A mysterious figure looks down at Sofia, Bulgaria.
Walking through Sofia's green downtown on a sunny summer afternoon, you might be lucky enough to see teens and 20-somethings vaulting from the National Palace of Culture's concrete balconies like the Assassins in a certain well-known game series. These daring acrobats are part of Bulgaria’s growing parkour and freerunning community.
Both are popular in Bulgaria for a few reasons. First, there's the number of locals involved, from Tsvetan Hristov, maker of popular parkour documentary "Parkour - Way of Life," to Delyan "D1d0" Dimitrov, winner of multiple international parkour and freerunning awards. Second, a cursory web search reveals a supportive online community that frequently posts new tricks as well as groups like Freerun Bulgaria that meet up locally. But the biggest contributor to the growing popularity of these sports is probably Ubisoft Sofia.
Ubisoft created and popularized Assassin's Creed, one of the best-known video games to feature parkour and freerunning, and the Sofia division released Assassin's Creed: Rogue in 2014. Almost every Bulgarian gamer has heard of it, and, even if they haven't, they'd still likely recognize Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad or Desmond Miles' distinctive, hooded figures from the series' other games. In Assassin's Creed, Assassins (or Templars, if you're Rogue's Shay Patrick Cormac) use their bodies and surroundings for incredible feats, just like in parkour. They scale high walls, perch on ledges, run along teetering precipices, jump between rooftops, vault over fences, and more.
Parkour is a sport in which the objectives are simple, yet the execution is decidedly not. Like a real-life video game, the world is a series of handholds, vaults, obstacles, and aids. For its practitioners, called traceurs and traceuses, it's all about getting from one point to another in the fastest and most efficient way possible. No special equipment here; all they use is their bodies and the surrounding environment.
Although it's often confused with parkour, freerunning is unmistakably different. For one thing, it adds fun and style to the mix. Or, as Bulgarian stuntman Lubomir Milushev puts it, "Parkour is [where] you have to get [from] point A to point B in the fastest and most efficient way possible. [...] Freerunning is [where] you have to get from point A to point B the funnest way possible. Just have fun on the run and do whatever you like."
Assassin's Creed has plenty of this, too. In fact, the series actually calls various Assassins' moves freerunning. It may have been one of the first games featuring these stunts, but these days Assassin's Creed is in good company. In fact, it's hard to find AAA action games without some element of parkour or freerunning. When characters have to be stronger, better, faster, and more superhuman than ever, everyone from James Bond to Master Chief suddenly has a few new acrobatic tricks.
A running jump to YouTube fame
In a quiet neighborhood cafe near Sofia center, Bulgarian traceur and freerunner Ilko Iliev recounts the history behind "2D Mixed Motion Project," the video game-style parkour YouTube video that vaulted him into the spotlight. It's an ambitious project, one which was completed in 20 shooting days over one and a half months.
Iliev explains that his inspiration for the video came via various well-known places and influences from Bulgaria and his childhood. "It [...] has a lot of stuff from my life, from growing up. Just a fun project that we were sure we can do." He also wanted to make something completely different from what the Bulgarian parkour community had previously seen.
He knew from the start that the style was unique. Skilled drone operator Marin Kafedjiiski perfectly tracks Iliev from the top-down as he runs, jumps, climbs, wakeboards, and even rappels his way across a diverse Bulgarian landscape. Iliev also planned out two scenes inspired by GTA and Super Mario. Combined with the drone perspective, it creates the perfect 2D-yet-3D video game vibe.
He thought it would be popular among parkour-lovers, maybe even garner a little attention outside of the sport, but the response was far beyond what he was expecting. The video garnered several hundred thousand views in a few short months and now has been watched more than half a million times. That may not seem like much compared to your favorite cat video, but it's important to remember that the Bulgarian parkour scene is pretty niche. Stuntmen with four thousand subscribers don't generally get much traction.
The Buzludzha Monument lent itself to one of the most memorable stunts in Iliev's video.
They uploaded to YouTube in January of this year. Three months later, it was featured by National Geographic's Short Film Showcase whose headline read, "This Mind-Bending Race Looks Like a Real-Life Video Game." And, just a few days after that, they won the "Best in Show" and "X-Factor" categories at the New York City Drone film festival. It was a big three months for Iliev and his crew.
Finding inspiration in games
Lubomir Milushev channels his inner Assassin with the ROG Strix GL502VS.
A symbiotic relationship has formed between the parkour, freerunning, and video game industries, going well beyond their immediate communities. With games like Halo, Gears of War, Prototype, Mirror's Edge and others all incorporating this kind of action, traceurs' job opportunities increased overnight. Game artists needed help getting difficult character movements right, and motion capture was the most reliable method for recreating lifelike movements in-game. These days, instead of donning loose-fitting streetwear and hitting rooftops or movie sets, self-taught stuntmen and women are wriggling into skintight black bodysuits covered with reflective dots.
