It may seem an odd subject to focus on, as jumping doesn't seem to be very important on the face of it – cut it out of a game, though, and it can make a huge difference. Games in which players can’t jump, or at the very least dodge or roll, can seem painfully slow, dull and static. Games in which players can jump around and use that movement to interact with the environment can seem immeasurably more fun because of it.
Take Half-Life 2
, for example. It’s a game which nearly everyone would agree is well-made, decently written, fun and fast to play through. Now cast your mind back to the first scene in Kliener’s lab, where Gordon is first properly introduced to his allies, where the plot is given its first proper push and where you’re gifted with the HEV suit again. It’s a busy sequence; lots to do, lots to take in. You’d expect most players to pay close attention, at least the first time around.
Instead, every single player I know spends most of the time jumping around. Sometimes they try to jump on the scenery or knock over objects, other times they just leapfrog around the room when a simple stroll would suffice.
The same behaviour holds true in most other games too, I’ve found. When I played Beyond Good and Evil
for the first time I hardly walked anywhere across the surface of Hillys; I rolled. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
, any hallway that involved walking for more than two seconds would be punctuated by periodic bounding. It seems like aberrant behaviour at first, yet it seems as though everyone does it. Why?
The reason, I think, is actually more to do with player speed than actually jumping. It’s not that people always like to move fast through games or that they enjoy spending time off the ground. Instead, it comes back to the original point – games that don’t feature jumping can feel static and slow, so we use these features if they're present to help negate this effect. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a pretty fast-paced game, but running down a long corridor can still feel dull and empty; jumping as you run lets you vary the speed of the game. It creates tiny events of player agency and interaction, which stave off that staid feeling.
At the same time, adventure games that don’t feature anything so much as a sprint button? Don’t they seem increasingly slow and dated these days?
Mirror's Edge trailer
This isn’t the only reason why jumping is important, though. It helps you practice for later. It can be used to ward off boredom. It helps you to further explore the game space away from the key features. There's an abundance of smaller reasons; not least of which is possibly the fact that some people just have twitchy thumbs.
For the best games, though – and this ties into a more overarching theory of mine about character speed – the act of jumping can
be a joy in itself. Master Chief
’s jump, for example, is pleasantly floaty, while Dante
’s can last for as long as you can hammer the attack buttons. Faith’s standing jump in Mirror’s Edge
, however, is realistically awkward; she’s much better with running leaps.
Getting these nuances of player speed correct is one of the most subtle and important aspects of making a good game, especially for first person shooters. Trust me, I play a lot of really rubbish games and I can tell you that, if you throw all the cleverness away and boil it down to basic functionality, Half-Life 2 would still stand above Conspiracy Island 2 based solely on player speed. And the quality of the jumping.