The history of parkour in video games

The history of parkour in video games

Movement has always been one of the expressive cornerstones of videogame language. The search for dynamism follows the evolution of the medium hand in hand, reaching new peaks as the technology develops in less and less dilated times. Today, thanks to the implementation of various techniques, among which the best known is undoubtedly motion capture, video games are able to return increasingly convincing and elaborate animations. But, as with any kind of story, there is always an origin, a "proving ground" from which we had to start.

Let's retrace, then, the history of parkour in video games, in search of its genesis and the evolutionary process that has helped to give new meaning to the exploration of virtual game worlds.

The (true) story of parkour

Parkour: the discipline has its roots in the "natural method" used during the training of the French armed forces at the beginning of the twentieth century Although it has almost ancestral roots, parkour as a real discipline was born only at the end of the last century, thanks to the spread of this practice across the global stage of the mass media. Before their undoubted socio-cultural success, however, those ideals that prompted people from all over the world to try their hand at the dangerous "art du déplacement" (art of movement) were the basis of military training known as "méthode naturelle" (natural method), introduced by the officer Georges Hébert (inspired by the way of approaching daily life by some indigenous tribes he met in Africa) at the dawn of the First World War and almost immediately became the training standard for all forces French armies.

This method also led to the creation of "parcours du combant", that is the paths that we usually see in films by novice recruits or that, in part, we can now find even in public parks.

With an important time jump, we now reach the end of the twentieth century, roughly eighty years after Hébert's introductions in the military field. Also in France, a young boy named David Belle, born in 1973, who moved to Lisses, a small town in the Île-de-France region, decided that he would dedicate his life to "parcours", such a radical type of training to become almost a way of life. David finds inspiration precisely in the deeds of his father, a firefighter who, in a certain way, "handed down" his ideals to him. It is precisely in Lisses that David, together with a small number of other young people, founded the first real group dedicated to what, in the future, would become a discipline.

Called Yamakasi, name deriving from "ya makási" ("strong man"), a term of the Lingala language, spoken mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a return to primeval nature and also to the Hébertian inspirations of African origin), this collective followed strict and equal rules, which abolished any hierarchical imposition. Parkour (Hubert Koundé suggested to Belle to change the "C" of "parcours" with the "K "because it has a stronger and more dynamic sound, consequently eliminating also the silent" S ", as superfluous, in contrast to the ideals of essential efficiency) has begun to make a name for itself internationally.

Parkour: David Belle, who is considered the founder of the "movement", performing a "speed vault" We are at the dawn of the 2000s, yet, considering the testimonies left by various visual documents, it was not at all new to find in various entertainment products acrobatic elements in many ways similar to the practices of parkour or "freerunning". Just think of the myriad martial arts films coming from the Hong Kong cinematic forge or the different platform video games that began to introduce such mechanics in conjunction with the development of this new trend.

As we mentioned, in fact, albeit parkour as a discipline has only established itself in the last twenty years (it was recognized as an official discipline by CONI only in 2017), its non-institutionalized and classified origins date back, in all probability, to the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Paleolithic, if not before, indeed. After all, these are movements inherent in the human being and his or her heritage, whose very naturalness is revered by "traceuse" and "traceur" (trackers and tracers, or those who practice parkour) who have converted the cold and calculated urban landscape in a renewed experiential jungle.

Parkour's first steps in video games

Parkour: the first chapter of Prince of Persia laid the foundations for a new way of conceiving movement within video games If asked to look to the past and go hunting for titles now called "retro", most will think of adventures such as those of Super Mario, Sonic, Ghosts' n Goblins, video games where movement was (and is) part integral to the gameplay. Of course, the moving animations were nothing more than a stylized rudiment indicative of those gestures, capable of evoking them, but with a minimum if not non-existent intent of verisimilitude. However, there is no doubt that it is precisely from these first steps taken by platform video games that those titles that began to introduce more complex and articulated movements have then drawn. One of the most relevant is undoubtedly the 1989 Prince of Persia.

