Tomb Raider: Watch Your Tone

May 3rd, 2013 Posted by david brothers

It took me a few weeks to work my way through Tomb Raider, the Lara Croft reboot written by Rhianna Pratchett and creative directed by Noah Hughes. I liked it quite a bit, and ended the game somewhere around 81% completion. I think it has the best platforming gameplay since Uncharted 2, and the best sense of spectacle since Uncharted 3. The platforming action/adventure genre is one I like more than just about anything else, though I need a final ruling on whether or not the NBA 2k series is a genre unto itself. I never played a lot of Tomb Raider as a kid, though I wore the original PS1 demo out. But you know, Lara Croft is an institution. She’s like The Simpsons or James Bond. Even if you never watched the show or the movies, you know the deal, and probably think of them at least a little fondly.

I was surprised, but pleased, to see that Tomb Raider‘s tone is dark and desperate, with occasional outbursts of violence. Lara’s proficient with her pistol, rifle, shotgun, and bow, and she uses them to kill. I preferred the bow, feeling that it fit more with the survival-oriented story, and used melee attacks for when things got too close and hectic. I liked the bow because it felt more skillful than the guns. You can spray and pray with any of the weapons. You just look and tap R1 and hope for the best. But it’s not that easy with the bow, especially when taking on multiple dudes at once. When you get into a groove, it’s all about timing, position, and clever use of cover. I liked walking that line when I could, though I definitely relented a few times and used the shotgun for close-range combat.

Camilla Luddington’s performance as Lara was pretty good, too. I’m less keen on the turn toward cliché hardness the character takes toward the end of the game, after yet another dude sacrifices his life for her, but she absolutely sold the lost, wet, and cornered take on the character that is the main thrust of the game. She’s quiet when she needs to be, hard when she needs to be, and I like how she evolved over the course of the game in a general sense. She sounds appropriate for the character and story. That sounds more clinical and less enthusiastic than I want it to, but I mean it. She works, and works well. I hope she sticks around.

My only real problem with the game, outside of the unavoidable “Hey! This is a video game!” plot and gameplay elements, is that the death sequences that play when Lara dies in certain situations actually greatly detract from the experience.

The violence when in combat is on par for most games these days. Headshots kill and blood sprays, but you aren’t exactly dismembering or eviscerating people, nine times out of ten. Some of the context-sensitive kills are rough — better to call them executions, honestly — but they’re here and then they’re gone. They’re a blip in your experience, a speed bump on the way to getting Lara to return her bow to her back to signal that you can safely explore again.

The death sequences for Lara, though. Now those stick around. The game dwells on them, and if you die a lot early on — I did! I died often enough to get so good at the game I rarely died at all by the end — then they quickly turn from horrific to tedious. But even horrific feels like too much. Lara doesn’t just die from a bump on the head when she falls in water. She gets bumped, blood floats in the water, and she slumps. She doesn’t get stabbed and die. She gets stabbed and is then lifted into the air on a spear, where she shakes a little. Wolves go for her throat as she struggles, arrows pierce her neck and thigh in quick succession, the screen goes fuzzy and fades as you’re choked to death, and Lara gets a spike through the neck as she fights for her life before dying.

This supercut has a lot of the deaths:

It’s a little misleading in and of itself, because the deaths make sense in context. The game’s not a non-stop slideshow of trauma, so much as a showcase for occasional explosions of trauma when you screw up. I didn’t see most of these, but I did see a few of them a lot of times.

The fatalities are too much for me. They’re not too much because they’re offensive, though I do think they tend to be more gross than dumb. They’re too much because the game already does a great job of positioning Lara as someone who is cornered and almost drowning under the tension. The stealth sections, for example, are legitimately tense, because you have to do them without the creature comforts of a Soliton Radar. It’s just you, your guts, and your quiet prayers that you can make it through quickly enough to not get caught.

The tension is actually somewhat lessened in the combat segments, of all places, but it shines in the scripted platforming sequences. Every instance of Lara running away from explosions, sprinting toward a rapidly-decreasing window of opportunity, or taking a leap of faith across a gorge are fantastic. You have some measure of control in these segments, and I really enjoyed gunning it down hallways or trying to figure out the best way to make a jump while something unlikely was chasing me. While the chase sequences used an implicit, though sometimes absent, time limit to generate tension, the platforming sections generated tension by simply being a do-or-die scenario.

That balance really worked for me, even though I can recognize that the chases tended to be repetitive (Lara escapes a lot of crumbling or exploding structures) and the platforming fundamentally basic. The execution was good enough that simply exploring felt like a worthwhile endeavor. There’s a lot to say for a familiar thing being executed well.

The thing about the fatalities is that they feel like icing on a steak. They feel out of place within the greater context of Tomb Raider, and awkwardly vicious on a smaller level. They go much further than the rest of the game does when it comes to violence, and more than anything else, they feel like a punishment that’s out of proportion to the sin. They don’t add to the Tomb Raider experience for me, either. The tension is already there and properly effective, but the fatalities tip the balance from The Descent toward a cheap direct-to-dvd slasher movie. I’m really interested in seeing how developers portray violence in games, and how that affects the entire experience. Jacking up the tension without going fully exploitative is a tough row to hoe, and Tomb Raider manages to strike a pretty solid balance, but doesn’t quite stick the landing.

