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Game Culture Vultures: Parkour

March 11, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Video games have long drawn inspiration from real world activities. But more recently this has been on the increase. Many games now entirely shape their structure and play mechanic around some in-vogue reference material. Whether this is hip-hop or skate culture the advantages are clear: they gain a ready-built cultural language and grammar of interaction from the communities they emulate.

It is high time then for a detailed look at some of these video-gaming culture adoptions. Firstly, are the resulting experiences are successful games? Secondly, how authentic these experiences are to their real world counterparts? First under the hammer are the Parkour-informed games of Assassin's Creed and Crackdown.

If you haven't come across it before, Parkour (or "free running") is a physical activity where participants attempt to traverse obstacles in their path in a smooth and fluid motion. The aim is to turn a simple short journey between two points into an artistic performance that draws influence as diverse as gymnastic and ballet. As it is described on the American Parkour website:

"Parkour is the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself. It can include running, jumping, climbing, even crawling, if that is the most suitable movement for the situation. Parkour could be grasped by imagining a race through an obstacle course; the goal is to overcome obstacles quickly and efficiently, without using extraneous movement.

Apply this line of thought to an urban environment, or even a run through the woods, and you're on the right path. Because individual movements could vary so greatly by the situation, it is better to consider Parkour as defined by the intention instead of the movements themselves. If the intention is to get somewhere using the most effective movements with the least loss of momentum, then it could probably be considered Parkour."

Free runners interact with their environment using vaults, jumps, somersaults and other acrobatic movements. They create an athletic and aesthetically pleasing journey through their landscape (below picture courtesy

Recent TV documentaries such as 2003's Jump London or the later Jump Britain have highlighted Parkour's ability to re-connect proponents to their environment. This, combined with the density of built structures, has led to the activity becoming popular in European urban housing estates and other built-up areas, where it provides a way to redeem these drab, dense urban living solutions.

Although not the central intent, this side-effect fits with the higher aims of Parkour. The focus of practitioners has always been that of satisfying individual performance rather than competition. They aim to attain grace and precision rather than to travel the fastest or the furthest. Free running is at bottom that strangest of animals, a non-competitive sport. In the words of Erwan Hebertiste, "competition pushes people to fight against others for the satisfaction of a crowd and/or the benefits of a few business people by changing its mindset.

[Free running] is unique and cannot be a competitive sport if it ignores its altruistic core to self development." Much of this may be grabbing the minds and bodies of today's urban youngsters, but its uncompetitive nature means that this activity doesn't immediately lend itself to a video game that needs to reward the player through rivalry.

Suitability to Games

But you may ask, what has all this got to do with games? The first thing that strikes a developer or gamer watching free running is an obvious synergy with a variety of game genres.

Although it may not have been called free running back then, its influence is clear in the character moves and abilities of Tomb Raider and Ninja Gaiden. These characters may not draw on Parkour culture or language specifically but their protagonists exhibit the same desire to leap, balance and roll through their world.

In addition to these specifics of movement, other games have more wholeheartedly adopted the wider free running culture. These games provide players tactile urban environments that offer an open playground in which they can try out their moves.

In particular, sandbox games such as Crackdown and Assassin's Creed (as we shall go on to discuss) have not only culled free running moves and movement but also its whole approach to interacting with an environment. This has led both titles to not only create massive explorable cities, but also to re-think how their players can interact in those spaces. They reflect free running's desire to rediscover and re-imagine their drab city environments, and find fun and play in these spaces.

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Dominik Dalek
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Well, I fail to understand why Crackdown is considered here as le parkour game. It's just sandbox game, nothing more, nothing less. Cartoonish physics aren't making it le parkour out of a sudden. Mirros's Edge on the other hand seems to follow that path nicely (but obviously there's little known about it right now and it's hard to predict whether it'll become a successful franchise).

Aaron Lutz
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You must have not read the entire article.

But regardless, I myself perform parkour when I have time, and it is rather enjoyable to move through your environment free of the constraints of sidewalks and stairwells.

It is cool that you are given more freedom with your environment in many of these games. I always marveled at the acrobatics from Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia. I have yet to play Assassins Creed or Crackdown; and from what I've read of Prototype, it will have similar mechanics. This is all well and good, but I don't foresee games surviving on play mechanics alone. It's great that we are finally learning how to allow players freedom of movement through their environment, but what about freedom of expression through their character? Or freedom of exploration through human emotion? Or freedom of definition to write your own, personal, unique story in a game.

I'm going to stop before I start rambling. My initial comment was just supposed to be "it's cool that they are drawing on Parkour for inspiration in play mechanics. It's weird you didn't discuss the actual game, 'Free Running,' by Reef Entertainment and Rebellion, and how well they did or did not stay true to the spirit and nature of parkour."

Aubrey Hesselgren
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Certainly we're starting to see more and more games heavly inspired by parkour. It can feel, now, like an over-harvesting of a cultural phenomenon. We roll our eyes slightly when "movement based on parkour" is mentioned in a design docment *again*. And having worked on a couple of designs and a game which heavily drew on the art, I'm guilty of that, too (though I'm glad to say I was guilty of it before it became de rigueur. I even took up the activity in order to learn about how it really felt to do parkour, and was pop vaulting sx foot walls by the time I lapsed. I somehow ended up in the gym scene in Jump Britain.

