Five Ways We Can Improve Climbing In Video Games

Five Ways We Can Improve Climbing In Video Games

Climbing in video games is not broken. Climbing in video games is doing just fine. No-one is complaining about it and no-one has a problem with it.

Except me.

Me: a person who climbs regularly. Me: a person who plays a lot of video games. Me: a person with no game design experience and only the vaguest idea of how video games are made on a grand scale.

I have a problem with climbing in video games not because it is ‘broken’. My problem is simple: video game climbing is functional but it could be so much better. Climbing has so much in common with gaming: the arbitrary challenge of it, the idea of it as a form of ‘play’, the reward, the grading, the acquisition of skills that don’t necessarily translate to the real world in any tangible sense.

Climbing has so much in common with video games. The things that make climbing rewarding are often the very same things that make video games rewarding. If we could embrace that common ground, maybe climbing in video games could be something truly spectacular.

Again, a disclaimer: I am not a game designer. Making video games is a tremendously difficult, herculean task of will and expense. These are just my own observations from a lifetime spent climbing in video games coupled with my own experience climbing actual things in real life.

With all that said, here’s how I think climbing in video games could be improved.

1. Use Momentum To Reward Players

In real life, climbing with momentum makes you feel like a God. It makes you feel powerful. It makes moves that initially seemed impossible feel easy and fluid. That feeling of pushing through your hips, of climbing with rhythm, of twisting your shoulders for extra length — it’s glorious. It’s the kind of feeling you get in most sports during those perfect moments: that concept of ‘flow’. Of being completely in the zone. I’d like to see that replicated in video games somehow.

Climbing in video games uses next-to-no momentum. If you can do a move whilst in flow, you can do it statically. That’s the norm. I think I understand why this is the case: video games tend to work best with a set of fairly consistent rules. Players need to know their own limits within certain scenarios. They need to know what’s possible, otherwise: frustration.

But here’s my counter-point: Mario’s jump.

Mario’s jump – the most pitch perfect jump in the business. It’s explicitly analogue. You can jump further at high speed, jump higher with different button presses. We need something this tactile in video games that seek to replicate the tactile feeling of moving upwards with speed and precision.

Games that have gotten that feeling right? They tend to be games with swing mechanics. Bennett Foddy’s GIRP springs to mind, as does the more recent Mount Your Friends. Both use momentum brilliantly and that’s partly because climbing dynamically is really all about swinging, and using the rotation of your shoulders and hips to push yourself to greater height.

So let’s get a swing going!

2. Give Us Better Animations

When I think of generational leaps in video game climbing, I think of the first Assassin’s Creed. Back then most people equated that leap to freedom: the ability to climb any ledge, on any building, in large-scale cities. That was important, obviously, but in terms of the climbing itself I’d argue Assassin’s Creed’s animation system was equally as important.

In Assassin’s Creed it would never have been enough to simply allow players to scale every vertical surface – the ability for the game’s protagonist to look as though he/she was climbing that surface in a relatable way, that had to be in place. In short: if it didn’t look right it would never have felt right.

Animation might be the most important part of making climbing feel legitimate in a video game. If the animation is loose and basic, climbing feels weightless and basic. If done correctly, you can feel the weight and consequence of each move. In that respect Assassin’s Creed was revolutionary.

But I can’t help but feel as though the series has gone backwards in that regard: with each new iteration, Assassin’s Creed becomes more outlandish in its animations, adds more flourish and – crucially – adds more speed. I remember when Assassin’s Creed 2 was in development. The team deliberately added more dynamic moves, the idea being that players wanted to move more quickly up the wall. I remember the team being proud of that ‘improvement’: players could climb up a wall at twice the speed.

I never understood that. Why would anyone want to rush one of the most important parts of its core gameplay? By adding too many dynamic, outlandish leaping movements, Assassin’s Creed lost that relatable, weighty realness of its climbing animations. It made climbing feel less like a tangible experience and like a rapid way of moving from point A to point B. It made climbing as banal as putting one foot in front of the other.

Personally, I’d like to see that kind of movement scaled back. I’d like video game climbing slow down a step and dial in on the smaller details of climbing movement.

