Skateboarding Is Not A Trial

imageThe longevity of Neversoft’s Tony Hawk franchise suggests it’s the quintessential skateboarding game. And Project 8, its most recent release, certainly delivers a remarkable skating simulation. With eight major titles in seven years, released across more than a dozen platforms, it’s the kind of franchise that publishers dream of: one that supports an endless stream of releases, garners a loyal following, and continually attracts new fans.

I’m not a Tony Hawk loyalist, though. I’ve merely dabbled. The first title that really grabbed my attention was Pro Skater 3. I remember being enthralled by the way I could put my onscreen skater through his paces, pressing him realistically through the curves of quarter-pipes and watching him accelerate skyward. It looked and felt more like skating than I imagined was possible in a videogame.

My initial enthusiasm was soon dampened, however, by the realization that my freakishly skilled skater was stuck in a tiny, rather mundane environment, and if I ever wanted to venture beyond it I’d need to start working my way through a checklist. Learning one of my first tasks was to collect the letters to spell “SKATE” was a turning point. I quickly lost interest and never even made it past the first level.

But I loved the way Pro Skater 3 played, at least in terms of the skating simulation. Moving the board around was downright euphoric. What I couldn’t stand was the way the game forced me to follow its many, many rules. Scores had to be achieved, specific rails had to be ground, and items had to be ollied in precise order. It was stifling.

I gave the franchise another serious look with the debut of Tony Hawk’s Underground, and again with Tony Hawk: American Wasteland. In each case, I loved the skating but disliked the games for the same reasons I couldn’t abide Pro Skater 3. I’d all but written off the series when the Project 8 demo hit the Xbox Live Marketplace last fall.

The demo level was a single skatepark, no bigger than the introductory level of Pro Skater 3, but it was perfect. Perfect enough, anyway. Eight years of animation, physics and control refinements combined with next-generation graphics and stunning audio to form an experience so compelling, I didn’t care how small the park was. It was packed with trick challenges, all of which I simply ignored in favor of unfettered, blissful, free-form skating. The demo was time-limited to 15 minutes, but I played it more than a dozen times.

Needless to say, I was primed for the arrival of the full retail game. And, as expected, it had me chasing all sorts of challenges from the start. Tony and his goons popped up constantly, steering me toward new contests and challenges I had to complete in order to “rank up.” And unless I ranked up, I couldn’t unlock new areas.

imageI persisted, simply because Project 8‘s city was such a fantastic place to skate. I could easily spend hours on end, tricking, gliding, grinding or sailing from one surface to the next, in almost complete ignorance of the game’s many demands. I ventured forth from my tiny suburban cul-de-sac, revisited the skate park I first found in the demo, tackled a sprawling and varied downtown, conquered the grounds of the local high school, and much more. It was, simply put, glorious.

Eventually, though, I stopped answering the videophone that directed me to key challenges and events. I reached a breaking point where I could no longer reconcile the gorgeous, compelling sandbox I’d unlocked with the ongoing series of dull trials and events that required rigid adherence to instructions.

It was troublesome and depressing to have arrived at such a place, especially considering the sport Project 8 portrays. Isn’t skating supposed to be about exploration, discovery, and breaking the rules? Isn’t it supposed to be about freedom? When I was kid, my friends and I would head out into the city, boards underfoot, and the world was our oyster. Skating offered an escape from rules and restrictions and adult demands. Yet in Project 8 I’m continually confronted by Tony and Company, who demand my skills be tested against their expectations. In Project 8, Tony Hawk is the man.

I suppose, being a “game,” Project 8 is expected to have rules and competition. I’m sure there are those who would argue the title’s endless to-do list offers players a sense of accomplishment. The real sense of accomplishment I got from Project 8 didn’t come from painstakingly earning Tony’s approval, though. It came from finding a way to skate that incredible rooftop, or that hidden pipe or that amazing grind line.

I don’t want an in-game shoe sponsorship, Neversoft. I simply want to hear the rhythmic, uninterrupted rattle of polyurethane over concrete, tile or boardwalk. I’m not interested in earning a place on Tony’s team. I’d rather busy myself seeing if I can nail a Natas spin on top of the school flagpole. I don’t need “stokens” to buy a new deck. Reward me instead with more places to skate. Let me set my own rules and break them as I please.

We need more games that eschew perfunctory rules and rely instead on the sheer allure of the interactive experiences they offer. Stripped of its rigid, time-consuming challenges, the Tony Hawk series would be no less robust an experience. And it would feel a hell of a lot more like skateboarding.

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