Climbing is difficult. At least it can be. Depending on what you’re climbing.
Climbing is also technical. Perhaps that’s a more useful word. A word that better describes the delicate set of skills required to gracefully scale a rock face, be it a boulder, cliff or full blown mountain.
Then there's climbing in video games.
Traditionally video games have struggled with climbing, with the difficulty and expression of technical movement.
It’s understandable. Climbing movement is subtle, probably more subtle than any controller could realistically express. And players don’t want to be wrestling with decisions like, “should I use the drop knee or pull dynamically through this move.” They don’t want to be experimenting with toe hooks, heel hooks, gastons and full crimps. They want to move from point A to point B and feel empowered whilst doing it.
But there’s a balance there. If climbing is too easy — too effortless – then there’s no risk. If there’s no risk then there’s no reward. And video games, at their best, are in the business of doling out meaningful reward.
It also has to look good. That's more important than you might think. More specifically, it has to visually communicate what's happening in a way that doesn’t subvert our suspension of belief. We might not be able to climb the Acre cathedral in Assassin’s Creed, but we have to believe that Altair can. And more importantly Altair's movements have to correspond to the movements we make on the controller in meaningful ways.
Nathan Drake was never “blergh”, but he was never quite Ezio Auditore Da Firenze either. Climbing was always just one component of Uncharted’s three pillars (the others being shooting and problem solving) whereas for Assassin’s Creed getting the act of climbing correct always seemed like more of a priority.
Another factor: Assassin’s Creed is open world and requires a more cohesive system of climbing, one that's applicable to a number of different surfaces, shapes and buildings. Uncharted has always been more linear, and lighter in tone. It could get away with being more fanciful in its depiction of climbing. All moves could be dynamic, holds could crumble, players could swing unrealistically with one arm, grab another falling buddy and yank them up with the strength-to-weight ratio of a buffed-up ant.
But as someone who takes this thing a little too seriously Uncharted’s climbing never quite sat right. Assassin’s Creed had me believing this superhuman assassin could float up cathedrals with ease and fluidity, but Nathan Drake – a supposed everyman? His animations didn’t quite represent the climbing movement he should have been making.
But now Uncharted 4 is here and everything has changed.
Actually, that's hyperbole. Not everything has changed. But a number of things have changed. Important things.
Animation Is Everything
Let's talk about animation.
When it comes to climbing, arguably nothing is more important than animation. Nothing is more important than making Nathan Drake look like he knows what he's doing.
But there's a balance there. Drake needs to move like Drake. If he dances across the wall with the grace of an Ashima Shiraishi or Paul Robinson it's gonna feel weird. Nathan Drake is not a professional climber; he's an athletic everyman who knows just enough to help him survive. He’s the guy who comes to the gym and pisses everyone off by climbing V5 his first day. Screw that guy. Screw you Nathan Drake.
The movements Drake is making, they have to look right. Drake has to look and move like he knows how to get from that awkward hold to the next awkward hold. But he can't be too good either! If Drake's movements don't look right they don't feel right. And if Uncharted doesn't feel right we have a problem.
In previous Uncharted games climbing didn't quite feel right. but Uncharted 4 has made incredible strides.
Above you can see Drake switching his weight out right. In order to keep his body balanced and his movement efficient, he flags his legs out left. This allows his entire body to keep a straight centre from his head to his toes. That's good technique! Actually, that's pretty much the only way a climber in Drake's position could realistically reach out right in that way.
And when Drake sticks the move, he shifts his centre of gravity by delicately moving his feet across. He does this like any competent climber would in this situation. It's a climbing movement that looks and therefore feels authentic.
The Simplicity Of Movement
To make the above move, all that was required was a push of the left analogue stick. That's it. No jump button, no timing, just movement.
Simple. That's what's so interesting about it.
In a game like Uncharted, where climbing is a small portion of the experience, animation communicates the complexity, not the controls. The controls only need to feed back one simple piece of information to the player: I did this. My simple movement allowed this to happen. This is applicable not just to Uncharted's climbing, but every facet of Uncharted — right down to the way Drake palms the surface as he squeezes through a tight spot in a submarine/air duct/crowded room.
But in Uncharted 4, climbing has new layers. Layers that help communicate the delicate, technical aspects of climbing in brilliantly simple ways.
Consider the above. Those are movements that I am in complete control of. I've moved across as far the hold will allow and to continue I must reach, latch onto the next hold and transfer across.
I'm making this sound way more complicated than it is in the game itself — but that's the point. Uncharted has this uncanny ability to communicate complex movements accurately. Players make this simple move on the controller, execute a complicated manoeuvre in-game and still manage to feel complicit. It’s a perfect exchange.
Some players will simply hold right on the analogue stick, happily cruise up the wall without thought and quickly get back to shooting things. That’s totally fine. But others, like myself, are afforded the opportunity to experiment, to prod and poke at the different layers of Drake’s animation. We can perform, we can slowly stretch, rotate and feel the sensation of searching for a hold, latching on and transferring our weight in one seamless animation. That’s a powerful thing.