So it's a little too familiar by now. Assassin's Creed, Mirror's Edge, Prototype... but you know what? It doesn't bother me: If a game benefits from usng parkour as inspiration, and as a reslt overcomes clunky, unflowing, amateurish movement systems, then it's a win for the player, no matter how "sold out" or "last year" parkour is considered.

It's great to see someone else notice how paedaic parkour is, and that the joy of it comes from the proprioception and creativity in path finding - there's an intrinsic joy in the flowing, un-interrupted movement, which some games capture better than others. Whether or not this intrinsic joy is a focus is, I feel, kind of unimportant (certainly, I'd personally prefer it that way, but games are a transcendental medium, and can't rest on one leg alone). Whether fluid motion is the target of the developer, or merely an means to an end, the game will still benefit when there is more thought put into avatar movement - typically one of the core verbs in any first/thrd person game, and thus a bridge for a player into the rest of the transcendental experience.

Whether or not a game perfectly captures the look *as well as* feel of parkour, also, feels irrelevant to me. To me, Quake 3 (noteably the defrag mod) captures the "spirit" of parkour with its model of continuous movement, strafe jmping, plasma climbing and rocket jumping, while Assassin's Creed merely attempts a faximilie of (some of) the moves used (and successfully so). Quake 3's simple, but complete verb set allows for expression, creativity, and skill to be channelled into gameplay. Assassin's Creed, with its well hidden animation states and discrete, contrived movement gives a different perspective - what's it like to have mastered movement to the point that one doesnt consciously think in order to traverse the scenery? Surely then, one is only concerned with the route - means become fairly irrelevant. The destination is all.

I guess my point is that one should be more concerned about how the movement system fits with the rest of the game, and how the level design promotes it, than whether or not it matches the varios splintered philosophies within the freerunning/parkour community. A parkour implementation can be as realistic as yo like, but if it's a pig from a useability stand point, what's the gain?

Joel McDonald
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I'm glad to see these discussions happening. I think discussions like this one point to a paradigm-shift in how developers are approaching player movement. For so long, especially in shooter games, movement has been largely ignored, in favor of increasingly complex combat systems. We've put a lot of focus into enemy movement AI, including taking cover, dives, rolls, etc. but we're just now getting to the player himself and how he moves. Parkour is a single thread in a much broader discussion of player movement itself.

Phillip Baxter
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Just a quick note from Wikipedia (

A quote under "Free Running" states: "You have to make the difference between what is useful and what is not in emergency situations. Then you'll know what is parkour and what is not. So if you do acrobatics things on the street with no other goal than showing off, please don't say it's parkour."

There is a subtle difference, I believe, between free running and parkour. By the above definition, Assassin's Creed is more parkour than free running.

Jean Wainer
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Hello, first let me introduce myself: I am the president of the Brazilian Parkour Association (and also a gamer :)).

First, congratulations for the article, like Joel said its a nice discussion. But my comment is mostly about calling "competitive" the way that Parkour is taken in Assassins Creed. (I will use the word Parkour, since Free Running for us means something with a totally different philosofy and I have no interest on it).

First, let me say that Parkour was created by a former firefighter and member of marine corps, David Belle.

It has been taught to him by his father, who fought on Vietnam and used his skills to survive. He had to be fast, he had to be efficient, he had to use whatever his body could do to survive.

I have played a bit of Assassins Creed, about 2-3 hours, and I must say that I was impressed on how techincal the "parkour moves" were represented in the game.

When Parkour is called a non-competitive activity, we actually mean that you should not train to be better than someone else. You should focus on yourself, the competition is with your own limits while training and evolving to be a better person (phisically and otherwise), and thus becoming strong to use your skills in a emergency situation.

That being said, I must say that parkour has been represented very good in this game. I have also played Crackdown and I did not like the way Parkour has been represented, not only because the limitations on the movement, but also the way its being seen as a "sport to jump from building to building".

And by the way, Erwans last name is "Le Corre", and Hebertiste is his nickname on the forums.

I hope you could understand my comment, english is not my first language.

Dominik Dalek
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Dear Aaron,

You must have read entirely different article. :) This one doesn't mention Mirror's Edge (for valid reasons, but still). As for the other part: developers might have been inspired by parkour but that doesn't make Crackdown parkour game. "Willow" was inspired by "Hobbit". ;) Please play Crackdown or watch gameplay videos - urban environment + agility skill don't make it free runing experience (it's still great gameplay mechanics IMO). Just a thought. BTW: I still love Crackdown. :]

Maurice Kroes
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What I don't get is how AC 'fails' in parkour if it's only inspired by it, but doesn't have the intention to say it's the main focus of the game. If it was, I would agree with you.

"This would substantially change Assassin's Creed, focusing it more authentically on true Parkour pursuits."

The game is about an Assassin and a great plot that unravels while you play. The developers were inspired by it and made playing with Altaïr a lot of fun by running through the city. However it's still a portion of the overall experience. It's *not* a parkour game in my oppinion, just inspired by the moves of it.

Raymond Grier
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Even if a game isn't founded on the "Parkour" concept, most good players incorporate this concept into how they play. Every time I play Mario Sunshine or Metroid Prime I am looking to move from point A to point B in the straightest, fastest and most efficient way. I like that people have started to do this as a sport in real life.