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Game Culture Vultures: Parkour

This in-depth Gamasutra article looks at how Assassin's Creed and Crackdown were inspired by free running sport Parkour - just how well did they take the authentic cultural trend and apply it to gameplay?

Video games have long drawn inspiration from real world activities. But more recently this has been on the increase. Many games now entirely shape their structure and play mechanic around some in-vogue reference material. Whether this is hip-hop or skate culture the advantages are clear: they gain a ready-built cultural language and grammar of interaction from the communities they emulate.

It is high time then for a detailed look at some of these video-gaming culture adoptions. Firstly, are the resulting experiences are successful games? Secondly, how authentic these experiences are to their real world counterparts? First under the hammer are the Parkour-informed games of Assassin's Creed and Crackdown.

If you haven't come across it before, Parkour (or "free running") is a physical activity where participants attempt to traverse obstacles in their path in a smooth and fluid motion. The aim is to turn a simple short journey between two points into an artistic performance that draws influence as diverse as gymnastic and ballet. As it is described on the American Parkour website:

"Parkour is the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself. It can include running, jumping, climbing, even crawling, if that is the most suitable movement for the situation. Parkour could be grasped by imagining a race through an obstacle course; the goal is to overcome obstacles quickly and efficiently, without using extraneous movement.

Apply this line of thought to an urban environment, or even a run through the woods, and you're on the right path. Because individual movements could vary so greatly by the situation, it is better to consider Parkour as defined by the intention instead of the movements themselves. If the intention is to get somewhere using the most effective movements with the least loss of momentum, then it could probably be considered Parkour."

Free runners interact with their environment using vaults, jumps, somersaults and other acrobatic movements. They create an athletic and aesthetically pleasing journey through their landscape (below picture courtesy Metroactive.com).

Recent TV documentaries such as 2003's Jump London or the later Jump Britain have highlighted Parkour's ability to re-connect proponents to their environment. This, combined with the density of built structures, has led to the activity becoming popular in European urban housing estates and other built-up areas, where it provides a way to redeem these drab, dense urban living solutions.

Although not the central intent, this side-effect fits with the higher aims of Parkour. The focus of practitioners has always been that of satisfying individual performance rather than competition. They aim to attain grace and precision rather than to travel the fastest or the furthest. Free running is at bottom that strangest of animals, a non-competitive sport. In the words of Erwan Hebertiste, "competition pushes people to fight against others for the satisfaction of a crowd and/or the benefits of a few business people by changing its mindset.

[Free running] is unique and cannot be a competitive sport if it ignores its altruistic core to self development." Much of this may be grabbing the minds and bodies of today's urban youngsters, but its uncompetitive nature means that this activity doesn't immediately lend itself to a video game that needs to reward the player through rivalry.

Suitability to Games

But you may ask, what has all this got to do with games? The first thing that strikes a developer or gamer watching free running is an obvious synergy with a variety of game genres.

Although it may not have been called free running back then, its influence is clear in the character moves and abilities of Tomb Raider and Ninja Gaiden. These characters may not draw on Parkour culture or language specifically but their protagonists exhibit the same desire to leap, balance and roll through their world.

In addition to these specifics of movement, other games have more wholeheartedly adopted the wider free running culture. These games provide players tactile urban environments that offer an open playground in which they can try out their moves.

In particular, sandbox games such as Crackdown and Assassin's Creed (as we shall go on to discuss) have not only culled free running moves and movement but also its whole approach to interacting with an environment. This has led both titles to not only create massive explorable cities, but also to re-think how their players can interact in those spaces. They reflect free running's desire to rediscover and re-imagine their drab city environments, and find fun and play in these spaces.


Analysis: Assassin's Creed

Let's look at Assassin's Creed in detail, and consider how it achieves its Parkour play mechanic -- where it succeeds, and where it fails. The developers of the multi-platform title at Ubisoft Montreal played a montage of relevant footage that inspired the game at GDC 2006, including scenes from the French film Banlieue 13 featuring noted Parkour practitioner David Belle.

