The humble ledge grab has changed the way we play games forever, but we don't even notice it anymore.
By Brendan Keogh on August 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm
You know what I love? Ledge grabs. I love playable characters that, when they can’t quite make a jump, can grab onto a ledge and lift themselves up. It’s such a simple, ubiquitous skill that passes with hardly a notice these days—we just expect our characters to have enough upper body strength to lift their entire weight. It opens up the potentiality of a space by an exponential factor, giving a heightened sense of freedom and agility to a world.
I’ve always been strangely intrigued by ledge grabs. Every time one of my characters just locks onto a wall and pulls herself up onto a platform she never could have reached with a jump, I feel an immense satisfaction. I can still remember the first time I played a game that allowed me to grab the ledge of a platform as I fell past it. It was Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. I was at a friend’s house, playing Playstation games before I owned a Playstation. Already marvelling the incredible graphics and this weird, futuristic controller in my hand, I jumped across a chasm, realising just too late that Abe wouldn’t make the jump. But then, Abe grabbed the edge of the next platform and pulled himself up.
I was amazed, stunned. Back home, on all my old Super Nintendo platformers, I could do no such thing. I’m sure there were Super Nintendo platformers that allowed you to grab the edge of a platform, but I know I certainly couldn’t in Donkey Kong Country, Super Star Wars, Mario, or the other platformers I owned.
Watching the pseudo-3D models of Abe grab a ledge and pull himself up, while my 2D, pixellated sprites couldn’t, filled me with a sense of ledge grabs as something advanced and next-generation that I still can’t shake to this day. It is a thing that PlayStation characters could do when I didn’t own a PlayStation. At that young, impressionable age, ledge grabs came to be a sign of a more advanced game. The fact that my first Xbox 360 game, years later, was Assassin’s Creed probably didn’t help this impression much.
But what is it that ledge grabs actually do that made me so impressed by them? I think, largely, it is how they greatly expand the actions of your character and the way they can relate to their world. It adds a whole heap of verbs to your inventory. You can’t jump this gap, but you can jump to that ledge, grab it, and pull yourself up. That ledge above me is too high, but my hands can reach it. I can’t fall this far without dying, but if I dangle over the edge first, I should be right.
We relate to our playable characters through their bodies. Maybe we get to know their personalities and feelings and loves and hates, but it is their bodies that we move through their world, doing with it what their body lets us do. It is through this body that we don’t only relate to the character, but to the world through the character. We understand the world with what we can do with it. That’s why, in most platformers, an agile and acrobatic character that can bounce around doing all kinds of things in the world’s space feels so good. Through them, the possibilities of the world open up.
Recently, I have been playing a lot of Spelunky. In Spelunky, death is usually sudden and disappointing. Knowing your character’s body and what it can do is paramount to survival. Playing it has reminded me just how much I love the ledge grab, just how versatile it can be. In Spelunky, it does just allow me to jump further or higher; often it allows me to drop down lower. A drop that could plummet me so far as to lose precious, precious health, might have a horizontal shaft coming off it just a bit down, allowing me to grab it as I fall past, halving the distance I have to drop to land.
As parkour has inspired gameplay more and more over the last few years, we’ve seen ledge grabs become both more ubiquitous and more complex.
Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus built their gameplay mechanics centrally on different variations of ledge grabbing. More recent games like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, and inFamous have taken this to its extreme conclusion with characters that can scale a wall vertically with just the tips of their fingers. But it’s no longer just third-person platformers that use the ledge grab; first-person games, too, like Mirror’s Edge and even (to a far lesser extent) Crysis 2 allow variations of the ledge grab to open up their play potentials.
Doing things with a character’s body in a world is how we understand the world. Jumping has been around since the dawn of platform gaming, and the addition of the ledge grab, when I first encountered it, seemed like a massive leap in helping players form an intimacy with their world. To this day, when I clutch onto a cliff as Nathan Drake or a colossus as Wanda or a mine shaft as the Spelunky man, I get a little spark of that feeling when I first saw Abe (or whoever it was) grab that ledge, like I’ve just seen something so momentous despite being so very typical.