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Lara Croft and the Abused Hero

June 4th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

One thing Frank Miller and I still have in common is that we looooove abused protagonists. Heroes who get shot, stabbed, blown up, families massacred, high school reunion bombed, dog killed, cat kidnapped, and beds short-sheeted are just better than most other heroes. It’s not out of any creepy gorehound fetish or anything. It’s just that a hero who has had all this stuff done to him earns the end of his story. The getback, which is one of my most favorite things in the entire world, will be glorious. “Rot in hell” spat from a mouth full of blood. Willingly getting stabbed in the stomach just so that you can grab the blade (or walk forward!), immobilize your enemy, and then smile when you take his head. That “Like hell!” moment in Superman: Birthright. Look at Elektra Assassin or your higher quality shonen manga. The hero gets knocked down. The hero gets up again. You’re never gonna keep the hero down. “If you intend to die, you can do anything.”

I like Lara Croft, bka Tomb Raider. Yes, the series came out when I was at the perfect age to be vulnerable to her ridiculous carnival breasts and the (fake, until it wasn’t) idea of a “nude code,” but I’ve always liked platformers, and the Tomb Raider has produced a couple good ones over the years. I first became interested in the new Tomb Raider, after years of apathy, when I saw that they’d turned Lara into something like an actual woman, complete with a build and personality and equipment that seemed great for a lot of gritty climbing.

I didn’t associate Lara with abused protagonists before this latest iteration was announced. Platformers haven’t had a lot of those until fairly recently, I think. Mario is pristine, Ryu Hayabusa is a super ninja, and the Prince of Persia games kept things relatively clean. Which is fine, because the fun of platformers is solving puzzles, jumping, and then fighting. But the new art had her a little bloodied and raw. It looked a little more cool than I expected, a little more realistic, and a little more up my alley. This makes me sound like a blood fetishist, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way. Here’s the trailer from last year:

It looks pretty okay, right? Even despite the corny scream/lightning thing. (I hate that so much.) A nice reboot, and the idea that “the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are” falls right in line with the abused protagonist, and hints that, by the end of the game, you’re gonna get to shoot somebody in the face and not feel bad about it.

Here’s this year’s trailer:

Good news: it looks like it has a dope variety of gameplay and some interesting gimmicks (hunting, bullet time maybe, being set on fire while you try to escape a trap, and what I suspect are semi-interactive cutscenes).

Bad news: Lara is abused way, way, way too much.

I like abused heroes, and I don’t really exclude women from that. They’re a little tougher to list, just as a result of society thinking dudes are the only ones that count, and the awkwardness of depicting severe violence against women; but I don’t think, and don’t want, women excluded from this category. But this trailer, as an advertisement intended to make you want to play a game, does way too much in far too little runtime. Lara gets tied up and hung upside down, watches her friend die, watches another friend get kidnapped, gets stabbed with a steel rod, steps on a bear trap, tied up again, beaten up, threatened with rape, and weeps and whimpers her away across the entire trailer until they finally flash to pure gameplay and you actually see the game you wanted to play.

The thing is, all of the gameplay-related stuff looks dope. It looks like they learned a lot from Uncharted and are gonna give us all types of dynamic chase scenes, both people and wreckage inspired. I’m very happy about that, and then traditional platforming sections look pretty ill, too. The one where Lara is climbing frantically toward light puts me in mind of The Descent, and yes I would very much like to experience that through her eyes.

But that’s a lot of misery to pack into a trailer. It makes the entire game seem like a slog, like a clipshow of Lara getting punched in the stomach every time she stands up. That’s not what makes abused heroes fun. The slings and arrows aren’t the focus. They’re just the staircase leading to the focus. The focus is the hero with a smoking gun, a bloody nose, and a limp off into the sunset. Maybe a one-liner. The point is that a little goes a long way, and when you put a lot into a little (like shoving a few different examples of grievous emotional and physical trauma into three minutes) the tone changes. It changes from “Oh man, I can’t believe she survived that! Such will! Amazing!” to “Oh man. This is really, really depressing.”

Spread out over eight to twelve hours, each bit of abuse wouldn’t be a big deal. A brief burst at the beginning to set up the game, then one or two instances every other chapter until the end seems reasonable. That’s just rising action. But it’s too much for a trailer. It’s off-putting. It’s distilled misery, possibly literally.

Equally off-putting is the rape threat. At this point, sleazy rape threats in fiction are about as played out as the black guy dying first or a lady kicking a sexist pig in the junk as a Statement Of Feminism. It’s almost the icing on the cake for the trailer, really. “Even after all that… she still might get raped, gamer!” Sure, rape threats can be used well, but here? It’s just another brick in the wall. Even worse, it’s boring. Banal. It was more exciting when she was hanging upside down looking at some weird devil worshipping stuff.

My interest in Tomb Raider isn’t shattered or anything dramatic like that. I’ll probably still check it out, but I really hope that the trailer isn’t representative of the entire game. There’s gotta be a balance.

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