As world design in games nowadays trends towards visions of vast, sprawling overworlds, intricately layered and impeccably nuanced, questions of mobility have risen to the forefront: how does the player get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible? Questions of speed are of paramount concern, of course; no one likes to be held up unnecessarily in pursuit of some arbitrary objective. But, as in any art, games too must also be concerned with not just raw efficiency, but beauty as well: it’s not enough to just get there, but to get there in style, preferably with a certain poise and elegance to one’s motion.
From this desire has emerged the rise of parkour in games. It’s exemplified by titles such as Dying Light (2015), the Assassin’s Creed series and Mirror’s Edge (2008), in which almost every action is defined through the fluidity of one’s movement. More significant than the mechanistic implications of this trend, however, are the social, and possibly even political implications: parkour, not just as a means of movement, but as a tool of freedom, of liberation, of individualized power without constraint, and limitless exploration. And ultimately, it can act as a weapon against oppression: at once symbolic and physical, a modernist philosophy of personal resistance embracing both the sky to which we aspire, and the body which holds us down.
Parkour, from the French le parcours (‘the course’), is the art of efficient movement within inefficient space. In a world inundated with geospatial interference—from garbage cans to park benches to hanging gardens to fences—movement is largely confined to pre-established paths in order to preserve the semblance of communal order. Whether such paths are roads for automobiles, trails and sidewalks for pedestrians, railroad tracks for subway cars and trains, or bicycle paths for cyclists; movement in the modern world has become so rigidly defined that it has become in many places unnecessarily complex and at times, downright convoluted. Anyone who has ever attempted to navigate the public transportation system in any major American city can pay testament to this fact.
Parkour solves the problem of inefficient transportation by deconstructing human movement to its most basic foundation: movement simultaneously restricted to and liberated through the human body as sole vehicle of motion, with emphasis on individual willpower and efficacy as means of navigation. While it is very much utilitarianistic in its ambitions, it is not however altogether divorced from a physio-kinaesthetic grace and aesthetic, which very much classifies within the broad domain of art. In both its goals and its underlying philosophy, parkour fundamentally aligns with modernism in that its primary motive is the affirmation of the power of humanity over its environment, emphasizing the ability to create, improve, and utilize the environment to maximum efficiency. And indeed, there is a particularly deadly elegance to any of the various hooded eponymous assassins of the Assassin’s Creed series, for example, gliding along silently towards their targets, blades glinting in the moonlight.
The primary conceit of Assassin’s Creed, however, is that movement always carries with it a certain specific destination, and (often lethal) purpose: whether in pursuit of a fleeing target, or attempting to gain a vantage point on an unsuspecting guard, the player character’s movements are always purposeful, performed with a strictly utilitarian function. Consequently, as much as one may delight in the fluidity of the animations, and the accuracy of the actions captured, the act of navigation will always remain little more than one more component in a vast, deadly toolbox. The very mechanics of parkour in the Assassin’s Creed series reflect this as well. Movement is restricted to no more than two commands at most; one, which specifies the direction, and another, to signify a transition from a ‘normal’ state to an ‘active’ state. Rarely are players required to consider the meaning of their movements, or even the motivation behind them. They simply have to press a series of buttons to let the game know that they now want to ‘free run’ (an ironic name, given the real-world distinction between parkour and freerunning), point in a direction, and watch as their character scales, vaults, and hurls over all obstacles in the way with minimal effort. While Assassin’s Creed may have been a pioneer in bringing parkour as a viable means of in-game navigation to the public attention, it captured at most its utilitarian aspect while eschewing the grace and challenge vital to it. Consequently, it remains at best a crude and distilled approximation of what parkour actually is: a blunt tool, another trick in the assassin’s magic sleeve of lethal gadgets, no more different or extraordinary than a concealed blade thrust into the neck of an unsuspecting guard.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Mirror’s Edge series. Rightfully recognized as one of the first and only games to properly capture the essence of parkour, Mirror’s Edge stands as a tremendous realization of parkour as not just a locomotive gimmick, but an art form as well. Faith, the protagonist and player character of Mirror’s Edge and its upcoming reboot Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, uses her considerable athletic prowess as a ‘Runner’ to act as a courier of compromising messages between various cells of the resistance, rather than acting as an agent of violence herself. Where her fellow resistance members seek to dismantle the corrupt forces eating away at their gleaming metropolis through a variety of infernal machinations and devious plots aimed directly at exposing them, she instead is able to resist not just the forces which oppress her (quite literally, too, in the form of the black-suited guards who show up at various points in the game), but the physical boundaries of the city itself.
