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Why Tomb Raider 2013 failed as an origin story (but was still an awesome game)

It's possible that I've never given the Tomb Raider Franchise the attention it deserved. In my entire gaming life I could probably count the amount of hours I've spent with the series on both hands. I can just about remember putting Lara's first outing into my Playstation, getting promptly stuck somewhere around twenty minutes in, and never really bothering with her again. I was in the enviable position of having a dad that sold second-hand games as part of his business. I was also young, impatient, and above all, a shitty gamer. Having such a massive selection of games to choose from meant that if something didn't grab me straight away, or was too difficult , then I just didn't bother persevering with it. Me and Lara were done, and no amount of playground-whispered cheat codes to reveal crudely pixelated breasts were going to convince me otherwise. 

I'd pretty much carried my ambivalence towards the franchise with me, but something about the recent reboot got me interested. Almost universal critical praise and a couple of recommendations lead to a rental, and I found myself completely hooked from start to finish. The end credits marked a milestone for me. It was first time I'd beaten a Tomb Raider game. Hell, it was the first time I'd got past the opening level. 

This isn't intended as a review, but I will say that I found that Tomb Raiderplays like an absolute dream. Movement is fluid, combat is satisfying, puzzles are engaging and just challenging enough to make you feel a little bit clever for solving them without breaking up the flow of game play. The action direction is also, from what I can tell having never played much of the Uncharted series, pretty special. 

So far, solid game. But Tomb Raider was supposed to be so much more than a mechanically solid, entertaining title, right? It's intended as a origin story for Lara, showing us her transformation from a unremarkable archaeologist to a pistol-toting superhuman icon, letting the audience love her for her vulnerability and gain a new appreciation of what a bad-ass she is. It's no small task for a game to take on an attempt to both humanise and deify a character simultaneously. Both traits are depictions of binary opposite characteristics, and both compliment each other insomuch as if an audience is never allowed to see character's weakness, it's hard to appreciate their strengths. 

All fiction is a form of escapism, and videogames especially rely on providing at least some form of wish fulfillment to the player. They're also in a unique position to offer this because of the interactive nature of the medium. The issue then lies in how to let us project both our desire for strength along with our natural tendencies to root for the underdog. It's fun to play as Superwoman for a while, but it's pretty hard to become emotionally involved with someone who's practically invincible. 

I'll just get it out of the way now. I thought Tomb Raider was a badly written game. I played it because I thought the premise was interesting, and I think that premise Lara's character arc was poorly executed. Lara's transformation struck me more as a feature claw-hammered into the package than an organic narrative device, and her jarring leap into sudden genocide wasn't backed by enough foreshadowing, but I don't think that the problem was lack of talent or effort on the part of the writers. I think they were given an impossible task to begin with. That is, to give Lara Croft depth, to humanise her. 

Lara's first outing was in 1996. Although there's plenty of exceptions to the rule, she comes from a time where a characters central goal, mechanically speaking, was enough to base an entire persona on. She never was Lara Croft: Archaeologist forced into an unpleasant situation. It was always, and was always going to be, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Lara, in both game play and character, collects shiny objects. In terms of the hero's journey, she's only aiming slightly higher than Miss. Pacman, and that's only because the items of interest happen to have history, rather than being pixels on a grid. 

 It makes it even harder to empathise when you know the funds from her historic grave robbing aren't really going towards anything much more significant than such lifestyle essentials as a freezer big enough to trap her butler in. Campster has pointed out in his Errant Signal videos that he feels Lara is a Sociopath, and I'd agree with him, but I don't feel her sociopathy is a character trait, more a hangover from her existence as a videogame character in the first place. In many cases, blending mechanics and narrative makes for great games, and it's something we don't see enough, but the Tomb Raider reboot overreaches itself by attempting to humanise a character that is literally the embodiment of a mechanic in herself. It's similar to Naughty Dog inventing a dark, trauma-ridden origin story for Crash Bandicoot. I'm sure Carl Jung would have had a field day with all those masks.

How Far Cry 3 taught me to love violent games again.