And it solves a problem video games have had with climbing since forever.
If you want to talk about climbing on a binary level, there are two main ways to climb. Statically and dynamically. Video games have always been good with the dynamic part of climbing. That's easy. Dynamic movements are explosive. You pull with your arms and you push with your legs in one split-second expression of power.
Or, in video game terms, you push the 'X' button.
Communicating the joy of slower, more precise climbing movement is far more complex. I've long wondered if granting players individual control over each limb was part of the solution, but that seemed beyond the scope of most video games. Would you end up with something like QWOP? A game that almost makes a joke of dissociating players from the way they are used to controlling human beings in video games? That's fine for a niche experiment like QWOP, less so for a mainstream blockbuster like Uncharted.
Grow Home, one of my favourite games of 2015, came up with a great solution.
In Grow Home players could press shoulder buttons and then independently move each arm, before letting go, latching onto hand holds. Grow Home took care of the footwork, but players were allowed the freedom to scale incredible heights with a dissociated sense of movement that somehow still felt familiar and accessible.
Uncharted 4's solution is similar, but far simpler. You aren't granted the ability to control each limb individually, but you are allowed full control over the hand reaching for the next hold. It's a brilliant compromise. You can slowly stretch to the next hold, you can pull back, you can reach up, down, practically anywhere you want. You have full control over the arm making the next move and it's just so rewarding to play around with.
It also allows you to make movements like this:
This is so cool.
Depending on which hand latched on last, Nathan Drake will intelligently use the correct arm to continue climbing accurately in sequence. Above you can see Drake attempting a pretty decent crossover. You're not necessarily in control of which arm reaches, but having Drake accurately depict correct climbing movement is enough to make the climbing nerd in me geek out. Big time.
This stuff is important. It adds layers of authenticity to Uncharted 4's climbing and — more importantly — makes climbing feel seamless. Human beings don't climb in canned movements, we combine static and dynamic movements. At our best we flow like this: Uncharted 4 is essentially trying to create a more primitive, 'everyman' version of this type of movement, and — in as simple a way possible — attempts to grant players control over those movements.
Then there’s the smaller details that are easily missed. As Nathan Drake places his hands on more precarious, smaller holds he puts his fingers into a clumsy half-crimp, placing additional pressure on the first pads of his fingers to generate more force. Cara Ellison, a frequent Kotaku contributor (who also climbs) told me that at one point she noticed Drake’s fingers trembling beneath his own weight.
Damn. Uncharted has come a long way.
Yet there’s clear room for improvement.
Ironically Uncharted fails where most video games succeed: with it depiction of dynamic movements. Jumping from one hold to another still feels a little weightless and, to a certain extent, effortless. In a bad way. When climbers throw themselves from one hold to another they place themselves in a precarious situation – particularly if they’re climbing, like Drake, without any sort of ropes or protection. They certainly don’t throw themselves up the wall via an insane series of ill-considered leaps.
The solution? I’d suggest a certain level of restraint. Scale back on the dynamic moves. Do less of them. When it comes time for Drake to make an insane move that places him at his physical limits, have that moment mean something. Have Drake prepare for that move, reset his hands, to move in ways that show him actively trying to find the momentum necessary to hit that hold just out of reach.
And when he does stick it? Communicate the effort required to reel the human body back into a neutral position. Allow us to really hear and feel the impact of a hand desperately latching onto rock. These are all core tenets of the climbing experience. Uncharted has nailed what it feels like to climb statically, I’d love the same effort to be placed into the dynamic side of climbing.
I’d also like to see more variety in the movements Nathan Drake makes on the wall. This doesn’t require any additional complexity in the control system, it just means placing Nathan in different situations that require different movements. Again: the animations communicate the experience. Nathan Drake is an everyman climber; I don’t want to see him using toe hooks or drop knees but there’s no reason he can’t jam his fist into a crack climb (not as sexual as it sounds). There’s no reason why we can’t see Drake stop to shake the lactic acid out of his forearms after a sustained amount of time on the wall.
Personally, I’ve always wanted to see Drake chimney up a claustrophobic section of a cave or route, or even just use his legs to stem between two sections of rock. This is one of the most natural things in the world; I’ve seen novice climbers pull it off without instruction when they lose all the juice in their forearms.
If Bear Grylls can do it, Nathan Drake can do it.
Nathan Drake can do anything. That's the point. On a certain level Uncharted's climbing is already perfect. It serves it's purpose of sending players from point A to point B with a sense of empowerment. That's great, but Naughty Dog's commitment to improving climbing in Uncharted 4 adds a layer of authenticity that heightens the entire experience. That's powerful. It's noticeable. It's important.
Now if we could just get Drake a decent pair of climbing shoes we'll be set.