I can’t get enough of the Winter Olympics, so I’ve been looking for video games that recreate the feeling of watching people risk their lives in the cold. I recently picked up Steep for its Road to the Olympics DLC. Steep nails the rush of speeding down a hill, but it’s better at capturing how it feels to hop up one.
When Ubisoft’s open-world winter sports game first came out in 2016, my colleagues Stephen and Mike both complained about how much time you spend climbing uphill to get to new content. Stephen said it was “about as fun as watching a loading screen“. I’ve mostly snowboarded in the game (and done a few hilarious faceplants in the wingsuit), and one of my favourite things has been hopping uphill.
In the real world, when you run out of momentum on skis, you can use your poles to get moving again. On a snowboard, you can hop, flinging your weight forward and bouncing the board along. Hopping isn’t very efficient, or very elegant, but as a young snowboarder it made me feel incredibly cool.
My twin sister and I switched from skiing to snowboarding around age 12. This was the early ’90s, when the sport was new and contentious; some mountains wouldn’t even let you snowboard. For years we shared a tragically huge white board with the word “FUNKY” scrawled in pink graffiti lettering on the bottom. Most of my early snowboarding memories are of older kids hollering “FUNKY!” at me as I lay upended under the chairlift. Later, we got our own boards; we got to trade our garish ski suits for baggy jackets that we’d wear to school all winter, lift tickets jangling on the zippers like medals. Once we could drive, we’d get up early and go to Vermont on weekends, to mountains where snowboarding was welcomed and even catered to.
Hopping on my snowboard felt like a move unique to board sports, a suggestion that I could ollie on a skateboard (I couldn’t). It was a noisy, slouchy fight against gravity that let me reposition myself on the mountain. Sometimes it put me in the way of skiers, who thought I was doing it on purpose and yelled at me. I was much too polite to do something like that, but hopping across the trail made timid, nerdy young me feel like I could be the kind of person who got in other people’s way.
The first time my snowboarder spontaneously hopped in Steep I was delighted. It was a move I’d forgotten about until Steep brought the exact heft and struggle of it flooding back. Steep‘s little details get a lot of snowboarding right: The resistance of the snow, the grind of the board against rocks, the languid arc of a deep carve, the thunk of landing a trick. But these unbidden hops to get up a slope or off an obstacle feel subtle and quirky, a reminder of the time in my life when that was a motion I regularly made. It’s a great, realistic little touch and a moment of respite in a game about speed.
I spend a lot of my time in Steep‘s Olympics DLC sitting at the heads of trick parks, plotting my course. Usually I chicken out at the last moment and fall spectacularly, just like when I was a kid. My character stands up, dusts himself off, and hops back up the slope a little to wind up for the next obstacle. These moments feel cooler than my fantasies about the Olympics; they feel like me.