I am always intrigued by how developers conquer the game design challenge of traversal, how to make it fun, look fluid, and feel responsive. One of the most impactful game mechanics I have ever encountered came in the form of the climbing and glide mechanics introduced with the character of Knucklers in Sonic and Knuckles which I first discussed in my article Traversal: an overlooked mechanic. With those two mechanics added to the repertoire of spin, sprint, and jump, the Sonic game field opened up in a way that completely reinvigorated the sense of exploration and the player’s power of choice.
The levels were transformed from linear sprints at top speed to full worlds to explore and investigate. In essence, the addition of the climbing traversal mechanic allowed the player to reach vertical spaces of the game world in a slower but arguably more satisfying method due to its unconventionality in the platforming genre. Similarly the glide mechanic allowed the player to transfer that potential energy accumulated by the climb into the kinetic energy of forward motion to travel across the level laterally.
These innovations, while groundbreaking at the time, went on to be relatively unexplored for generations to come with games such as the Assasin’s Creed franchise finally giving the player expansive climbing mechanics to conquer and explore vertical spaces of a game field, and enjoy the game world with a bird’s eye view.
Yet, in strict contrast to Knuckle’s climbing mechanic which allowed the player to climb all vertical level surfaces, Assassin’s Creed’s climbing was limited to what the art assets could convey as climbable space, e.g. three inch protrusions / handholds. The limitation of readability was actually inherited from the generations prior which used large objects and walls as a way of indicating impassable areas. Developers have had a difficult time contemplating how to use a climbing mechanic that wouldn’t immediately break their carefully designed platforming sequences and game spaces.
Traversal has often been limited to walking, running, and jumping to get past obstacles. Travel on foot was relied upon to cover distances, and to get around obstacles that were too high to jump over. While some obstacles provided an edge to jump to and pull yourself over, these were still limited by the jump height of the player and were thus still an extension of the jump mechanic and, I would argue, not a true manifestation of a climbing mechanic. This often meant that the player had a limited amount of paths if not a singular path they had to identify and use to traverse an obstacle such as a cliff or mountain. These obstacles served as barriers to constrict the player’s movement often designed to keep them within an ideal play space.
As I spoke about in my article Cheater pt.3: Exploits, players have been using collision grinding (a method of climbing unclimbable surfaces by jumping over and over again to incrementally ascend a surface using an unintended combination of the jump and walk mechanics) as a way of getting past these obstacles via a pseudo climbing mechanic that relied upon breaks in collision detection. The fact that players developed a method of breaking game mechanics and game world limitations to build their own climbing mechanic, is an illustration of their frustration with the mechanical restrictions of the games they have been playing.
All of this history, the evolution, acceptance, and implementation of climbing mechanics in the traversal move kit have led us to the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Prior to its release we saw footage of Link free climbing vertical surfaces as I noted in my pre-release article Zelda: evolution of the open world. Although it is mechanically reminiscent of our favorite red furred echidna, the ability to climb is limited by the player’s stamina. As the player climbs the stamina depletes making the process of scaling a mountain one of strategic planning and path selection as opposed to climbing ad infinitum, a la Knuckles.
The real imagination behind how the climbing mechanic feels in Breath of the Wild comes not from the action itself but in the design of the play field. As the development team leaders Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Satoru Takizawa, and Takuhiro Dohta discussed in their GDC talk Breaking Conventions with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, they wanted the player’s actions to have multiplicative effects on the playfield, as well as on the objects their interact with. In turn the playfield would also have a multiplicative effect on the objects in the world and the player’s actions. By focusing on designing a world that would serve as both obstacle and exploration space we can see the climbing mechanic and the game world work in concert with each other and feel natural as opposed to working against each other and feeling limiting or gimmicky.
Breath of the Wild gives the player completely free agency over where they travel, with the caveat that they pay close attention to the world. Climbing straight up will get you nowhere fast if you don’t have the stamina, it will waste your time and may even cost you your life, thus the player is forced to consider the world around them and look for paths to their goals.
The only difference now is that if the player can achieve a viable path then the game validates it by allowing the player to pass successfully. In their presentation at GDC the developers, specifically Takuhiro Dohta mentioned that the idea behind their design was that the “right” way to play the game is when the players’ “puzzle out their own answers,” and find their own “roundabout solutions” to the problems they encounter.
The notion that the player is right if they can create a solution for the challenges of the game world, through the experimentation with and application of mechanics innovates upon the design convention of open world gaming and the Zelda franchise. It begs the question of what is the right or wrong way to play the game, it challenges linearity with true openness, it challenges puzzle solving with problem solving, and therein lies the key to what the climb mechanic does for open world games. It allows the player to solve problems with greater capability as opposed to solving a puzzle with inputs.
Do you enjoy exploring the vertical space of a game? Do you like climbing up tall obstacles instead of walking around them? If you have played Breath of the Wild have you found the mechanic to push the franchise and the open world genre forward? How has the evolution of the climbing mechanic impacted games for you? For better or worse? Do you believe it forces a more open design or simply loses the fidelity of linear design? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please respond to the thread for this article, or talk to me through my email or any of my social media: firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook, Twitter.