Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

Swimming is something you and I can probably do — and will do more this summer. But swimming has long been an ability less common to video game characters than running, jumping or shooting shotguns. I asked top developers why.

Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

Mario can swim. Sonic would not. A jump in the water used to kill the anti-heroes of Grand Theft Auto. Altair, the deadly hero of Assassin's Creed couldn't get wet. His successor can.

Large bodies of water are fatal in inFamous, act as pools of quicksand in the new Bionic Commando and are just off-limits in games as wide-ranging as Animal Crossing and everything beyond the first 30 minutes of undersea adventure BioShock.

Problem: Swimming Can Be Boring
There are smart and serious design reasons for the omission of swimming in so many top games. But before even thinking about those, a fair assessment is that video game swimming can be dull. There may be fans of Super Mario Bros.' World 2-2 and the opportunity it affords players to throw fireballs underwater at squids. There may be fans of swimming in Metal Gears and Zeldas. Swimming, though, isn't what carries most games, and it's frequently a source of gamer frustration.

"Swimming is not as fast as running or jumping or flying, and is generally not as fun," Darren Bridges, a game designer at Sucker Punch, the studio behind the swimming-not-permitted hits inFamous and Sly Cooper. "The gameplay [for swimming] is often bland: mashing a single button in the best cases, and just pointing the stick in a direction at the worst."

Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

Pete Wanat, veteran producer of many games, including Scarface: The World Is Yours, backed Bridges up. Scarface, which was primarily played on land as an open-world crime adventure in the style of a GTA, allowed swimming — until players got too far adrift and were chewed by a shark. But it also gave players the option to have hero Tony Montana stay dry and summon a boat. That ability, he wrote via e-mail "hopefully kept players in the action and not doing the 300 medley in Miami Harbor trying to reach the nearest dock." That was a merciful decision, explained Wanat: "Because in almost every game, swimming long distances is ultra boring."

So un-fun is a lot of video game swimming that developers who plan to include it often cut it. "Most [development] teams want their character to do everything under the sun, but reality kicks in and they start tearing out the ability to dance and swim pretty fast," veteran game designer Dave Perry told Kotaku. "Many games have you instantly drown. Plenty just let you go up to your ankles. Some let you swim off into oblivion with nothing out there, and then you have to swim back. If there's no good reason to swim (nothing to find or do), then it's a waste of valuable team attention, so that's why so many teams just trash the idea and focus on something more important instead."

Swimming Bans Help Game Creators
Maybe many games are better off without empowering heroes to do the backstroke or the doggy-paddle.

Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

Developers say that omitting swimming helps them. Making a dive in the water deadly can add a core element of the game's difficulty, no matter how absurd that element may be to the game's fiction — or how much the fiction must be stretched to accommodate it. Really, should water barricade a bunch of athletic freedom-fighters and animals?

"Fictionally speaking, it really doesn't make sense to have water as a boundary in the Sly Cooper games," Bridges admitted. "There, I said it. The three main characters are Sly the Raccoon, Bentley the Turtle, and Murray the Hippo. Real raccoons are decent swimmers, and turtles and hippos spend the majority of their lives in water, but our heroes had to swear off water as part of their transition to
the video game universe."

Capcom's Bionic Commando producer, Ben Judd, stressed to Kotaku that the metal arm of his game's hero is just too heavy to keep its hero — a guy who can survive multiple bullet shots and steep falls — afloat.

That's the story explanation.

The real reason they limit swimming from games like Sly and Bionic Commando is to add an aspect of difficulty to their games. Heroes like Sly or inFamous' Cole McGrath are so strong that other obstacles won't do. "Cole and Sly are both excellent climbers," said Bridges, "So tipping a car sideways to block an alley entrance is not enough to keep them out." He noted that "water is often a better alternative than other boundary options, such as 'Steep Mountains,' 'Giant Walls,' 'Flaming Lava Fields,' or 'Infinite Cliffs.'"

Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

Judd described how water was used to add challenge to Bionic Commando: "With Bionic Commando, we needed something that could be used as an obstacle that would both limit where Spencer could go but also prove to be a danger so that if he fell into it he could die… early levels have very few 'pit traps' at all. If you fall, you just need to climb back up in early levels. Around the middle of the game, we use water as a device that people want to avoid. But if they do fall into it, there is a small window in which they can hook onto something nearby and avoid death because we didn't want any insta-kills so early in the game. Toward the end of the game, there are more tried and true pitfalls that will kill you if miss the swing."

And if water won't kill a games' heroes, stuff in the water might, like that Scarface shark. Or, as Drew Murray, lead designer of PlayStation 3 first-person shooter Resistance 2, reminded Kotaku, there's the Fury, a classic deadly-swimming-enemy type seen in that game: "The Fury went through a number of iterations, from its initial design as a 'Chimeran walrus' that would be fast and deadly in the water but slow and lumbering on land (with arm-mounted guns to boot!), to our final design as a purely aquatic enemy that essentially acted like a sign next to a toxic lake reading 'Swimming Here Is Hazardous to Your Health!"" he said. "We also used them in several places as timing-puzzle challenges for swimming sections, where the player would have to time their swimming based on the speed and location of furies in the water."

Just Add Swimming
There are so many reasons not to have swimming in games, that the addition of it can be a feature worth promoting. It's a literal game-changer, as players who transitioned from the death-water of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to the pearl-diving-permissible depths of GTA: San Andreas can attest.

Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

To add swimming, developers need to draw more graphics, tweak their camera system, add animations and find that elusive fun in video game breaststroke. Some have determined all that works' worthwhile.

The Assassin's Creed series is making the move from non-swimmable to swimmable with this fall's sequel. The sequel's lead game designer, Patrick Plourde, told Kotaku, "We listened to the feedback of the players who were pretty vocal that the fact that that Altair couldn't swim wasn't feeling right for a master Assassin – they were right. Also our new setting which included Venice has a much stronger need to interact with water. So that explains why swimming wasn't in Assassin's Creed but is in Assassin's Creed II."

Swimming wasn't available in the first game, Plourde said, simply because the team knew water wasn't going to be an important enough part of the game's terrain to make getting in it worth the development energy. The threat of water wound up shaping one port-based assassination mission in that first game, forcing Altair to hopscotch across moored boats. In Venice, new Assassin Ezio will have to have other hazards to worry about than a bad soaking.

Just Remove Swimming
For all the nice things that swimming might add to a game, it's not a must. Some designers have de-emphasized it. See the drop in swimming content from Super Mario Sunshine to Super Mario Galaxy.

Sink Or Swim? The Game Designer's ConundrumS

Others are removing swimming completely. That's happening in the next Ratchet & Clank. That series' creative director, Brian Allgeier of Insomniac, explained how swimming had served Ratchet well in the past but proved a reasonable omission for the next adventure, Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time: "On the Ratchet & Clank games, we included swimming as another means of exploration and felt that it rounded out a nice set of moves for our main character," he said. "Ironically, water was also used at times as a level boundary along with lava, toxic goo, and fall-to-death areas to prevent people from exploring too far. Sometimes we've used swimmable and non-swimmable water together. For instance in Quest for Booty, we had a lagoon area in the Hoolefar Island level where Ratchet could swim, but further out there was deadly water that bounded the level. For A Crack in Time we've decided to change course and not include swimming. We're putting a lot of new gameplay features and modes in this game and decided that swimming wasn't Ratchet's strongest suit. Plus we also wanted to avoid the confusion of swimmable water versus non-swimmable water. So he won't be swimming in the latest game in favor of Hoverboots, Clank time gameplay, new gadgets, and a lot more."

Who would miss swimming in a game, anyway? It's not like Insomniac is cutting the ability to hover, shoot cartoon weapons or smack enemies with a big wrench. That's what the people pay for.

As 2009 turns to summer for many of us, and as you dip your toes in the pool or step toward a crashing beach wave, enjoy this one easy thing you can do that so many video game characters can't.

Swimming can be a chore in games, a hassle for gamers and game makers. But wouldn't we all rather swing giant hammers and double-jump over cars instead?