Old Sports

A torn muscle fiber is the diagnosis. At a dizzying height of one meter fifty, I must have done something wrong when I tried to swing from one step to the next. For the sake of the drama, I would like to write that the bang from the tearing of my calf could be heard throughout the climbing hall, but I would be lying. It did make a very unpleasant noise, though. One that you only know from real life and that doesn’t occur in video games.

Yet their worlds would have enough to offer as a projection surface for it. Traversal, i.e. the movement from one place to the next, is as omnipresent in games as one’s own heartbeat. Always in motion. On the keyboard, two to three fingers, on a controller at least one thumb, are exclusively dedicated to this task – that’s up to 50% of the entire input spectrum.

But of course it’s not just about covering a distance. Walking, running, racing while avoiding obstacles, maybe aiming and shooting, steering, drifting, posing – that’s the challenge, part of the flow, you could almost say: the game itself. At the latest since Nathan Drake hovers over collapsing floors and crashing buildings, the movement covers all three axes of the game world’s space. From left to right, from front to back and from bottom to top.

But of all things, the vertical, the most difficult variant of locomotion, is where most game design ideas end up in a mediocre vacuum. The game flow stops, the challenge is reduced to a minimum. Press “forward” to reach the top. The avatar effortlessly shimmies and jumps multiple lengths of its own body on nicely coated edges. Even climbing Olympians can only dream of this.

Physical fitness is usually an endless resource for the moving character. Sure, stamina can drain sometimes, but it’s either restored by short breaks, food, painkillers or cutscenes. Our heroes have superhuman abilities, which is fair enough as part of the hero fantasy. External influences like obstacles or projectiles put a tangible strain on them, but moments when the body simply says “Nope” due to the load and goes on strike, wounded inside, are completely absent. At most, they lose a few hearts when they fail, but the abilities remain intact and they can try again with full power towards the summit.

Of course, I don’t want Lara or Link to have to fear cramps and sports accidents on their next climb. But a digital equivalent to the challenge of moving eighty kilograms of live weight a few meters off the ground rarely if ever exists. Such a mechanism would perhaps have its very own appeal; climbers know what they’re talking about here. Managing one’s own physical condition and strength, strategically planning and executing movements, the tension of risk – all this is what makes climbing walls and other vertical objects so appealing in the first place. Climbing is a matter of body and mind. Sounds like the tearing of a muscle fiber could even become part of the feedback loop. If we can endure breaking bones, slashing swords and exploding skulls, then that too. Only the subsequent hospital visit and weeks of physiotherapy might not fit the gameplay anymore. That’s probably where we’ll be at the earliest, when PTSD therapy sessions have also become standard in Call of Duty.

Games that involve a lot of climbing are now a dime a dozen. For example, Assain’s Creed, Uncharted, Tomb Raider (2013), Horizon: Zero Dawn or God of War do not exceed the quality of a loading time. Mirror’s Edge, Celeste, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Tomb Raider (1996) or games by Bennet Foddy have presumably solved this a bit better.

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