For Faith, the primary opposition to her agency is not a corrupt government, or dubious politicians, but the city itself; and not just opposition, but paradoxically her primary conduit of self-realization as well. Indeed, the aforementioned enemies and their ominous black helicopters, in the rare moments they do appear, are more cinematic set-piece than legitimate danger—their bullets rarely seem to hit, and when they do, it seems more of a programming fluke than anything else. Mirror’s Edge had very limited combat segments that, compared to the effortless grace of the actions which brought Faith into that moment of peril, felt incredibly awkward and clunky. The guns she commandeered felt not like the precise and lethal instruments wielded by her siblings in the first-person genre, but unwieldy and unreliable bricks more effectively hurled than actually fired. Catalyst promises a significantly more refined combat system integrated fluidly and inextricably into the movement system itself, which stands far truer to the philosophy behind parkour and many martial arts as well, emphasizing the effortlessness and ease of motion above brute force and muscle power. And while these changes will definitely improve the overall flow of combat, it hopefully doesn’t amount to a loss of focus on refining the overall movement itself. For while Mirror’s Edge may fundamentally be a game about resistance, it is resistance through kinesis, not violence.
The true difficulties of the game are not through encounters with human enemies, but with one’s environment, specifically the choices made to navigate it efficiently and elegantly. Faith’s ‘Runner vision’, which highlights potential paths and traversable objects in a bright, clean red, is one of the clearest indications of this: the world is seen not as a collection of individual components with separate meanings but a system of unified parts, each working in distinct and organic synergy with one another to accommodate a single purpose: movement. Catalyst will update the relatively linear chapters of the first title to a vast, open world, promising nearly limitless movement and opportunities for play. While this might be seen as the game falling for the fad of open-world titles, it is in many ways less of a gimmick and more of a highly sensible and almost necessary upgrade for this particular series. In Mirror’s Edge, an open world seemingly presents very few of the problems that plague other titles to have attempted this model. For where others require an ulterior motivation to engage with the environment (quests, collectibles, etc), which can be easily (and often are) ignored by many players, the mechanics of Mirror’s Edge dictate by their very nature that the world will only become boring if the actual mechanics become boring; that is to say, the world is not seen as a liminal space in which events and gameplay occur, but is itself a critical manifestation of those interactions—player vs. world.
This kind of ideology represents a vision of modernism in which the artist embraces his or her world as it is, rather than through the confinement of any single medium. Despite its modernist trappings, though, this is not a particularly modern philosophy: when asked about how his statues were so beautiful, and where he drew his inspiration from, the sculptor Michelangelo once purportedly said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. And indeed, much in the same way, parkour embrace this notion of a ‘hidden beauty’; an often frenetic, chaotic, wild sense of beauty trapped within the environment, waiting to be freed in powerful, explosive strokes. This aesthetic seeps into the vocabulary of parkour: the traceur (or ‘tracer’), as the runner is called, is cast as both simultaneous artistic genesis, and an active ‘discoverer’ of the environment that she traverses. What Michelangelo attempted to arouse with the powerful sweeping arches and tumbling spires of marble, and what the painter Jackson Pollock attempted to capture in the graceful splatters and arcs of his compositions, the traceur experiences as an intimately physical phenomenon, rawer than any other medium—nature not diluted through a canvas but experienced through direct interaction with the interface of reality.
