Skaters look at their urban environment in a different way to civilians. They see streets, sidewalks and anything else flat and hard as potential parts of a vast playground. Their skewed view of the public space isn’t too dissimilar from the mindset of a videogame level designer, who must consider the architecture they construct as a play space for millions of gamers.
The first videogame to exploit this way of seeing the world was 1999’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, an exuberant, punky and wildly popular genre definer that made every player come to feel like a skateboarding superhero. After ten minutes with the game it was difficult to look at a kerb or park bench the same way again. Every edge became another rail to grind, each sloped surface an opportunity to launch oneself into space. Accordingly, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was a smash hit spawning a lucrative franchise for Activision and inspiring a boom in the popularity of real-world skateboarding.
But by 2007 Tony Hawk began to show his age. That year would see the ninth proper entry in Hawk’s venerable videogame series. By then Activision and developer Neversoft had thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the series to keep the franchise fresh. They dabbled, mistakenly, with the outrageous humour of the popular TV series Jackass and laboured, somewhat successfully, to bring Tony Hawk into an open world. But fans were beginning to feel fatigued and bored by continual updates to the series.
What the skateboarding videogame really needed was a fresh set of eyes. That new perspective came courtesy of EA Black Box and its game Skate, released in the autumn of 2007 to square off against Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. The pre-Christmas dust-up between proven quantity and unknown upstart was a doozie. In the end EA would brag that Skate outsold Proving Ground nearly two to one. Talk about fresh blood.
For its ground-up re-imagining, EA Black Box seemed to keep one ethos at heart: keep it real. Where Tony Hawk’s escapades saw him catching air on the moon, Skate sought to remain relatively down-to-Earth. And in that spirit Skate began with a live-action video.
Through the lens of a shaky, hand-held camcorder viewfinder we see a young male skating a line on the grounds of a school. He ollies over a bench, swerves down an outdoor hallway, kickflipping past a bank of lockers before leaping down a flight of stairs and kissing the metal handrail with his board. He lands his trick on the sidewalk and his momentum thrusts him into the street where he is promptly crushed by a bus.
“Yo,” the cameraman says, “Somebody call an ambulance.” The voice we hear is that of Giovanni Reda, a photographer and film-maker in the skateboarding scene. Like the Lakitu Brother that Shigeru Miyamoto recruited to play the role of cameraman in Super Mario 64, Reda handles all videotaping duties in Skate. After the traffic accident Reda will follow the player, offering advice, encouragement and the occasional dis. But, most importantly, he’ll be capturing everything the player does on tape. It’s rare for a videogame to expend so much energy justifying the existence of the in-game camera. But here the lore does double duty. Not only does Reda capture every realtime moment of the game from the traditional, waist-level angle of the DIY skateboarding video, but having Reda around means the player will also have footage to mess about with.
One of Skate’s many innovations is the ability to pry the tape out of Reda’s camera at any time and edit recent action into a savable, sharable clip. Skate commits 100 per cent to the premise. Against the black of load screens one can pick out the faint noise of tracking static. The player’s combo meter reads like film, new frames spooling out as the multiplier increases. Later, when the player explores the game’s world, Reda serves as a portable quest giver, granting access to trick challenges anywhere. The conceit, of course, is that Reda needs impressive new clips to help spread the word about your skateboarding prowess. The ideas of seeing and being seen run through Skate’s core like the grain in the wood of a skateboard deck.
To that end, EA hosted a website called skate.Reel (now defunct) where players could upload and share their clips. The feature, and a key differentiator with the hermetically sealed Tony Hawk games, wound up flourishing within later versions of the game – serving as the seed for a burgeoning community of virtual skateboarders, fans who would use the tools in Skate’s sequels to create full-length machinima that perfectly ape the look of contemporary skateboarding videos.
But all this is putting the cart before the horse. There’s still the matter of the bus accident in the game’s opening cinematic. After a wild, live-action ambulance ride set to The White Stripes’ Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine and rife with cameo appearances from all the game’s pro skaters, you find yourself in hospital, about to undergo massive reconstructive surgery. That’s Skate’s way of both rationalising character customisation and bending the cliché of the amnesiac RPG hero to its needs. With its videogame-style rebirth complete, Skate sets the player down in the fictional town of San Vanelona.
