Nathan Drake is the luckiest explorer alive. He’s constantly putting himself in perilous danger, swinging from hard to reach places in death-defying acts of absurdity. He’s the epitome of the stereotypical action hero – the guy who seems to have the worst luck, but always come out of it unscathed. As a player of any of the now five Uncharted games (four of which focus on Drake himself), the experience is nowhere near as captivating. Every branch that breaks, stone that slips or floor that gives way might be a trial for Drake himself, but it’s never more than an interactive cutscene for the person with the controller.
Many games in the modern era of action games do this. Tomb Raider ramps up the ante with some gruesome death scenes that punctuate failure with gore. Assassin’s Creed never makes the task itself that engaging, making those massive vistas awaiting on top nothing more than a product of a tedious chore. And Horizon Zero Dawn just makes it clunky; signposting every single climbable surface so clearly only drives home how much of its world remains locked away behind it.
The act of climbing in games that embody this feature as a central hook should never feel like this. Exploration of massive mountain landscapes without the same (or similar) threats of the protagonist diminishes the effect they’re going for. By taking the danger out of these situations, your agency as a player never moves beyond that of a passive onlooker, simply hitting in a direction to scrub through what is essentially a predetermined outcome. The odd slip here and there spikes the adrenaline enough to prompt a button press to get things back on track, and that’s about it.
Uncharted is very clearly made around the idea of beauty over functionality in its sometimes far too extended climbing sequences. Naughty Dog savours the landscapes they create, and want to plunge players deep into the worlds they’re created. Climbing is never a test of skill, it’s just a means to get somewhere. And that’s fine in the context of what type of experience the game is reaching for, but it’s certainly not as engrossing as it could be.
That’s why this week a thirteen-year-old game reminded me just how much things have changed. Shadow of the Colossus is out again on PS4, and Bluepoint Games have done an incredible job recapturing the magic of the PS2 classic. And part of that is not changing the frankly revolutionary gameplay mechanics. As the Wander, you scale mountains, dilapidated ruins and, most importantly, Colossi during your grand adventure. And at every point, there’s the fear of failure instilled into your actions. Because at any given moment, the Wander’s grip can slip.
Not as a pre-designed scare tactic or reinvigorating quick-time event. In Shadow of the Colossus climbing is central to how the game functions as a challenge. The Wander has a finite amount of grip strength – something you have to purposefully initiate, by holding R2 to both grab and release objects– which limits the ways in which he’s able to interact with the world. Shadow of the Colossus never gates content around its world doing this (quite frankly its scarcity of other life is part of its aesthetic, so there’s not much to root out and poke around in), but it does make the fundamental difference to its fights.
Most of the time the Colossi you fight are massive beings. They tower over the Wander, be it in terms of sheer height, movement capabilities or both. More times than you will be able to count, victory involves getting onto these beasts directly. That means grabbing onto a lengthy beard when a peering Colossi gets too close. Clinging to dear life was the Phalanx propels you high above the ground after you’ve jumped to him from your horse. Or simply scaling an obelisk so fearsome it strikes fear over the idea of falling to the bottom with the slightest mistake.
That fear wouldn’t be present without the aforementioned grip variable, because scaling or holding onto these beings would be no different to Uncharted. The Wander would grab on and never let go, and all you’d need to do was steer him in the right direction. Injecting the need to balance grip as a resource is what makes these fights engaging in the first place. The thrill of holding onto a soaring bird isn’t the same if you’re trying to look for gaps in its movement to try to take a breather, recouping your ability to hold on when it decides to shake you off with blistering swoops and turns. The utter relief of getting that final blow on giant water snake wouldn’t feel as rewarding without the peril having to let go and grab a breath, ultimately restarting the entire cycle of getting back on again.
Risk is what makes reward that much sweeter, and it’s what is absent from so many games that allow you to explore your world in the way that Shadow of the Colossus does. And that’s even evident in titles where climbing isn’t as central a mechanic. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild eloquently displays this in a more robust open-world setting. The twofold addition of letting Link climb anywhere but be constrained in this action by a stamina bar elevates exploration above simple tedium. Reaching the top of that cliff you saw in the distance feels better because you actually had to work for it, fighting off the urge to drop to your death by carefully planning a route, eating some food to extend your climb time or using Link’s many abilities to circumvent its height. The victory is yours because you made it so, not because the game expects you to and punishes you otherwise.
This definitely can’t apply to all games that want to have something as arbitrary as climbing in them, and nor should it. Having to hold a button down constantly as Nathan Drake would probably annoy more than it would add to the gameplay. Uncharted is a game about experiencing a place, not one about overcoming its obstacles. But it takes games like Shadow of the Colossus to remind you of the thrills that this standard robs us of. And just how exhilarating they can be when rediscovered.
Last Updated: February 1, 2018