Abandon all gravity ye who enter here. You think you’ve tackled the toughest foes first-person shooters have to throw you? Do you evaporate bullet sponges, quickscope flying speedsters and melee tanks to death without thinking?
Then I present to you the one enemy who doesn’t care. The foe whose only strategy is to use your own weight against you, the foe who can morph the game into a platformer at the worst possible time.
Not only is it seemingly impossible for any shooter to make ladders that don’t suck, they also can’t agree on the mechanics. Do you latch on by facing the opposite direction and walking backwards off the ledge? At what point exactly does your W key start meaning “down” instead of “walk forward”? What happens when you hit the left and right keys or the space bar on a ladder? Do you get to keep using your weapons on a ladder?
The end result is almost always infuriating. It’s almost impossible to play through an entire FPS without dying to the goddamn ladders at least once. The only genre that seems to get it right is third-person shooters, usually because it’s more important to make it look good when the player gets a full view of their character.
Far and away the most successful strategy with adding ladders into FPSes is the abstinence approach; just don’t. Team Fortress 2 adheres to this criteria, steadfastly avoiding ladders in every single one of its eighty-nine official maps. There are plenty of other ways to help a player get from point A to point B, from ramps to elevators to teleporters, and while those all come with their own problems, a complete 180 on movement mechanics is thankfully not among them.
In other games, like Payday The Heist, all ladders are tilted, meaning they require no special mechanics to use. This means they’re either reskinned ramps or they require constant jumping to scale, and these aren’t that bad either since movement still works the way you’d expect. But these are also incredibly limited in value due to the limitations in structure, and often they don’t contribute meaningfully to the map design.
Once a game has committed to creating unique ladder mechanics, that’s where we start getting into difficult territory. The least buggy is the quick-time event ladder, where “Press X to climb” shows up and the player can treat himself to a pseudo-cutscene until he gets back off the ladder. Resident Evil games are an example. Works great in theory but it can be infuriating if you’re stuck on the ladder while bad guys lacerate you to death with bullets.
If you want the player to maintain control, some games attempt to make ladders easier to digest by removing a bunch of movement options, such as moving sideways. Not a lot of reasons somebody would want to go right or left on a ladder anyway. Left 4 Dead removes the player’s weapons to encourage the player to get back off the ladder as soon as possible, as well as avoid people going halfway up a ladder and taking potshots at the zombies below. They did not remove left or right, which brought about the speed-climbing mobility exploit.
Other games use ladders with protective supports around them, just like you get in modern industrial areas because it’s also quite easy for real life humans to fall off ladders. The problem is that these aren’t always logical in some settings, and when climbing into something like the sewers or a radio tower you realistically wouldn’t have protective rings around you. Of course that shouldn’t stop game devs from adding invisible ones but traditionally I haven’t seen them do this.
But no matter how hard you try, traditionally ladders are going to be annoying. And I can’t think of a single game where I bemoaned the absence of a ladder. There are so many other options for getting player’s places, and they’re so much more exciting. Ziplines, elevators, grappling hooks…get creative. I’m a lot more forgiving of death by fall damage when it comes as a result of me plowing into the ground in my jetpack.
This article is part of my “On Shooters” series, where I compare multiple games by focusing on a specific game mechanic or developer objective. To read the rest, click here!