“Pretty much everyone who tries the game eats shit like crazy at first,” Marc-Andre Houde told me when I met him in New York to see crea-ture studios’ forthcoming skateboarding game, Session. Maybe that’s a bad way to sell a video game, but Session is an unusual game—more a skate sim than an arcade stunt show a la Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Learning how to play Session is a bit like learning how to skate—which is why you spend your first few moments eating shit.
“The purpose of the game is to feel what it is to be passionate about skateboarding,” said Houde, crea-ture co-founder and Session’s creative director. “This passion comes through hard work and patience and perseverance.”
Houde started by skating in Session, and along with fellow crea-ture co-founder Vincent Da Silva, told me a little bit about how they came to create a hardcore skate sim. The two met in 2012 while working at Warner Bros. Games. They have 35 years of combined games industry experience. In their free time, they started kicking around ideas for their own projects.
“We tried tons of really cool concepts that we hope will live on and come back to life,” Houde said. “A ninja game, a zombie game, Cthulhu game, a raccoons stealing stuff game.”
“A stunt driving game,” added Da Silva.
“We were always bringing these prototypes to a playable state fairly quickly, but then I was the party pooper that was like ‘oh i have this new idea!’ and then we started to jump onto another thing.”
Session, Houde said, was partially the result of a dare from Da Silva to not can his next idea in favor of the next shiny new one. And as a guy who spent his whole life skating, Houde figured it was a good a project as any to try and finish.
As he told me this, Houde was pulling off loads of standard skate tricks in Session, jumps and flips I don’t have names for and nosegrinds that traced slick, clean lines across polished granite. It’s impressive, but I wasn’t really sure how impressive. Yet.
Then he let me play. We were in a Manhattan office not far from the concrete playground of the Financial District that this early build of Session—due to be released on Xbox Game Preview and Steam Early Access on September 17—was set in. And you know what? I ate shit. I wasn’t frustrated, though—actually, I was kind of into it. To understand why, you have to understand the controls for this game, and how weird they are.
When you get down to it, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in how controller-based video games work. Generally, the left stick controls movement, the right stick controls the camera, the triggers are mapped to whatever the most important actions are, and the face buttons usually play some kind of support role. There’s variation there, but not so much that would surprise someone familiar with video games. There are conventions to how controls are mapped, and they’ve worked out pretty well so far.
Session is not like that.
“We’re asking you to kind of throw out 40 years of gaming using sticks and directional pads,” Houde said.
My first few minutes with Session made me feel like I was playing maybe my third video game ever—I knew in my head how things were supposed to work. The left stick controls your left foot on the board, the right stick your right foot. To pedal, you use the A button on the Xbox gamepad, to brake and push back, you use B. Turning is handled by the triggers, in a way meant to simulate leaning on the board’s trucks: the left trigger is a left lean, the right trigger leans in the opposite direction. That’s the basics, and just wrapping your head around them will take you a bit—just skating in a straight line without wiping out was hard enough for me at first, because I kept wanting to use the thumbsticks to move and orient myself.
“The good news is, it won’t take you a whole summer to learn how to ollie,” Houde joked. Regardless, pulling off my first trick in Session was flat-out intimidating, requiring a level of coordination completely unfamiliar to me. That simple ollie, for example, requires you to think about not just your environment, but your feet, and which stick controls what which foot, and what each one should be doing. (Right stick down to shift your weight, left stick up to kick off—wait, which stance are you in? Maybe try again, but backwards.)
It sounds like a lot, but Session’s controls have a logic to them that makes complete sense for its sim approach to skating. Once you wrap your head around it and sit down with the game, it doesn’t take long to appreciate what it does, and—more importantly—understand when someone does something impressive in the game. Now that I had spent some time with the game, I understood how Houde was pulling off his tricks. I realized it would probably take me a couple hours before I nailed them myself. That’s how Session works. There’s no scoring system, no leveling up, no skill points—doing well in Session is all a matter of how good you are at nailing a given trick. If you wanted to get thrown out of a party, you might even say it’s the Dark Souls of skate games.
“Games used to be hard, back in the day. It’s almost like the games industry doesn’t trust the player to be challenged?” Houde said. “So this is where we come back and say ‘we believe you can do this, and we also believe that no matter how hard it is, you’re going to have a blast when you land your stuff.’”
My main takeaway here was that everyone who plays video games should play Session, if only to remind themselves how foreign controllers can be to people who don’t regularly take up this hobby.
But skating is only half of the Session equation. The other half is making sweet tapes of your skate skills, and unlike the skating part, it’s easy to do. A push of the gamepad’s menu button will bring up a video editor, through which you’ll be able to scrub through the entirety of your gameplay session (get it?). At any point, you can reposition the camera, fast forward, rewind, and otherwise compose your perfect shot.
As Session is just gearing up for an Early Access/Xbox Game Preview release, there isn’t a lot to jazz up your footage with yet—no in-game music (though, according to Houde and Da Silva, that’s being explored), no fish-eye lenses, no killer fits to dress your avatar in. (clothes and board designs are, per the Kickstarter, coming.)
Like a lot of Early Access games, Session is barebones. The pre-release build I played worked well, but had a few rough edges: the board would sometimes clip through the environment, the slightest nudge against a curb could make me wipe out. As spare as it is, Session is already a solid sim, with a compelling approach to video game skating that makes me think we’ll be seeing a lot of mixtapes online in the next year. Some of them might be truly impressive. But plenty more will probably be full of skaters eating shit.