The Virtual Surfer’s Ecology: an Introduction



                      Screenshot from Hironobu Sakaguchi’s iOS game Party Wave

Any research into surfing video games will likely yield one of two results: a history of surf games, or the mystery of their disappearance from the market. Regarding the former, several people have created informative and entertaining chronicles that can be found here and here. Within these articles, and likely with most others you will find, the conclusion will likely be the lamentation of the lack of new surf games. There aren’t many adequate explanations for the failure of this sports sub-genre. After all, titles like California Games from the 1980’s were highly successful, spawning sequels and eventually gaining multi-platform releases.


Further, games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Shaun White’s snowboarding game franchise suggested the viability of the niche-sport market in the world of commercial gaming. In fact, most any set of data points you can find suggests that a surfing game should sell.

 So why haven’t they?

This question is harder to answer than it would seem. Obviously, there is no one reason, but some of the answers that seem sound take on water under scrutiny. For instance, it could be assumed that surfing simply does not have a a very broad real world audience, and therefore touches on nothing of the universal aspect of play. What fun is a sport you don’t understand? Most of us have played football, basketball, or baseball as children, and we maintain exposure to those sports and their inner-dramas throughout most of our lives. In a sense, skateboarding possesses that same universal accessibility. Yes, skateboarders are weighed down by certain stigmas and laws, but the world is your skatepark. But then we look at the success of snowboarding video games. The Shaun White Snowboarding franchise would by any marker be considered a success. The first game in the series sold over three million copies, hardly something to laugh at. 


Does anyone seriously want to say that snowboarding is more accessible than surfing? Perhaps there are more white-bosomed slopes than surfable beaches (and if so, probably not for long), and maybe a surfboard costs more than a snowboard. But factor in lift-tickets, snow gear, and anything else that may be involved, and I promise the price will invariably level out, or more likely tip on the side of the snowboard. Still, if it is not the immediate accessibility, maybe there is some x-factor that alters a gamer’s view of snowboarding. Does its place in the winter olympics lend snowboarding enough momentum to propel it into the HD displays of American kids? If that were the case we’d all be playing Russ Howard’s Pro Curler.


                                                 Your child’s next obsession  

The X-Factor exists in surfing. Unlike Snowboarding and Skateboarding, the human being on a surfboard is placed in a situation that is subordinate to nature. Rather than constructing wooden skate parks or “carving” mountain slopes, the surfer is instead at all times reading the ocean, and trying to estimate what it is going to do. This act of reading and studying implies a certain level of work that a sports gamer might not like to associate with the experience. 

It once again sets the focus on the more seemingly mundane aspects of surfing, and paddling in particular. To paddle out for a wave is to work, and to work without the aspect of intermittent play. Think about Tony Hawk. The way to really rack up points is to perform tricks in between tricks—to manual all the way to the half-pipe.



                                                  In Transit

In later incarnations of Tony Hawk it is possible even to dismount from the board and run and climb. Paddling allows for none of this. The natural conditions inside the break-zone mandate expediency. One of the reasons surfers hug close to jetties is because they create natural rip-tides that pull you out past the breaks, minimizing the effort to paddle into the line-up. 

In fact, One recently developed game for iOS, Ripcurl Live, does away with paddling entirely. The entire game takes place on a breaking wave that you ride until you bail. This would seem to be the surfer’s wet-dream. Surfline reviewed it, claiming that it was a game for “regular old surfers looking for something relatively easy to keep them entertained while waiting for a flight, in the doctor’s office or in a boring class.”



                             Screenshots from RipCurl Live

But it received a lukewarm reception, in broader reviews, as simplified and repetitive. Meanwhile, a simultaneous and more immersive mobile release, Billabong Surf Trip, was a fully immersive surf experience taking the surfer from the shore to the breaks, with all the minutiae in between (except more technically complex maneuvers like duck-diving). However, the guys at Surfline found it less intuitive, and how many people do you know playing it on their phones?


                          From Billabong. An uncomfortable screenshot on many levels.


                                           Virtual Paddling is as fun as it sounds

When we consider this one small aspect, we jump directly to the strange place that the surfer occupies. There has yet to be a game where a person constructs a surf spot. This is not because it is impossible. Surf spots are destroyed and created all the time, both by natural forces and by human intervention. The creation of a jetty or the extinction of a reef will both immensely alter the nature of a break. But that is not how the audience perceives it. Rather than skating to the half-pipe, the surfer waits for the wave. The duration of the wave is determined not by a human clock but by a complex set of circumstances varying from the fetch of the wind in the Caribbean to the phase of the moon in that hour. We accept the boiled down versions of skateboarding and snowboarding. We appreciate the degree of freedom that these games give us, where even the worst skateboarder can, in a virtual world, surpass the best. But I don’t think that that feeling has ever been captured in a surfing game. Ian Bogost lists a number of games that place the player in a position of weakness, and suggests that this runs counter to the expected narrative of most video games.

One wonders if the surfer is inherently in a position of weakness, and that no one is willing to be subjected to that state. And further, one finds an uncomfortable position for the surf gamer, where the stronger agent is a virtual ecology, which in all current incarnations is unalterable, massive, and poorly rendered. 

Perhaps the savior of the genre is the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series. Years ago, Sakaguchi left Square Enix and founded his own studio Mistwalker in 2004. In June of last year, they released their first game for iOS, Party Wave.

In Party Wave you play in two modes: paddle and surf. Through swipping and touching the screen you control the movements of multiple surfers who must navigate water and waves, collecting objects and fighting bosses. The video beautifully lays out the nature of game play:

The game seems likely to gain traction in the mobile market, and though this is not synonymous with platform gaming, it would mark the first time since the nineties that any surf game gained serious attention. Sakaguchi accomplished this by abandoning the conventions of the form that people would have considered most crucial. The game does not play like a surfing simulator, but like an old-school strategy game with boss battles and reflex tests. Sakaguchi incorporates surfing in both literal and abstract waves. Yes, the characters are surfing, but the musical tone, the visual aesthetics are all incorporated to create a “surfer vibe.” As for the virtual ecology, in a sense nature is still overwhelming. In the surf setting the threat of a wipe-out is always eminent, and in the paddle setting sting-rays and jelly-fish are obstacles to avoid. But at the same time the incorporation of bosses like giant eels and jelly-fish provide the surfer with the opportunity to fight back against nature, proving that even while surfing, the person is the master of its domain. 


Party Wave re-imagines the genre rather than trying to confront the deeper issues that prevent the purer surf game from gaining some sort of prominence. It situates the surfer back in the man vs. nature binary that seems comfortable at some base level. But Sakaguchi has accomplished anything, it is a reintroduction of the surf game back into the conversation. This is something he should have an interest in. After all, he’s a surfer.


                                                    Hironobu Sakaguchi