Ilko Iliev acknowledges it's a two-way influence. Parkour first influenced people and expanded their understanding of what's physically possible. "Parkour [...] leveled up humanity [and] people now know that they are capable of doing big jumps, climbing on high walls, doing tricks, or just moving very efficiently," he says. But parkour also needed to be challenged. So, as video games and movies pushed the envelope with creative new moves, real-life parkour and freerunning communities drew inspiration.
As the two communities have fed off and amplified each other, there's been a dramatic change in the skill-levels seen in parkour. What was considered advanced before is now seen as low-level, Iliev says. Bulgarian freerunner, traceur, and gamer Lubomir Milushev agrees. Many people in his community have tried new tricks after playing games like Assassin's Creed. For example, characters sometimes do wall-jumps, a move where they vault back and forth between closely-positioned walls to reach the top. Before, he'd only seen this in games, but he recently saw someone pull it off in real life.
At just over an inch thick, you can take the GL502VS anywhere.
Although they're exaggerated, Milushev also views video games as a source for inspiration, and even for courage. When you see it done in a video game, the mental barrier falls. You have more confidence to try it and you believe it's possible, he says. Even for freerunners, seeing is believing, and some YouTubers are making a living on viral, Assassin's Creed-inspired parkour videos. In the future, Iliev plans to make more game-influenced videos, including one with a parkour fight scene.
Mirror's Edge is another parkour-heavy game that Milushev frequently references. Traceurs playing parkour games might seem like Tony Hawk playing skateboarding games, but it makes sense when he explains it. "Mirror's Edge was the first parkour game that is straight parkour. [...] You can really feel the parkour vibe," he says. Better yet, the Mirror's Edge series looks and feels modern, with sleek buildings and a futuristic vibe, so you can really experience hardcore parkour. When he's too tired to keep training, these games are where he gets his parkour fix.
Beyond inspiration and courage for new tricks, many traceurs and freerunners genuinely enjoy using video games to experience what they can't in real life. Ilko Iliev doesn't want to digitally rehash tricks he's already capable of. But when he's able to try new things, he's all-in: "I really like games like Titanfall or Assassin's Creed, because there are a lot of impossible things that you can do. It's fun." But a mixture of fantasy and reality is also key. For Iliev, a fun and riveting experience needs just enough realistic elements to legitimize the outlandish.
Life as a real Assassin
Milushev makes flips look as effortless as 120-FPS gaming on the Strix GL502VS.
On the National Palace of Culture's blocky concrete-and-steel balconies, Lubomir Milushev hunkers down in a low lunge and braces himself. The ROG Strix GL502VS gleams in the sunlight, and for a brief moment I wonder what will happen if he misses.
He bursts forward in a flash, then launches into the air. Tucking his legs, he flips in front of the sun, eclipsing it for a brief moment.
Whumph. It's over in a thrilling heartbeat, and his landing on the metal railing vibrates through the building like an aftershock.
Don't worry, the laptop is fine.
For the rest of the afternoon, Milushev does an Assassin's Creed-themed photoshoot with the ROG Strix GL502VS. He channels his inner Desmond Miles with an inscrutable face and a serious gaze. He executes daring stunts everywhere from the National Palace to detritus-filled abandoned buildings. Even after watching online videos in preparation, it's astonishing to see the ease with which he clambers up ledges, darts across ductwork, and flips over obstacles. He defies gravity and bounces back from moves that seem impossible to my tattered, 28-year-old joints.
Milushev takes a leap of faith.
So, what does it take to pull these moves off, anyway? After all, parkour and freerunning can’t be all fun and games. These guys make it look easy, but being a real-life (or fictional) Assassin surely requires hard work and a some amount of strength.
For his part, Ilko Iliev is constantly active, even when he isn't working on movie stunts. Days are dedicated to parkour, while nights demand three-plus hours of karate and gym training. Then there's the wakeboarding, motorbiking, rappelling, shooting, and skydiving he does in his spare time. He claims that most sports have become boring, but he's also recently recovered from a broken foot, broken vertebra, and has ongoing spinal issues. Forget Desmond Miles. Maybe it’s James Bond who has some stiff competition.
Later, after the photoshoot, Lubomir Milushev settles onto a bench to catch his breath. His serious demeanor dissolves. He's once again a cheerful 20-year-old relaxing after a hard day's work. I think about how effortless he made all of the incredible jumps, flips, and other stunts look. If I didn't know better, I'd be convinced that Assassins are real, and that Milushev is one of them.
Milushev relaxes after playing Desmond Miles for the day.
In that moment, I know there's a question I have to ask.
"When you're doing either of these, parkour or freerunning, how do you feel?" His eyes light up. A grin slowly spreads across his face. "I feel amazing. I feel free. I feel motivated to do whatever I want."
Sounds pretty incredible to me. To hear him tell it, he really is living life in a game.
By Kimberly Koenig