I dont think its all that hyperbolic to say that we're reaching a turning point in the industry. Granted, videogames are evolving so fast thats it's almost impossible to keep track of all the new ground that's being covered, but right now, more so than ever, I feel that there's a palpable sense that the medium is starting to do some really special things. In a lot of ways, this feels like a natural progression. Whatever your opinions on digital distribution, it undoubtedly levels the playing field for titles with smaller budgets to make a name for themselves. Gamers aren't limited to whatevers on the shelves in their local Game or Blockbuster anymore - all we have to do is load up Steam or Xbox Marketplace and we have easy access to dozens of great indie titles right alongside the big releases. The advantage of independents is obvious: Without the financial pressure of the latest blockbuster, creative constraints are lifted for smaller developers, allowing them to create games as close to their original vision as the technology will allow. The result? More games created as art, and less created purely as profitable entertainment. 

Basically, as the Triple A industry eats itself, theres some genuinely intelligent, thought provoking, and, I'm going to say it, Mature stuff being made, and I think its great. I've seen people play Journey and thought it was beautiful. Did I rush back to buy it? hell no. Why? Because as much as I lament whats happening in Triple A industry at the moment, as much as I long for the narrative depth found in so many indie titles to make it's way into the mainstream, I just love killing shit with big guns in glorious HD just too damn much to stop. The thing is, I read that back to myself, a twenty-five year old with a degree in literature and a fair few stamps on my passport, and I start to feel a little bit guilty about it, like it's a dirty habit rather than a legitimate pastime. I'm also aware that although views are changing, a lot of society see it this way as well, and although we haven't quite got to the point where we have to play Fire Emblem outside the pub with the smokers, the parallels can definitely be drawn. 

As much as I can wax lyrical about the potentials of gaming as a vehicle for thought-provoking storytelling, there's a big part of me that feels like a decadent man-boy taking pleasure in virtual violence. Imagine my surprise with Far Cry 3 then, in which you play as a decadent man-boy taking pleasure in actual violence. When I first switched on the console, I started to get a little nervous about spending another thirty-odd hours of my life piling up pixelated corpses. By the end of my first session, just like Jason Brody, something clicked, and it started to feel like winning


Far Cry 3 is the first game I've played in a long time that blends narrative and mechanics so seamlessly that almost every in-game action serves to increase immersion. As you crouch outside the corrugated iron fencing of a pirate encampment, considering your various options of assault like a psychotic child in a military grade sweet shop, it's no great suspension of disbelief to imagine Brody doing the exact same thing. To Brody, his guns aren't guns, and the people hes killing aren't people. Each new weapon is a new toy to play with, each victim a target. Because of this, he is the most fully realised and accurate representation of myself as a player I think I've ever seen in a game, and I was in no doubt whilst playing that he was having just as much fun as I was. 


When you're first handed control of Jason, he acts exactly as youd expect him to, given the situation  - terrified. Far Cry 3's exceptional introduction sequence manages to be both intuitive and disorientating at the same time, and the tension of being thrown into a dire situation the minute the game starts is increased because you have to learn the controls under pressure. This is how all tutorials should be - perfectly synchronising the player and the protagonist's inexperience, to the aid of both gameplay and atmosphere. The first life Jason takes leaves him horrified, but as we get more comfortable with killing from a mechanical perspective, so does Jason in the narrative. 

Theres a hell of a lot of killing in Far Cry 3, and whilst this is par for the course in this sort of game, I don't feel that that by itself is a valid excuse anymore. We can do great games without violence. Its been discussed to death by this point, and I dont want to go into too much detail here, but I genuinely thought that Bioshock Infinite was needlessly gratuitous in some places. There's just as much death in Far Cry 3, but it's elevated above the usual fare by a sense of irony that most games don't have. Jason spouts ridiculous one-liners like so many other protagonists, but instead of witty Nathan Drakeisms, he's telling himself to 'Channel Indy'. Here's the fundamental difference: Uncharted pays homage, Far Cry 3 is a pastiche. I didnt have time to say 'Awesome' when the game gave me a new gun, because Brody had already said it for me. 


