Falling with Style: Movement in Games

Hey all, this piece is a sequel to an earlier piece I did about running in games. Now I want to look at how characters glide in games. Recently I’ve been playing Just Cause 3 which got me thinking about its movement style. In Just Cause 3, you use a tether to grapple to a surface. If you press another button, your parachute deploys. If you press another button after that, you change into your wingsuit. The tether acts as a grappling hook from point A to point B. The parachute gives you an initial boost of height and then a slow descent to the ground. The wingsuit acts as a glide. While using the parachute or the wingsuit, using the tether will guide your flight and if used properly allow you to stay airborne. So, while thinking on this I was reminded of some other games whose movement is based on gliding and how that mechanic informs the game being played.

Let’s start with the game all about gliding and grappling hooks in its movement, Batman: Arkham City. It’s interesting how influential the Arkham series has proved to be. Its counter system has been adopted by games such as Mad Max, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the recent Spider-Man. Spider-Man comes off the best in that comparison as many critics have noted that it bases itself on the Arkham series’ combat but is much more fluid and dynamic in nature. Arkham’s gliding mechanic was a large part of Arkham City.

Returning to the game, I forgot that gliding involved holding a button. I can see that getting painful after some time. The game involves jumping off buildings and holding a button to glide. Following a side mission early on allows you to acquire an improvement that allows you to zip to a building and launch yourself above it. In that way, I am reminded of Arkham City when I play Just Cause. The movement system in Arkham City certainly evokes the feeling of being Batman, flying over the city. Upon replay, however, I can see myself quickly tiring of the gliding mechanic with nothing to keep it fresh. Including some dynamic angles would add some interesting elements to the gliding. Imagine flying over a street and the shot changes to a group of thugs as Batman’s form glides above. It seems like the Arkham series has gone dark for the foreseeable future but if it were to return it would need to spice up its movement as returning to the game makes it show its age somewhat.

The other series I wanted to revisit in regards to gliding was Saints Row IV. (That was an interesting challenge on my PC for some reason). Saints Row IV’s movement system is based around superpowers. Gliding is hidden behind a few upgrades but my memory of the game’s movement is mostly centred around gliding and running up walls. The reason I think that this game’s movement sticks with me, unlike the similar movement of earlier game Prototype, is twofold. First, in Saints Row IV, your powers are indicated by a glowing aura around you whereas Prototype is all grungy reds and blacks swirling around you like the most forgettable Infinity Stone prior to Infinity War. Second, is that Saints Row IV’s world is peppered with collectables that can only be acquired by traversing the landscape of the game world with your powers. The style is reminiscent of the Crackdown series which has you collecting orbs to power up your various different powers. However, most of my memories of Prototype are of painful gaps to traverse and feeling initially underpowered such that traversal was a pain until you upgraded your kit extensively.

So, let’s coalesce these ideas. The game that I believe ties these ideas together is TY the Tasmanian Tiger. I’d talk about Super Mario World and the Tanooki Suit but that games very much pre-dates my gaming experience. TY is a 3D platformer from the early 2000s that is thematically Australian. As part of this, you can use two boomerangs as makeshift glider wings. This ability allows you to traverse difficult gaps and navigate toward hard to reach areas. The reason that this game ties all my thoughts together is simple. My memory of that game is either never gliding or endlessly gliding. I wondered why this is and then I realised the central thing about gliding. The thing about all movement in games. Terrain is half the mechanic.

TY is lots of flat terrain with spikes of height. Just Cause 3 is mountainous islands that curve and twist in interesting ways. Saints Row IV incentivises travel with its paths of collectables. Gliding, perhaps more so than running, is about the shape of the world. Moreso, the vertical shape of the terrain. Breath of the Wild’s hang glider wouldn’t be as successful if Link was unable to climb sheer cliff faces. Gliding is about rising to a high point and controlling that fall so the map has to be interesting vertically. This doesn’t have to mean that all games in which gliding is a core mechanic have to have massive skyscrapers. Breath of the Wild shows how a pastoral landscape can work so long as there is a way to easily traverse vertically. Just Cause 3’s gliding would lose momentum if trees weren’t a huge part of it. Trees can be used to launch yourself but can also punish sloppy gliding near them.

In that way, gliding is a synthesis of the combined efforts of the whole team. The physics must feel appropriate, the level must provide interesting choices, the art and animation must telegraph movement and obstacles to make them feel satisfying. Gliding and movement in games show how games are the products of massive amounts of work from a wide array of people.

 

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