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 Ė 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 Ė Lara's character arc Ė 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.
I donít think itís all that hyperbolic to say that weíre reaching a turning point in the industry. Granted, videogames are evolving so fast thatís itís almost impossible to keep track of all the new ground thatís being covered, but right now, more so than ever, I feel that thereís 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 arenít limited to whateverís on the shelves in their local Game or Blockbuster anymore Ė 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, thereís some genuinely intelligent, thought provoking, and,†I'm†going to say it, Mature stuff being made, and I think itís great.†I've†seen people play Journey and thought it was beautiful. Did I rush back to buy it? Fuck no. Why? Because as much as I lament whatís 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 its 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 itís 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 havenít 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, thereís 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 Iíve 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, itís no great suspension of disbelief to imagine Brody doing the exact same thing. To Brody, his guns†aren't†guns, and the people heís killing arenít 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 Iíve 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 youíre first handed control of Jason, he acts exactly as youíd expect him to, given the situation Ė fucking terrified. Far Cry 3ís 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 Ė perfectly synchronising the player and the protagonistís 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.
Thereís 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 donít feel that that by itself is a valid excuse anymore. We can do great games without violence. Itís been discussed to death by this point, and I donít want to go into too much detail here, but I genuinely thought that Bioshock Infinite was needlessly gratuitous in some places. Thereís just as much death in Far Cry3, but itís elevated above the usual fare by a sense of irony that most games donít have. Jason spouts ridiculous one-liners like so many other protagonists, but instead of witty Nathan Drakeismís, heís telling himself to ĎChannel Indyí. Hereís the fundamental difference: Uncharted pays homage, Far Cry 3 is a pastiche. I didnít have time to say ĎAwesomeí 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, weíre living out Brodyís adolescent fantasies just as weíre 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 Iíve seen in quite a while. And it makes me feel a lot better about shooting shit.