To A or Not To A?: The Ontology of the Platformer

JUMPING

Game genres are often situated upon verbs and verb combinations — racing, fighting, role-playing, beat ’em up, hack ’n’ slash, run ’n’ gun, etc. — and if not they are usually more general concepts such as horror, adventure, strategy or rhythm. Contrarily the term “platform game” seems arbitrarily focused not on what the player does but what they interact with (i.e. platforms). Calling every platformer a “platform game” feels tantamount to calling every shooter a “bullet hell”. It’s a strangely noun-centric way to frame the genre, and the verbification of the platform object via the term “platformer” only highlights its unconventional and tautological nature. What is a platform game? It’s a videogame with platforming! What is platforming? It’s what you do between platforms in a platform game! But how would one do platforming in real life? If I hop down the street instead of walking, have I transformed my surroundings into a platform?

CLIMBING/CHANGING

The term “platform game” is British in origin, being initially published in the debut issue of Crash Magazine in February of 1984 to describe the ZX Spectrum games Manic Miner, Stomping Stan and Bonkers. If I had to take a guess as to the exact roots of the term, I’d posit it has something to do with the prevalence of the railway system and thus railway platforms in the United Kingdom. The term “platformer” came about shortly thereafter in 1985 also in the pages of Crash, but only gained prominence in the early 1990’s, making its way to U.S. magazines circa 1994.

Screenshot from Crazy Climber

LANDING/REPEATING

On the 20th of July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission landed on the surface of the Moon, and before the year ended this event would inspire the first text-based lunar lander videogame as well as Ken Thompson’s Space Travel, which is perhaps best known for its part in the early development of the Unix operating system. It would take another four years for the first graphical version of the lander micro-genre, Moonlander for the DEC GT40, and another five for the most well-known version Atari’s Lunar Lander in 1979. In tandem with these landers came games with a similar interest in aeronautics, namely parachuting games like Atari’s Sky Diver, Exidy’s Rip Cord and Taito’s Rock Climber (which combined Crazy Climber style clambering upward with falling steadily downwards).

Screenshot from Frogs

ENDING: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE ANTI-PLATFORMER

If there is a failing in my definition of the platformer it may be that it relies too much on the technical knowledge of the programmer rather than the experiential knowledge of the player. For example: in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when Link falls down a hole it is obvious that the player avatar is not affected by simulated gravity–the illusion of increasing distance is achieved through changing the player sprite to one which shrinks in diameter over time. However when Link jumps down from a ledge, it is not apparent whether the avatar is being conveyed by simulated gravity or simply being moved along linearly, as if pulled by a thread.

FURTHER READING

THE RISE OF THE JUMP by Tom Butler
Five Critical Moments in Platform Game History by Jeremy Parish

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