How well does this fit with its play mechanic, and how authentically does all this relate to Parkour? Last but not least, how well has this translated into commercial success?

Success

Ubisoft's relationship with the world of free running dates back to Prince of Persia on the PS2. Over the years they have developed a play mechanic that draws on Parkour. As the player progressed through each Prince of Persia game they (unknowingly) learned to make use of a variety of free running moves. The relationship here focused on individual skills rather than a more general aesthetic. Sands of Time, for instance, included classic Parkour moves such as landings, cat-balances, tic-tacs and rolls. This vocabulary was then expanded in Rival Swords that included techniques such as monkey vaults, cartwheels and round offs.

It wasn't until Assassin's Creed that Ubisoft took that free running seed and gave it the space that it needed to grow into a fully fledged experience. By removing the directed progression of their older game, and creating awe inspiring city environments, the developers delivered what had only been hinted at before: a game that held free running at the center of its play mechanic. Assassin's Creed provided a world that was built to explore, climb, fool around in and even leap from. It was a game that created excuses for players to find routes between two points in a city.

Problems

Although a confident outing (and many people's definitive Parkour game) Assassin's Creed still held back from rewarding the player for elegance. The player is encouraged to focus on competition and speed rather than the graceful flowing movement. The player employs free running to travel through the environment and escape pursuers in a decidedly competitive manner, something that is at odds to the fundamentals of Parkour.

Although there are plenty of Xbox Live Achievements to give reason for further exploration of the city, these largely focus on raw repetition. The player simply needs to perform the same move a number of times to be awarded the gamerpoints.

One could imagine a range of achievements focusing on combinations of moves, or distance travelled without touching the ground that would provide a more authentic focus on the art of Parkour rather than the sport of escape. This would substantially change Assassin's Creed, focusing it more authentically on true Parkour pursuits.

Furthermore it could encourage players to record and re-watch their exploits as they can in Skate or Halo 3, again bring the game experience closer to the real world. The ability to save and share the most impressive moves with friends would also enhance the level of enjoyment and capitalise on their stunning graphics engine. This is something that players are already doing themselves via homemade YouTube clips.

While this may not have substantially altered the main game, it may well have aided those who found the main game and side-quests too repetitive, giving them reason to spend more time experimenting imaginatively in the environments.

Sales

These points about improving the play mechanic can be made because the engine itself delivers such a compelling experience, and one that is clearly capable of recreating moments of pure Parkour beauty. This is something that seems to have been better understood by the marketing department than the game designers themselves. A raft of video, images and music were employed by marketing and clearly communicated these moments to their audience.

Although they were no doubt helped by the popular templar-knights setting and stunning visuals, it was this clear vision of acting out free running moves that helped the game go on to such success in stores. Having received mixed critical success, it went on to become one of the highest selling games of the year; impressive and rare for a new franchise such as this.


Analysis: Crackdown

The second title we are looking at is Real Time Worlds' Crackdown for Xbox 360, which the developers described as Parkour-inspired as part of a development diary just before the game's release. Bearing in mind our points about Assassin's Creed we'll now consider how Crackdown delivers its Parkour play mechanic, and whether it has missed any opportunities.

We'll then look at how well this fits with game as a whole before rounding things off by considering how authentically this is delivered. Finally, we'll look at how the game sold.

Success

Crackdown, early in 2007, literally took the leap from wandering the city streets of Grand Theft Auto and opened the player to limitless vertical exploration. It took what was essentially a pretty standard run and gun mechanic and introduced substantial climbing and exploration elements. Although not as directly referential as Assassin's Creed, what it lacked in technical delivery it more than made up for with a joy of exploration and play.

The player starts the game being able to pull off simple moves. He or she can hang off the odd balcony or jump up to a nearby room, but anything more substantial is unobtainable. These limited abilities mean that any ascent to free running is stuttering and haphazard at best. The player is not able to long string together many jumps or grabs.

