Hi, I’m Hamish Black and welcome to Writing
on Games. Believe it or not, there was a point in time where the notion of accurately representing
the art of skateboarding was most effectively realised, well… here. We live in a post-Skate
world; we’ve seen how realistic the depictions of skateboarding can be. As such, the idea
that the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series started off as a means of legitimising the sport in
the eyes of the mainstream may seem a little absurd.
I mean just… look at it. Look at the speed at which you careen through these places where
skateboarders probably shouldn’t be, how high you go, how seemingly effortlessly you
glide around the entire level coming across super weird scenarios along the way.
I mean, it’s fairly well accepted at this stage that the series met a slow, ungracious
demise. This was a result of superfluous sequels that superficially attempted to cash in on
the culture; forcing dated, juvenile aesthetics in your face. Well, what made those older
games different? Aside from branding, what here is actually indicating an accurate portrayal
of the sport? Well, I would go as far as to say that 3 remains
one of the most streamlined representations of the mindset behind skating that gaming
has seen, precisely because of its heightened artifice as a video game. Through the abstract
nature of its mechanics as they relate to actual skating, 3 is able to timelessly convey
what it means to skate. Let’s take a step back for a minute. See,
I was able to pick up 3 again recently thanks to a lull in the barrage of new releases that
has characterised the start of 2017 and man, it’s remarkable how well that game holds
up. I played it for hours actively trying to find flaws in the game’s design and honestly,
I came up short. It plays like it could have been released yesterday. Every one of the
game’s systems is perfectly tuned to create a stunningly pure gaming experience, carefully
iterating on the vision laid out by the first two games while avoiding the superfluity of
future titles. It’s through this purity that the game can present its vision of the sport.
How do we define that purity? You could sum up Tony Hawk 3’s player goal as follows
– maintain fluid, balanced movement through a level while making the numbers as big as
possible within a two-minute time limit. Now let’s examine Underground 2, where you build
up a team of pro skaters and some of the Jackass cast in order to travel the world meandering
through different environments before activating a particular goal that might have you skating
or it might have you controlling Steve-O riding a bull and the goal is to create as much chaos
as possible sometimes but sometimes it’s also to get a high score I guess and there’s
nut shots and Bam’s dad is fat and sometimes there’s a time limit and sometimes there’s
not. To say it’s diffuse would be to put it lightly.
On the other hand, Tony Hawk 3 is so focused that, to me, it doesn’t even matter that the
characters are on skateboards. On a mechanical level, it’s not really about skating – it’s
solely about movement, and that movement ain’t exactly realistic.
By 3 you have both manuals and reverts, meaning you can essentially maintain a combo throughout
the length, width and height of a level if you wanted to. It’s not about how stylish
the tricks you pull off are, it’s about how many you can fit in before you hit the
ground. Individual tricks don’t provide many points, but when each trick adds to a
score multiplier, quantity rather than quality becomes the incentive. The time limit adds
a sense of urgency to proceedings without becoming frustrating, due to the near instantaneous
nature of restarting a run. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Tony Hawk 3 is not
Skate – it’s not realistically representing skating through the streets. It is sheer artifice
– it is quintessentially a video game. It evokes the mechanical coherence of old
high-score arcade games which are easy to pick up and play, but immensely difficult
to master. It’s the kind of game you can complete in four minutes, but the discipline
required to get to that point is where the depth of the game lies. Tony Hawk 3 is about
skateboarding in the same way Asteroids is about going on a space adventure. Sure, it’s
technically what you do, but it’s also more mechanical than that – more artificial.
And the game is better for this artifice! 3, at its core, is about training yourself
to get better through discipline and understanding of the mechanics of what you’re trying to
do. Once you internalise this, you begin to see the world in a different way. You see every part of the world as a means to push the boundaries of
it even further. Every trivial rail, each inconsequential elevation shifts in its intended
purpose, instead becoming a means of getting you to places you couldn’t previously go.
Once you get there, you know you achieved that through your own skill, making it feel
all the more satisfying. What I just said could be applied to either Tony Hawk 3 or
any number of interviews given by the Birdman talking about his love of the sport. I think
that says a lot about how the focus on overtly game-y mechanics represent the purity of the
sport, no matter how abstract it may seem visually.
And it’s clear that 3 represented a peak of sorts in this endeavour. Even 4 removing something
as seemingly trivial as the time limit may have offered more freedom to explore, but
also removed any urgency from or reason for maintaining fluid movement.
More egregiously, however, we then saw the addition of full blown narratives to proceedings
in the Underground series, which at the start saw you aspiring to be Chad Muska (of all
people), and later saw full-blown celebrities representing a more juvenile side to the sport.
The CKY prank side of things was an important part of the culture’s evolution for sure,
but focusing on it so heavily diluted the lucidity of vision seen in previous games.
Put it this way – people will play Tony Hawk 3 in years to come and get an idea of what
it represents fairly immediately. People will play Underground 2 and say “who the hell is
Bam Margera and why do people treat this idiot with such reverence?” It’s why Skate became
the dominant franchise of the sport – it ultimately represented the same values that
later Tony Hawk games left behind, albeit in a more grounded, realistic fashion.
Those later titles showed skating as a status symbol; as a means of sticking it to the man
and getting people to listen when you shout “GET OUT OF MY ROOM, MOM”, rather than a means
of teaching you about yourself, the world around you and how you can overcome your limitations.
By emphasising cultural aesthetics over streamlined design, the later titles placed themselves
in such a specific point in time that they felt dated and tired almost as soon as they
launched. People quickly grow out of that rebellious phase and almost always
look back on it with utter disdain. In the same way, people tend to look back on the
titles that pushed it so hard and it’s not unreasonable to say that some might blame
them for the death of that particular brand of skate culture.
As a whole, though, it never really died out. It might lean more towards the fringes of
the mainstream now, but it’s also not driven by the same kind of teen angst and nut shots
that made the games look like the cast of Jackass directed a Green Day video. Instead,
there’s a desire to creatively navigate the world around us; to see the world differently,
as something conquerable both spatially and philosophically. There’s something childlike
to this desire, sure – it’s an escape from the constraints of everyday life by going
faster and higher than anyone else. However, there’s also a maturity to maintaining the
discipline required to learn a craft and hone one’s skills to do things that others can’t.
Essentially, skateboarding as it stands represents a desire to grow – something the distinctly
game-y mechanics of Tony Hawk 3 wholly reflect. Games like Underground 2 and American Wasteland
wallow in the aesthetics of the juvenile, attempting to cash in on the rebellious phase all teens
go through. By rejecting that dated perception of skate culture, by focusing on the clarity
and depth of its systems 3 was able to capture a far more distilled vision of what it meant
to skate. As such, it feels just as fresh now as it did all those years ago.
So I hope you enjoyed this piece on Tony Hawk 3. If you did, why not click subscribe (like
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this has been Writing on Games. Thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next