“How Should Games Handle Falling from Ledges?”

Falling. We all do it. Some more than others. And it’s something that plays a part in many of the video games we play as well. Today, Charlotte from the blog Mossaica posed a question about the subject of falling in video games. This question was asked as part of the ongoing Charming and Open event, where you can ask me questions that I’ll answer as a full-length blog post! Be sure to check out the event right here, and be sure to check out Mossaica and keep an eye open for her response to my question. In the meantime, I recommend her post about dealing with hateful trolls!

I abbreviated Charlotte’s question above, but here it is again in full form: “What is your opinion on the choice that game developers make as far as the mechanics of accidentally walking off a ledge?” She goes on to specifically mentioned Assassin’s Creed – where the mechanics prevent you from accidentally falling – and Breath of the Wild – where falling to your doom due to a simple misstep is totally within the realm of possibility. So what IS my opinion on how this mechanic is handled? Is falling off too cruel, or stopping the fall too much like holding my hand?

First I’ll say this: I think it is very important that each individual game handle this mechanic in a way that is appropriate for the genre. Can you imagine playing Mario and all of your jumps being automatically guided to a safe position regardless of the quality of your platforming? Or playing a traditional JRPG where you can accidentally wander off the side of the stage in a dungeon, your careful navigation being constantly interrupted by random encounters? That’d be terrible!

Super Mario Bros.png
Imagine how easy this would be!

Genre and setting have a lot of influence over the mechanics of a game. To use the examples Charlotte provided, Assassin’s Creed is an action game. Yes, there’s a focus on climbing and parkour, but the fun of the game is being able to do those things smoothly and quickly. It’s fast so you can get back to the action. Breaking up that action with precision platforming – particularly in sections where you are jumping onto things where Ezio or Altair can literally only fit one foot – would really break the mood of the game. Conversely, Breath of the Wild is a survival game. The game’s atmosphere is all about portraying a wild, harsh world, and having Link say “whoopsie!” and recover himself every time he accidentally got close to a cliff face would be wildly inappropriate. Having to be careful about your steps and positioning is part of the strategy of the game, and you are punished for carelessness as a lesson in doing better.

A game I played recently that I think is a solid example of how NOT to do this is Final Fantasy XV. The reason? The mechanics aren’t consistent. A particular dungeon stands out in my mind where you are in a sewer trying to find a special set of headlights for the Regalia. This dungeon has a large number of vertical levels involving lots of long drops through shafts, narrow pipes crossing those shafts, and ladders taking you between levels. The game mechanics allow for you to fall off the edges of platforms and plummet downward towards the bottom of the shafts, causing you to lose a huge amount of progress and retrace your steps from the bottom up. Yet when you are crossing the precarious pipes that criss-cross over the shafts, you can’t fall. Noctis is literally walking across this skinny pipe JUST wide enough for one foot to stand on, and cannot fall off of that. Yet if you step too close to a ledge, he’ll just go falling down out of control. I’m not necessarily complaining here that I can fall – the problem is that the inconsistent mechanics prevent me from knowing when I can fall and when my hand is going to be held. Games need to be consistent or the player can get seriously frustrated.
inFamous 2.jpgAnother game I’ve played where the mechanics sometimes gave me issues is inFamous. I particularly remember having these issues in the second game. inFamous has the classic Assassin’s Creed parkour gameplay where you can climb a lot of stuff in the game world, and the game helps you along by making sure that you gravitate towards safe landing points and it keeps you from unintentionally falling to your doom (except Cole doesn’t take falling damage thanks to his powers, so it’s really more of an inconvenience than anything). The thing is, this whole auto-landing feature can become a real pain when you are legitimately trying to jump off of something. I’d be in situations where I was trying to jump down to a lower level and progress would be slow because I automatically gravitated to EVERY. SINGLE. CLIMBING. POINT. ON. THE. WAY. “Oh hey, a gutter pipe, better grab that.” “Check it out, the top of a signpost. He must want to land on that.” In an effort to prevent me from “accidentally” falling the game constantly stopped me from just going where I wanted to go.

So I guess my answer to this question is honestly: it depends on the game. I don’t want to fall off ledges in a turn-based RPG where the overworld isn’t the focus of the game mechanics. I DO want to fall off ledges in a platformer where the whole point of the game is carefully timing jumps and aiming them in a precise way. The games where I find myself having issues are those where the handling of ledges doesn’t match up with the style of the game.

Breath of the Wild Cliff
I fell off of this cliff immediately after taking a picture of it.

That being said, answering “it depends on the game” feels somewhat like a cop-out answer to me, so I’ll add one last thought. I personally prefer games that just let me fall. Most of the games I play either have elements of platforming or survival – where being able to fall with no warning is appropriate – or are strategy games/RPGs where the whole issue of falling is something of a moot point. I see it this way – I can always be more careful and learn not to fall. I can’t turn off the auto-guiding. Carefully navigating platforms, cliffs, ledges, and narrow walkways is a specific type of challenge – if you’re going to have it in the game, then really have it. Let me fall. I’ll learn my lesson and get through the next time.

So what are your thoughts, adventurers? Am I right that games should just let us tumble down a cliffside (allowing for the genre)? Or should games prevent us from falling so we can focus on other aspects of the game? Feel free to include your own thoughts in the comments below!

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