Jumping in Video Games

Jumping in video games is important. As a gamer I think I always knew this, but never actually realized how crucial it is to overall experience until Steve Yegge pointed it out in his long article about Borderlands:

Jumping is fun. Period. End of story. If playing your game involves manipulating a humanoid ragdoll in three dimensions, and it doesn’t support jumping, then you suck. No, don’t go pointing at Zelda. Zelda gets a bye because it’s *Zelda* for christ’s sake. But Zelda is un-fun exactly to the extent that it fails to support jumping, except off ledges which is kinda OK but not really true jumping.

Practically the first thing everyone tries in a game is jumping. If the game doesn’t let you jump, then people enter a Fuck You mode that can be hard (possible, but hard) to overcome.

This actually 100% accurate, at least for me. The first thing I always do after testing out WASD controls is to look for the jump key. I don’t know why. I personally hate jumping puzzles. The only ones I was ever able to tolerate were in Portal, but that’s mostly because Valve actually understands how to implement a good save-anywhere system so even someone with as little hand-eye coordination as me can save-scum through difficult bits. In general though I hate being forced into mandatory jumping sequences. Platforming games are something that I abhor. I hate them with a passion. That Mario game for Wii – that drove me positively bonkers. You would think jumping would have no appeal to me.

And yet, just like Yegge said – the first thing I do when I launch a new game is to look for the “bunny hop” key. It’s like an instinct. It’s like human nature is tugging on my neurons and telling me “thy hast to moveth thy avatar in ye digital realm, vertically with great haste now!”

If for some reason I am unable to jump, I am usually quite disappointed. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me that Batman can’t hop around like he is the Easter Bunny. It’s true that he can glide, jump from the ledges and use the bat claw… But the only reason why I didn’t turn off Arkham Asylum after finding out he can’t jump, was because I actually spent money on it. I suspect that my enjoyment of both Asylum and City would be about 20-30% better if I could bunny hop my way through them. Hell, Mass Effect games would have been so much better with jumping. Hopping around like a little bunny just feels good.

Reading Yegge’s article made me realize why Morrowind is still my favorite Elder Scrolls game. It’s not the setting or the story – it’s the jumping. Yes, the default jump was kinda pathetic in that game, but you could enchant your gear to boost jump, and combine it with feather effect to prevent fall damage. Personally I would always tune my jumping so that I could hop from Caius Cosades’ house to the Silt Strider tower in Balmora. Or at the very least to clear the river – anything less felt too constraining.

If you are a game developer designing a new product, you really need to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does your game allow jumping, and if not then why?
  2. Does your jump physics allow for scaling obstacles? If not, why?
  3. Does your game have a skill, power up or item that can enhance jumping height and distance? If not, why?

If you answer no to any of these, you better have a good justification. There can be valid reasons why you might not want your character to jump. I guess maybe Square Enix felt that bunny hopping around as Batman would spoil the mood and be at odds with the character concept. Which I guess is a valid argument. But a very weak one. Why? Because who the fuck are they to tell me what I can or cannot do with my batman. Yes, creating certain mood in the game is important. But you should never really use your concept of how they game should be played, to try to constrain player behavior.

But I think it goes deeper than just jumping. LA Noire not only did not let you jump, but it also prohibited you from hurting innocent pedestrians. You could not pull out a gun or punch people outside of scripted events, and most NPC’s would jump out of your way when drivng. I guess they were going for realism – they didn’t want the star detective of their story to be a homicidal maniac. But that completely backfired. I made it my mission to break that artificial constraint. When driving, I would usually eschew roads and use sidewalks instead. I would drive at high speeds trying to mow down as many people, road signs and mail boxes as possible. I would take people’s cars, and then try to run them over with them – and if that did not work, I would try to cause spectacular head-on collisions. I would watch the ever growing end-mission “collateral damage” tally and grin like an idiot whenever I beat my past record.

Why did I play it that way? Because the lack of freedom was suffocating. Skyrim is the opposite of this. It allows you to kill just about every single NPC and destroy the game world in various way. But despite being able to do horrible things, I would usually go out of my way to avoid them. I would try not to hurt anyone who was not hostile to me. I would actually role-play my character – a paragon of virtue. My Cole Phelps on the other hand was a road-raging maniac and a blood thirsty sociopath.

