In video games we do many things. We run, we jump, we punch, we shoot and we climb.
That fact is most apparent in Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. From this perspective Nathan Drake is video game man par excellence. He is the master of the video game verb. He is Mario, Kratos and Indiana Jones all rolled into one. He has the fighting ability of a UFC champion, Olympic level gunmanship and the ability to leap terrifying chasms with the grace of a tussled Carl Lewis.
But until the most recent gameplay reveal for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Nathan Drake couldn't climb for shit.
Who am I to judge? Well, I'm hardly Chris Sharma, but I've been climbing extensively for the last four years at a decent level and as Editor of Kotaku Australia have used this knowledge to evaluate the skills of gaming's greatest climbers, recently crowning Snake from Metal Gear Solid the greatest climber in the history of the medium. In both of these articles I was extremely critical of Nathan Drake's climbing ability and rightly so.
Simply put, in climbing terms, Nathan Drake is a 'thug'. He is an ignorant brute who relies on strength over technique at all times. He ignores footwork and couldn't give two shits about intelligent body positioning. He substitutes delicate problem solving skills with never-ending, God-mode power/endurance and simply blows through routes at an impossible, impractical rate. Nathan Drake is the Koolaid Man of video game rock climbing. He is blasting through walls with a shit-eating grin on his dial. He is saying "OH YEAH".
I am here to say no, Nathan Drake. Oh no.
But we are not here to tear Nathan Drake's rudimentary climbing skills to shreds. Not completely. Today I want to take time to discuss the ways in which Nathan Drake's skills have improved. Over the weekend Naughty Dog unveiled the world's first gameplay footage from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and it seems that Drake has replaced some of his youthful verve with actual genuine climbing technique. Nate has cranked things up a notch. Many of his fundamental flaws remain, and we'll get to that, but for the most part I was impressed with how much Nathan Drake has evolved as a climber.
It's taken him four video games and seven long years, but it appears as though Nathan Drake has finally realised he has feet.
They Say The Miss The Old Drake, Girl Don't Tempt Me...
Just for reference, the above video gives you a decent idea of the 'Old Drake'. This is how he used to climb.
This is how Drake climbs now. What a dramatic difference. All facets of his game have improved.
Drake has found his feet. And he's learned how to use them.
Take the above pic for reference. Clearly Drake, much like Snake, has been stretching the old hip flexors and is in the process of pulling off a move that climbers refer to as a 'high knee' -- this is actually a pretty tough move to pull off, particularly if you're stiff like me. Drake does it with ease.
The high knee helps climbers achieve a number of different goals all at once. It helps with balance but more importantly it draws Drake's hips closer to the wall, lessening the impact gravity has on his body weight. This in turn reduces the pressure on his joints, muscles and tendons, meaning that Drake can climb stronger for longer. When you consider the marathon routes that Drake finds himself working on throughout the course of the Uncharted games, this is of paramount importance.
Another benefit is the extension of reach. With a higher foot on the wall, Drake is able to stretch further, and reach holds that might otherwise have been inaccessible. Note how Drake, in this image is stretching, reaching for the next hold. That wouldn't have been possible without the high knee.
Also of significance is the hand-foot-match. Drake is using the same hold for his foot as he is for his hand. Sound technique on display here.
The old Drake? He would have been hanging, arse in the air, feet dangling God knows where.
Putting It Altogether
But that's just one specific move, what I find more interesting is the manner in which Drake is putting it all together.
If I had to compare Drake's style to any real-life modern climber, I'd probably choose Adam Ondra. Ondra is, by most measures, the world's greatest climber and has an uncanny ability to do difficult moves quickly and efficiently despite having less strength than many of his peers. Drake obviously has raw power, he throws dynamically almost constantly, but he also climbs quickly. Very quickly. You can see this in the above GIF.
This is interesting because it goes to the heart of a climbing debate. Is it better to climb statically, keeping three point of contact on the wall at all times, or should climbing be free flowing and rapid? The answer, of course, is it should incorporate all of those movements depending on what is more efficient at that specific time.
When teaching beginners to climb, many drills incorporate static climbing -- mainly because static climbing requires that your body be in the correct position at all times. If it isn't, you arms bear your weight and you are more likely to fall off the wall. Static climbing is a great tool in the beginning but, as you improve, most climbers realise that moving dynamically with momentum can be a huge benefit. It has the potential to dramatically reduce the strength and grip required to pull off certain moves. It makes sense -- if you are pushing upwards against gravity, the force required to pull on certain holds is smaller.
Typically you want to move statically when the holds are small, and move with momentum when they are large and the distance between them is greater.
But Drake basically climbs quickly all of the time always and that is unlikely to change.
The Hips Don't Lie
Their are two main reasons why Drake is able to climb with such momentum. The first is improved footwork but, more importantly, Drake has finally learned how to climb using his hips.
How does one climb with their hips? Well, at its most basic, hip movement in climbing is all about keeping your weight off the wall and extending reach, but when you time arm movements with hip motion, you are essentially pushing all of your weight in the correct direction at all times. This is a good thing.
