A Hook to Grapple With: Transcending Environments with Vertical Accessibility

This E3 is the first time that I’ve paid close attention to the whole spectacle. I’ve only been playing games on a console for a few years now and didn’t really understand how watching game trailers could be exciting. I still don’t really comprehend all of it, but I have come to understand that trailers and early gameplay footage don’t necessarily mean that anything put forth will come to fruition. Cynicism seems to be the name of the game at E3.

I say this to start because I’m declaring something stupid that I nonetheless believe to be true: 2014 is the year of the grappling hook. Grappling hooks were featured in three games shown off at E3 – Battlefield: Hardline, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Far Cry 4. When we put these together with games like Assassin’s Creed, Titanfall, and Infamous: Second Son, which offer (super)natural or biomechanical grappling hooks on the player-character, it seems somewhat obvious that there is a distinct move towards increasing the vertical openness of games. This is not necessarily a new thrust but simply what I think is an increase in the frequency of AAA games attempting to use verticality as a means to create ‘depth’ or be ‘innovative’ or whatever buzzword works.

To start this discussion of verticality, I would like to first turn to how it has been dealt with in another medium – film. Kristen Whissel wrote an article in the early 2000s about how CGI had increased the use of vertical shots in films throughout the 1990s and how that enforced traditional notions of space and power. She writes,

[This article] approaches digitally enhanced verticality as a mode of cinematic representation designed to exploit to an unprecedented degree the visual pleasures of power and powerlessness. Precisely because verticality automatically implies the intersection of two opposed forces – gravity and the force required to overcome it – it is an ideal technique for visualizing power. Verticality thereby facilitates a rather literal naturalization of culture in which the operation and effects of (social, economic, military) power are mapped onto the laws of space and time.

This is a critical argument that can be readily attached to many games without alteration. The loss of vertical power in games like Sportsfriends or Super Smash Bros. equates to loss of life and loss of power within the games. Fall off of a ledge and one must struggle to return to their seat of power or be lost to failure. Miss one of the ladders in that flooding puzzle in Half-Life 2 and you probably will have to start everything over again.

Important to note is that Whissel is dealing with a medium that doesn’t have interaction in conjunction with visual space. For many of the games that I have mentioned already, the power of verticality is not just tied to the space that characters inhabit, but to the abilities of those characters. This is how characters are established as heroes, with their capability to inhabit and embody the power that comes with their access to vertical expanses. It’s how games establish differences between the player character and NPCs. Simply, it’s how the player character transcends their environment. Every Assassin’s Creed hero has been able to scale buildings and reach vantage points that are unavailable to their enemies. This seems to be the case as well with Far Cry 4’s use of the grappling hook (and their gyrocopter), in addition to Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce being able to inhabit vantage points well above his enemies through ctOS cameras. It probably isn’t a coincidence that all of those are Ubisoft games.

When we’re talking about these games, we aren’t discussing a struggle to obtain or maintain the power that comes with vertical ability. Instead, we are dealing with a constant that can be accessed by the player. Whissel also writes, “Since extreme forms of vertical movement inevitably involve a violation of physical laws (which often reassert themselves), vertically oriented bodies and narratives provide the ideal form for abstracting power and representing the struggles of the emergent against the dominant – a concept neatly conveyed by the title Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow [the only thing neat about the film].”

Sky Captain, as far as I remember, featured a large number of technological advances that allowed its characters to overcome the environment. Blimps, planes and Angelina Jolie’s eye patch put technology as the only way of attaining and keeping power. These technologies put the characters above their environment, soaring even above the Empire State Building. Here is where the shift in verticality becomes even more interesting. Accessing vertical power is not in the buildings or environment themselves, but in the individual’s ability to climb above that environment. In the early 2000s I remember playing a ton of the Half-Life mod Day of Defeat, a multiplayer FPS set in WWII (the trend at the time). I bring this up because there was always a vertical sense to the maps in this game. I particularly remember maps like Avalanche (a European town square) and Charlie (a D-Day recreation) having vertical spaces that were solely environmental, made of buildings, churches, hills, bunkers, and other natural or man-made structures. These maps allowed for the same kind of accessibility and depth that a grappling hook promises, but entrenched that power into the map instead of placing it solely in the hands of the player.

That isn’t to say that the new AAA games I have mentioned have abandoned environmental verticality. I’ve played a bit of the Hardline beta and there are still plenty of places where a person can obtain and make use of vantage points (and helicopters are still available to both sides of the engagement). Assassin’s Creed games have always used the environment to create tactical advantages, even if only a few characters can use them. However, the point that I’m trying to make here is that environmental verticality seems to no longer be enough for AAA games. Accessible space for all players is being replaced with buy-in options like the grappling hook. Yes, there’s some private property/public space argument here, but I’m unable to fully convey it (hopefully someone else will?).

Why is it that we even desire highly individualized spaces? Battlefield and Call of Duty have been using ‘levolution’ or whatever other terrible word they came up with in their last few iterations. Even Nintendo’s new shooter Splatoon (by far the most interesting shooter to come out of E3 this year) is looking to individualize the map space in a new way, even though it’s mostly horizontal space in that instance. I think part of it is developer’s trying to embrace player creativity and get away from top-down gameplay, freeing up a player’s ability to interact and change their environment. It’s side-stepping world-building and instead merely extending the world, putting the burden of the actual building the life of the world onto the players.

However, I think these sorts of moves are also due to a bit of a shift in how marketers and PR people use words like immersion and depth. Instead of creating these senses by building worlds that reflect a social or cultural period, immersion and depth are measured in how a player interacts with the world. Bioshock and its sequels put the player in worlds that were crafted and conveyed a certain culture. Gone Home contextualized the player through the world it built (see Jill Scharr’s article in Unwinnable Weekly #2 for an excellent article on that world). These games created depth and immersion from the ground-up. These sorts of worlds seem like they would exist even when I turned off the console.

Instead of immersion and depth being used in relation to the world itself, these words seem to be more attached to the interaction between the world and the player. I don’t recall how often immersion and deep were used in relation to the games that I’ve focused on in this article. However, I did recently write on Watch Dogs and the tying of that game to the tag of ‘deep.’ These are not worlds that are deep themselves; they are hollow repetitions of building and character models. Instead the possibilities of depth and immersive quality are being wrapped up in a player’s ability to alter the environment.

I’m certain that there is enough linguistic space available for both of these kinds of immersion/depths to exist (and as this essay shows a new ‘verticality’ is probably also needed). New critical vocabulary doesn’t seem to have been at the top of the list for marketers and PR departments in the past several years, sticking to stalwarts like interactivity and revolutionary instead of stepping out of their conservative lexicon. Perhaps words like ‘plastic’ or ‘malleable’ would be better suited to describe the environments of Watch Dogs or Battlefield than deep or interactive.

Lofty practices generally come with lofty rhetoric, particularly in an industry that promises to revolutionize gameplay every time a new product gets announced. Something that criticism can do is bring that rhetoric back down to earth and put it in line with what the product actually presents to its consumer. An attention to language and crafting a critical vocabulary is one possible avenue for doing this, as we are not tied to the buzzword glossaries that come down from on high before game presentation. Until we do create a more robust vocabulary, we are merely grappling onto the helicopters of PR departments and letting them fly us in whatever direction they please.

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