Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Notes on Tomb Raider

1. Just like Uncharted did a good job of riffing off Tomb Raider without just copying Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider does a good job of riffing off Uncharted without just copying Uncharted. It is very much inspired by that character-driven, action/platforming model, but it feels like its own game with its own vibe, not just a reskin.

2. I love how Lara moves. I love watching her even as I enact her. I love feeling like I am acting. I love the way the animations change to shift the tones of my inputs. The way she will run when we are alone but then cower and creep with the same weight put on the thumbstick when enemies are around. She is a tremendously well animated model and it is such a pleasure to just be her.

3. I am a big fan of sticky-cover shooters, but after playing Tomb Raider I am left wondering why I ever had to push a button to stick to cover. The way Lara just naturally hides behind a wall, just organically sticks to it, is so fluid and intuitive.

4. Is it a problem that Tomb Raider is, first and foremost, a cover shooter? Two answers: yes; no. I enjoyed the cover shooting. It felt gritty. The guns felt messy. The enemies felt as amateur and confused and unprofessional as Lara. As far as a cover shooter trying to portray a sense of gritty survival, I think it did that well.

5. But, there was certainly too much cover shooting for the story it was trying to tell and the scene it was trying to set. Excuse me while I go armchair developer for a moment, but I found myself at multiple times wishing the game had taken a Splinter Cell: Conviction approach. That is: pseudo-messy-stealth until you inevitably screw up and then have to use loud guns. A few scenes do embrace that, where Lara sneaks around and uses silent arrows for a few kills before she is spotted. It creates this great, Far Cry 2-esque in control/out of control seesaw. But too often Tomb Raider just has waves of men running right at you from the start. I don't mind that I spent most of Tomb Raider killing dudes, but I wish I had spent that time killing less dudes with more consideration.

6. On the dudes: the game made some interesting attempts to make them clearly not elite soldiers, but just stranded survivors who actually have a disadvantage to Lara (they are not 'Crofts'). Most of them had bows because they are not an army decked out with unlimited firearms. A lot of them were as scared of Lara as they were angry. A few overheard conversations later in the game really humanise them. You heard them talk about how they are grouped into squads on the island based on which ship they were on that crashed. One group jokes and teases another group in some kind of tribal rivalry. For the most part, it didn't feel 'unbelievable' (which is different from unrealistic) that Lara was holding her own against these men, because these men were not elite soldiers. I liked that. The only problem was the game did not commit to this. It made allusions to the amateur status of your enemies, but never really committed to it long-term over the entire game. So, too often, it just became 'shooting bros' again and again. Fun 'just shooting bros', but 'just shooting bros' all the same.

7. Tomb Raider's biggest improvement over Uncharted is that the act-three enemies did not break the game.

8. The limit of weaponry was excellent. When I got the machine gun and the game went all Modern Warfare Slow Motion so I could use it to wipe out a room of dudes, I distinctly remember saying, "URGH." Then I vowed I would play the entire game just the pistol and bow. But then I got the shotgun and that was enjoyably messy and loud. So I only used those three weapons (and the machine gun when I really had to). I like having a character with a quantifiable, knowable amount of gear. I like knowing exactly what is on my character's body. It adds to the survival sense the game is going for. I liked that I wasn't just picking up new guns every thirty seconds. Though, that worked for Uncharted. Uncharted gave me a sense of desperation, of clawing for a new gun frantically. Tomb Raider gives me a sense of possessive aggression, of refusing to let go of any of my gear. Both work in their own way.

9. The game has an unhealthy obsession with gore. I think it wanted to shock me, with the mass graves of random messy meaty bits. But it was equal parts terrible and laughable. It was beyond believable that this many corpses could possibly be on this island. Several small countries would have to have been depopulated to make this many corpses. Unless the game was trying to make me laugh, it utterly failed to do whatever it was trying to do with all those corpses.

10. One of my favourite things is characters wearing permanent scars throughout a game. Martin Walker. Max Payne. John McClane (not a game, but same deal). I'm not sure if I mentioned in my Bioshock Infinite notes how much I liked that Booker's hand stayed bandaged for the entire game after it was stabbed. The permanence of experience inscribed on the body is a nice touch. For the most part, Tomb Raider did this well. It's a risky thing, mutilating a woman's body for the camera. There is a lot of ways that can go wrong, can seem like exploitation, can actually be exploitation. It very much was exploitation in the marketing material leading up to Tomb Raider's release: here is a girl panting and sighing as she is injured. The opening scenes of Tomb Raider are pretty bad, too. She takes a pretty dramatic, unnecessary beating before I have even done anything. I guess they wanted to throw her in the deep end and see if she could swim. It made me uncomfortable at the start of the game, but as the blood and mud from those opening cut scenes faded and were replaced with scars and injuries from Lara's and my joint experiences, it was better. It didn't feel like (to me, at least) that they were just mutilating some woman's body for no reason. It felt like she was earning scars to be proud of in a way usually only allowed of male bodies.

