Aubrey Hesselgren, a technical designer on shooter Brink, talks about overcoming the six foot jump problem and making parkour feel right in the first-person shooter
Regardless of how you might feel about 2011’s Brink, a team-based shooter developed by Splash Damage, it’s hard to deny that its parkour-inspired movement has had a massive impact on online shooters.
Brink wasn’t the game to introduce parkour to games. While a few games had attempted it, Mirror’s Edge was renowned for being ‘The Parkour Game’. But while that game presented an environment as a puzzle you had to solve with the judicious application of freerunning, Brink’s movement system was closer in feel to an extreme sports game. A tool for expression that let players chain together a series of movements. While killing each other.
We speak to Aubrey Hesselgren, a technical game designer on Brink, a role he describes as the translator between a designer and a programmer. Hesselgren, who at the time had been spending a lot of time doing parkour, had previously worked on the movement for the mod Matrix Quake 2 that involved lots of running up walls and diving around corners, so he put himself forward to work on the game’s traversal.
“I had a lot of ideas about how movement should be done in a first-person game,” Hesselgren says. “Very particular ideas, so I wanted to be on top of it.”
Hesselgren’s career before and after Brink has largely focused on movement. More particularly, he describes it as wanting “to enable designers to have their characters do what they’d like, without ejecting the player’s control in the process.”
Early on, the animators had video footage showing some “very nice animations” of characters vaulting over barriers. Hesselgren says that although it looked amazing in first person, playing the animation would mean that players lost control of their weapon momentarily. Considering how often players were planning to be in various traversal states, that could create problems.
“It was pure animation and I thought, ‘that won’t go down well’ because players in a first-person action game don’t see why they’ve lost control, because they’re not looking at their body most of the time,” Hesselgren says.
“My priority was to make sure that any movement didn’t interrupt what you were doing as a player.”
So the system was reworked. At the time, a responsive parkour system was (and still is) a substantial amount of work, and a significant technical challenge.
Eventually, a system involving holding down the sprint button was created, a smart button that allows you to get over objects without effort by charging toward them. Hesselgren explains that for skilled players, you could eke out extra movement speed by eschewing the button and doing the actions manually, giving the game a high skill ceiling for players able to spend time mastering it.
“People were really concerned we would be removing a skill ceiling with movement,” he says. “And I was like, ‘no, no, no, I have to do whatever I can to knock that perception on its ass’.”
Hesselgren says that one issue with the system was that multiplayer maps were being created for the game while designers were working out the system. As a result, one of the biggest issues with the implementation in the game was that when a map was finished, or even close to done, it was hard to layer a fully responsive movement system over the top. If there ever was a Brink sequel that Hesselgren was involved with, he’d have wanted to nail down the complete movement system ahead of level creation, taking advantage of the team’s experience here. As it was, there simply wasn’t time to refit all of the different maps for the system.
“When I was playing it to test, I could do things like set up a multi-storey car park with staggered levels,” says Hesselgren, indicating different steps with extravagant hand movements. “It was a good test, and on the controller I was able to jump up, mantle there, interrupt the mantle, spin and jump before climbing again. Play the entire thing without touching the ground. And we didn’t really have the level designs for that, because we needed to learn to facilitate the movement and you can’t do that until you know what the system is capable of.”
The push for a more realistic movement system came as games sought to be more grounded. Brink may have taken place in a futuristic dystopia, but at least people moved properly.
“Here’s the problem. We’ve got a game we want to be a bit more realistic than say... Halo. We don’t wanna have six foot jumps, which solve everything.”
Before this point, classics of the multiplayer shooter genre had giant leaps, while several even added the ability to rocket jump, with players using a rocket fired at their feet to propel them into the air. Brink was one of the first to introduce a more physical style of movement, which became a core characteristic of modern multiplayer shooters. Brink wasn’t hugely successful at launch and attracted a lot of criticism, but you can feel its influence everywhere. Hesselgren describes Titanfall 2 as a game that achieved everything that Brink was trying to work with, and while it might give you jetpacks and giant robots, it’s hard not to see Brink’s influence in every wall run, or the athletic way a character bounces up the back of a robot to lever its battery loose.
“The march of fidelity means that our audience expects more and more realistic games,” says Hesselgren. “It means we need more and more plausible reasons you can get up and over things, like a human can, as opposed to taking a shortcut with a six foot jump. Not just for us, for every other company doing a first-person game as everything was getting more realistic.
“So we had to tackle it. And I think we did some good things in terms of game feel with respect to your momentum. So, if you run into something with a certain speed, it’ll maintain that speed as it’s going into the animation. It doesn’t give you control during the animation, but it allows you to break out of the animation, which is good, but looked bad, because you’re just interrupting an animation. But the player feels more in control, and that’s absolutely the key to get it to feel right.”