I sometimes sit and wonder about how amazing it would be to step into a time machine and head back to the early 90’s with my Playstation 4 and a copy of something like The Witcher 3 or The Last of Us. I’d love to see the wonder and amazement bestowed upon the gamers of that age – their minds would be blown to smithereens. They’d dribble in awe at the sight of Ellie and Joel exploring a deserted village after which they’d be mumbling incoherently at the lush vegetation passing them by as they ride Roach around Skellige, with Geralt’s white hair flapping in the wind.
Graphics and visuals beyond imagination; scale, voice acting and character movements unbelievable beyond words. Yet there would be one mechanic that would bring even them – the stone age of gamer – to despair. Underwater sections. Or more specifically, swimming.
Since the dawn of home gaming, in the adventure genre particularly, the “water stage” has been a staple of level design. Yet whilst every other factor of gaming has evolved for the better since then, swimming hasn’t.
Take The Witcher 3, for example. A game I have played a lot over the last 3 months and a game I consider to be one of the finest releases in years. Geralt can run around the lush lands with perfect agility but once he comes into contact with water he turns into what can only be described as a drunken vagrant that’s fallen into a canal. You watch in dismay as he randomly scrambles around underwater, with the player frantically smashing the X button to loot a chest and feeling like they are controlling an oil tanker. The problem is compounded when attacked by enemies. Poor Geralt is pinged around like he’s in a pinball machine.
Yet it has always been like this since games went 3D. Think back to Tomb Raider. Even now I can recall the wall pounding frustration at seeing Lara’s drowning animation for the tenth time whilst trying to pull a submerged lever. People cite Super Mario 64 as one of the greatest games ever made, but if you play it again (like I have recently) then you will realise that the swimming sections are utterly dire.
Even modern powerhouse developers like Rockstar can’t get it quite right. Swimming in GTA has that common feeling of sluggish clunkiness that other games of its generation have.
Naughty Dog seem to be the only developer who seem to be actively trying to improve the mechanic. The Last of Us underwater sections were fairly smooth and quite enjoyable. They were still far from perfect, but at least Naughty Dog are trying to improve this age old problem. Other developers seem to shoehorn in water levels with little thought or eye for improvement, as if it’s a necessary evil.
I believe that swimming underwater was at its best in 2D side scrollers. Think Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World or even Ecco the Dolphin. These games were much more basic of course, but the tap-tap of a single button to control the forward and vertical movement of a character was a revelation. So simple, yet so effective. Some underwater levels from that 2D era are amongst my favourites. The change to 3D overcomplicated things.
Swimming in games is here to stay, but developers need to actively focus on improving it and making it more fluid or else the whole mechanic is in danger of becoming stagnant.