On Verticality in Video Games

Verticality in video games serves a number of functions, principally providing greater strategic freedom. As a secondary effect, vertical expansion can help to convey the largeness of the world proper – views from above afford a different sort of perspective, cities and landscapes laid out in their totality, one singular entity. In many games, also, the act of ascension serves an empowering purpose; seeing Ezio deftly climb some Florentian cathedral, using pieces of architecture as footholds, showing always his agility – it is a direct reflection of his manifold talents and endurance. Something similar could be said of Connor, exploring the vast frontier, climbing sheer cliff faces by employing crevices, further displaying his litheness. In these specific illustrations, a slight skill based system is in place – matters are not automated, and thus the exertion of player skill results in further empowering sensations. Beyond the act of ascension, there exists the ultimate location achieved by that climb, traditionally some rooftop, far removed from the streets and people congregating below. In more isolated environments – like the mentioned frontier explored by deft Connor – sprawling vistas are wonderfully discernible, environmental beauty and grandeur on full display, once considerable elevation has been achieved. Contrasting sensations are evoked: in a dense urban setting, merely remaining on the ground, making no efforts at ascension, a sense of smallness is pervasive, even manifesting in claustrophobia, environmental oppression. This limiting smallness is immediately discarded once obtaining altitude, being replaced by openness and freedom. Considering this liberating quality, a dearth of mobility options – a dearth of verticality – fast proves frustrating, particularly when returning to a title with stifled locomotion, no verticality attached to the game design. Following also the logic of empowerment, it follows that the player characters in these games, lacking in agility and gracefulness and possessive of poverty of ability, are somehow weaker than their athletic brethren; player awe and admiration decrease accordingly.  

Understandably, not all protagonists need be endowed with the agility which characterizes Ezio and those of the brotherhood; traditionally, such acrobatic feats are mostly unattainable, or rarely attainable, though realism is still clung too. In instances of more grounded, limited protagonists, a restriction of verticality is a larger restriction, hampering player freedom and flexibility. In compensation, many games find clever alternatives, embracing verticality even as mobility options are limited. One such alternative is related to the piloting of aerial vehicles, such as a helicopter or, more rarely, fixed-wing aircraft. The extent of empowerment and skill is here scarcer – piloting such a vehicle is not indicative of any profound strengths, that act not necessitating any superhuman abilities; still, though, such vehicles fulfill their roles admirably, evoking the same sweeping sensations – with considerable elevation, the nature of the cityscape is transformed, becoming a different object entirely. The emotions produced while grounded are decidedly different from those evoked while removed from the streets, the city seemingly larger. Realizing the importance of such systems, the necessitating of some sense of verticality, both to make more enjoyable exploration and to impart greater player flexibilities – realizing this, helicopters and other similar aerial vehicles satisfy that primary function, even as their usage is not particularly empowering; they exist as welcome inclusions.  

More ingenious ways of including verticality are also present, notable examples coming in Grand Theft Auto IV. In that title, scattered about the world are window-washing platforms, which permit rapid ascension of the structure to which they are affixed; found resting at ground level, they are easily accessible, easily ridable. In one particular mission – which explicitly requires elevation – their usage is mandated, and their presence contributes to the largeness of the city. Actually mounting this platform, it is ridden for considerable duration, the ascent lasting a full twenty or thirty seconds, seemingly never ending – this structure is a massive one, reaching upwards towards the sky, this largeness only communicating man’s smallness. A dizzying sensation arises once the rooftop is reached, while an ideal vantage point is obtained, offering an undisturbed line of sight on the enemies far below, armed with their deadly weapons. In view also are enemy snipers, deadly accurate and resting in a concealed position, vulnerable only when their own altitude is matched – when Niko has ridden that platform. Their dispatch becomes a priority – verticality here shows a strategic importance, permitting a gradual softening of the opposition, a softening which then facilitates the adoption of a more aggressive approach. Even in killing these enemies, a sense of largeness is apparent, as they tumble downwards from their varied perches, flailing violently in the air for a considerable span of time, before reaching the ground and promptly expiring in spectacular fashion. The novelness of this precise scenario makes it highly compelling, perfect illustration of the liberating effects of verticality; had Niko not taken that platform, had not dispatched the snipers, the level of difficulty would only be amplified, and unnecessarily so.  