What’s the difference between these two games? The degree of freedom. Given a chance to allow a player to run-amok completely derailing your carefully constructed narrative, and constraining allowed behavior to preserve it you should always choose the former. Why? Because carrot is always better than a stick. Rewarding player for desirable behavior – the type you want to promote, works much better than trying to box in the player with arbitrary restrictions that break player immersion. That’s really the name of the game – you want the player immersed in the game world at all times. And the way you do this is by letting the player do crazy things.

For example, you may think that allowing the player to shoot an important quest giver in the face as he is delivering a pivotal, game changing speech would be immersion breaking. But it is not, because it is something that the character they are playing could possibly conceive of. Conversely, gluing their gun into their holster and making them unable to draw it during said speech, or disabling the trigger is much, much worse. Nothing breaks immersion more than being stopped from doing something you know your character can do in another context. Sometimes you can get away with things – for example, if there is no combat in your game, players will accept that. Amnesia, Dark Descent was great despite a complete lack of offensive capability – and most people did not miss it. In fact, it was more immersive for it. There is one exception though: jumping.

If you disable jumping, you are immediately breaking immersion. In real life we can jump. We usually don’t, but we can. If our avatar in the game is rotted to the ground, unless falling off a high platform then we get annoyed. It’s tat simple.

I apologize that I’m still mining Yegge’s article for content, but this insight really deserves some discussion. What’s your take on this? Do you agree with my assessment that player driven carnage adds to the immersion factor? Also, why do we like jumping so much? What is it about humping that makes us happy? Is it just the freedom of movement that appeals to us? Or is there something specific about jumping that tickles our brains in that special way. Let me know in the comments.

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11 Responses to Jumping in Video Games

  1. Adam UNITED STATES Netscape Navigator says:

    I must wholly agree with everything you said. Most people are obviously rebellious when forced to do something without adequate context or reason. It’s a reflex, if anything. It’s not a phenomena that persists only in gamers, it is the same in everyone. If I don’t see the logic in doing or not doing some action I will rebel in whatever ways I can. In game: You won’t let me end this guy? Fine, I’ll just leave and forget this whole quest, maybe stick a grenade in the quest givers pants on my way out. Real life: What do you mean I can’t skate here? Imma skate wwhere I want and tag the place for good measure.

    Also, you are officially at the top of my “Hilarious Typos” list. If you don’t know the one, it’s in the final paragraph. I also know we both know the answer that particular sentence poses. ;D

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  2. karthik INDIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    I don’t care about the act of jumping in most games. I didn’t miss it in Mass Effect, for instance.

    I do tend to be disappointed when I find movement to be arbitrarily restricted in other ways, though. Alpha Protocol didn’t let me scale knee high walls, multiple times. I was frustrated to the point of not playing it for months. Dragon Age (and II) and The Witcher had flimsy barriers in place as (in)visible walls, like a six inch high log, with the road continuing past the log. I mean, really? At least dress up your invisible walls, lazy RPG devs. Even games with a jump key often have walls just high enough to keep you from scaling them.

    So it’s not really bunny hopping I miss, but sections of the game world I can see but can’t explore. Remember HL2: Episode 2, when you’re just out of the train wreck and looking at the imploded Citadel ruins in the beginning? That game would have been so much better if it let me jump off that viewing platform to my death into the valley below. Let me be a clueless moron, Valve.

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  3. Alex Bailey Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You probably don’t remember me, I think we met on Digg way back when it was still relevant. Think we might have referenced each other in a blog post or two along the way as well. Just wanted to see I’m pretty impressed with your blog, keep up the good work :)

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  4. Sameer NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Adam wrote:

    Also, you are officially at the top of my “Hilarious Typos” list. If you don’t know the one, it’s in the final paragraph.

    This :D

    I get where your coming from especially after playing games that allow unrestricted freedom of movement. It’s very hard dealing with not being able to jump or even the utter inability to jump over small obstacles. I found it jarring in New Vegas for instance; when travelling to a marker I’d try to take shortcuts by scaling mountains only to find out I’m not allowed to. Invisible barriers in NV are rare but it does happen more often than I’d like. I’m finding it increasingly tedious to play on railroads.