All of this left me in no doubt I was playing a game in which every ounce of violence, every over-emphasised set piece was absolutely necessary. As we play the game, we're living out Brodys adolescent fantasies just as we're indulging our own. To have the action serve as both entertainment and commentary on that same entertainment at the same time is testament to some of the best relationships between mechanics and narrative I've seen in quite a while. And it makes me feel a lot better about shooting shit.

A Self Imposed Nuclear Winter: Are games ready for feminist critique?

I don't think about Krogans all the time. I promise. But something about this reminded me of the war-torn history of Bioware's answer to Battletoads.

As anyone who's poured over Mass Effect's codex entries knows, even before the genophage had all but ended the pitter-patter of tiny Krogan headbutts, they were already well on their way to wiping themselves off the galaxy map by way of a 'self-imposed nuclear winter'. It's a familiar sci-fi trope - a species acquiring devastating technology before they've developed the wisdom to use it responsibly, and one that resonates as a chilling parable for our own times. I also think it's a pretty good metaphor for the problems with game criticism at the moment. 

I wanted to start by saying that I think that any serious discussion around games is a step forward. I really enjoyed Anita Sarkeesian's first tropes video and I'm looking forward to seeing what she puts out next. The community seems happy for games to be discussed critically from psychoanalytic viewpoints, or culturally from a postmodern angle, but we seem to get uncomfortable around this sort of thing and ignore the fact that feminism is a legitimate critical perspective. It's standard practise for literature and film, so why should games be any different? We can't have our cake, claim it's a lie, and then eat it. 

But back to the Krogan, or rather the metaphor. It wasn't Sun-Higginsons film per se that made me start to wonder about this, more the fact that, coupled with Sarkeesian's project, it's showing a building trend of feminist critique surrounding videogames. I'll say it again, I think this is awesome. But I'm not actually sure that videogames are ready for this sort of scrunity. I'm wondering if, like the Krogan, we've got the technology, but not the wisdom required to use it responsibly.

Take the recent discussion over Dragon's Crown, which Jim Sterling covered in the latest episode of the excellent Jimquistion.

I'm not suggesting that the design, coding and production of something like Dragon's Crown doesn't require an enormous amount of skill and talent, but that doesn't make the games portrayal of the character in question any less, well, questionable. But at the same time, I don't feel that it's malicious in any real sense. Thoughtless, yes - I'm sure the Krogan had absolutely no intention of laying waste to their home planet - but certainly not a deliberate attempt to undermine an entire gender. I also accept that that same thoughtlessness may be a direct symptom of an underlying lack of respect for the feminine form inherent across the culture, not just in game design. But I also think that in alot of ways, games are a medium still in their infancy. If nothing else, Bioshock: Infinite showed us that while games are able to take on some of the larger issues that have affected society for decades and had a hugely negative impact on the lives of countless people, they're still struggling to say anything truly meaningful about them.

Mario has a moustache because it's the only way the designers could give him a nose with the technology that was available to them, and although we can now quite easily portray female characters without over-emphasizing their feminine aspects as ridiculously as Dragons Crown, it's an image unfortunately built into the psyche of the gaming public. I understand and respect female gamers for wanting to change this, but doesn't it make more sense to work with the industry, from the inside, rather than making a damning expose that attacks its practises? 

Flash forward from Mario to the present day, and we're only just (In the triple A market at least) managing to make a proper statement on war. The biggest problem on the planet, and something videogames have been mining for subject matter since the days of Spacewar. Even the technology for Pong evolved from radar scanners. Without war, there would literally be no videogames, and yet it's taken this long for something as directly damning as Spec Ops: The Line to come out. 