This offering of extended gameplay flexibilities is most notable in more open-ended games, particularly those belonging to the stealth genre; here, the high ground serves manifold practical functions, primarily offering protracted concealment, oblivious enemies discoursing or patrolling just below, totally unaware of their vulnerabilities and exposure. This verticality also facilitates planning, a slower, more methodical approach, the elaborate construction of strategy. Should this high ground be deprived of the player, enemies’ exposure and vulnerability would be replicated, the player tangibly threatened by opposition which is otherwise lacking in the threatening, while positioned above. This extended duration of planning permits the achievement of more complex feats, be they manifest in full, brutal aggression, acting in a predatory fashion, or in more peaceable manners, the deliberate sparing of all enemies, the ghosting through an environment; it is the high ground, the vertical, which fuels these opportunities, and its influence here cannot be overstated. Given these freedoms of locomotion and cautious planning, again frustration arises when regarding more grounded titles belonging to the stealth genre, where other, less rewarding systems need be exploited for victory, such as a reliance on cover for concealment, be that cover some sprawling structure of a patch of orangish foliage; detection is more frequent, the sense of empowerment is spurned, replaced by vulnerability; with no high-ground to retreat to, great exposure persists long after detection, necessitating a frantic fleeing of the area, rather than the clever redirection easily achievable in vertical stealth games.

The dizzying nature of verticality is amplified most strongly when it is gained in the first-person. A logical illustration of this is to be found in Dying Light, verticality here again serving manifold functions, though here also evoking exhilaration. In this title, verticality exists as bastion and sanctuary, creating distance between the protagonist, Kyle Crane, and the droves of mindless if dangerous zombies walking about aimlessly below. Initially, verticality is comparatively limited, exploration confined to sometimes dilapidated, ramshackle housing, far from towering or epic in scope; dizziness remains absent here, even as the protecting role of verticality is acting in full force. As higher structures are mounted, that dizziness gradually escalates in intensity, the second explorable map abounding in such largeness. Scaling a crane, a cathedral, leaping to and fro wildly – these are impressive, arresting moments objectively and foundationally, but climbing those structures and seeing those dramatic drops squarely through Kyle’s eyes only increases the magnitude of that drop and altitude, amplifying its immersiveness and the sense of accomplishment accompanying a particularly difficult ascent.   

Continuing this theme of verticality in the first-person, Mirror’s Edge instantly comes to mind. Here, Faith’s continued existence is attributable solely to her litheness in locomotion, her constant maintenance of the high-ground, offering considerable protection, whereas otherwise she would be vulnerable; in tight, claustrophobic office complexes or confined train tunnels, she is completely exposed, easily dispatchable. Leaping from building to building, far removed from the streets below, gradually increasing distance between the scant pursuers who were able to match her height by their own swift movement, moving always onwards and upwards – the game truly excels here, with the environment serving a critical role. The immensity of her altitude is often conveyed, in an especially visceral, stylistic manner; should a jump be mistimed, or a vault go awry, destruction is imminent, Faith spiraling downwards, her descent lasting a considerable duration, conveying the height she has achieved; the maintenance of the first-person perspective is immersive, almost distressing, seeing Faith flail her hands nervously and helplessly, while panting in exhaustion and fear. Fortunately, the totally visceral is avoided, the animation promptly ending before the ultimate collision is attained. In a similar vein, Skyrim exists.In that title, verticality and ascension can actually serve a relaxing, cathartic purpose – mounting some stairs, ascending some towering mountain peak, blustery winds blowing all around, snowflakes falling fast and thick, all result in immersion and the atmospheric, highly compelling. Seeing the game’s many beautiful vistas from such heights is arresting, the world entirely spread out below. Navigating through an autumnal forest is beautiful; but seeing those flowering trees from above is unparalleled in beauty.  

