Any time you look at a really good game with a critical eye, you feel like youíre being unnecessarily difficult. Fussy. You enjoyed the experience, but still felt like something was missing, or that the game wasnít quite meeting its potential. Like things were being left on the table, only they werenít significant enough for your critique to come off as anything but complaining. Itís the way I feel every time I watch The Walking Dead. The experience is fine, but the potential of what the experience could be leaves me frustrated. And I found myself reaching a similar end as I concluded Tomb Raider.
I liked the gameplay. It varies enough and frequently adds new elements so that I never reached the Burnout Phase. The story is lacking, at times incoherent, but thatís common enough in videogames, so it never stood out to me as especially bad. This is more a reflection on the lack of care put into the literary side of videogames than the amount of literary care put into Tomb Raider. Where I do sigh with annoyance in this game, is when it comes to the suspension of disbelief. And this is an issue I often struggle with in videogames, because I feel like Iím being overly-critical. Only, Iím not sure if I feel this way because Iím overly-critical with everything, or if videogames just continually set such a low bar that this feeling comes up often and therefore Iím feeling it at such a high percentage that itís affecting how I interpret them.
I donít really care that there are magically lit caves with ever-burning candles or stoked and abandoned campfires everywhere. It doesnít really bother me that I can magically upgrade skills and weapons based on magical points Iíve accumulated by reaching certain areas or cracking open empty crates. I can look past abandoned documents and relics and whatever else scattered all about for me to find that fill in the backstory (in the same obvious way a voiceover does). I can put those obstacles aside for the sake of gameplayer sanity. Weíll consider it a stretch of the truth in order to enhance the experience. That makes sense.
I can even let the fact that Laraís carrying 4 large weapons, a grappling tool, rope, ammunition, a torch, and several other odds and ends she picks up along the way go. Other games have opted for the 'you can carry one two-armed weapon and one one-armed' method, others have levied for the cache system with limited space but you can store it and it all carries over from one save point to the next. We can just make it a rule that all these things are completely fine in the game world. Even Lara in her tanktop and jeans can somehow find a way to carry everything she ever finds with her. Fine.
Itís the inhuman amount of physical abuse that her character repeatedly takes that gets me. I found myself continuously shaking my head a she fell from the sky, rushed down rivers, tumbled down cliffs, survived explosions; her body slamming into anything and everything along the way. I would put the rough estimate of broken bones at close to 207, not including her arms and ribs several times. Just the sheer amount of times she falls multiple stories onto her side would cripple a person in a lifetime, not to mention the 36 hours or whatever this game takes place in.
Which leads to another belief problem: we play these games over hours, which take days, and sometimes weeks to accumulate, but a game like this exists in a finite amount of time, none of which makes sense. This is partially bad storytelling, but itís also developers taking advantage of their audienceís expectations. We donít experience the game in the same time as the game character does, by this I mean no one (well okay, probably some small sect of purist does) sits down and plays this game from start to finish in one sitting. This is true of almost all games, especially AAA titles. And so we as the player can never empathize with whatever wear and tear the protagonist experiences over the course of the journey. And initially Tomb Raider does an amazing job of drawing you in and forcing you to feel cold and hungry and alone and tired. But this quickly slips away as there is never a penalty for not eating or resting. And Lara never finds more comfortable clothes for herself. Even with the swarms of men she kills, all dressed with down jackets, she never grabs one off them, even though she expresses how cold she is.
And lets talk about those swarms of men. All men. No female enemies on this island. Just Lara killing a bunch of men. Killing hundreds of them as they just flock to one spot to attack her. There is some cool stealth stuff you can do (much better than Iíve seen other games who attempt it) but more often that not itís you hunkered behind a barricade taking outÖwhatever your enemy is. Which is a major problem in most videogames: no one really understands the enemy, or why the enemy attacks so aggressively, and so stupidly.
