Recently I spent a few days on Tony Hawk’s Project 8 for the Xbox 360. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Although many reviews described THP8 as a realistic return to form for the Tony Hawk series, I perceived it as strangely unrealistic; busier, sillier, and closer to the jackass-inspired THUG2 than I recalled*. However, I couldn’t describe why I felt this way- something about the level design and gameplay just seemed “odd”.
While thinking about this, I remembered a video I watched months ago. The video, from the channel Errant Signal, discussed why the author found Burnout Paradise more appealing than other racing games. To the author, Burnout Paradise represented the childlike aspects of enjoying cars: rather than being a “serious” reproduction of aesthetically pleasing supercars, it instead felt like the world of a child playing with their toy cars.
- Unlike many open-world games, BP features a compact, dense map. Almost every intersection or road contains either a challenge, a race, or a collectible. As a result, whatever you do is meaningful, wherever you are.
- The map does not replicate a real city, or have the structure and logic of one. There are no sparse areas and no long journeys between objectives.
- Cars are not branded nor kept aesthetically perfect. They are toys to be smashed, crashed, and rebuilt.
- The game focuses on “rule of cool”- it aims for high speed and spectacular crashes. It chooses “awesome” over “beautiful”.
After watching the video, I started to look at THP8 in a similar way. To me, this comparison holds up incredibly well. If THP8 was designed to represent a child “playing skateboarder”, then its design and gameplay choices would make far more sense, as would the fundamentally unrealistic nature I perceived.
THP8 uses an open-world structure which gives players a “city” to skate around. Unlike previous games, which often replicated real-world cities, the THP8 world does not represent any particular place. It is amalgamated from level types commonly featured in the series- a school, a suburban area, a factory, a skate park, a city centre etc. Areas are compact; you can bail in one area and land in another, or manual through multiple areas before losing your balance. Like in Burnout Paradise, the levels have no empty areas or downtime.
Levels are also connected in ways which wouldn’t be possible in a realistic world. The protagonist lives next door to their school, which backs on to both their Dad’s factory and a high-level skate park, while pro skaters can spontaneously rig up a rail from this skate park to the protagonist’s backyard. As a realistic city, the world of THP8 is illogical…. but as a child’s imagined version of their hometown, the world makes sense.
THP8 also features an cosmetic-only injury aspect, where large bails generate an on-screen pop-up of how many bones you’ve broken and the resulting hospital bills. You can forcibly bail to achieve goals such as bouncing yourself through gates or throwing yourself onto targets like a fairground game. This resembles Burnout Paradise’s Crash Mode, in which you deliberately bounce your wrecked car through busy streets to rack up combos.
Mechanically, the player character felt comically out of place at the beginning, able to skate so fast and jump so far that I often overshot early-game goals and gaps. In a realistic approach to skating, that’s a flaw. But in a child’s imagination, being overpowered is par for the course. Also, Neversoft’s decision to make the default player character a child, and to feature younger professional skaters Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins and Nyjah Huston (aged 17 and 12 when THP8 was released) seems to support this view of the game.
The plot requires large amounts of suspension of disbelief, and relies heavily on the “rule of cool”. Tony Hawk himself teaches you to skate. Pro Skaters appear in your backyard, your school, and all around your town, even though the Project 8 competition is at least on a national scale. NPCs give you virtual money for pulling off impressive tricks near them, while multiple skate companies rush to sponsor you. The entire plot runs on a level of protagonist-focused attention that’s illogical even by video game standards. Again, as a realistic representation of skateboarding, this fails. As a child’s imagination of what becoming a pro skater would feel like, it at least gains some internal coherence.
Looking at the similarities between Burnout Paradise and THP8, in both gameplay elements and design choices, I believe THP8 makes most sense as a game when seen through that same childlike lens as Burnout Paradise. This approach also lets THP8 capture some of the timelessness other people have found in Burnout Paradise, as much as any game which represents real-life personalities can. Compared to the previous and next games- American Wasteland with its stronger story but gimmicky mechanics, and Proving Ground with its better-weighted, more realistic mechanics but completely forgettable story- Project 8 has aged less.
More personally, I found that using that lens meant I could look past the “flaws” I saw in THP8’s mechanics and level design and instead see them as a set of choices which worked together. Learning a new way to understand the game made it more appealing and enjoyable for me. As a result, I’m now wondering which of the other games I’ve previously overlooked might have better frames available for me to understand them through.
*Some of the differences in my recall turned out to be because I originally owned the PS2 version of Project 8, which did not have the open world feature.