The one hobby I have outside of video games is rock climbing. Unfortunately, it is a sport that isn’t accurately represented in most games. The closest I have seen to “accurate” climbing is The Climb, but from the gameplay I have seen, it still looks too gamified and doesn’t capture the feel of climbing. The answer on what is the best climbing video game, however, may not come from a game about climbing.
For some background, I have been climbing since 2017, but I really started to invest more time into it in early 2019. Pretty much all of my climbing experience is indoors (I have only climbed outdoors once as of writing this), and I tend to lean more into top-rope climbing than bouldering. The “climbing experience” I am going to reference throughout will mostly be about indoor climbing considering that is where my experiences lie, but I also have enough knowledge about outdoor climbing to speak on that as well. As for Trackmania, that is a newfound love. I picked up Trackmania (2020) earlier this year, and I loved what I played in the free experience enough to buy a year’s worth of Club Access. I have been on-and-off with it, and I have around 31 hours in the game as of writing this.
If the title caught your eye and you are still reading by this point, then I’m guessing you are thinking about how crazy I am to be comparing rock climbing to a racing game. While they aren’t that closely related on the surface (outside of, say, both being a sport), I found their connections to be deeper than that. This won’t be an exploration of how they are related based on surface-level gameplay, but more about how both capture a similar feeling (though there may be some surface-level connections here as well).
So, what do you do in both Trackmania and climbing, exactly? Unlike traditional racing games, you aren’t directly competing with anyone in Trackmania. This game is all about trying to get personal records. Whether it be trying to get top leaderboard positions on tracks or simply trying to get gold, the way to “win” the game is by learning the track and figuring out where you can shave off time instead of bumping bumpers with others. You can turn on ghosts and “race” against them, but I always used ghosts in relation to the track to see how they handle certain track elements and see if I could do any better.
With climbing, the goal is to reach the end of the route in one go, which means from beginning to end without any falls. There are other goals with climbing like trying to get the fastest time in speed climbing, but the primary goal for the vast majority of climbers is to reach the end of the route. For indoor climbing, the route is defined by monochromatic or taped holds (rocks), with a defined start and finish. Outdoor climbing has a few variations to this, but it is still about reaching the end of the route, and like I said earlier I primarily want to speak to the indoor experience. There are many ways to climb, but they ultimately boil down to roped climbing and bouldering. Bouldering is a short route with no ropes where you hop off the route, and roped climbing is a longer form of climbing where you need a rope of some kind to climb because of how high it goes, but both are structurally the same and share the same goal of reaching the end. There are other differences like a focus on strength versus endurance, single versus multi pitch climbing, and so on, but this blog isn’t really about that.
Each colored path is a different route with different difficulty levels.
So, where are the similarities? I just went over the biggest one: both are about self challenge over competition. You can find competition in both, like competing against ghosts in Trackmania or trying to be the first to complete a route in climbing, but the ultimate driving force for both is challenging yourself. In climbing, different routes have different difficulty ratings, and my motivation in climbing is to challenge myself on the next hardest difficulty. With Trackmania, essentially just replace difficulty ratings with leaderboard times or the medals that you can earn in each track. My motivations for the two isn’t to compete with the other team, but to see how far I can go and how well I can do.
For both, it’s hard to say that you’ve “won” considering there is always a new route and a new track waiting around the corner, but both have similar ideals for completion. In climbing, the way to send (complete) a route is to go from beginning to end without a fall. The one exception would be a multi-pitch route, but even with multi-pitch - which for simplicity’s sake, think of multiple routes stacked on top of each other - you still have to send each pitch to move onto the next. If you fail once, it’s game over, and while you can still climb to the top, it won’t be a send. With Trackmania, you have to get from the beginning to the end of a track without a single failure, or else it’s game over. You can complete the rest of it, but the only way to get better times is to have a flawless run. One difference here is that sending the route in climbing is essentially a one-and-done deal, whereas Trackmania tracks can be revisited for the sake of getting a best time, but I found in my experience getting gold on a track means completing it.
To complete routes in climbing and get personal records in Trackmania, I usually have to “project” each route or track. Projecting can mean different things to different people, but I define it as pouring time and energy into a route until completion. In climbing, I project routes by studying them at a distance and imagining myself climbing it as well as actually climbing it and seeing what works and what doesn’t for me. In Trackmania, many of the tracks have a GPS option in which the camera follows a car as it drives through the level, which is how I would visualize the track and start to think about how I would complete it. Then I would start actually driving and see what works and what doesn’t.