It is in a neighbourhood skate park that players gets their first skateboarding lessons. The tutorials here resemble the path to rehabilitation in more ways than one. Outside of the in-game automobile accident there are real-world needs for re-training. All the habits and impulses learned playing Tony Hawk games have to be unlearned. Picking the game up fresh in 2007 was a confounding and somewhat frustrating experience. After years of having jumps and grinds mapped to buttons, the shock of a new way to skateboard in a videogame was profound. Muscle memory had to be scrubbed and re-written.
All of those difficulties were wrapped up in Skate’s ‘Flick It’ control scheme. In Tony Hawk games a mere button press was all it took to pull off an ollie – the basic building block of nearly every skateboarding trick. Skate required players to crouch by pulling down on the right thumb stick, then jump by quickly pushing it up. That action would propel the player and, most importantly, their board into the air. From there players could experiment by popping the stick up in diagonal or sweeping it around the outside curve of the thumb stick’s well to execute myriad elaborations on the ollie.
That wasn’t the only frustration the Tony Hawk fan would find in Skate’s tutorials. Grinds were much more difficult to pull off, too. In Activision’s games players need only be in the vicinity of an edge and hit the correct button to find themselves jerked into a grind. Skate requires the player to line up the perfect angle and time their ollie so that the board lands on the kerb and begins to slide. Jump too early or too late, and the board catches on the cement, sending your avatar into an ugly, rag-doll face-plant.
Skate is, in no uncertain terms, a skateboarding simulator. All the vagaries of the control scheme are tied to this fact. They’re a lot to grasp at first. But once digested they give the player all the tools they need to hone a skateboarding style. Where Tony Hawk doles out skill points, abilities and special moves as rewards for progression, Skate gives them a complete toolbox in the opening moments of the game. The rest of the experience involves mastering those natural abilities.
This is where Skate sticks to the script. Players follow the classic rags-to-riches trajectory, trying to impress other skaters, earn sponsors, win contests and, eventually, compete in the X-Games. These challenges are peppered throughout the vast landscape of San Vanelona. The best moments are the briefly aforementioned video challenges. They’re puzzles of a sort. Each calls for a handful of tricks to be executed and players are asked to use their creativity and skills to find a place in their town where they can pull off all those tricks. Also vital to the spirit of Skate are ‘spots’ – locations peppered throughout the town where skaters are known to congregate. It is the duty of the player to ‘own’ each spot by pulling off a specific trick and posting a new high score while doing it.
All these challenges are made more humane by a feature that allows players to drop a spawn point at an exact spot in the game world then warp back to it by nudging the D-pad. This one bit of realism-shattering trickery cuts out the tedium of skating back into position to re-attempt a difficult trick.
The game’s one sour note is S.K.A.T.E – a call and response head-to-head contest in which competitors try to stymie each other by pulling a trick that their opponent can’t copy. Each failure to match the move earns you one of the scarlet letters. Fail five times and you lose. Against computer-controlled opponents these duels seem suspiciously cheap – especially when the bots always seem to nail your tricks. The larger problem is that the matches just take too much time, and they’re antithetical to the ethos of skateboarding. Skaters don’t copy. They march to their own beat.
Modern skateboarding may have been born on the coast, but San Vanelona is landlocked. The game begins in the hillside suburbs – where homes, schools and shopping malls all provide plenty of pavement for the newbie skater. It spills downhill towards The Res – a district with the sloped feel of San Francisco – and into Old Town where vaguely European colonial-era buildings give way to an industrial district skirted by one of California’s signature cement drainage ditches. Due west is Downtown – a typical American city centre in which security guards work overtime to make the lives of skaters miserable.
Though players can strike out and explore the city at will, San Vanelona’s terrain follows a logical progression – one that speaks directly to the soul of the skater. Beginnings happen, as they do for most Americans, in the suburbs. The game peaks in the shadows of skyscrapers – where the marble-rich plazas and public sculptures constructed by the captains of the economy become the stolen playthings of skateboarders. That re-connection, from the pioneering reconsideration of space in Tony Hawk to the genre refining of Skate, is what skaters and critics can both comfortably call a satisfying 360.