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TrickJump: On First-Person Movement

My weekend consisted in playing a bunch of games from different points in the past: Quake III, Unreal Tournament 3, Battlefield 2, and Mirror's Edge. It all got me thinking about movement.

What follows was the result of me being annoyed. It's basically impossible to get a normal game of Quake III right now, due to Quake Live. As excellent as Quake Live has been, what I really wanted to do was play a game of Rocket Arena 3, which isn't supported. The reason I wanted to play this was because its basis in unrealistic movement was more extreme than any of the vanilla Quake modes, at least when the damage from rocket-jumping was switched off. Set up like this, Quake III became a kind of auto-pinball, with players richocheting themselves around a level with mad inertia. It worked on a number of levels – partly the joy inherent in the game's weird, physics, with the awesomeness of those perfect strikes that sent you flying up onto a ledge, or out of a stick situation, and partly in the levels specifically designed to encourage these modes of movement – and was probably the pinnacle of this peculiar mode of transit (if you don't count ongoing efforts from War§ow). Rocket Arena 3 was just one offshoot of the kind of niche first-person movement that had developed after Quake. The most extreme variants of this came in deliberate trick-jump exploits and their attendant maps.

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(For anyone who looks that video without understanding what is going on, go get Quake III and try to replicate that kind of movement for yourself. Really.)

You can see how this might have evolved. Bunny hopping movement, which was basically a fluke of the original engine physics, was formalised because it worked better than simply making the players move faster. For a first person game to be about speed and inertia, jumping – and trajectory - is actually more interesting than pure pace. The calculations the player makes about where to jump, where to land, and where to place their explosive propellants all make for a spatially interesting experience. /Interesting/ because it was a hard thing to master. While aim, timing, and map knowledge was key to the Quake games, it was only when you picked up on the nuances of bouncing around with extreme precision that you really began to master the process.

This evolution was also, perhaps, why the Quake school of movement came to an end within mainstream game development. It was purely Darwinian: the games market selected for the kind of movement which would appeal to the most people. This Quake manner of movement was rapidly phased out as more realistic game environments were phased in. While the bunny hop still persisted in Counter-Strike for quite some time, I think it was CS that pushed all of shooterdom towards the Medal Of Honour / Call Of Duty approach of pseudo realism. Gone were the crazed conceits of the Quake game, and in came crouching, using cover, and all the other tendrils of that philosophy of game design. Even the Unreal Tournament games, which had made their own moves in the direction of formalising impossible player movement, really rolled it back for Unreal Tournament 3. If there was going to be movement in a first-person perspective, our prevailing fashion dictated, then it was going to true to life, even if that meant true-to-life wall-bouncing acrobatics and hoverboards.

The problem with this was, well, realism. These are videogames. Pure digital fantasy. Why are we trying to mimic life? Surely we /should/ be investigating alien physics and impossible locomotion? Why settle for a tedious quagmire of crouching behind waist-high rocks? Fortunately, realism appears to have come to the rescue of itself. Thanks to Le Parkour and the rise of free-running, game designers seem to have realised that human beings can vault and leap and slide about, and that means humanoid game protagonists should do the same. We can't bunny-hop, of course, but perhaps there could be a half-way house that will settle our woes. Which – in my weekend quest for movement - was how I ended up playing this.

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Now, I have some serious reservations about Mirror's Edge. Constantly falling to my death is one of them. The other was the way combat was handled . Despite this it's impossible not to admire what DICE did with this game, especially when you look at the time-trial maps – in the DLC they are beautiful abstract things that, once you got a handle on what you can do with the game, create a weird, fluid experience, not unlike the trick movement of old. It remains constrained, of course, and still “realistic” despite the unreality of some of the environments. But it is a step back in the right direction.

Regarding Mirror's Edge and combat: I was initially in the camp that cried “why did they bother including combat at all?” But it's worth remembering that the game was intended to be a full-bore shooter in the first place – albeit it one with interesting movement. I couldn't help wondering whether this game might have, had it remained in the sphere of combat, become the experience that would have soothed my grief over the loss of games like Rocket Arena 3. Hell, it is still possible. If DICE can do for movement in multiplayer what they did for destroying buildings, then we could all go back to leaping and sliding about, rather than plodding our way to the next capture point.

Of course Brink is hoping to get there in 2011, and that's basically what got me into this line of thinking in the first place. Splash Damage, born of Quake 3 modding, now working on their dream game, which again includes outlandish – although still realistic - possibilities for movement.

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But even once Brink hits, I will still be a long way from being able to satiate my desire for interesting, unrealistic movement. The modern FPS simply doesn't support it – it's not gone from gaming entirely, thank to oddities like Plain Sight – but it does seem permanently diminished within the big combat titles.

Perhaps, though, we might yet return to a realm of supernatural FPS movement. If we do, then I think it will be not via a formalisation of relatively abstract movement and physics anomalies, which gave us bunny hopping and trick-jumping, but instead an attempt to realise the super-powered possibilities of game protagonists from approaches set out by Mirror's Edge and Brink. These kinds of movement systems, but with stronger, faster characters, make a lot of sense. The reason why Mirror's Edge and Brink make sense is that they are closer to our own understanding of how to move, in first-person, through the world. Games are now in a position to extrapolate from that, rather than getting us to mesh with somewhat codified, alien systems, as they did in Quake. What would it be to play a first-person super-hero, leaping between skyscrapers? We're not far off. Think of the powered leap of Crysis' nanosuit, but amp that up, and up. Merge it with Prototype's insane vaulting and leaping, throw in Just Cause 2's grapple hook, and give us Section 8's falling to Earth from space. A wingsuit, a rocket-launcher, a pogo-stick. It's not that we lack the palette of appropriate physics, it's that no one has yet put it all together satisfactorily.

One day, perhaps, I will be back in the Rocket Arena, and it will have an entirely new vocabulary of movement – one that sees everything that is possible within the realms of first-person physics, however outlandish. I'll be on the walls like a spider, and hurtling through the air like a baseball struck with a landmine.

One day. Well. I can dream.

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Jim Rossignol