Using the rotoscoping technique (i.e. tracing a moving image frame by frame, in order to obtain a more fluid and realistic animation) and, as a reference source, footage of his brother running or jumping, as well as the final fight sequence from the movie The Legend of Robin Hood, dated 1938, to carry out the sword fights, game designer Jordan Mechner has succeeded (thanks to a process implemented only because of his relative inexperience with drawings and animations) to take the "leap of faith" that would later pave the way for a world of exploratory opportunities. After the success of Mechner's work, other video games have followed the path traced by his video game.

Parkour: Aladdin is proof that a more dynamic and varied platformer was beginning to enter the field of vision of large houses of development and international companies far from the gaming world An example of this is the 1993 Aladdin tie-in for SNES developed by Capcom. Under the guidance of an unsuspected Shinji Mikami, this licensed title shows how the interest in the fluidity and spectacle of movement are immediately frowned upon both by large development houses and by producers relatively distant from the videogame world, interested to the medium only to convey an image as multifaceted as possible of its product (with the aim of an unequivocal additional source of income).

At the end of the nineties, these first experiments in terms of virtual movement cross two new reality: on the one hand, the perspectives provided by three-dimensionality; on the other hand, the growing success of parkour as a socially recognized practice, capable of merging into different cultural spheres (including the possibilities provided by the universe of television and film stunts). In this period of turmoil, video games have not remained on the sidelines, but have seized the ball, recognizing the centrality of freedom of movement in the future of virtual worlds.

New frontiers to explore

Parkour: the third dimension takes over With the acquisition of the Prince of Persia franchise by Ubisoft (and with all due respect Prince of Persia 3D), parkour finds new expressive modes thanks to three-dimensionality. With The Sands of Time, the videogame saga begins to implement increasingly technical and elaborate movements, starting with the iconic horizontal "wall runs", which have become a sort of identifying mark.

Many adventure videogames (before and during Ubisoft's "conquests") began to see highly engaging expressive potential in exploration and movement. While remaining tied to the more traditional climbing (however, part of the fundamental "movements" of parkour) that had already characterized the first "platform" attempts, games like those of the Tomb Raider saga began to propose new ways of navigating increasingly spacious maps. , now disconnected from the fixity of the game room. In 2007, a videogame dedicated to freerunning was even published, with a more than explanatory title: Free Running (a term on the one hand thought to be more easily assimilated by English speakers than the French neologism "parkour", but on the other sometimes also used to indicate a slightly more spectacular approach methodology than the "traditional" discipline, whose ideology is to eliminate any movement that is not functional to maximum travel efficiency). However, the real turning point comes, again in 2007, with one of the cornerstones of open world adventures, namely Assassin's Creed.

Parkour: exploration reaches new heights with Assassin's Creed The first chapter of the successful saga has brought the verticality and dynamism of displacement at levels rarely experienced in the past. Through its macro-areas (which, perhaps, according to today's standards, many now consider "micro"), it was possible to move in complete freedom, climbing on such a large number of elements of the scenario as to make one think of being able to reach any place. Obviously, this was not possible, but there was time to evolve. The other episodes of the series have demonstrated this, each with increasingly refined and expanded movement mechanics, as well as a myriad of new titles that have brought with them the lessons of the two Ubisoft franchises, but also all the baggage of experience gained from video games. action and adventure over the years. From the Uncharted saga, to God of War, passing through inFamous and Prototype to less remembered projects such as Enslaved, verticality in video games as an exploratory means marked the last years of the first decade of the 2000s. While on the third-person side the implementation seemed thriving, but still to be refined, in the world of first-person video games there was a fundamental milestone for virtual parkour, which goes by the name of Mirror's Edge.