Obviously all games have different pacing, and a different feel, but I loved the example Metal Gear Solid V set in its recent gameplay demo, featuring Big Boss doing some crack climbing. A slower pace, a renewed focus on small details like feet placement, shaking out lactic acid, correct hand positioning. The player doesn’t necessarily need to control these aspects of movement – most likely the player will just be pushing ‘up’ on the analogue stick – but having those precise movements play out in response to your simple actions is enough. It will feel glorious.

3. Make Difficulty Tangible

This is directly related to the last couple of points.

At no point in a video game have I ever ‘felt’ the difficulty of a climb translated correctly. In climbing it is difficult to move on extremely small handholds. It’s difficult to push off delicate footholds. Conversely, it’s easier to make big moves from point A to point B if you can get your entire hand into a meaty jug of a handhold. In video game land there is no difference. There is no scale: you can either grab onto the hold or you can’t. You can either pull on it or you can’t. Movement needs to be more analogous. Mario’s jump people. Mario’s jump.

Animation is the key here. If the protagonist is holding a smaller hold we need to ‘see’ that in order to feel it. Hands and fingers cling to different types of holds in different ways. We tend to crimp our fingertips on small holds and firmly clasp big holds with open hands. With an increase in visual fidelity and resolution we should be able to try solving this problem from a visual standpoint.

And once we can see it, we can work on translating that weight and difficulty to the player. If players are hanging on small holds, we should be moving more precisely on those holds — we should be moving at a slower pace. This could be done in two different ways. It could be involuntary — in the way that Mario skidding on ice is involuntary – or it could be something the player is punished for: if you move too quickly over this section, for example, the player will fall.
Either way – we need to be able to see, process and feel the difficulty of climbing in video games in order for it to feel truly rewarding.

Video game protagonists need to feel more human to be relatable. Why can’t Nathan Drake struggle more with difficult moves? Why can’t we watch him fully crimp on a small edge while delicately shifting his weight on bad footholds? That will make those moments when he can fully move quickly and powerfully over better holds all the more glorious. If anything, this sort of dynamic can help dramatically improve the pacing of video game climbing.

4. Make Climbing A Problem That Needs To Be Solved

Climbers actually refer to routes ‘problems’, mainly because there are an infinite amount of different ways to approach specific movements and finding the right method for each climb is often half the battle. On multiple occasions I’ve been struggling on certain moves only for a friend to say, ‘put your foot here’ or ‘drop that knee into this position’. Instantly what once seemed impossible is ludicrously simple.

In short: problem solving is a large part of what makes climbing interesting.

Translating those kinds of delicate movements to a video game scenario? It’s arguably impossible and I’m not suggesting anyone should try. What I am suggesting is more choice in terms of the movements we perform whilst climbing and the routes we choose.

My favourite parts of Assassin’s Creed, for example, are the moments where climbing feels like problem solving; when you have to identify the holds, and find the best way to move towards them. Assassin’s Creed’s dungeons, I’d suggest, are the best example of this. Your freedom is restricted but, in doing so, players have to think their way through routes and the reward is so much greater.

More of that please.

5. Allow Us To Feel The Benefit Of Improved Technique

I’d argue the best video games allow players to feel the benefit of mastery: Dark Souls, FIFA, Mario. All too often climbing in video game does not allow for that type of growth.

The problem is multifold. There are next to no consequences for failure in video game climbing and, when you think about it, it’s pretty damn difficult to fail in the first place. We’re never really given the chance to grow and evolve.

The best rock climbing video game features no climbing whatsoever. That video game is Trials. In terms of its difficulty, and the fact it requires players to develop precise techniques and apply those techniques to wildly different situations? Trials is the perfect climbing game. Trials forces players to use momentum correctly, to move slowly through certain sections, but quickly through others. Forces players to remember specific movements but also focus on being in the moment: that’s precisely what climbing is about, and what I’d like climbing in video games to be about.

In climbing there’s nothing more satisfying than the correct application of pinpoint technique. Nothing more rewarding than seeing your hard work rewarded. That’s what’s missing from climbing in video games: it’s too easy, your success is a foregone conclusion.

