Remember the good old days when people used to just jump in a vertical fashion? It was wonderful. You’d be able to leave the ground and escape gravity’s dickish hold for only a few brief moments before being e sucked back to the ground. This process was not cool but it was functional and that’s all that mattered really.
This simple world of jumping was first tarnished by the ancient Greeks with their triple jumping nonsense and, to add insult to injury, some wise guy added a stick to the process and invented Pole-vaulting. Throughout history jumping at speed had only been done so someone else could measure the distance travelled and assign you a chunk of shiny metal. Over the last 30 or so years various young people started to run and jump for the hell of it. They would jump over bike racks and statues just because they could. This craze goes by many names but the most popular are Parkour or free running and as with most popular activities the media started to show it as something cool but dangerous that only bad boys did. One of the most famous examples would be the opening chase in the Bond movie Casino Royale, but cinema isn’t the only one trying to get in on the free running craze. Games are now one of the best places to perform parkour without the ever present threat of breaking your leg by tripping over a pigeon. Moreover it’s fun.
Titles such as Assassins Creed and Infamous have shown gamers there is a new, fast way of travelling around an open world without having to resort to carjacking. But is this new way of travelling style over substance or is it really the future of traversing an open area?
The first notable example of free running like motions comes from the Prince of Persia series whose main protagonist is adept at acrobatic feats in order to get around a 2D level. As the series became more complex the character’s abilities had to grow with the environment around him, so wall running, ledge grabbing and the like were introduced and soon became the norm in the series. Prince of Persia was originally owned by Brodebund Software Inc. but in 2001 Brodebund was in financial difficulties and sold the IP of Prince of Persia to Ubisoft who released their first version of it in 2003, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. It was Ubisofts Montreal chance to experiment with free running in this recently acquired IP. It was a unique and entertaining platforming mechanic, and this experience influenced a more recent IP from the same studio.
Assassins Creed came out in 2007 and totally changed the way a character travelled around an open world setup. Previously in an open world you either grabbed a car or walked slowly, as in the Grand Theft Auto series, or you would be a superhero such as Spiderman and you could swing around skyscrapers or fly like the Boy Scout in tights that is Superman. In Assassins Creed your character was certainly mortal and his abilities, while exaggerated, were possible. A large part of the gameplay was built around your acrobatic abilities either to infiltrate enemy strongholds or to run away from the enemy when infiltration goes wrong. When Assassins Creed was being shown at various games expos in 2006-7 I remember watching the footage of the audience reaction. They excitedly clapped and cheered because they could see how free Altair was in a beautiful open world thanks to parkour. It was a revelation at the time, the fast paced platforming from Prince of Persia in an open world setting that fully realised parkour.
In 2009 three more games containing free running were published: Mirror Edge, Infamous and Prototype. Mirrors Edge was a first person game with free running and was noted for its clinical and stylised art style with the parkour being pretty realistic and the character was only human which helped separate it clearly from the other two major free running releases of the year. Infamous was a visually impressive PS3 exclusive that had a protagonist who could travel across the open world with a mixture of free running and electricity based moves. Prototype had a similar superhero premise but was far more over the top in its execution, with its parkour inspired movement that could have you jumping over entire city blocks.
All these games were fun and enjoyable; with the parkour playing a big part in why they were so much fun to play. However, the issue now is that many development houses want to emulate this style of transversal and some did so badly. For instance in 2011 Brink was released to mediocre reviews, getting a 68 on Metacritic. One of Brink’s main selling points that separated it from Call of Duty and Battlefield clones was the use of S.M.A.R.T (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) a system that was meant to re-energise the stale genre. It was a good idea with legitimate originality behind it but the developers forgot one rule of the genre: if you leave cover you die. For this article I’ve watched a lot of gameplay footage and I seldom found a player using the SMART system, and when one did go for a good run they were gunned down before they got the pace going. Brink could be compared to Mirrors Edge for its first person perspective on free running but the key difference was that Mirrors edge was a platformer first with light gunplay that could have been totally avoided; Brink was a shooter with platforming elements.
It’s a common occurrence in videogame with developers copying popular ideas from other genres but failing to make the transition between the genres. The biggest threat is what this can do to parkour as a mechanic. It’s already becoming overused and less impactful, but the occasional title comes along still to remind us of how invigorating the mechanic is to how we play platformers. Infamous was the best selling new IP for the PS3 and the Assassin’s Creed series continues to impress with Assassin’s Creed Revelations just round the corner not to mention Prototype 2 on the horizon. It doesn’t look like parkour is going out of favour anytime soon.
This Community Content article was created by Cynical Hunter, a member of our community. Community Content is your way of getting long-form writing and opinion out to the Midlife Gamer audience, an open platform to get something off your chest. For full guidelines on our editorial standards and how to create your own post, click here. The views expressed within are those of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the Midlife Gamer Staff.