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Ladders in First-Person Video Games - Rant and Analysis

Half Life 2 Video Game Ladders

Ladders in the real world are simple inventions. So simple in fact that they date back to the early days of civilisation - the Sumerians had them over 5000 years ago. In Real Life (IRL), they all work much the same way, and if you know how to climb one, you know how to climb them all.

Ladders in 2D Video Game Land (VGL) were also simple mechanics. So simple in fact that they date back to the early days of arcade gaming - Donkey Kong had them over 40 years ago. In 2D games, they worked much the same way, and if you knew how to climb one, you knew how to climb them all. Art imitating life, and all was well.

However, when gaming entered the third dimension, art stopped imitating life - at least where ladders were concerned - and all was not well. Very far from it in fact. 3D VGL ladders became complex affairs, especially so when twinned with a first-person perspective.

Make Your Mind Up FPS Game Devs!

The biggest issue with first-person video game ladders is that they most assuredly do NOT all work much the same way. In 3D VGL, how you interact with a ladder can change dramatically depending on what game you are playing, as each game may have its own set of ‘ladder mechanics’.

Worse yet, a game may not tell you in advance which set of ladder mechanics it uses. Not only can this cause a great deal of confusion and frustration, it can also lead to many unnecessary in-game deaths. How? Let’s find out.

Part One - Going Up...

Going up a ladder can broadly be separated into three distinct stages:

  • 1A - Getting on the Ladder

  • 2A - When you Are on It

  • 3A - Getting Off It again

This ought to be simple, but no. Different games use different ‘ladder mechanics’ for each of these stages, and not all games will tell you in advance which they are using. What's more, the various ladder mechanics have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look at them for each ladder stage.

Ladders, Call of Duty, Counter Strike, Battlefield, meme
Three games, three very different ladder mechanics. Only one of which makes sense

1A - Getting on the Ladder

This is usually the least frustrating ladder stage, since it is usually the safest - you can’t fall very far if you haven’t gone up yet. But even this simple action may obey totally different ladder rules depending on the game you are playing. Examples include:


Getting on the ladder is achieved by simply walking into it - no button presses are required. This is the simplest method but has the downside that you may start climbing a ladder when you didn’t intend to. This is one of the oldest in-game ladder climb mechanics, and thankfully it is a rarity these days. The original Half-Life is a good example of this.

‘Use’ to Climb:

Pressing the ‘Use’ / ‘Interact’ key / button will stick your avatar to the ladder, after which you will climb up and down in the same way you walk backwards and forwards. If you are not directly in front of the ladder you will probably cling to the side of it, but this will not affect how you climb it. This arguably offers the best compromise between flexibility and safety. The original Half-Life used this mechanic too, as did many other First Person games of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

‘Use’ To Interact - With Animations:

Pressing the ‘Use’ / ‘Interact’ key/button next to a ladder will stick you to it and trigger a climbing animation. If you are not directly in front of the ladder, your avatar may ‘skip’ to the correct place. This provides consistency and enhanced immersion but takes a degree of control from the player. This method has become common since the mid-2000s. The ladders in F.E.A.R. are good examples of these.


Use to 'Teleport'

Some games forgo all pretence at immersivity and simply have you appear on the floor above somewhere near the ladder. Some of the ladders in Subnautica do this - specifically, those that connect the floors of the bases you build. I'm assuming this is due to an engine limitation rather than laziness, since all other ladders you use - such as getting in and out of the moon pool - are of the ‘Use’ To Interact - With Animations variety.

2A - When You are On It

This is where things start getting ‘interesting’. What your character can do with their hands whilst upon the ladder can vary greatly, as can how far they can look backwards or turn.

“Look Ma, No Hands!”

Your avatar is somehow able to climb the ladder with only their feet, leaving their hands free to hold things as normal, including holding two-handed weapons. You may well be able to turn 180 degrees away from the ladder without falling off, and in some cases a full 360. This is most usually encountered with the ‘walk to climb’ and ‘use’ to climb’ methods. It is not exactly realistic, but it is fun if realism isn’t your intention.

This also tends to have the oddest climbing down a ladder mechanic, in that your avatar is basically walking down the ladder perpendicular to it - face first. Now there is a skill that would be useful IRL.

Video Game Ladders, Meme
I hear the SAS are training to do this ;-)

“One-armed Bandit”

With this mechanic, your avatar must keep one hand on the ladder at all times, but the other is free to use a one-handed weapon, grappling hook, spell etc. Turning more than 180 degrees is often impossible - the game won’t let you - or you will fall off if you try. This is a good deal more realistic, and tends to be twinned with the ‘Use’ to Interact - with Animations' mechanic.

3A - Getting off It Again

If anything, there is an even greater variety of ways to get off a First-Person VGL ladder than there is to get on it.

  • Climb all the way to the top and get off automatically?

  • Press the use button again?

  • Press the jump button?

  • Press ‘away’ from the ladder?

  • Try to move sideways off the ladder?

I can think of examples of each in various games. Getting it wrong is not only irritating, but could lead to a long fall and a rather undignified in-game death. Again, not all games will tell you how to do this in advance.

Part Two - Going Down…

Of course, ladders can be used to go down as well, and the three stages apply here too. The big difference is that if you fall off, your in-game avatar is far more likely to twist an ankle or break their digital neck.

Climbing Down Ladders in Every Video Game Ever

Even Third-Person VGL Ladders are lethal!

Video by OziOn

1B - Getting on the Ladder

Now, this is where it starts getting ridiculous. Do you:

  • Walk up to it facing it?

  • Walk backwards to it?

  • Press ‘use’ next to it?

  • Crouch-walk up to it slowly whilst facing it then hope you then attach to the ladder and walk down the ladder face first?

Again, I have encountered examples of all three, and fallen down many ladders before figuring out what mechanic the game uses, since not all games will bother telling you this either.

To give you an idea of just how complex an action it can be, take a look at the video below:

How to Descend Ladders Safely in Half-Life in Four Steps

The last time I saw something so simple requiring so many steps was in a Health and Safety manual

Video by Daniel Dawson

2B - When You Are on It

Grrr… it gets even stranger when on the ladder. To descend, do you:

  • Keep pressing forwards?

  • Press backwards?

  • Press the crouch key?

Again, there is usually no way to tell this in advance just by looking, and if the game hasn’t bothered to tell you any of the other ‘ladder mechanics’, it's doubtful it will bother telling you this. Screw you, game!

3B - Getting off It Again

The same problems persist as with 3A. At least here you might be at the bottom of the ladder, so an error may only bruise your pride instead of breaking your avatar’s shins.


Most other aspects of First-Person gaming have become ‘standardised’; how to sprint, how to crouch, how to jump, how to aim-down-sights, etc. This is generally a good thing, since it allows players to get on and play a game without having to re-learn the basics.

So, Devs, could we please, please, (pretty) please do the same with ladders? Find the mechanics that work best then stick to them? My VGL climacophobia would thank you 😜

But that's just my thoughts, what are yours? What ladder rules do you prefer, and which drive you nuts? Are there any ‘ladder rules’ we missed out? Let us and gamers everywhere know in the comments section below.

Further Reading

This topic has been covered in greater depth by several publications. To find out more take a look at the following articles:

For more giggles, check out TV Trope's take on Ladder Physics

Image attribution

No hands sketch from Reddit - original creator unknown:

Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36(ish) years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via email at

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