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  5. it’s not just about beeing able to jump
    it’s about what you would expect and what you really get. If you controll a person that walks around, shoots some people and is unable to jump, you are annoyed because you have expected that person to beeing able to jump.
    If it’s not a person but a huge 100t walking robot, then you dont expect it to jump, but to walk slowly. If it moves like a person and jumps over buildings like you would over a fence, then it’s more unexpected (if it’s done right, by using jet-engines and starting slowly and leaving a big mark in the building, then its just an additional ability and great, but if it looks “wrong”…)

    That works for nearly any ability you expect. The worst i found till today is climbing ladders. There are lots and lots of games out there where you can climb ladders. But if you do, you become some kind of train, restricted to rails. In the best you can go forward and backward, sometimes you can even look around. But if someone attacks you, you have to jump down from the ladder because climbing and shooting is impossible. You can’t even throw a grenade while hanging or use a knive if someone stands directly on top of the ladder.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Adam:

    You know what, I’m leaving that typo in. :)

    @ karthik:

    Good point. But I think the movement restriction is often an outgrowth of the lack of a jump button. Note that games that lack jumping are much more likely to have arbitrary restriction on movement (ie. an impenetrable shrubbery, a un-scalable wooden log, etc..).

    @ Alex Bailey:

    Yeah, I remember. I think I still have a link to your blog in the sidebar. :)

    @ Sameer:

    Oh man, this was such a pain in the ass! I used to do the same thing, and every time I bumped into an invisible wall I was super annoyed. I think there might have been some mod that removed most of these somewhere – or at the very least I vaguely remember searching for one. :P

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    I think that Deus Ex HR was one of the worst offenders in terms of ladders. There was just no reason for the camera to swing back and show you climbing in third person. It was like “Wooosh, look at me climbing a ladder!”.

    Actually all vertical movement was fucked in that game. The fall damage was ridiculously silly. You could jump from ledge A and take no falling damage, then jump from ledge B that was only few inches higher, and die instantly. There was virtually no partial fall damage in that game – you either landed safely, or died.

    My first death in that game was when I jumped down from the 2nd floor in the Sarif building because I was to lazy to run to the stairs. Based on what happens in most FPS games expected to take moderate damage, but it was an insta-kill. Later I got the parachute aug, only to realize it was a piece of crap too – there was no reason for the 10 second animation of Jensen surfing an electric discharge.

    Ideally I would like that aug to let you fall at regular speed, and then discharge the orange crap when you hit the ground. Or fuck, just do what Portal did – play a sound when you touch down to indicate that your mechanical legs somehow mitigated fall damage and you’re done.

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  7. Adrian SPAIN Opera Windows says:

    Equally important is the ability to crouch, imho.

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  8. Dozer UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “Say ‘apple’. Aaaaaaa-pple.”

    I completely get the whole leaping-about-Balmora thing. It’s a very liberating feeling to jump over buildings and obstacles. The Force Jump abilities were always the first things I unlocked in the old Jedi Knight games. Soaring through the air without a care in the world, like an eagle. Piloting a blimp.

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  9. Matthew UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Although jumping is a basic need in games that can not be denied, I am getting to the point of hating when I can not climb things.

    “Oh hey there, fence! Enjoy your nice view of the field? I am just going to climb over you so I can get to….hey! Let me over! Fine, I will just go around you and….what? You mean I have to walk a mile just to get around you??”

    Yeah, that. Games do it, and it is annoying. I didn’t enjoy a lot of GTAIV, but I can honestly say I loved the jumping, climbing and jumping then climbing it allowed. It was nice.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Matthew:

    Yeah, I hate the insurmountable fences too. You know what’s even worse? Invisible walls – worst kind of immersion breaking mechanic. I really don’t get why people keep using them, since there are so many good ways to either avoid having them, or explain them away in game terms.

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  11. neb GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:


    As soon as I read the title of this post in my feedreader, I was like “Woah, yeah – jumping is really important to me, too. It wasn’t explicitly clear to me, but I don’t like games that don’t allow *me* to jump.”

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