To greatly facilitate acquisition of verticality, many titles turn towards the imaginative and fantastical, greatly departing from realism of any kind – and simultaneously, compellingness is departed from. The devolution of Assassin’s Creed reflects this, the mentioned figures of Ezio and Connor relying on facets of the architecture or flora they are climbing to make their ascent, reflecting believability, a strength which is admirable though not superhuman. Contrasting this are the movement systems in more recent series titles, seeing the principal characters ascending rapidly, effortlessly scaling a cliff face employing no footholds in the act of ascension, climbing unexplainably. The verticality is still attained, and faster, too. Similarly, it is just as useful tactically and strategically, though something seems lost in this alteration from the realistic to the fantastical, something indefinable and frustrating. Nearly all structures can be scaled, but the exaggerated nature of these movements results in a sense of detachment, rather than active engagement; Connor and Ezio must exert considerable effort to obtain their verticality, constantly expending energy, relying always upon their agility. Reaching those heights, then, seems cherished, the high-ground being literally life-saving, something to be clung to. In these more recent titles, that sense of reverential awe directed towards ability is totally absent.

Similarly positioned are the Crackdown games, possessive of no vestige of reality, the cliched Agent blessed with an exaggerated jump height, resistance to fall damage; verticality is seamlessly obtained. Serving similar gameplay functions in facilitating a more cautious, secure approach, the easiness of the climb almost trivializes the acquisition of this verticality, not reflecting litheness but some arbitrary empowerments, like a constantly-evolving nano-suit. Ezio shows believability; the Agent – and others and others of similarly bolstered strength – merely make mundane the exploration experience, rather than enriching it. Many paradoxes here exist, as the titles which seek to impart the greatest freedoms, which seem to cherish verticality, somehow make the experience of ascension less compelling or engaging. Returning to more grounded, though still open titles, this rift is easily observable, Thief serving as perfect illustration.  Here, the acquisition of verticality is rewarding, as it is not so easily won, and must be won craftily; rope arrows, a bladed climbing claw – the game never departs from realism, though Garret’s litheness is singularly remarkable. But in this humbler title, the better aspects of verticality coalesce, the game transforming into something greater during exploration, and when directly engaged in a mission proper. Here, climbing is empowering, the clinging to reality only bolstering that empowerment. Once the high ground is attained, it provides sanctuary and the opportunity for strategizing. Finally, the game is first-person, making the heights seem larger than they really are; it is a remarkable achievement, shared solely with Dishonored, which does discard realism in certain design decisions, though never dismissing it entirely. Here, in these games, verticality is a central function; rather than constructing these towering environments, existing merely as tantalizing objects which cannot be explored, movements being restricted; rather than these limitations, the systems are here to be exploited and enjoyed.   

A dearth of verticality, then, often equates to a dearth of freedom; more open-ended titles, realizing this, accordingly emphasize upward mobility, empowering the player in the process, while linking him together with the protagonist of the title being played. Verticality can also play a cinematic role; in Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, desperate for salvation from a hostile island, gradually ascends a massive radio tower, ice and cold abounding, the structure literally disintegrating and falling away with Lara’s exertions, long unknown – it is cinematic, and it is atmospheric, and the view from the top conveys the magnanimity of Lara’s achievement.  Abounding in immersion, Lara’s feat seems like the player’s feat. Not all games set out to achieve such lofty ambitions as the cinematic – that is understandable. But verticality matters more from a gameplay perspective, abounding with freedoms. Effortlessly scaling a French cathedral as Arno, dashing about from rooftop to rooftop, is consistently exhilarating. Even if such systems are not integral to a particular game’s design philosophy, they are a useful inclusion, even though existing for the briefest of moments, offering variance of perspective, evoking also varied sensations, unattainable in more grounded titles. As the industry continues to evolve, this openness and verticality seem growing in frequency and popularity, a necessary, appreciated growth, player freedom becoming increasingly important. Understandably, such systems should not be fashioned into every genre – traditional role-playing games should not overreach, adopting systems unnecessary, deviating from the core. But such systems as verticality only serve to enrich the player experience overall, and should be incorporated often.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: