A few minutes with Steep, Ubisoft’s perplexing open-world snowboarding game, could inspire any number of questions. It’s quirky and messy, beautiful to look at, occasionally irritating to hold. And yet, when friends see I’m playing Steep, the first question is always the same: is it like SSX?
For those who’ve come to video games in the last couple years, the SSX snowboarding franchise was a thing in the 2000s, a shrewd mix of colorful extreme sports culture of the new millennium with thumb-breaking precision stunts of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, served over ice. Today, the series is one of those peculiar brands not successful enough to merit new entries — not when blockbuster games are built on razor’s-edge budgets — but still popular enough to keep fans on the lookout for, if not a sequel, a temporary stand-in.
To those fans: sorry, Steep isn’t like SSX. In fact, Steep isn’t like much of anything in the blockbuster video game space. And that’s why, often despite the game itself, I keep returning to its weird, exhausting mountain.
Plopped unceremoniously onto the top of a snowy peak, the new player is greeted by enough video game staples to create the illusion of normalcy. A collage of mountainous locales you may recognize from tour books, postcards, or commercials during CBS Sunday Morning, this snowy sprawl is peppered with tried-and-true video game challenges: earn the highest score; win the race; reach the bottom of the mountain in x number of minutes and x number of seconds. This is familiar, traditional even.
But as a traditional game Steep isn’t compelling or even that good, struggling with design basics like a toddler on the bunny hills. The scoring system is vague, specific stunts are all but impossible to perform on command, and jumping — jumping, of all things! — feels imprecise if not downright unpredictable. The further you progress, the more demanding the goals, the more maddening the game’s flaws become. This technical inadequacy will, for most folks, be a deal-breaker. I stuck around, and I’m still working out why.
The more I play, the more I suspect the creators Steep aspired to make something else — as if the stunts and competitions were perniciously grafted onto a game about exploration and discovering, burdening an otherwise airy and untethered experience with goals.
At any moment and with no delay, you can warp to any point on Steep’s mountain by opening a map and selecting a location. The time between the bottom of one mountain and the top of another mountain or a hot air balloon basket somewhere in between is only limited by how fast you can work the menu. Once you’re in the game, there’s no loading, just skiing, snowboarding, wing-suiting, or paragliding. The result is something other mediums — film, books, even board games and sports — can’t offer: the fun isn’t in the story or even a gamey mechanic. The process is the fun.
Steep is, in its best moments, meditative. It calls to mind the snowboarding of Alto’s Adventure, the sand-surfing of Journey, and the parachuting of Just Cause, but with no obligation to progress. One quest — I use the term loosely — sent me in search of a location miles down the mountain. For five minutes, I made my own way, taking fast routes through valleys sometimes, other times trying to find a shortcut over a steep hill. It was peaceful, serene, and beautiful, nothing like an extreme sports game. The final couple minutes are captured in the video below. Notice the disconnect between the serenity of the ride and the brash voice-over that smacks the moment I cross the finish line. The gameplay and what little dialogue and story is here seem to be from two different games; the notion of an extreme sports competition is at odds with the pleasure of finding one’s way down a mountain for nothing more than the experience.
Ubisoft, the publisher of Steep, has been flirting with this general idea: what if game makers stripped the story from open-world video games, and asked the player to find the fun, chart their own quests, and share anecdotes and moments with friends. "The game is becoming less important," said Ubisoft CCO Serge Hascoet in an interview with Le Monde. "What interests me is to make worlds that are interesting to me, even as a tourist." Hascoet imagines worlds rich with opportunity and mechanical freedom, worlds that will allow for players to amuse themselves.
This year, Ubisoft released The Division, an open-world multiplayer shooter set in a devastated Manhattan loaded with bad dudes to kill and countless landmarks to explore. Its new Survival mode in particular is designed to inspire stories, as Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo charmingly documented. Next year’s Assassin’s Creed, according to Hascoet, will be the first of the studio’s AAA titles to focus on worlds over scripted stories. But truly Steep is the earliest opportunity to experience the future of open-world video games as Ubisoft imagines it.
At any moment, you can hop off your board, whip out binoculars, and scan the horizon for new races. With a tap of a button, you’ll be zapped to the starting line. Races are best taken as suggestions, their checkpoints markers for interesting vistas. And once you’ve charted your path, you can, with another tap of the button, replay the trip down the mountain, then share it with friends.
No, Steep isn’t like SSX, and perhaps from the short-term, financial perspective, Ubisoft would have been wise to crib its competitor. But few video game publishers invest in flawed, but ambitious projects like Ubisoft. The Assassin’s Creed franchise now spans dozens of games and will appear in theaters this month as a Michael Fassbender movie, but began as a quirky, broken, totally ambitious, and occasionally ecstatically fun adventure. This holiday it released Watch Dogs 2, an enjoyable open-world action game that blew up its predecessor, salvaging its best ideas, and scrapping the rest. Which is to say, you may not want to play Steep. It is, like the original entries in Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs, a deeply flawed game. But at the very least, this is one exciting first draft. I look forward to the finished product.