Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Game Ramble: Tomb Raider

In a way it seems unfair to pick on Tomb Raider - by which, let's clarify up front, I mean the 2013 reboot and not the 1996 original - as an illustration of the particular video game narrative failing I'd like to talk about here.  It's a fault, after all, that a great number of games manage to commit, and have been getting wrong almost since the birth of the medium, and Tomb Raider is far from being the worst of the bunch.

Still, not all of them have put that failing so front and centre, or emphasized it quite so pointedly in their marketing campaigns, and for me that alone has been enough to make Tomb Raider something of an exemplar.  Because Tomb Raider the story, as conveyed in cut scenes and dialogue, is an entirely different beast to Tomb Raider the play experience, and not only do those two things not line up one damn bit, they actually spend fifteen hours working largely at odds with each other.

Well, I say fifteen hours; it's in the first five that Tomb Raider most egregiously insists on saying one thing and doing another.  Because this Tomb Raider is an origin story, or perhaps rather a coming of age story, but either way its role is to show us just how Lara Croft became the peculiarly cold-hearted raider of tombs and taker of lives that we know she will become.  As such, Tomb Raider the story makes a big deal of the moment when Lara Croft, youthful grave-robber-to-be, first takes the life of another human being.  I mean, a huge big deal; it's built up for a good ten minutes, if not the entirety of the game's opening, and the act itself is as bloody and traumatic as you could ever hope the sight of a teenage girl committing a shocking act of violence could be.  We're made to understand that this is something that will stay with Lara until her dying days, that will cast its shadow over her every waking hour...

...right up until the moment a few minutes later when Tomb Raider the game forgets it ever mattered.

Empathize, damn you!
An hour or two of game time later and you'll be merrily machine-gunning your enemies in the face, not to mention sniping them, shotgunning them, stabbing them in the back with an improvised climbing tool and setting them on fire.  And though that violence isn't exactly pleasant, it's also every bit as frequent and fundamentally dismissive as the violence in a great many other similar games.  On the one hand we're expected to sympathize with Lara's dehumanising struggle to survive and the fact that by implication there was a time when she didn't murder someone every five minutes.  On the other, we're required to help her gun down literally hundreds of people.  Frankly, even the finest plotting in the world might have difficulty making that one stick.

It seems to me that, of all the problems that video games have to overcome before they make the shift from 'medium of pure entertainment' to 'entertainment medium that everyone is also happy to acknowledge as art form' is this particular disconnect, where story and game refuse to overlap.  And this issue is fundamentally connected to other deep-rooted problems in the medium, in that most games still revolve around the act of killing, and it's hard beyond a certain point - increasingly so given current levels of visual fidelity - to portray that act, even when performed in self-defense, as sympathetic.  I mean, I like Lara Croft, I do; we've raided a ton of tombs together over the years.  But there are only so many times you can watch a teenager jab an arrow into another person's neck and still feel comfortable in their presence.

What's the answer?  Is there one?  When these games sell by the kerzillion, does anyone actually care?  Well, if nothing else, I'm confident that the answer to that last is a resounding yes; just look how many shooting-based games go to great lengths to disguise the nature of their cannon-fodder with masks, helmets, bandannas, sunglasses, or as essentially faceless robots or aliens.  Or - as both example and one possible solution - consider how the colossally successful The Last of Us frames its narrative specifically around the self-corroding nature of violence, and along the way admits that there's something horribly wrong with its protagonist for continuing to commit the acts he does. 

That, though, is a trick you can only pull so many times - and therein, I suppose, lies my point.  As long as gameplay is designed primarily around acts of violence, so video games will be obliged to tell stories primarily about violence, and so limit themselves to one shallow end of a very large narrative swimming pool.  Even then, as Tomb Raider illustrates, to tell such stories convincingly requires a relatable human protagonist, and we're basically hard-wired not to relate to people who spend an overwhelming proportion of their time killing.  Tomb Raider tries simultaneously to ignore that fact and to embrace it, and perhaps it's no wonder that it ends up fumbling both.

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