparison to the background.
“Let's say you're climbing a black wall — you’d want to have a white surface. Or you could add moss to the holds — these are old tips and tricks. As far as highlighting stuff, we fell back on some of these things. We also had to optimise. If you think about a tree — we put leaves at the edge of trees to make it more of a clear-cut line.
“That was one of the hardest things to do at the beginning of the game, to come up with those metrics. We had been used to working with buildings — that was a known science, coming up with things like trees and cliffs that were fun, but also functional, was hard.”
Not only does each specific object have to appear natural, gorgeous, and easily comprehensible as a climbable object in space — it all has to work as part of one seamless system. Whether you are climbing on rocks, trees or building it has to be accessible and it has to feel consistent.
For Phillipe Bergeron Assassin's Creed III is simply a series of lines.
"It's just about lines of interaction," he says. "If we could activate the debug vision on this we could see how it's constructed, with planes of collision and interaction lines everywhere — that determines how the player can interact with the environment. Is he putting his feet on the wall, or is he free-hanging, using one hand or two hands... is there enough room to put one hand onto it. All that stuff is there.
"Putting it all together is an art in and of itself, to make that system cohesive. For us the most difficult part is making that readable and building the environment so the lines actually work naturally. The programmers impose upon us different rules when it comes to building the world. That's where it becomes difficult, because building the lines of a tree is very different than building a rock wall. On the flip side we also have to make sure that players can read what's in front of them."
Climbers often refer to routes as 'problems' — because climbing is as much about unlocking the sequence, as it is about raw strength or fitness. Climbing in Assassin's Creed is always at its most rewarding when it mimics that aspect of the sport — your abilities and technique can be taken for granted, the fun is in solving the puzzle.
According to Phillipe, once the foundation is built, and the behaviour programmed, the puzzle element is relatively easy to construct.
"If I can use the metaphor of the climber you have an idea what the capacity of your body is," he says. "What's your reach, your upper body strength? From our side — we know that, and they're actual numbers!
"What we do is play with all those numbers to create variety in the movements. The most boring sequence is going to be a repetition of the same movement over and over. So our job is to vary those, to change the buffer zones so we can have animation variety."
And in Assassin's Creed III there's more variety than ever before; an entire system rebuilt to suit an environment that has the ability to bewilder and entrance players with its incredible sense of scale.
It's fun to climb. It's fun because climbing demands focus and it demands your full attention. It's fun because there is a blank slab of rock and a visible end goal. Assassin's Creed is fun in a similar way; not because it features climbing, but because you can climb. Because climbing is just one facet. Assassin's Creed, to an extent, is a blank canvas. I dreamt of climbing — what did you dream of?
"The first time you go into an area," says Phillip, "it really is like a complete wilderness, you have no idea what to look for. But the more you play, the clearer the different opportunities are."
The possibilities are almost endless.