Edit 10b. Lara's overly gory deaths were terrible and exploitative and cringe-worthy for totally the wrong reasons. Watching her get punctured by tree branches or smashed agains the same aquatic rock no matter where abouts on the island she falls into the water was super gross. It didn't add anything. It was just, "Hey, watch this woman get beat up before you get back to the action."

11. With the exception of Lara's girlfriend, Sam, I have no idea who any of the other 'good guy' characters were meant to be. Apparently Roth meant a whole heap to Lara, but I have no idea who he actually was. For the first part of the game where everyone was separated, names were appearing in the subtitles and over the radio and I had no faces to connect them to. I did not care for any of these characters the way Lara seemed to. Also, they were all terrible. White geek dude who looks like Harry Potter (and who gets to sacrifice himself to save Lara in a weirdly symbolic way). Tribal islander who Lara turns to for support whenever she just 'feels' something in a spiritual way (he is Tribal so he will totally get her, you know?). Angry Irish man who is from Glasgow, in case you missed him telling you five times. I cared about Sam. The rest of the characters were just filler for plot points.

12. Apparently these characters are fleshed out by the diary entries they left scattered all over the island before they crashed onto the island (yep). I wouldn't know because I didn't pay attention to any of these. How to do a good in-game diary: record the character speaking it so I can listen to it even as I continue to play the game. How to do a tolerable in-game diary: have a paragraph of text for me to quickly read before I return to play the game. How to do a totally frustrating in-game diary: force me to look at the wall of text while the character reads it. If the character has recorded voice over of this text, why am I being forced to look at it while they read it?

13. So Tomb Raider's story is ridiculous, prevented from falling in on itself only by the strength of Lara's character (I really liked Lara as a character). But it was so much more enjoyable than Bioshock Infinite. Why? I've been thinking about this for some time. I think, ultimately, Tomb Raider never tried to be anything it wasn't. It never tried to not be a game about shooting a bunch of dudes to get off an island. It was honest. Bioshock: Infinite pretended to be about racism and nationalism and parallel universes when it was actually just about shooting dudes. It was dishonesty. Tomb Raider set up my expectations adequately for the game I was going to play; Bioshock: Infinite did not. I spend a lot of time comparing different games and my reactions to them.

14. Lots of little things made Tomb Raider's platforming really nice. Just a few extra button presses demanded of the player to couple you to whatever flimsy structure Lara is hanging onto just that bit more intimately. When Lara makes a wide jump and only manages to grab with one hand, you have to tap X to get the other hand to grab. When you jump at a wall that Lara needs to use her pick to hold onto, you have to tap X as you sail past it to latch on. To scamper up high walls, you need to tap A a second time for Lara to kind of wall-jump and get a bit extra height. It helped make the platforming feel a bit more intimiate than just finding the path for Lara to stick to. It felt more perilous.

15. My god. The split-second insta-fail quick time events. How are these actually still appearing in games?

16. At the very end of the game, just before the credits, the screen goes white and the line "A SURVIVOR IS BORN" splashes across the screen. It is pretty terrible. It would be like if at the end of Romeo & Juliet someone just yelled out: "TWO LOVERS JUST DIED." It served no purpose other than to turn the entire game into a ten-hour trailer for the inevitable sequel. It also just totally belittles all of Lara's later achievements in the previous games. Lara is much more than a survivor. We know that. We've seen what she goes on to do. By labelling her as just a survivor makes her too reactionary, too much on the back foot. That isn't Lara. Lara is headstrong and determined. She doesn't go on to just survive. She goes on to live.

17. The camera work is exceptional. Someone went through this game with a fine comb, tweaking the exact placement of the camera in every scene to be in an optimal, cinematic position. I don't think it ever crossed the line, as far as I recall, and always felt organic even as it was clearly staged. Throughout the game, you often perform the same action, like climbing a wall, but with the camera positioned differently, and it breathes new life into the same old actions.

18. 50 Shades of Brown.

19. It is really, really refreshing to just be a woman in a game. Or, perhaps more accurately, to not be some well-built white dude yet again. It's not for me to say if Lara is or isn't sexist, but I felt like the game walked a fine line where she was very much a woman (not just a man with breasts) without being reduced to an object. It was just really nice to be a woman for once.

20. Tomb Raider is the kind of disposable genre game I would play again just because it feels good to play and it is fun to watch myself play.


Justin Davis said...

The one problem I had with Lara's permanent damage was the giant hole in her lower abdomen that was completely ignored for several hours. Sure, she acts hurt at first but quickly doesn't seem to have a problem with it at all. Later, after a particularly hard fall (if I'm remembering correctly), she suddenly remembers, "Oh, I still have this gaping wound where a piece of rebar went completely through my body. Maybe I should fix this?" and acts like it is a problem again. I honestly didn't think it would get mentioned again. This is also the point where she finally patches it up, and it stopped making me crazy. I thought it was a nice touch to have her so unable to platform and move around at this point, but it also felt tremendously unbelievable that she went that long without doing something about it.

Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to be a Woman?

How about FALLOUT made it refreshing to KILL a woman? I'm sick to death of killing only males as if we are some fucking expendable sex.

It IS sexist that tomb raider games only have male villains, while the hero is female. They need a game with ONLY female villains.