In terms of gameplay it makes complete sense, enemies are a type of puzzle. You have to figure out how to kill them with strategy and with a thought to ammunition and what enemies might appear in the future. But in terms of coherence, there is often more logic to be found in the endlessly pacing red turtles in Super Mario than there are in most games today. At least the turtle has a linear motivation. He paces, thatís his job, he doesnít care if you enter his space or not, heís just living his life and you donít exist to him. Games with aliens have an easier time justifying why their enemies attack than games based in reality. Itís easier to believe there are mindless aliens than mindless people, but itís also easier to justify killing swarms of aliens than swarms of humans. Tomb Raider touches on this at the very beginning, when Lara kills the first person. Theyíre trying to show us that this is a huge moment for her, as it assumedly is--for her and anyone else. Taking a life is obviously traumatizing for all but the insane, only Lara then goes on to quickly take out a dozen others with no sign of remorse. And then hundreds more as if itís common practice.
The game tries several times to explain itself, Lara mutters about why there are so many of these men, only calling out your own flaws doesnít justify them. And Iím not sure they ever quite make a justifiable claim as to why these men are so adamant about killing you. About why theyíre trapped here sure (how they got here, still no idea?), but it takes so much for a person to just throw themselves into a life-ending situation that players are obviously going to question why all these men would do it. To say theyíre brainwashed doesnít meet muster. Not to mention the fact that you, alone, are always able to win. I mean, yeah sometimes you die and get a gameover, but then you restart and eventually figure it out. But this is constant in games. One vs Many and the one wins, over and over, everytime. Itís just insane. And the game again tries to explain itself, with soldiers calling out ďhow does one girl keep beating us?!Ē but that still doesnít justify it.
I remember playing the first Tomb Raider and I loved how in one of the early levels you come across this giant waterfall. And if you go to a ledge high above it you could do a swan dive into the water. It was so cool to me how a character I was controlling was actually reacting to the environment around them. Hitting the jump button didnít result in the same motion every time (and I know the game introduced this element from the start, but it was at the waterfall that this specific action triggered, you couldnít just do it anywhere, it was specific to this one place), but actually pushed the character into behaving almost human. What was even more impressive was that if you aimed wrong while diving off the cliff, Lara would slam head first onto the earth and break her neck, her limbs crumbling into a heap around her. So not only was the character behaving in a realistic manner by altering her reaction to the environment, but there were also consequences to those actions. Death has always been the calculating factor for difficulty in videogames, but here was an instance where death existed outside the advancement of story, and instead simply mimicked reality. There was no purpose of the swan dive, it just looked cool, and there was no purpose to allowing Lara to land outside the water area and break her neck, itís just what would happen if she really did mistime her jump.
There are probably six or seven instances (maybe more) in which the Lara in this new Tomb Raider falls from similar distances, or hits giving objects with equal force as that ledge-to-ground-by-waterfall dive. She lands on her back or side, hits tree limbs and crates and metal and any other number of debris on her way down. She grimaces, but then gets up and the game continues on. No broken bones, or mention of internal bleeding. Sheís a little more bloodied, a little more dirty, a little more scraped and cut. At one point the gameplay goal becomes getting to a first aid kit, though once achieved itís not clear what her actual injury was or what she really did to fix it. And left to guess, it seems to be trying to fix the injury she suffers at the very beginning of the game, and the one shown in every trailer for the game.
So essentially an old wound is reopened, but no new ones are accumulated on this very painful journey. Games take a lot of liberties with storytelling, often falling on clichťd or flat ideas in order to drive the gameplay. After all, games are valued for how fun they are not how well they tell a story. So Iím okay with the many liberties a game decides to take in providing motivation for characters to get from one level to the next, but I also feel let down by the missed opportunity for players to really experience this game. With graphics getting so much better, to the point where characters resemble real people in so many amazing ways, there is opportunity to suck us into the major moments of games. We can feel like we are really there or that we are making decisions right along with the character weíre playingÖif we donít get pulled out of the moment. If we donít lose our suspension of disbelief. And every time a character falls through the compartment of an abandoned bus/train/plane, smashing their head against seats and crates, their limbs breaking glass, finally stopping their momentum by landing directly on their spine (from a 20-foot fall), then the ground gives way and they fall some more before finally getting out of the jam, dusting themselves off and muttering a joke to themselves, my disbelief is no longer suspended. And itís much easier to lose it than gain it back.