Maybe the biggest downside of my move from Michigan to Southern California some seven years ago is that, in all that time, I haven’t been snowboarding. I was never more than merely competent on a board, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t really enjoy it. And while the suburbs of Southeast Michigan aren’t known for their sick local mountains, its snowy winters offered a few opportunities for some light shredding.
Since it came out earlier this month, I’ve been dropping into Ubisoft’s open-world, extreme winter sports game Steep. While ripping down the peaks of the Swiss Alps doesn’t mimic my experience of snowboarding (I made it out to Colorado once, my closest brush with actual mountains), Steep makes me wish I could ship my board out from Michigan and make the multi-hour drive to one of California’s mountains to hit the slopes.
You might think it’d be a bad thing that my big takeaway from playing a video game is the desire to stop playing and go outside, but you’d be wrong. While winter sports games like Steep will never really be able to simulate the experience of being out in the world, at least not while they rely on controllers, Steep does the next best thing — it reminds you what you like about snowboarding in the first place.
Like many of Ubisoft’s open world games — the Assassin’s Creed series, Watch Dogs 2, etc. — Steep puts you down on a mountain littered with actual gameplay events: There are trick courses, races, and paths for flying a wingsuit down the sides of treacherous mountains where, in another game, a wrong move might splatter you all over the rocks. As a developer and publisher, Ubisoft has fully embraced translating any game concept it comes up into its open-world formula, but I’m not sure it works so well anywhere as on a bunch of snowy mountains that provide you unlimited ability to just enjoy them.
Steep does, for a few seconds here and there, transcend controller and screen.
For all the junk to do, some of the most satisfying moments in Steep come in the times between its events, just wandering the vast mountains on your board or flying over them on a parasail, looking for new places to explore. That’s where you really get the sense of what the developers of Steep were going for — that feeling of being there, of looking around something as amazing as a mountain range and recognizing how amazing it is.
Lead development team Ubisoft Annecy really gets this across with a certain set of activities in the game called “Mountain Stories.” These are short missions scattered among the standard extreme sports fare of races and trick-offs, where your goal isn’t to slalom through checkpoints or land a triple backflip, but to just meander and explore, usually while following the lead of another skier or snowboarder. These tasks are often paired with a voice-over narration explaining its gorgeous vistas or its kick-ass jumps, its ancient ruins or its strange rock formations — all of which have been beautifully rendered throughout. And these descriptions aren’t delivered from your point of view, or your partner’s, but from the mountain itself.
The Mountain Stories have a certain hokeyness to them. One mountain has the male voice you’d associate with a 1990s commercial announcer telling you all about its “extreme” locations. Another female voice goes for an airy, mystical vibe, leaning toward a fantasy medieval atmosphere.
Though they tend to feel a bit goofy, the Mountain Stories also carry something philosophical and earnest. They’re meant to show you how fascinating and beautiful something as easy to take for granted as the very mountains the game is set upon can be. It’s clear that Ubisoft Annecy and the other teams behind the game really appreciate these locales they’ve recreated. Though campy at times, the mountains’ voices seek to elevate the experience of being on a mountain beyond the trappings of a video game about “extreme” tricks and “awesome” moments. Yes, Steep is about the X-Games style sports, but in those in-between moments or during the exploration of the Mountain Stories, it also tries to be about another part of the mountain experience: The part where you just stand there for a moment, taking it all in.
A feeling beyond what’s on-screen
Of course, playing Steep is far removed from actually snowboarding (or diving off a cliff in a wingsuit). A controller and a screen just don’t offer much in the way of replicating any real-life experience. Steep is full of challenging courses that require the careful timing of button presses and analog stick tilts, with opportunities to join other players, and open-world locations to discover — but for all that it tries to accomplish, it’s still a video game, and is constrained by the medium. Steep doesn’t let you snowboard, it lets you direct a character around a screen while you pretend that you’re snowboarding.
It’s clear that Ubisoft Annecy really appreciates the locales they’ve recreated.
So to some degree, it’s a bit of a stretch to liken it too much to the actual experience of snowboarding. There’s no rushing wind or biting cold, no careful adjustment of muscles in your feet, legs, arms and chest to enact a turn or make a hard stop. It’s just buttons on a controller and pretty graphics on a screen.
But Steep does, for a few seconds here and there, transcend the controller and the screen. Stop for a second in Steep on one of its many mountainsides and you’ll hear the breathing of your snowboarder and watch puffs of white, freezing air escape their lungs. You can bring out a pair of binoculars to scan the bluffs, searching for new places to start runs. You can adjust the time of day, watching the sun set over the Alps as you ride leisurely to the ends of the map. It’s all very relaxing, and very pretty.
Steep doesn’t let you feel what it’s like to snowboard. Until video games become something much more than what they are, nothing can. But what I love about Ubisoft’s game is that it’s clear its creators knew that, and wanted to get as much of their respect and admiration for the nature that inspired Steep into the game as they could. The best thing I can say about Steep is that it makes me want to dig out my snowboard. That’s not because it’s a video game that fails to tap into what it’s like to be on the mountain. It’s because every so often, Steep succeeds.