Like most technique in climbing, good hip movement starts with good footwork.
Take the above image. You can see Drake is turning the right side of his hips toward the wall. This is only possible because of the positioning of Drake's right foot (circled). It's difficult to see because the image is so dark, but Drake's weight is on the outside edge of his foot instead of square on the hold. This helps Drake to pull his hips in, extend his shoulders and reach further for the next available hold.
This also allows Drake to place the entirety of his weight on that right foot, releasing pressure on his arms. As you can see in the above image, there is a straight, vertical line from the top point of contact to the bottom point of contact. This is good, efficient technique allowing Drakes weight to be distributed evenly among the major point of contact.
It's only taken him the better part of a decade, but Drake's finally getting to grips with this climbing business.
Getting A Grip
Speaking of grips, kindly allow me to bore you with the minute details of hand positioning.
There are many different ways to 'grip' a rock climbing hold, but unless you're 'pinching' it, there are typically three major ways to pull on rock. You can hold it with an open hand, a half-crimp or a full crimp. When possible, most climbers will try to climb open hand, mainly because climbing with any kind of a crimp puts additional pressure on your tendons and increases the likelihood of finger injuries. A torn A2 pulley in one's finger is literally a climbers worst nightmare -- scarier than any potential fall. It essentially puts you out of commission for months. Full-crimps in particular should only be risked when absolutely necessary. It's important to have a strong crimp, but it's something to keep that in your back pocket for emergencies only.
I love the above screenshot -- it provides such a clear insight into how Nathan Drake is pulling on the rock, and it pleases me to see that Nathan Drake is climbing open handed. It just goes to show, even if you're a daredevil treasure hunter, willing to go to strange lands in search of fortune and glory, when it comes to grip positions, it always pays to play it safe.
And in the above screenshot it makes perfect sense -- Drake's right hand is positioned on a 'sloper', which is almost impossible to crimp and, even if you could, you probably wouldn't want to. Sloping hold nearly always require an open hand grip, especially when the hold lacks any kind of edge to pull on.
But Drake, for the love of God, please take that wedding band off. You're going to de-glove that finger if you aren't careful. I haven't worn my wedding band in years.
Old Habits Die Hard
So Drake's climbing has improved, that's clear. But let's not get ahead of ourselves -- Drake is still making some serious rookie errors. Christ on a bike, just look at the above image. Drake, what are you trying to do to me here? Everything is wrong with the above image. EVERYTHING. I don't even know where to begin.
Let's start with those hips. Nate, you're fucking hundreds of metres in the air, you're hanging by one hand. If you must partake in this kind of buffoonery could you please, for the love of God, climb with closed hips. Your body is literally in the worst possible position it could be right now. Any normal human being would be a crumpled pile of manged flesh by now.
Next is hand positioning. You're not even trying to make that hold positive. If you must pull on the hold from that strange angle could you at least straighten your arms? This is some of the worst technique I have ever seen.
Finally those feet need to be switched immediately. Your left foot is literally where your right foot should be. Your left hand is where your right should be. Do all of those things quickly and for the love of God pull your hips into the wall before you hurt yourself you bloody buffoon.
Drake the Dyno-saur
Drake, I think it's time we had a chat about your 'dyno' addiction.
'Dyno' is short for 'dynamic'. When climbers use the word 'dyno' they're generally referring to this kind of movement, where a climber launches his entire body to an otherwise unreachable hold and attempts to stick it. In case you haven't noticed, Nathan Drake loves dynos.
Real talk: Drake needs to calm his jets.
Take the above example. Drake is launching his body from one point of contact to another in a cave where every hold is soaking wet. There is literally no friction on any of these holds and Drake is happy to risk life and limb when there are clearly usable holds above. You aren't in a climbing gym Drake! There aren't pads below you! You have no rope. You have literally no protection. You don't see Alex Honnold throwing for holds in this blasé fashion, thousands of metres above ground, do you? No. He's carefully placing his feet, he's taking his time. Drake, take it easy.
Look at the above GIF -- the force of taking all of Drake's weight, combined with the sheer impact of gravity, has left Drake careening to the ground. Luckily Drake's otherworldly contact strength allows him to stick the hold underneath, but most normal humans would be mincemeat after a stunt like that. I've had it with the irresponsible example Drake is setting for other climbers. This dynamic behaviour stops and it stops now. Won't someone think of the climbing children?
Straight To The Top
Ultimately, it's hard to be too critical. Drake's climbing fundamentals have improved so dramatically. It would be pedantic not to forgive him a few flourishes and, besides, those dynos do look pretty cool. What I can't forgive, however, is bad technique and -- for the most part -- Drake has eliminated that from his climbing. When all is said and done, Drake may actually end up stealing Snake's title. If he eliminates some of the glaring holes in his game, Nathan Drake might end up being the greatest climber in video games.
But just do me a favour Nate and close those bloody hips, would you? Seriously.