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The Art of Peak Bagging

Enter the world of nineteenth century mountaineering in Peaks of Yore, a gorgeous, nostalgic climbing experiment.

Standing 60 metres high on the serrated coast of Sutherland, the Old Man of Stoer reigns above The Minch, a sinuos Scottish channel flanked by ancient rocks and mossy terrain.

Stoer is a sea stack, a land-form constructed of columns of sea rock. It is formed by wave erosion, the mouth of the ocean gnawing endlessly at landscape until sharp, steep embankments form. These unnatural beauties are a great gift to sight-seers, but an even better treasure for mountaineers.

Peakbaggers are mountaineers whose mission it is to reach and then record their journeys to the summit.

It was in the nineteenth century that the sport reached its apex, attracting hundreds of mountaineers to the Alps and other unconquered mountainous regions. Several golden eras of alpinism occurred sequentially throughout the century, each generation of mountaineers building off the achievements and failures of the last.

Centuries later, the majority of these ancient summits have long been reached. While thousands still attempt to repeat these famed climbs, the mystical quality of being the first — the summit’s original ‘bagger’ — is a thought ripe with nostalgia. Born of this thought was Peaks of Yore, a mountaineering game that attempts to turn back the clock to this golden age.

“By the time of the Silver Age of Alpinism (the late 19th century), a new way of enjoying rock-climbing basically became what is known as peak bagging — reaching an assembled collection of summits, presented in the form of a list.

This is what inspired the main incentive behind ascending the peaks. So, my version of the sport of ‘peak bagging’ essentially became the player’s Peak Journal. Every time you ascend a peak in the game, you will stamp the peak as “Summited”, progressing further into the game,” explains Anders, the one-man developer behind Peaks of Yore.

“The reason I chose the year 1887 was because the culture of rock-climbing expanded beyond simply ascending the Alps.”

“I thought that choosing this particular year would give enough leeway to make use of period-appropriate aspects like particular rock-climbing gear, and the referencing of the rock-climbing pioneers of the time.”

“I thought I could use a bit of the stories of some rock-climbing pioneers of the time, which in turn would also enlighten players a bit to certain stories and aspects of real-world events of the time.”

In order to properly capture this ultra-specific period, Anders was intentional with the game’s art style, with light and dark grays invoking the overexposed style of early photography. The game was designed to mimic living inside such a photograph, as if the player was both a part of the history as well as an observer to it. It creates an interesting duality between inhabiting the shoes of the climber while also paying respect to the non-fictional historic figures who really made the ascents decades ago.

“I spent a lot of time toying with different art styles, which also tied a bit into toying with certain game play related aspects, like how the holds on the cliffs should look, and how clear they would be to the player. This involved toying with an outlined effect, and a more cel-shaded and flat-shaded type of art style, through post-processing and tests with 3D models.”

“The aesthetics eventually came back to referencing the 19th century. The photographs depicting early mountaineers on various cliffs in a sort of gray-scale, sepia-toned and low-fi noise, and overexposed effects helped tremendously in honing in on the art style.”

“The main techniques used in the style are a combination of color-grading, dithering with a hatch-pattern to mirror certain illustrations of mountains from the period, pixelization, sharpening, and bloom effects to mirror the kind of over-exposure you get from 19th century cameras.”

Though the sepia-toned setting was critical as a backdrop, the main event of Peaks of Yore has always been the act of climbing.

“One of the very early mechanics of the game was that each mouse button was tied to a hand. I really enjoy games that make you mimic the player’s movements in an analogue way, so I felt this was a great way to immerse the player in the climbing — holding on to the buttons like they would hold on [rocks] while climbing.”

Though Anders’ original intentional was to mimic the sport in its actuality, he found that crafting a fun core mechanic ultimately outweighed his quest for realism.

“The climbing [in Peaks of Yore] is extremely unrealistic, and kind of ‘goofy’ in terms of real-world climbing. Coming to terms with what is enjoyable as a player, rather than my perfectionist thoughts as a developer, took some time. I did have earlier experiments with making the player have to position their legs, but in the end, this led to issues when combining with the hand-climbing mechanics.”

“The game would turn out much too complicated in terms of which button you needed to press, and it would basically remove the fun in using the physics-momentum that the ‘pendulum’-like hand-climbing provides. Feedback was also an important part in deciding on this problem, and it turns out that relying on the simpler gameplay mechanic is usually the best idea.”

With fun in mind, Anders implemented an assortment of obstacles, boons, and challenges to keep the pursuit of summits evergreen.

“Since the gameplay is quite simple — you climb a rock wall, I’m introducing a new element to the player with each peak. For example, the first peak is about introducing swing-momentum, the second peak is about learning the pull-up technique, just to learn the basic 101s.”

“As the player progresses, other elements such as external obstacles will be introduced. Some are kind of trivial, like shrubbery you have to pull away from holds, and some are more problematic, like the sea-birds that get angry when you get too close and can cause you to fall.”

“The peaks will also have different paths, which can lead the player to certain obtainable items left behind by previous NPC climbers. The peaks also increase in difficulty over the course of the game. Some peaks will have very short routes and be difficult, while some will be long and easy. Bouldering is also an element I introduce to the player a bit later in the game. The sport of bouldering is essentially climbing boulders or large rocks, usually presenting a very difficult, but short route.”

Concerned with replayability, Anders has also been developing mechanics to add a new sense of urgency to previously tread peaks, “A more recent thing I’ve been working on for the game has been a ‘Time-attack’ mode, started by using a pocket watch. The player can set records on peaks, which is presented in the form of a list depicting the best time, holds done on the peak, and ropes used. Developing this system has been challenging, but enjoyable. I’m hoping this system will encourage players to replay certain peaks and try for better records while improving their climbing.”

Just like in climbing, game creation is about striking a balance, distributing just the right amount of weight so you don’t fall flat.

“Finding the right balance between the art style and the gameplay to depict the game I wanted rightly took a long time, but it has been an enjoyable and important part of the process for me.”

“I’m generally very much a perfectionist, but as development continues, I am getting better at saying ‘screw it, that’ll do’. In this regard, I think getting feedback has been one of the most important factors helping me overcome certain obstacles for the development,” Anders explains.

To follow the continued development of Peaks of Yore, you can follow Anders on Twitter @andosdev and play a demo of the game at the itch.io page here.

Written by Celia Lewis for Vista Magazine.

Interview edited for clarity.

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