In anything made by human hands, subtext is inevitable. That's the underlying assumption critical theory is based on. The artist cannot paint the most simple of pictures without leaving a truth about themselves on the canvas. I understand that if negative portrayal of women can be found on any level of a games design, then it's worth closer inspection. But where it does exist, it might be symptomatic of a larger problem in culture as a whole, and not one that's isolated within gaming. Art can't be taken out of context with it's time and place in history any more than   from its creative source. Games are a young medium when compared to film, in comparison to literature they're practically still in a period of gestation. I'm wondering if it might be time to cut them some slack, enjoy them for what they are, and accept they've still got a long way to go before evolving into the mature art form we all wish they were. 

I think what I'm trying to say is this. Girls, we're sorry. It's not you, it's us. We're trying to change. Really, we are. It's just these things don't happen overnight. Maybe if we could sit down and talk about it, we'd be able to work it out.

If not, we risk alienating a huge percentage of the audience. The percentage with nicer hair. And I for one don't want to be around when the bombs go off and we're left trying to headbutt each other to death for the attention of the last few females on Tuchanka. 



Is it someone new? Nope, just the same old knee-jerking.

 

As an atheist myself, I am, like many of us, often left confused at the actions of those with faith. But I also get how religious belief might help some people find answers. It's a crazy world, and I'm not going to begrudge anyone a belief that helps them make sense of it, as long as they don't hurt anyone else because of it. 

As such, I wasn't as quick to dismiss this guy as a 'Butthurt Christian' as it seems many of the gaming community have done.

But his complaint (If legitimate, and not just a way to recoup some of the losses for his TF2 hat addiction) did strike me as pretty ignorant for reasons that have nothing to do with Infinite's (admittedly slightly ham-fisted) use of Christian iconography and ritual.

"Of course I cannot hold true to my beliefs and also commit this act, so I am therefor[e] forced to not play the game"

Well great! More power to you, buddy! And I think that we can all agree, Christian or not, that sticking to your beliefs is a good thing. Except, well....

The game didn't actually force you to do anything, did it?

Now, I realise that Malmberg alleges that he didn't play very far into the game. But assuming that he missed every single teaser and trailer, most of which feature various characters screaming the names 'DeWitt', 'Booker' and 'Booker Dewitt' several times, there's still the fact that the very first line of spoken dialogue in the game is 'Booker, are you afraid of god?". That, and the Unmissable Note on the door to the lighthouse adressed to 'DeWitt'. Infinite, Despite its first-person perspective and its cleverly interwoven meta-wanking over player agency, makes it very clear to you that you are experiencing its narrative through the eyes of a character.

All the game asks of you, as a player, is to spend enough time with its protagonist to experience his choices and actions along with him. You start up the game, you step into Booker's shoes.

Whether Infinite treats its source matter respectfully is currently filling up a decent section of teh internets, but here, it's irrelevant. Unwillingness to experience events that might make you uncomfortable, even as fiction, shows clear insecurity in one's belief system. 

More than this however, Malmberg completely misinterprets not only Infinite's intention, but the intention of the medium as a whole. In the same way that reactionary news media demonises games like Grand Theft Auto as 'murder simulators' just because they allow the user to interact with scenarios that would go unnoticed in a Scorsese movie, Malmberg appears to view Infinite as a 'sinning simulator', completely ignoring the fact that it's telling a story that happens to feature these events, and requires player interaction to drive its narrative along. I accept that the game has perhaps more variety in player input than something like the recent Walking Dead series, but Infinite's primary focus is undeniably its linear narrative. Refusing to press a button to have Booker accept the baptism is akin to refusing to turn a page in a book because the characters action isn't one you'd neccesarily take yourself. In this sense, and whilst I appreciate Valve's respect for Malmberg's beliefs, his grievance really can't be taken seriously.

As a footnote, Presumably he had no idea that that the game also featured hours of electrocutin', head-poppin', shotgunnin' shenanigans? Or maybe he did, and decided that genocide fit in with his beliefs nicely, but that the baptism scene was one too many nails in the cross? Or maybe he just planned to play through without shooting, using only the Vigor that Irrational games released as DLC to placate the critics that keep saying the games messages are ruined by its violence? The one that shoots pseudo-intellectual bloggers that bore Columbia's citizens to sleep by debating the artistic merit of videogames? Maybe I dreamed that one..