The Ramp is a small game that perfectly captures the feeling of skateboarding
Not getting board.
Recently, I've been skateboarding. I've been skating before starting work for the day, and I've skated once I'm all done. Unlike a fair share of my colleagues, I haven't picked up actual skateboarding during the pandemic - I've looked to videogames as wish-fulfilment for that, and my latest obsession is called The Ramp.
When I first saw The Ramp, it was via a gif on Twitter - a ramp in front of a blue background, lit by the digital approximation of a low afternoon sun drawing some choice shadows. The skater taking off on the lip of the ramp, gaining speed jumping, a simple nosegrab, repeat. A perfectly cut thing that I must've watched for hours by now. The Ramp was announced to a pretty large echo, not only because it looks very good thanks to bold colours and an isometric perspective, but also because its developer, game design student Paul Schnepf, offered a refreshingly honest description to go with it. "No missions, no point, no unlockables, no guns, explosions or helicopters," the game's description on Steam reads. "Just tons of flow. Easy to learn, difficult to master." For me, it felt as if someone was giving me permission to relax. Don't get me wrong, collecting letters in Tony Hawk can be tremendous fun, but it's great to play a game and not feel like you have to win something.
Still, when I first boot up the Ramp, the "tons of flow" seem to not have gotten the invitation - to start off I even struggle with just staying on the ramp and not veering right off as soon as I attempt a trick. All you need to play The Ramp is a button to jump, one stick to steer and one to do tricks with. The right shoulder button lets you grind, but that's it. The game has keyboard controls, but a controller is recommended - and I don't attempt to use anything else. It should be easy, but for the first I don't know how many minutes, I do nothing but try to get the timing of my jumps right. Press the button to kneel and gain speed in the middle of the ramp, release towards the lip, press again in mid-air, let go as you come down - or was it let go in mid-air? I'm honestly not sure anymore, but I think that is because after a while, I get to stop thinking about it. My body works out what it has to do, and I do it.
Emboldened by my first few successes, I leave the single ramp behind and enter the next of a total of four settings, a swimming pool. From one moment to the next, everything is different. If my fingers knew when exactly to push buttons at the ramp, they know nothing now. The swimming pool seems longer in size than the ramp, or maybe just bumpier. There actually is some nice rumble feedback that feels like rolling over an uneven bit of the ground sometimes. It's not as easy to fall out of, but it has a precarious ladder you can bump against if you don't jump high enough, and a curve that looks stylish but feels completely foreign to navigate. In short - even though The Ramp is a small skateboarding game that's about having a good time more than anything, small changes completely alter the challenge, which I find fascinating. In each of the four levels there are just small changes to the terrain you have available, but they become the mini-bosses of skateboarding, fiends to my footing.
Maybe I'm just bad at The Ramp. I accept that as a possibility, just as I think I was never good at Tony Hawk's, a game series that let me be utterly mediocre at best. I fell off the board very rarely in Tony Hawk's, but I didn't exactly rack up points, either. The Ramp is different, and not only because its developer very clearly wanted it to be a fun little thing only, a toy rather than a game, as he puts it. It's different because of how the learning curve I'm going through makes it feel more like real skateboarding to me. When you've grown up near a skatepark or watched those skating videos they used to have on MTV with their distinct home-video charm back in the day, you know that when you're learning to skate, the sport is basically a lot of falling punctuated by the exhilaration of landing a trick here and there. It's actually the same with a lot of professional skateboarding, too, and not only when you're a 53-year-old Tony Hawk attempting a trick you last landed several decades ago.
I know that perhaps falling a lot doesn't sound like tons of fun for a videogame, but The Ramp is very forgiving. When I fall, the background music cuts off like a warbling tape, and my avatar doesn't get back up until I press the jump button to restart, likely so I can admire the, at times horrible, fall physics that have distorted it. Starting over is quick and painless. You fall, you get back up. The ramp is still there, the same as it ever was, and you've already made your way back up as if nothing ever happened.
The Ramp is easy to start and easy to put down again, and that's as satisfying as my skater's responsiveness and the fact it doesn't take more than the wriggle of a controller stick to do a trick. Everything about it is cool and kind of nonchalant, like the skaters hanging out at the skatepark. They fall a lot, too, but you wouldn't know it from their demeanour. I aspire to be the same.