Assassin’s Creed used to be the climbing game of my dreams. Literally.
Literally I would dream of it. Before it was released. The idea of climbing freedom, the ability to climb anything, to have a virtual hand reach out to a virtual hold and truly feel as though that hand would clasp on to it.
Assassin’s Creed felt revolutionary at the time. It’s easy to forget that. It was a tremendous leap forward. We’d been climbing in video games since Mario could jump but Assassin’s Creed – through its animation and its systems -- truly sought to give the player that sensation of reaching, latching on, then pulling your way towards some virtual goal.
It would probably be unfair to say that Assassin’s Creed has moved away from its climbing roots because Assassin’s Creed was never just about climbing. It was about a lot of things -- historical fiction, parkour, stealth, assassination – climbing was just one aspect of a wide tapestry and Assassin’s Creed has sought to expand its repertoire. You can sail boats in Assassin’s Creed now. You can hunt whales. This is not a problem.
But climbing in Assassin's Creed has sort of been forgotten about. At best it moves forward (upward?) with incremental improvements. Let’s put it this way: I no longer dream about climbing in Assassin’s Creed.
Grow Home was initially released in February this year, but I only started playing this week on PS4. This is surprising to me. Surprising in that I’m astonished more of my friends and family didn’t harangue me to play this the second it was released.
You see, as someone who is open about their love of rock climbing, people tend to bring climbing 'things' to my attention very quickly. Have you seen that video floating around on Facebook? Of the two-year-old child scaling an indoor rock wall with perfect technique? I have. Probably around 50 times. Because literally everyone on my friends list has shared that video with me. Same with that Japanese house with a climbing wall instead of stairs. And that one weird urinal in some unnamed restaurant or club that forces patrons to climb up plastic rock holds to take a piss.
Point being: I’m surprised (and somewhat disappointed) that I wasn't made aware of Grow Home sooner.
Then again I’m not. Grow Home was released without ceremony. Developed by a small internal studio at Ubisoft, it was somewhat of an experiment. It has the janky, unpolished feel of a student project -- it was made in Unity for Christ’s sake. When you consider the large scale, dramatically high budget games that Ubisoft usually creates, Grow Home is an anomaly.
But when I play Grow Home I feel like I am playing a video game that someone made specifically for me. Grow Home is the new climbing game of my dreams.
I’ve been complaining about climbing in video games for years. Nathan Drake feels too light, too dynamic. Assassin’s Creed has eliminated struggle and -- therefore -- reward.
I could never have imagined that a video game about a red robot called BUD trying to ‘grow’ a plant to stupidly stratospheric heights would be the game to so comprehensively nail the feeling of climbing. Look at the above footage. It lacks polish. It really does. BUD’s legs clip into the environment, the animations are loose, clunky and unbelievable. It goes against everything I thought the perfect climbing game would be.
I’m not a designer, but I do have opinions. Particularly when it comes to climbing in video games. Previously I believed that the perfect climbing game would be created via a combination of precise mechanical movement via the use of analogue sticks and… pitch perfect animation.
Turns out I was only half right. The only thing that mattered was the controls.
In the above video BUD does not look like a climber. His legs totter as he moves, his body weight and momentum swings back and forth like a drunk pendulum.
But there's a bizarre logic to it. Grow Home actually feels like the act of climbing.
I think first and foremost it's about the weight. Climbing is about movement and momentum. You can either move statically -- slowly positioning your body and then reaching out for the next hold -- or you can climb dynamically -- using speed and agility to make larger, less precise moves. The ability to manipulate between those two opposing points is part of what makes climbing so rewarding. The pace of it, the idea that you're dancing on the wall -- moving quickly or moving precisely as the situation demands. It's all about how you manipulate your weight -- when you pull, how you pull.
In Grow Home you move with the analogue stick. The L1 button is used to grip with your left hand, the R1 button allows you to grip with your right. You can build up momentum if you want to move with speed, but you can also move with precision. There's a swing to it, a need to be in control and anticipate the swing of your physical weight.
Climbing can be about technique. The ability to move fluidly is, in itself, rewarding.
But it can also be about the expression of pure strength and that is also rewarding. It feels good to be physically strong, to be able to manipulate your body weight in a way that requires power.
This is the reason why, in almost every climbing gym worldwide, there is a super strong dude (and it usually is a dude) attempting to climb some difficult route without using his feet. On many an occasion I have been 'that dude'.
It's technically unsound to climb with bad footwork. Not using feet at all is typically a brag. Look everyone! I can do this route without feet, imagine what I could do if I actually did use them. It also works as a form of upper body training. The ability to pull up, lock in on one arm, and then reach statically with another is incredibly useful and climbing specific. It also feels super rewarding to move like that because it makes you feel strong.
Grow Home really replicates that feeling perfectly. Above you can see me trying to climb on a roof. There's no physical exertion on my end, I'm just pushing buttons, but Grow Home does such a spectacular job of making its protagonist feel heavy. You can feel the effort and he moves and swings from move to move. You can manipulate BUD's arms to the point where he almost locks his arms into his chin before stretching out to the next hold. For a climber that looks (and feels) incredible.
The feeling of exposure is thrilling. That moment. You hit a flat rockface; you're suddenly higher than a human being should be. It's terrifying but provides you with this incredible unparalleled view. Some climbers live for that moment. It's a shot you see in every climbing movie ever made. A climber, let's say Alex Honnold, is pinned to the face of some impossibly high rock face. The camera looks down. There is nothing between him, the rock, and an insane plummet to the ground below. It's incredible to watch and even more incredible to be a part of.
Grow Home does such a great job of replicating that feeling, for a number of reasons.
To begin with, Grow Home can be visually dazzling. Secondly, it's a game in which you literally start at the bottom and climb your way to the top. When the camera zooms out and pans downward, you get to see where you have been and how far you have come. Thirdly, the stakes are high. Falling in Grow Home can be punishing. If you make a wrong move and find yourself careening to the floor below? The next five minutes of your life have the potential to be frustrating as hell as you clamber back to your previous high point.
This is a good thing.
In Grow Home falling has very real consequences and climbing can be fraught with risk. You climb nervously, carefully. Particularly in these incredible moments of exposure -- and that's precisely how climbing in a video game should feel.
Above: a moment that was worth the effort. A beautiful, glorious reward.
Grow Home just puts it together so beautifully. The movement, the feeling of weight and consequence. It's a game the earns its big moments: climbing out of a waterfall, nervously grasping for each hold. It's a game that mimics both the feeling of climbing and its rewards.
Grow Home is the new climbing game of my dreams.