Skateboarding is hard. It’s fucking hard. The journey to mastery takes years or even decades.
Kick back while moving? Of course, there are more sophisticated tricks today, but it’s still an amazing achievement. It takes hours of investment and a deep resilience to failure to get there. But when you bounce the board high, flick it with one foot to spin it once under you, and land it successfully, the rewards are huge. This is not an achievement that is compensated in any kind of currency (like points). Instead, success pays off.
That’s the mindset that explicitly established the design of Session: Skate Sim. Of course, it’s not as hard as real skateboarding, but it’s a very challenging game that makes you think like a skateboarder. The clue is in the name. Developer creā-ture Studios has been working on providing skateboard simulators. In doing so, they’ve created something that does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of true skating. Even that approach sometimes comes at the expense of consistently enjoyable video games. To deconstruct what that means, the conversation inevitably begins with an iconic series.
Over the years, Tony Hawk games have triumphed at abstracting skateboarding tricks into various series of button combinations, allowing players to string together lines of impossible tricks that can pass entire levels. The skill ceiling offered by Hawk’s games is certainly high, but just about anyone can jump in and skate like a pro, happily pressing various buttons. Then, in 2007, EA Black Box launched the much-loved Skate, which at least hinted at analog. Its innovative thumbstick-based control system is inspired by the subtle foot movements of real skateboards, meaning it feels more directly affected by the movement that inspired it.
Over the years, creā-ture Studios has led and partnered with Skate to deliver something so steadfast in the simulator space that it can be considered a Train Sim World and a Tony Hawk game similar partners. So, like real skateboarding, it was a tough, frustrating and very rewarding experience. While games like the terrific OlliOlli games – their emphasis on landing time of skill – deftly translate the spirit of skateboarding into a fun video game format, Session is unabashedly committed to realism. It captures more about skateboarding in its own unique, imperfect way than any other game before it.
Those who spend time playing Tony Hawk or skateboarding will be familiar with the environment; vast urban spaces to explore in three dimensions, full of street furniture, perfect for honing and flipping skills. However, this is a game with no scoring system, no hidden collectibles, and few stunt skating opportunities. The decor is minimal and far. You won’t even be shown a trick name when you successfully log into it. Skateboarding is motivated by exploring the board, and the reward is landing skills, usually after a significant investment of time. In your first hour, you should start kicking back on the plate. In a few more hours, just timed 360 flips to clear the curb and land on a concrete planter, still going wrong in all kinds of ways.
Session’s unique gaming feel is achieved through a combination of its physics system and controls. Depending on your posture, one thumb stick will represent the front foot and the other will represent the rear foot. If you’re standing firmly on the board, pushing in a specific direction sets where you place your weight on each foot. Pulling back with your back foot – like a real skating – you put all your weight there, coiling like a spring, full of kinetic potential. Push the other foot forward and an ollie begins. From there, different movements, movements and foot positions can trigger everything from the humble pop shuv to the dreaded nollie pressure hardflip 360.
Want to do tricks manually? Shift your weight properly on the deck. Need a power coast stop? Push each foot into the nose and tail of the deck, and the board will respond accordingly. It would be an overstatement to say that every stick movement fully mirrors real skateboard control methods, but it comes closer than any other game.
Then there’s the way the physics of the game world shape what’s possible. Speaking of grinding, the norm in skateboarding games is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the board “stucks” into the track or edge when jumping over a grindable object. This is not the case in Session, there is no obvious help there. You need to approach obstacles at the right angle and speed, pop a trick with precise timing, and land with the weight of your feet, as they should be good for all kinds of grinds. Connecting with an off-center track on just one truck, the grind is likely to break down – or you might discover a new trick or method.
Dive into the game’s many settings – including some “experimental” options that bring a lot of beta power – and you can really start pushing the possibilities of the board, and further explore the vast breadth of control systems to discover new things.
Even with the default settings, discovery defines the journey. Session’s narrative is minimal, but it could be a spoiler, such as explaining how to do three flips. It’s really nice to be freed from a pre-determined list of tricks, each assigned an abstract chain of button presses. True skateboarding is about exploring and redefining urban terrain through fun new lenses. Session does a great job of translating this experience. It gives you skateboards, gravity, foot control, large expanses of concrete and rails, and lets you decide the possibilities of this combination.
However, the creation of creāture Studios is also a very peculiar beast in terms of the framing of the entire experience. Visually, on the PS5 it’s functional, not eye-catching or exciting. There are subtle touches like how your wheels, tape and even clothing absorb dirt and wear. But so many presentations didn’t flourish.
Even when you turn on elements like pedestrians in the settings, its cityscapes are toneless. Often becomes inconceivable in their eerie emptiness. Meanwhile, the cast of other voiceless contestants you meet feels hollow. Even your own character doesn’t have any presence and turns into a floppy ragdoll every time you leave the board – which happens quite often.
Session also makes some unusual choices in how it communicates the game to you. A series of missions will take you through the game, introduce technology and push you into new territory. While you can dig into the current goal from the pause menu, text providing mission details cannot be revisited, and skateboarding terminology is getting richer. So if you miss words, or don’t use skating parlance fluently, you’ll often find yourself a little lost on how to progress. Elsewhere, it’s easy to miss that you can teleport between multiple cities, and the map is barebones at best.
Once again, here’s a comparison to the gloomy wave of train and truck simulators in recent years. This is a game about realism rather than atmosphere or any attempt at dynamism. Has a concessional tone. The refreshing soundtrack provides a refreshing emphasis on genres like ballroom and raga, and there’s a chance to customize your outfits and boards. But don’t expect to devote yourself to the skateboarding lifestyle, or in a colorful way.
There’s no question that Session is a game about function and captures what skateboarding is all about; not so much the sport’s transmission to the mainstream surrounding culture. Like real skateboarding, it rewards persistence. It’s a lonely pursuit that can feel harsh and bland at times, but it’s hard to let go.
Sessions are also wonderful things. It doesn’t get much easier when all goes well, but when you’ve finally settled on something relatively simple, like going from kickflip to tailslide, you’ll feel like the most accomplished gamer in the world. For those of us skating, Session brings something magical, even if it has a lot of weird flaws. If you’ve touched the deck at the toy store as a kid and don’t mind the challenge of knocking on the doors that bullet hell shmups have to offer, it’s really fascinating and pays off handsomely. Perseverance pays off, and it’s probably the most unique contribution the extreme sports genre has ever made.