The solution? That’s a difficult one. I’d argue it comes back to some sort of analogous control. The Mario jump. Trials is a perfect example. It takes a simple control system and makes it endlessly deep in terms of its application to different scenarios. That’s essentially what climbing is.

But — again — so much of what we ‘see’ dictates what we ‘feel’ in video game climbing. I’d be fine with simplicity, I’d even be fine with climbing being ‘easy’ if it were animated more precisely, if I was able to see the technique being applied correctly. In this regard we’re already seeing advances.

Uncharted 4’s climbing animations have improved dramatically and delicately walk the line between the idea of Drake as an ‘everyman’ and as someone who knows a little bit about scaling cliff-faces. We’ve already mentioned Metal Gear Solid V and Big Boss’s climbing techniques: that’s the kind of advance I’m looking for. That’s what I want to see. Even if that sort of dexterity isn’t necessarily reflected in the controls, it’s still a decent step forward.

But to reiterate: climbing in video games is not broken. You might even argue that it’s in good shape. Climbing is doing just fine, but there’s an opportunity there. An opportunity to create something players can relate to on a more tangible level. If I had to sum up I’d say this: we need to see, feel, and understand the difficulty and weight of climbing. We need to be able to comprehend where we went wrong and the ways in which we can improve.

Mario’s jump, people. That should be the inspiration. Mario’s. Jump.


  • Oh, I was waiting for another of these articles to come up!

    The other day I was watching my two year old climb his climbing frame. The way he held on and balanced with his feet on a rung, with his bum sticking way out into the air, reminded me so much of Nathan Drake that it was kind of scary. Then he swung out his feet and started hanging by his hands, and the resemblance only increased.

    So if you discount the ridiculous leaps over bottomless chasms, Nathan Drake climbs like a two year old.

  • I quite enjoyed the climbing in Enslaved Odyssey to the West. It had decent animations and it was very fluid… It was fluid because there was no fail mechanic.

    Pretty sure we’ve all played a game with a climbing mechanic and screamed at the screen “No, I didn’t say jump that way to your death you piece of crap!”

  • Anybody played Grow Home? I love the climbing in that because it’s completely manual, left trigger/click = grab with your left hand, right trigger/click grab with your right and the analogue sticks control your aim and balance. You can get a really nice flow going if you aim and time your hold properly, and it gives you so much control over where you want to go. There are a few sections where rocks you grab on to will fall and you’ll have to quickly readjust your grip so you don’t fall with them.

    Overall it’s still very simplified, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with climbing in any game ever. I really want to see more games include manual climbing in them, heck, after playing Grow Home I want to play a game which is entirely dedicated to climbing. Can you imagine? Triggers are your hands, bumpers are your feet. You look up and see somewhere you want to climb to, plan your route from the bottom and then start climbing. I’d want stamina involved, possibly individual arm/hand grip strength too, so you need to rest and shake out your hands mid climb.

    • Grow Home is the seminal climbing game…really surprised it was omitted in this article. It’s perhaps a touch more simplistic than what Mark’s after, but definitely will be the template for something more hardcore. Great concept expertly executed if a little burred around the edges.

  • …but there’s an opportunity there.

    An Opportunity for what? I appreciate where you’re coming from with the article and do agree that climbing could be improved for sure, but to what end? in nearly all of the games I’ve played that feature climbing, more often than not, it is simply used as a method of getting from point A to point B. Driving a car or riding a horse isn’t always appropriate and walking through a paddock isn’t overly fun, so climbing is a much more interesting way to move around and it also creates an easy way to add a stealth and surprise element into your game without needing to over think anything.
    If climbing become a slow moving, methodical and intricate procedure that required patience and practice (as it does in real life), then in reality most people are going to want to find another way to get the job done. If jumping from rooftop to rooftop in assassin’s creed was all of these things you want climbing to be, then it would mean a LOT of people are going to opt for running at ground level, thus removing the very thing that enticed people to the series in the first place.
    You could also argue that driving in video games needs to be improved, that jumping into a car in GTA V should put you into a driving simulator like iRacing with realistic car handling physics, but that of course won’t happen because most people aren’t going to find that fun, they just want to hold the right trigger do some drifting and crash into shit.