The traceur, then, is simultaneous artist and audience, as framed within the paradigm of modernism. Artist, in the sense that she is navigating (interpreting) the environment through a specific chosen course of action in a conscious decision, resembling the painter’s choice of colors and forms, or the dancer’s choice of steps and half-turns; and audience, in the sense that she is directly experiencing the project of art prescribed via movement. The most comparable experience within the frame of traditional art would be either theater or dance. Unlike more static disciplines such as painting, sculpture, or architecture, dance and theater add the element of time. The work can be enjoyed while it is created/performed, yet afterwards it disappears and leaves no trace. Memories of traceurs flitting through an urban landscape like silent birds, and memories of ghosts spinning to a haunting melody, are all that remain after the performance is done.
Parkour also fundamentally embraces the ideology of resistance which runs through the heart of the modernist movement. Modernist art rejects traditional form and convention in favor of bold individual freedom, with emphasis on the deconstruction of systems and societal notions of aesthetic order. It espouses the liquidation of systems through the deliberate subversion of each system’s rules from within: for example, where the abstract expressionists utilize the canvas as a means of destroying the notion of a canvas, the traceur utilizes the environment as a means of demonstrating the inherent flaws presented by the environment. As painters such as René Magritte and Salvador Dali sought to dissemble the banalities of modern life by rendering them in nearly hyperrealistic, yet simultaneously surrealistic detail, parkour strips it away through the aestheticization of everyday objects and routines. It turns mundane objects into objects of navigation, and tired routines into paths of varied creativity and strategic exercise. This is no more obvious than in the glittering, nearly sterile world of Mirror’s Edge, a white utopia splashed with the occasional hue, every color and surface indicating not a quotidian occurrence but an opportunity for catapulting, for vaulting, for veering, for vaunting, for launching oneself away towards another precarious edge.
It is in this act of reappropriation that parkour takes on the full qualifications as a work of modernist art. Though markedly materialist philosophers such as Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin would argue that there is no return to an authentic existence—in other words, a state of being in society in which one’s actions, desires, and general consciousness are independent from the influence of social structures—that is not the purpose of either parkour, or modernism in general. Neither is free from social relations, as both are reactions and thus products of such worlds which bred first their existence, and then perhaps their necessity. Neither seeks to be independent from their respective systems, either. Rather, they work by constructing different dialectics with their respective environments; dialogic engagements in which the balance of power is concentrated on the artist/audience rather than the origin of the dialogue, the system itself. Parkour is based on the activity of self-discovery and personal revelation—each traceur discovers a personal experience of freedom through navigating different, self-defined paths through their environments, a discourse in itself which leaves room for each individual to interpret the environment on their own terms. It is modernism at its finest. It does not promise a return to an ‘authentic’ existence free from social relations, one that so many have attempted to reach but have never come close to replicating. Instead, it provides a way for individuals within the modern world to renegotiate their artistic experience and ways of thinking about these interactions within the confines of the unbreakable society, but simultaneously outside of it. As a work of modernist art, parkour takes on a different rationale by rejecting the efficiency and economic logic engendered in predetermined urban spaces. It appropriates space within the system but also beyond it by differently consuming the material society and in so doing rejecting the arbitrary domination created by its rules and limitations.
As the traceur leaps from building to building, vaults over railings and across stairs, these spectacular corporeal exercises further solidify a new way of approaching mundane space. Parkour, although dependent upon the physical space of one’s environment, molds its own territory constituting different legibilities of physical and kinaesthetic environment. Thus, parkour achieves the modernist goal of simultaneous coexistence with and liberation from an overruling system, and becomes a practice of freedom—a way of liberating the practitioner from the confines, both material and abstract, that are found and engendered in urban architectural space.
The noon sun hangs precariously in the sky above the rooftops. The buzz and hum of the city below, amplified through the canyoned echo of the concrete jungle. A cold wind blows, a pigeon lands on a ledge beside me, 300 feet above the ground. The open blackness of the roof beckons me. Step once. Step twice. Jump. The seconds hang in the air, gravity’s rainbow. Birds in flight. The landing is hard, and strains the soles of my feet with pain, but the impact is absorbed as the body responds to the shock, rolling forward. The sky looms and lurches above me, hard and clear. Feet and hands working in tandem, I rise and continue running. There is nothing but mass, fluidity, and compressibility. There is nothing but freedom.