Bouldering Made Me a Better Level Designer
Six or seven years ago, I went climbing with my (at that time) girlfriend. I hated it so much, to the bottom of my soul. I was out of shape and I was just plain bad. I hate being bad at things.
Fast forward 5 years-ish, after a friend of mine bugged me for probably a whole year, I decided to try it again but do bouldering this time around.
No ropes or whatever.
Just you, some holds and a wall.
I fell in love with it, really. It hurts and it’s really hard but I think I fell in love with it because in a matter of minutes I saw that bouldering (and climbing in general) in a center is really close to Level Design.
The more I went, the more I analysed everything, the more I loved it because of that.
You know, in game, game designer usually create gameplay ingredients that level designers will use. Gameplay ingredients is literally everything the player will interact with in a game.
Goombas, Brick Blocks, “?” blocks, pipe, whatever. Different kind of ingredients create different kind of challenges. Using ingredients in different setups creates different kind of challenges.
You can use the same ingredients in “endless possible ways” and create harder or easier challenges.
In bouldering, you have the same things with holds and obviously, walls. Same thing here, depending on the holds, how they are placed also where they are in relation to each others create different kind of challenges. When you can hold one with your whole hand easily, it’s way easier compared to a really small hold that can be only hold by the tip of 2 fingers.
Depending where the wall is leaning, it also creates really different kind of challenges thanks to gravity.
Teaching the Player
In climbing a challenge is called a problem. You have to first understand the problem then solve it by the knowledge you have. If you start with a really hard and you have no experience at all you will mostly fail because, first, you may not have the strength to do it but mostly because you have no technique at all.
The gradation of problems are really straight forward and easy to get where you’re at.
Same with games, you don’t (normally) drop the player with an end boss and let him figure out how to beat it. You teach him the basics first and then you keep on bringing harder challenge.
It’s the same thing with bouldering. The easy routes are there to teach you how to climb.
In games, the best level designs are the one where you are not told with arrows and blinking lights where to go. It’s the one that helps you, with subtle details, to understand everything. Nintendo are really good at that.
In bouldering, I would say it’s a mix of Mario Bros and Darksouls.
Some routes will make you move your body in some directions that you’ll have no real way of doing anything else that a specific move. With that, you’ll learn a new technique by yourself.
This is the Nintendo part.
Then, when you climb more, you’ll just face a problem and you’ll just have no freaking clue how to do it with the knowledge you have. So, you’ll just do it over and over. Then you’ll look at people doing it and learn things.
It’s probably like going on youtube and check a playthrough.
You’ll know how to beat that boss but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it.
This is the Dark Souls part.
In game, level designers take the gameplay ingredients and create challenge for the player to overcome.
Like written above, using the same ingredient in a different setup will give a totally different challenge. Take like Call of Duty and have the player face an Apache Helicopter by himself with a pistol. That’ll be one really hard challenge.
Now, take the same Apache and put it static in a warehouse and give the player a rocket launcher.
It’s not way easier.
In bouldering you have the same with holds. Take the most classic hold, the Jug.
This is really easy to grab with the hand, you can hold that for a long time and requires a pretty low amount of strength. Let’s say, compared to like, a pinch one.
But, even if the jugs are really easy to use it all depends on how it’s used in the creation of the problem.
Take the same jug but flip it 90 degree. Now you have to hold it from the side. Gravity will do what it does best and it’s a little bit harder to hold.
Now, flip it 180 degree. You have to hold it from bellow now.
Same ingredient, way harder.
Then, put it in a overhang wall.
The girl bellow is holding a jug but she’s totally horizontal.
Gravity’s a bitch I tell you!
Also, like in game, when you create a challenge for a player you normally want to give the player some objectives, at least, short/mid term.
Reach this door at the other side of the room or the big tower at the end of the battlefield. Just placing the player in an level without clear objectives would create some frustration.
It’s the same with climbing. I say climbing here because, with rope climbing, the problems are way way longer. If you even go rock climbing you may not see the end of the problem apart from “get over that rock”. Still, you can plan your short/mid term objective then after that you’ll go back to a “planing” phase.
Normally in bouldering, you see the start, the way up and the end. Then you plan how to solve the problem to the best of your knowledge.
Planning is Half of the Fun
Let’s take this beautiful Uncharted grey boxes level. (Damn I love those)
You can see where you need to go, the challenge on the way and the short term objective. There, the goal of the level is way more than going to the other side of this area but you have a short-mid term objective.
Short, kill the bad dudes on the way
Mid, get to that waterfall.
Now, take this blue problem. I see a mix of jug, pinch and slopers holds. It’s also using two walls and the one where the most of the holds are seems to lean forward at the end (or maybe it’s just the angle of the pic) so it may be easier that if it was just straight.
You basically have the same thing. You have the start, your way to the end and where the end is at. Looking at it, you have to overcome the challenge.
The objective is clear but, what you plan to do may not works perfectly.
Maybe you were planing of using your right hand to get to a specific spot but then realize it’s not possible anymore because the holds are too far away.
Then you have two choice. Jump down or adapt.
Like in games, when the challenge doesn’t go as planned you don’t reset the game and restart (normally). You adapt to the best of your knowledge and try to overcome it. It’s the same here.
You may fail and then you’ll try again because you’ve learned something and you’ll know what’s coming.
You know, another thing that is cool when you make games is to surprise the player with something that we call “exotic” something special that is pretty unique.
When I worked on AC Brotherhood, we had to make the Leonardo war machines. It was really cool to make. Just unique things to create a boost of new gameplay for a short amount of time.
Heh, why not doing that with bouldering too? Why not going nuts and having a problem where you have to be two person to climb?
So yeah, the more I climbed the more I understood proper gameplay progression and challenge creation. It’s really good to see how these people, the one creating the problems are literally doing level design. Using the walls, the holds and especially the gravity to create them. Problems are like any video game challenges, they create them with a “golden path” in mind but people may overcome them with different techniques or even pure strength.
When we create levels in games, we have a basic idea of where the player will potentially go and do to overcome the challenge. This is the same in bouldering.
In the end, like I say to my newbies friends. Whatever works works!
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