Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Trials HD bunny hop and expressive movement

I made a breakthrough last week in one of my favorite recent video games . . . and I guess I'd like to tell you about it.

One small hop for a bike, one giant leap for precision gaming

The game is Trials HD, a downloadable title on the Xbox LIVE Arcade in which the player moves a dude on a dirt bike through an obstacle course as fast as possible while trying not to spill. The breakthrough involved the mastery (of sorts) of a certain in-game maneuver.

In my head I've been calling it the bunny hop. But when I think about it now, it seems more accurate to describe it as the forward hop. Or maybe the forward pop. It's kind of a snappy motion—a jerky left-to-right gesture of the left analog thumbstick that results in a sort of quick pop forward for the biker on the screen. The biker guy moves his body down and back, then springs his weight upward and forward. That sudden shift, combined with a careful acceleration of the gas (determined by the level of pressure my right index finger applies to the right trigger button), helps give me some much needed forward momentum to make it over protruding surfaces that would otherwise send me straight up in the air—or maybe right into a wall. It's … really hard to describe what I'm talking about. But believe me, it's something the Trials HD player will need to learn if she or he wants to finish the game's extreme difficulty tracks—a feat I now have accomplished, thank you very much.

You're gonna want to use the bunny hop here. Trust me.

Playing Trials HD, as a physical experience, reminded me of playing the guitar. I remember in middle school, back when I was still a fairly early learner. By this time I had gotten used to the basic chords. I could switch between a D chord and an A chord and an E chord handily enough. It was the F chord that really tripped me up. Playing an F chord—properly, at least—required me to stretch my left index finger all the way across the first fret. Not only that, I had to press down across that fret with enough pressure to ensure that each of the six strings would still ring clear and vibrant when picked or strummed. At first this was a real challenge. I could see clear as day what I had to do, and yet my hand and finger muscles weren't ready to cooperate. Stretching that finger felt awkward and strenuous. And when I strummed the notes came out all muted and smothered. This was the case for a long time until one day, lo and behold, I got it. I could do it! It sounded clear as a bell—well, almost, anyway. But it also felt comfortable! Not only that, I could now strum bar chords all the way up the fret board. It introduced a whole new mode of playing. 

I first learned about the Trials HD bunny hop while watching a YouTube video showing how to get through one of the the extreme tracks. The video tutorial got to the place in the track that had me stumped. Just do a little bunny hop, the narrator told me; push back and forth on the thumbstick and jump. This was easier said than done. I probably tried over a hundred times to get over that uphill bump, but my clunky back-and-forth motions did nothing to help the situation. I gave up on that track for a while.

I don't know what else to say, other than the guy in the video was right. My fingers may not have understood the instructions at first, but at some point—several weeks and thousands of spills later—it started to click. I can't describe what I was doing differently, only that somehow I was pulling off one successful bunny hop after another. I guess my fingers had finally learned the magic language. That was the first breakthrough. The second breakthrough was the realization that this bunny hop maneuver, or some variation of it, formed the basis for overcoming just about every near-impossible obstacle in the game. It was the secret ingredient.

The truth is I'm in awe of Trials HD, specifically its simulated physics. Trials HD is a game about precision—muscle precision to be … precise. And what amazes me when playing Trials HD is the seeming seamlessness with which my controller movements correspond to the visual animations displayed on the TV screen. Large, wild gestures (I'm speaking relatively here; these are thumbstick movements) translate to wild gestures on screen, and often result in crashes. Minute, articulated gestures result in equally small and articulated movements—which also can lead to crashes.

But there's such a spectrum of available movement, broken up by such minuscule degrees of difference. So often it's the slightest, most sensitive variation in controller movement that makes all the difference between overcoming a track obstacle or losing balance and crashing. And while the most extreme tracks demand the execution of more precise gestures, there nevertheless are infinite ways with which an individual player can move through the virtual environment—be it gracefully or otherwise. Every run through a Trials HD track is like a snowflake in that it can't be replicated. I suppose that's similarly true even for more technologically primitive games, except that other games don't necessarily feel as genuinely physical or gestural. The input/feedback of attempting a virtual jump in Trials HD could be compared to the input/feedback of any real-life physical activity that demands skill and precise muscle control. Ever tried bouncing quarters into a shot glass? Sometimes you'll overshoot; sometimes you'll undershoot. Eventually you'll get it in. And after a while, with more practice, you might start landing it in the glass more often than not.

Arcade-style video games have always involved hand-eye coordination. As with anything skill-based, there inevitably are video game players who for certain games ascend to the realm of true mastery. I would not describe the original Donkey Kong as having a very robust physics system, let alone graceful controller mechanics. And yet there are a select number of individuals who have mastered the movements of that game on a level most of us never will. That's almost to be expected, really.

What I mean to say is that my captivation with Trials HD has less to do with the fact that there are people who can play as good as this (although, if you have played the game, you will be insanely jealous). You can find people who are really good at just about anything. It has more to do with my own experience with the game and how—looking back—I have a newfound appreciation for how video game physics engines and corresponding controller input mechanics have evolved. Here's a fun exercise. Go play five minutes of Pitfall on the Atari 2600. Then play Trials HD (or skip ahead to its recently released sequel, Trials Evolution. I haven't played it, but I imagine it's just as good)

In terms of hardware progression alone—and through the console gaming industry's gradual movement from joystick to directional pad to analog stick to dual analog sticks and pressure-sensitive buttons—game playing can be more physically elegant, dynamic and expressive than ever. This perhaps is even more apparent when playing games that—like Trials HD—have scaled things back to a set of simple but refined core mechanics. Super Meat Boy is another good example of this. In a sense, both games involve little more than simulated running and jumping on a two-dimensional plane. But by honing and perfecting the underlying engines that drive that relationship of physical input and visual feedback, developers are rewarding players with gaming experiences that feel as revolutionary and exciting as ever.

Screenshot images of Trials HD were borrowed from


  1. Hey Flynn,

    Have you ever read Pilgrim in the Microworld? I've just gotten it (on recommendation from another book, Rules of Play), and what Rules of Play says about it strikes me as similar to what you talk about in this post:

    "This first-person account of one man's genuine obsession with the Atari 2600 game Breakout offers a clear portrait of the aesthetics of interactive systems. Concepts related to the anatomy of a choice, discernability and integration of player action, pleasure, and core mechanics are discussed in terms of player experience, making it a valuable resource for those intent on understanding just what is happening from moment-to-moment during game play."

    I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I hope to soon.

  2. Have you started reading it yet? I like the title!