Parkour : Mirror's Edge and the First Person Breakthrough Released in 2008, the title of DICE and Electronic Arts is a real love letter to the discipline. By understanding most of the latter's "classic" movements (although there is no "parkour move ledger"), the game, more than the first Assassin's Creed did, managed to give new significance to the calculated and functional. We could generally attribute to the Ubisoft saga an affirmation of the open world model freely explorable both horizontally and vertically, while to the EA franchise a renewed importance in terms of fluidity of movement, animations and accuracy (mainly ensured by the first person view). Two different perspectives, but destined to converge during the second decade of the 21st century.

Beyond the present

Parkour: the new perspectives for the evolution of parkour in video games The path it has lived parkour within the videogame world in the last decade has been all-encompassing, ranging from the unlikely to the (mostly) simulative. Also passing through "alternative" paths such as the mobile territories (with a title that not many will remember, but which represented one of the best experiences of the genre, Vector), the discipline has continued to evolve both in the areas of video games in third person than in those in first. On the one hand we find the Assassin's Creed saga as flagship always and in any case, which has experienced an evolution of the movement that has reached its peak with Unity and Syndicate, only to fall into the background in the most recent trilogy.

Just the French chapter had gone to research and problematize the limitations that up to that moment had plagued the exploration of open world video games, using, among other things, the territory that saw the birth of parkour as a discipline. Even with some flaws, the movement within the revolutionary Paris was and remains extremely satisfactory, with also a preponderant return of the so-called "vaults" (ie the vaulting carried out to cross obstacles that are not excessively obstructing), already introduced in Assassin's Creed 3.

Parkour: the sources of inspiration for the discipline meet again within Sleeping Dogs But it is not only Ubisoft's goose that lays the golden eggs that pushes towards a more fluid environmental exploration. If on the one hand we find titles like Watch Dogs (still part of the stable of the French development house), which with the second chapter seemed to have taken the turn of free running intended as a spectacularized variant of "classic" parkour, on the other we find small , radiant comets like Sleeping Dogs, with its heart-pounding chases. The examples are too many to mention them all, therefore, before sounding redundant, let's move, instead, to the world of the subjective.

Water under the bridge has passed a lot of water under the bridge from Mirror's Edge. After that experiment (and hundreds more bringing verticality into the exploration and map approach possibilities in first-person games), the industry proposed several interesting implementations of parkour mechanics within its products. br>
Parkour: freedom of movement and adrenaline-fueled competition team up in shooters like Brink A constant of these types of video games seems to be unbridled action combined with lightness of movement. Starting with titles like Brink and Titanfall, up to games like Ghostrunner and Dying Light, it is evident how the common thread is that of the clash, hand-to-hand or in fire. Parkour seems to have found a powerful ally in the immersion and precision of first-person interaction.

The resulting picture seems clear: if the third person provides more detailed and spectacular animations, the first person proposes a degree of identification and accuracy that it is difficult to recreate in different virtual contexts.

Parkour: the discipline has reached such a level of popularity as to allow its "founder", David Belle, to appear as a character non-playing in Dying Light 2 Through increasingly refined and complex movement systems, we have now reached levels of verisimilitude that were definitely unthinkable only twenty years ago. Of course, we are still far from an effective chain of actions such as to be able to effectively assert that we are faced with the perfection of virtual environmental interaction. The most skeptical could even say that we will never get out of this technological impasse, as it is highly unlikely to be able to eliminate the "gap" between one action and another without precluding a complete and reactive ability to move to the player interacting with the videogame product. However, considering that what seems trivial today, only a few years ago seemed impossible to achieve, we feel we can trust the future developments of the medium, now more than ever under the attention of a worldwide audience, thanks also, it must be said, to the freedom suggested to him by the ideology at the time romantic and brutalist that feeds the ever-changing path traced by parkour.

This is broadly the history of parkour in video games. Do you remember any other videogame intervention that, perhaps, marked your experience as a player? Please let us know in the comments.

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