Do you want to stick to the left or right side of the track at the start? This is one of the many small decisions you make while driving that affects how well your run is.
Projecting both in climbing and Trackmania leads to what in climbing is called the “beta.” The beta is essentially the way to complete a route, which is something I tend to learn through trial and error in both climbing and the game. In climbing, beta could mean putting your foot out to a hold before your hand or crossing your hands over on a hold instead of grabbing each hold with both hands. For example, there was a climbing route I was working on where the start of the route was a large crack in the wall. The difficult part of this start (a.k.a. a part I had to project) was getting past the crack to the first hold. There were many different hand and foot placements I could make, but I ultimately figured out that wedging my left hand and foot into the crack kept me in-place long enough to allow me to get my right hand out to the next hold. In Trackmania, the “beta” for me would also get to a granular level, like how I like to start my turns wide then cut into the inner part of the turn or how I would focus on getting the exact angle I want my car to be at when it takes a ramp into a turn so I can seamlessly start drifting. The ways you can alter a climb or a drive is rather small, but they tend to have a ripple effect and could ultimately decide whether or not you complete a route.
Beta and projecting are similar between the two, but there are also some smaller effects of beta and projecting where the two are similar as well. With both climbing and Trackmania, there is a community, and both can be helpful for figuring out beta. Of course, trying to figure it out for yourself is the best option, but watching someone else do it can help a lot. In climbing, you can watch people climb a route you are projecting and see how they handle different parts of the route. With Trackmania, you can turn on ghosts and see how they get their fastest times and adjust accordingly. I find that in both climbing and Trackmania, routes and tracks have a crux, or the hardest part of the route, and a majority of the time spent working routes or tracks is spent on completing the crux. Finally, in regards to beta and projecting, both can practiced at different points of the route. In climbing, if you are stuck on, say, a part in the middle of the route, you can just climb to the spot where you are stuck and work on it. In Trackmania, you can rewind back to checkpoints and work on any difficult parts as well. You still need to do the whole thing from beginning to end, but being able to practice difficult parts in both helps a lot with completing routes and tracks.
Ghosts help with visualizing how other players handled each track.
One of the big pillars of Trackmania outside of personal records over racing others is user-made tracks. There are some developer tracks here-and-there, but it’s ultimately the community that makes the game. The same can be said for climbing. With indoor gyms, routes are set by route setters (developers), but outdoor routes can be set by anyone. Outdoor routes are logged into a service called Mountain Project, where you can find a wide variety of routes similar to finding a wide variety of tracks in Trackmania. Another place where you can find community-created routes in climbing would be with modern woody boards like the MoonBoard or the Kilter Board, in which there are lights for each hold and the community can create different routes by lighting certain holds and can log these routes into an application. More than just community, though, is the similarity of quality. The best climbing routes and Trackmania tracks are those that feel natural and seamlessly flow from one element to the next, and the ones that don’t are often forgotten.
There are more similarities than just the ones I went over, but these ones are either a bit of a stretch or are rather basic, so I decided to just cram the rest here. With both, there are elements for me that are my strengths and weaknesses. For example, I’m great on dirt tracks but terrible on ice tracks in Trackmania, and I’m bad with slopers (rounded holds you palm more than grab) but pretty solid with crimps (small holds you can only grab with your fingertips). In climbing, dabbing means to use something outside the route to help you climb, and I think it closely relates to the bumpers in Trackmania because both are pretty much instant game overs if you touch them. Both climbing gyms and 2020’s Trackmania are accessed through a membership. Both have the same starting and ending points for everyone, with climbing gyms referencing their starting and ending points with tape and Trackmania referencing their starting and ending points with, well, starting and finishing lines. Finally, I find that getting into a rhythm when trying to complete routes or tracks helps a lot with completing them.
I hate ice.
A lot of video games with climbing only capture the surface level of climbing and then gamify it to the point of it basically being parkour. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, but I also don’t think it captures what really makes climbing enjoyable. Trackmania, on the other hand, has effectively captured the joys of climbing in a bottle, even though there is no climbing to be found. Are there other games that encapsulates the climbing experience better than this one? Maybe, but I think a game that relates to the aspects of why people climb is going to be the closest video games come to rock climbing.