A lone figure stands on a roof, silhouetted by the sun. They survey the city below, a playground waiting to be explored. They begin to move, to run to the edge of the shingles. They leap across the alley below, just grasping the ledge of the neighboring building with their fingertips. They scramble up the wall, and the run continues.
They jump, they roll, they swing on ropes, they skate across power lines. They are powerful. Strong. Totally badass.
That lone figure could be the main character of any number of video games. Parkour has become a common presence in how players traverse and conquer their in-game environments. That prevalence in popular titles is actually a bit surprising, because the discipline of parkour hasn’t been around for all that long. How did it become such a big element of so many games — and why?
First, a little history of parkour.
The discipline emerged out of the French military, with Lt. George Hebert introducing a combination of running, climbing, and obstacle courses for training purposes. Efficiency was a key concept: Hebert thought the exercises would help soldiers be able to aid those in need or to save their own lives as quickly as possible in a dangerous situation. Those exercises inspired one-time special forces member Raymond Belle to translate those concepts to his home town on the outskirts of Paris. Belle passed the ideas on to his son David, who joined up with like-minded friends to form the Yamikazi.
During their heyday in the 1980s and early 90s, the Yamikazi put equal value on the mental and physical sides of their art. They trained hard and built a strong sense of camaraderie among their members. As their physically impressive activities generated attention, though, the discipline saw some splits. Many practitioners still adhere to the philosophical side, but others are most excited by the opportunity for expression. Rather than a journey of efficiency between Point A and Point B, some began to add more acrobatic flair to their runs.
Find the flow
On the surface, parkour’s athleticism-meets-asceticism philosophy doesn’t have much in common with gaming. But, at their best, both rely on a core concept of flow. It’s that state of being “in the zone,” of being intensely focused on what you’re doing and yielding a great performance.
Parkour has constant momentum, with one movement sliding directly into the next. Sébastien Foucan, one of the original Yamakazi members, is often quoted as saying, “The way of the parkour is to continue, not to stay here.” It’s about as natural a physical expression of flow as you can get.
Gaming can also be about reaching that same state. Legendary game designer Jenova Chen (the brains behind Journey and Flower) did his MFA thesis about flow in games, the balance of challenge and player ability, and how the concept of flow creating happiness can help make better games. “The description of Flow is identical to what a player experiences when totally immersed in a video game,” he said. “During this experience, the player loses track of time and forgets all external pressures.”
When physical flow meets psychological flow in a game, good things happen.
When you ask most players about parkour in games, their first thought will be 'Mirror’s Edge.'
The cult-favorite game was like nothing else when it came out in 2008. It starred runner Faith, who delivers messages as part of an underground resistance to the corporatized government controlling her city.
For a game that’s, at its core, mostly a character running, Mirror’s Edge kept players captivated. “As far as keeping the player interested...do you get bored moving?” producer Tom Farrer asked. “It's not a game just about running. But you do move a lot in the game. But it's about navigating the environment, it's about using the environment, it's about using it as part of a weapon when you're running to attack people.”
The idea of parkour movement was integral to everything in the game, even its distinctive color scheme. “Faith sees the world differently; because she's become so adept at what she does, she sees objects in the world as aids, if you like; things to help her,” Nick Channon, a producer on the game, said in a Gamasutra interview. “I think if you look at parkour, what we see as some stairs or something, we'll just see them to walk down, and they'll see them as something to jump down or to run across.” So those elements were colored red, part of Faith’s ‘runner vision’ that she perceives her environment with thanks to that parkour training.
Assassin’s Creed is a great example of how an ongoing series has explored the concepts of parkour.
The games place players in the shoes and cloaks of an Assassin, a member of a freedom-fighting group that has been in combat with the evil Templars for centuries. Freerunning makes many appearances, as the character climbs towers to explore cities and skips around busy streets to catch criminals or avoid enemies.
But the experiences have changed with each addition to the franchise. In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Ezio gains use of a hook that extends his reach in freerunning situations, which made the streets of Constantinople even more of a playground.
The latest iteration, Syndicate, takes players to Victorian London. With the more contemporary setting come both taller buildings and some new tools. The addition of a rope launcher made it easier to scale a huge wall in seconds without taking the time to hunt for a path of secure handholds. “We’ve tried to make sure that it is as fast as possible by making sure that those movements are tight and controlled and focused on getting you where you want to go,” Scott Phillips, game director for Syndicate, said. “We don’t want to delay you. We want to minimize that delay as much as possible. We’ve done a lot to make sure that the parkour is as responsive as possible.”
In all of the AC games, the goal is to capture that same flow of movement and mental state. The series' continued popularity and financial success show that players are enjoying Ubisoft's efforts to achieve that union.
Mobility and mood — and first-person shooters
The above titles show how parkour movement can be central to the gameplay experience, but one genre in particular has taken a more subtle approach to freerunning — and its one where “subtlety” is not common. Multiplayer shooters are all about mobility. Positioning and relocating across a map can give players a big advantage over their opponents. Thus, shooters from Titanfall to Overwatch have incorporated wall running as a way to give players more mobility and create a better sense of fluid movement and flow state.
Other games have drawn on freerunning and parkour concepts to set a tone. Think of the protagonists for games like inFamous or Sunset Overdrive. Outsiders, rebels, punks. Part of their appeal is how they see the world differently than the people around them, so it’s no surprise that they’d also move around that world on their own terms.
More to come!
Between the return of Faith in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and the upcoming digital guerrilla war of Watch Dogs 2, games that feature freerunning movements are still of great interest for players. So grab a controller, put on your headphones, and prepare to enter the flow.