You’re a burly, battle-hardened soldier capable of lugging around heavy machine guns and rocket launchers without breaking a sweat. You scale sheer walls of ice and rappel down precipitous cliffs, busting through glass windows like they were made of papier mâché. You leap out of planes from miles above the ground and dive deep underwater to infiltrate enemy ships. You’re the very pinnacle of human fitness.
But you can’t jump.
Oh, you can physically launch yourself into the air just fine, and sometimes you can even hurl yourself across rooftops or between moving elevator cars, if the narrative calls for it. Most of the time, though, you’re about as acrobatic as an elephant after Thanksgiving dinner. Forget tyrannical dictators and global terrorist organizations; the videogame hero’s greatest enemy is the fearsome waist-high wall.
Need to keep players from wandering off the critical path? Just lay down a flimsy fence and call it insurmountable. Want to fake an open world around your corridor shooter? Sprinkle a handful of rubble across the streets you don’t want players to access. Feel like you have to pad the length of your game to warrant its price? Block off every road with a fallen tree and add a force field to every ledge that’s more than a foot or two high. No one’s going to expect to jump over this stuff, right?
But we do, because that’s exactly what games teach us. Take Call of Duty. From its introduction in the original Modern Warfare, the ability to vault and clamber over low obstacles established a freedom of movement that the previous games had sorely lacked. Leaping smoothly over cover felt liberating—until you came across the Fence That Shall Not Be Climbed. Suddenly, the rules of play get thrown out the window, the arbitrary limitations of the virtual world made painfully clear. By the game’s own logic, you should be able to jump over this wooden fence, identical as it is to the dozens you’ve clambered over previously, but instead you can only bang your head fruitlessly against the frustrating reminder that it’s all a farce. You’re only playing a game.
Modern Warfare was hardly alone in its abuse of the waist-high wall. Who could forget the disappointment that was RAGE and its definitely-not-open open world? You couldn’t walk two minutes in any direction before bumping into an impassable barrier, many of which an infant could have crawled over.
Or what about Fallout: New Vegas and its stupifying car-and-puddle combination that any half-decent wastelander could have lept over in their sleep? Not to mention the magical fences of Left 4 Dead, the super-powered railings of Crysis 2, or the indefatigable ankle-high ledges of Dark Souls. All those fancy graphics, and yet their worlds felt more artificial than ever.
It wasn’t until Assassin’s Creed that games learned to pick up their feet and start jumping like they meant it. The fluidity of Creed’s parkour system finally lived up to the go-anywhere promise of the open-world genre, imbuing Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus with a sense of tangibility few virtual locations had possessed. From vaulting over balconies to bounding up buildings, Altair leaped through the environment with ease—except, of course, when he didn’t.
In the wake of Creed’s popularity, parkour swiftly became the Next Big Thing. Games like Mirror’s Edge harnessed the thrill of perpetual motion to overcome the waist-high wall problem, highlighting climbable objects in the environment to clearly communicate where players could and couldn’t go. Rather than bordering levels with invisible walls or chain-link fences that bizarrely cannot be scaled, most of the outdoor environments in Mirror’s Edge took place on rooftops, leveraging the lethality of a 20-story fall to define the playable area. Neither of these measures was perfect, certainly, but they were steps in the right direction.
As the HD generation found its pace, more and more open-world games adopted the free-running model. Titles like The Saboteur, Brink, and Dishonored stopped building their fences out of kryptonite and started channeling the spirit of freedom we’d long been promised. Finally, the dreaded waist-high wall was scheduled for demolition.
Only, the destruction was never completed. Modern games are still rife with protagonists incapable of jumping over the slightest of obstructions. Fallout 4 doesn’t care how high your agility is; you’ll never make it over its fearsome rock walls. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, despite its parkouring pedigree, doesn’t let Faith climb chain-link fences. Remember Me’s Nilin is cast as a parkour master, yet at times she can’t even step over an ankle-high ledge. Even Call of Duty is still cheesing the jump, despite giving players jetpacks and mechanically-augmented legs.
It’s disappointing that, in 2017, games still resort to cheap half-measures like the impassable waist-high wall. Everyone’s always talking about bigger, more-detailed environments with endless things to do, and yet, the way we navigate those environments remains painfully limited. For all the obsession with pretty graphics and procedural worlds, I’d much rather we focus our energy on obliterating the enemy that really deserves it. Is it too much to ask to get over the chest-high hump
Matt Sayer is an analyst programmer from Melbourne, Australia with a passion for psychology and the cognitive biases that subconsciously influence our daily life. If you spot any typos or inexplicable references to birds, it’s probably one of his cats ‘helping out.’ You can find him on Twitter @sezonguitar