However, as the game develops and the player's agility increases the game hits a sweet point where the Parkour mechanic shines through. The longer jumps and grabs acquired by collecting the agility orbs enable the player to develop a free running repertoire with landings, cat-balances, tic tacs and monkey vaults.

Unlike Assassin's Creed, this pursuit is specifically encouraged by its intelligently targeted Xbox Live Achievements. One called "High Flyer", for example, challenges players to climb to the top of the agency tower and revel in conquering the largest building on the map. "Base Jumper" then tempts them to jump back down to the water below, enough to put even the most ardent free runner's heart in their mouth.

Most interesting for us is the "Free Runner" achievement that makes explicit the reference to this current cultural touchstone. These achievements combine to give reason for players to engage with the free running element of the game. This is evidenced by the plethora of YouTube videos that attest to the robustness of the mechanic. A year after release and players are still achieving jumps, rolls and throws made possible by the simple joy of experimenting in the environment.

Problems

Although Crackdown does a good job of widening out their experience to encompass plenty of free running play, it falls short on some of the specifics. The environment itself soon becomes somewhat repetitive. The buildings and other structures in Crackdown are good for basic climbing, but only provide limited routes through a space. Developers Realtime Worlds have opted for a pre-designed route through their world that requires the players to read the landscape before they make their way through it.

This may bely a less robust engine than that of Assassin's Creed. Ubisoft seems more confident in letting the player pick their own path up a building. Its increased number of climb points show up Crackdown's more simplistic approach. Crackdown delivers the quantity, but falls short on the granularity and quality of climbing experience. This results in dampening the climbing, falling and tumbling joy of free running.

Furthermore, perhaps as a nod to this limitation, Crackdown continues to increase the player's agility to superhuman levels. Although this brings back some much needed interest to the play, it moves things away from Parkour and into superhuman territory. The sweet spot between the challenge of climbing and the climbers ability is soon blown out of the water as buildings are scaled in a single leap.

More restraint here may have delivered a more directed and authentic free running experience. That said, the player's increased abilities open other doors in the game that have gone on to provide more longevity. Accordingly, it would be hard to claim that the game itself suffers too much.

Sales

Crackdown was released early in the year and accordingly didn't have the swollen yuletide pot from which to draw. Many thought it had initially benefited from being tied into the Halo 3 beta invitation process, but opinion now considers it somewhat unfortunate to be overshadowed by such a heavyweight title.

The game received largely unanimous critical acclaim with an average 83% on Metacritic. This was followed up with a strong community following that, in the absence of other titles, were happy to stretch out their Crackdown experience hunting remaining achievements and fooling around with friends in the online co-op.

 


Conclusion

It is always awkward when any form of media popularizes a niche cultural pursuit. Many have observed Disney's clumsy plundering of cultural stories to help them emotionally engage audiences.

Video games may be younger but they are often no less heavy handed. In a scramble to convince players of their in game agency, play-mechanics are notorious for short cutting more in depth experiences.

However, in these two games Parkour fares better than most. Assassin's Creed draws most intimately from it, and ultimately succeeds by delivering an authentic free running environment and climbing model.

There is still space to reward the less competitive aspects made possible in the game's world. But overall it delivers an authentic free running experience that may even lead to some players investigating further, and even joining a real world Parkour community.

Crackdown does almost the reverse. It provides plenty of incentive to play in a non-competitive and non-linear fashion, but the mechanic itself soon outgrows the Parkour metaphor. 

With ever high jumps and leaps the player can quite simply bypass much of the hard work of scaling and interacting with the environment. Although this doesn't break the game, it does depart from the simple Parkour pleasures of using the environment to effortlessly travel from A to B.

Both these games have seen enough success to warrant at least one sequel, potentially. It will be interesting to see how (and whether) they continue the free running metaphor. Even before release though, now they have stumped up at the Parkour party, their interaction with the real world free running communities will be telling.

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