If you’re playing an open-world Ubisoft game, there’s a good chance you’ll be climbing some buildings. Whether you’re ascending the greatest architecture in Italy, destroying the radio in a series of barricaded towers run by a despotic dictator, or clambering up nondescript Chicago buildings and hacking into the ctOS mainframe, your goal is the same: Get to the top so you can reveal more sections of your in-game map. This design is so prevalent, it’s even bleeding out into other developers’ games, as you climb a precarious antenna to unlock a new safe house in Dying Light, or leap up a sky-high series of platforms in Saints Row 4. But whatever the reason, however common climbing towers in video games has become, I can’t get enough of the thrill of the ascension.
My first experience climbing things in video games came from the Ubisoft classic Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Its combat, while passable, wasn’t my primary motivation – it was the thrill of of walking into a room, seeing the path laid before me, then maneuvering the Prince to bound past buzzsaws, wallrun across gaps, and leap skyward using perilous columns as stepping stones. This was a new kind of puzzle-solving for me, one that combines skill and mental acuity, requiring that I survey the surrounding geometry for the best path to my objective before diving into platforming gymnastics. Climbing up its myriad surfaces became a drug, and there was a time when I would go back and replay it every few months or so just for another fix. This was the evolution of a genre that games like Super Mario Bros. created, and I longed for more adventures to scratch that structure-scaling itch.
I got my hands on Tomb Raider: Legend, Uncharted, Mirror’s Edge, Infamous – anything that let me shimmy along cliff faces or clamber up the sides of buildings. But the one series that has always been there for me is Assassin’s Creed. Don’t get me wrong – I love exploring historical settings, I dig the feud between the assassins and templars, and I can even get behind the wackier sci-fi elements like the ‘precursor civilization’ introduced in the second title. What keeps me coming back, year after year, though, is the prospect of starting out at street level, looking up at the tippy-top of a building like the Campanile di Giotto or the Notre Dame cathedral, finding a proper foothold, and starting my ascent.
A good tower climb isn’t just about escalating to dizzying heights. It’s about finding the quickest, cleanest path. It’s about solving miniature, moment-to-moment puzzles while finding that perfect route, about hitting a progress-halting wall in your climb, examining your surroundings, then finding a new foothold to continue. There’s a flow to climbing a tower in a video game, as your eyes sweep the available outcroppings split-seconds before your virtual hands reach out for them. There’s a gleeful anxiety to the climb, as you find yourself stuck without a way to proceed; how the only safe way down is to make it all the way to the top; how the encroaching vertigo instantly vanishes once you’ve wriggled your way around a corner to find the next step in your journey upward.
And once you make it to the top, my God, that view. I could soak it in for hours. But inevitably, there are more pressing matters, so I hit that synchronize button (or do whatever it was I came up there to do) then leap off into the haystack below. Or find a zipline. Or just jump to the ground. Whatever the method, the trip down is usually over in a mere fraction of the time it took to get to the top, but it’s the perfect release for the tension of the harrowing climb. Then I immediately run for the next tower and repeat the process for the next several hours.
There’s no way in hell I could climb the Kotelnicheskaya Tower in real life (even with a safety harness), but in a video game, I can be a parkour master with the press of a few buttons. Plus, I can climb any building in front of me without having to worry about the cops waiting for me when I reach the bottom. It doesn’t matter if it’s the third-person clambering of Assassin’s Creed or the vertigo-inducing first-person climbs featured in Dying Light and Far Cry 4 – if there’s some tall structure in front of me, I’m going to find a way to get to the top. Climbing hundreds of feet in a handful of minutes may be as commonplace in video games as super powers or ridiculous weapons nowadays, but I’ll never get over the rush of tackling some of the virtual world’s greatest structures and enjoying the view from the top.