    I Do however agree that climbing and jumping in Assassins creed has become so simple that it’s lost its charm, AC1 did need some work, AC2 you at least had to pump the button to climb, and you didn’t always seem to automatically find a ledge or handhold without thinking about it, Now you push a direction and hold down a button. Looks cool but is about as challenging as having a drink.

  • My big one is making climbing actually dangerous. I just played ac black flag last week and it’s boring when you can climb up anything without any worry of falling (except when the controls don’t do what you want once you reach the top). At the points where you have to lunge to make the next grab I would have liked it to be like a mini quick time timing action to do it, say you have to push X and it pulses and you need to time it right to get the momentum to make the jump

  • You mention momentum in climbing and of all games I was instantly reminded of I Am Bread before anything else… Something to be said for climbing games with a grip metre also, but few that I have seen use it all that well which is likely why so few use such a mechanic at all.

    Bread aside, I think Uncharted’s climbing feels the best of the lot… Despite a lot of the forced animations at certain points where Drake is intentionally made to look like he’s missed a hold with one hand or something of that sort.

    Assassins Creed has always infuriated me purely for how they pretty much never fix anything with it’s climbing… You’re still having the same problems with it in current games that you were all the way back in the first. Jumping or moving directions you’re not aiming, climbing when you don’t actually want it to, etc, etc. I experience more jarring moments of stupid control with climbing in a single AC game than I probably have with all other notable climbing games combined.

  • Although I feel that not all games have to have the same climbing mechanics, I think you hit the nail on the head about climbing (and other things in games for that matter) getting easier to the point where it is almost pointless now.

    I remember playing Assassins Creed 1 and even the first Infamous game. The climbing was a mini puzzle. The small buildings were easy, but sometimes your approach was off and you’d have to adjust. The biggest buildings were the best because they made you think. But with each sequel the climbing gets more dumbed down. It’s not about the climb now, its about the destination.

    That’s why I spent most of my time in Infamous SS using the neon powers, because there’s no point to climbing any more. It’s just a chore now.

  • Unfortunately Mark if dev’s altered climbing mechanics to appeal to enthusiasts like yourself they’d make it pretty awful for the rest of us who just want to get to the top! To be honest I’d be pretty annoyed if they started doing any of these things you suggested.

  • I never understood that. Why would anyone want to rush one of the most important parts of its core gameplay?

    …Because people are shooting at you.

  • I thought ‘I Am Alive’ did a pretty good job of addressing your last two points Mark. A very underrated climbing game that one.

  • I really enjoyed the climbing in Saboteur – sure people ragged on it because it wasn’t as smooth as AC, but then Devlin was a brawler, not an assassin. I liked how you couldn’t just hold the ‘climb’ button and a direction, but actually had to find the handholds yourself… eventually moving more smoothly because you had familiarised yourself with the structural nuances of common buildings and knew where to look for the grip points.

  • The most you could hope for is a bit of ‘unsteady’ climbing where all you have to do is ease-off the analog for a moment, like when Kratos loses his balance while beam-walking. Anything harder would just hinder players or flat out kill them.

    Imagine tripping over a kerb while running across the street – should have eased back on the analog there son! It would be a nightmare to play (but funny to watch). Most (re)actions are automatic in action games – you don’t have time for trivial nuances like manual reloading, manual transmissions, planning waypoints, applying health-kits, aiming properly, etc.

    Just hold forward, keep the beacon up-front, and mow down everything in your path. Everything else will sort itself out.

  • I just wanted to say thankyou for recognising that the climbing was better in AC1 than in its sequel, aside from the fact it was slower there was also a hell of a lot more variety – in the second one I felt like I was climbing the same tower fifty times.

    Climbing and combat were the two aspects where AC1 was streets ahead if any of its sequels, it’s a pity Ubisoft chose faster/easier as their mantra for the series

  • I think the more important is number 4? Without it, there’s no real reason for a game to invest so much time and effort in a mechanic that is only tangential to the rest of the game.

  • I’m late to this article, but Mark, I want you to know that DK King of Swing on the GBA and DK Jungle Climber on the DS really made climbing difficult and made the momentum mean something. In fact, I’d say they hit all of your points except for the animations. Please give them a shot!

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