Ladders have existed since long before the written word — evidence from Mesolithic rock paintings suggests that the ladder has been used for at least 10,000 years. This is a long time to further develop and perfect such a common and useful invention, yet, from most accounts, ladders haven’t changed much in their history. Sure, minor improvements have been made such as the A-frame, but the basic design of the ladder is one that doesn’t demand a lot of improvement.
The video game ladder has seen a similar lack of innovation, and although resolution has increased and bloom has made those metal rungs look just so very pretty, not much has changed for this pixel-infused climbing device.
The problem with the videogame ladder is that, while real world ladders are simple and intuitive, video game ladders are horrible mockeries of usability. What went wrong? How have videogame ladders become so tragically separated from their real-world counterparts?
Though it may not have been the first use of ladders in videogames, most minds will wander to Donkey Kong when considering early ladder use. After all, without ladders, Donkey Kong would be nothing more than a game about jumping over barrels for hours at a time. Aside from Steve Wiebe, no one would play this game.
And, for the most part, these ladders did their job by allowing you to climb from one vertical position to another. Sure, the occasional damaged ladder might impede your progress, but even this, for the most part, makes sense; try climbing a broken ladder in the real world and an important lesson will hit you like a barrel to the face.
Ladders became even more simplified for The Legend of Zelda, though their status as a ladder is somewhat dubious. In essence, the ladder was an obtainable item that Link carried around with him at all times, deploying it when he needed to cross small gaps in the floor. Now, I suppose ladders can be used for horizontal movement, but why not use a damn plank? Or, you know, jump?
Regardless, this example stands as one of the better uses of video game ladders in games despite its lack of realism. Being fully automated, there’s little to no chance of the ladder becoming an undue source of frustration. Furthermore, it actually performs its intended function — something that seems obvious, but as we’ll soon see, doesn’t always happen.
Two-dimensional ascension in a three-dimensional world is what seems to have made ladders tricky. If you’ve played Half-Life, then you know the terror of three-dimensional ladder traversal.
Basically, many games, especially those with a first-person perspective, seem to have trouble anticipating exactly what the player is trying to do when he or she is in front of a ladder. Do you want to use the ladder or walk by it? Do you want to go up or down? Do you want to descend the ladder or release your grip on it?
Seriously, if you played through every Half-Life game without a single ladder blunder, then you’re a fucking champion.
The issue is that the controls used by the player to move horizontally in the world are suddenly changed to make him move vertically, and not always with predictable results. In a two-dimensional world, pressing up should make you go up. In a three-dimensional world, up means forward, and vertical movement is made possible through button presses.
Sounds simple, right? Not when ladders are involved. See, Half-Life doesn’t think vertical movement should be as easy as pressing up. Instead, they want you to press up and look up at the same time. What, walking straight at a ladder wasn’t enough to tell you that I wanted to use it?
Going down is far, far worse. See, you must look down and press down at the same time. But there’s a threshold. Move backward too far and your silent, bespectacled protagonist will eschew the ladder altogether and choose to plummet to his death. Trying to approach the ladder from the wrong direction is similarly a recipe for disaster.
But surely time has fixed these problems, right? On the contrary, new problems have arisen. Take the recent Assassin’s Creed II, for instance. On the surface, ladders seem clear-cut. Approach a ladder from the top, and you’ll grab onto it and begin to descend. Hallelujah!
But those ladders that lean against buildings at precarious angles present a brand new challenge: horizontal movement. Yes, horizontal movement on a vertical ladder.
If you’re screaming “this makes no sense!” then you’re right. But, for some reason, the developers decided to allow players to swing around to the opposite side of the ladder.
This makes no sense.
For one, I know that Ezio is pretty much a climbing prodigy, but even he should know that climbing on the wrong side of a leaning ladder isn’t quite safe. Why would he want to do this when there’s a perfectly safe side of the ladder to climb on? Even worse, the ladder is leaning on something. What do you think is going to happen when you get to (or more accurately, fail to get to) the top?
But the main problem is that Ezio will swing to the other side of the ladder if you happen to have the camera pointed in a certain direction. In the world of Assassin’s Creed, the directions of up and down are dictated not by gravity, but by the electric eye that provides the player’s point of view. So, let’s say that the camera is pointed at an awkward angle relative to Ezio, and you want to go up. Nope. You’ll be making a swift trip to the useless side of the ladder.
It’s also interesting to note how many of these problems were present in 2003′s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The game, like Assassin’s Creed II, was praised for its movement mechanics with one glaring exception: ladders. Swinging from one side of the ladder to another was a constant source of frustration for many players, and, on top of this, ladders were a source of many game glitches. It seems the more things don’t change, the more they stay the same. Who would have guessed?
There are plenty of other examples of ladder implementation in games, both good and bad. There’s the incredibly slow movement that some games reduce the player character to. There’s the confusion that games have about whether you actually want to get on a ladder or not. The fact is that something simple has been made far too complex. Navigating a ladder should not be a source of frustration in games. So, how do we fix ladders?
First off, don’t make the player alter the point of view to go up or down. In first-person shooters, this means allowing a player to climb up without looking up, and vice-versa. In third-person games, this means ensuring that up is always up despite where the camera is pointed relative to the main character.
Secondly, getting on and off a ladder should not be comparable to playing Russian roulette with a meth addict. If necessary, make the player press a button at the base of a ladder to get on it. Sure, this may be an added step that appears to go against the code of simplicity, but if it means the difference between a swift descent and walking back and forth for three minutes before the jackass decides to grab onto the ladder, then I’ll take the ladder. I mean latter.
And, honestly, forget about horizontal movement when on a ladder. I don’t want to fall off of the ladder. I have never in a game wanted to fall off of a ladder, especially not off of the side of one. Nor do I need to know the thrill of climbing on the wrong side of the ladder. I will spoil it for you now – it looks the same, only a little bit more upside-down.
And, finally, there’s no reason that my character needs to climb like an arthritic drunk on a week-long Ritalin binge. I’m trying to save the world, dammit, and you’re taking your jolly sweet time, making sure that your foot lands just perfectly on that next rung. Give us the choice to climb quickly or slowly, and sliding down the ladder is always a nice option to have.
These requests are simple, and they need to be followed closely in the future. Otherwise, I’ll take a page from WWE games and start using the ladder for its often-overlooked second purpose: a weapon.