Sunday, September 13, 2009

Intimate Moments

I've been going a little nuts over Tomb Raider in the last couple of months ; first in the company of the excellent Anniversary, followed by that of Legend, which proved to be a worthy companion piece (even though it came out before). It might seem strange to bring up these two games now, let alone to play those rather than 2008 update Underworld, but what I take away from them is that they represent a fascinating dichotomy in terms of tone and aspirations. At the same time, the traits they share remain very indicative of a certain approach to 3-D game design, and I will try to dig into those.

My sudden enthusiasm for these titles came as something of a surprise, as my only prior experience with the franchise, about ten years ago, had been that of hopelessly failing to perform anything right in Tomb Raider 2. A quick spin of the Anniversary demo, however, was enough to dispel any suspicion I may have had concerning the present state of the series: without a doubt, I was willing to dive into a full package loaded with adventuring as fluid and good-looking as this. Of course it played almost exactly like the recent Prince of Persia efforts, and I reckoned that this revamped model was not representative of the previous entries' failings. But even so, there was something downright inviting about the way the game played and presented itself, and it probably didn't have much to do with the attractive character on display. At least I hope so...

In a twisted fit of counter-logic, let's start by describing the look and feel of Legend, which was clearly intended as a franchise reboot. This is pretty much blared right from the outset, with a lively FMV intro and a brief athletic prologue announcing that this is Tomb Raider "as-you've-never-seen-it-before" ; a game taking place in a variety of colorful locales, boasting moves you could have only ever dreamed of, peopled with supporting characters you couldn't care less about. By all means, this is an action-movie of a game ; not the first of its kind, yet certainly not the least, and one that may allow newcomers to familiarize themselves very quickly with the driving concepts of 3-D platforming and environmental puzzles. In terms of distilling an atmosphere of excitement and hooking the player instantly, Legend is an absolute success, maintains a good pace for most of its modest running time... and also, with its well-worn genre tropes and overall tone, manages to feel completely impersonal.

Juxtapose this with the opening of Anniversary, which can only be described as austere in comparison: Lara, sitting alone in a hotel lobby, is seen reading a book, then offered a contract, which leads to her claiming that she "only plays for sport". In a few minutes, she is established as calm, somewhat caring (for her foreign guide), crafty (in finding alternate routes), and only after that as an action heroine able to take down a pack of wolves. Remarkably, these subdued preliminaries act as the perfect set-up for the majority of the game, which features no chit-chat with stock partners, few "action button" sequences, and only a handful of human adversaries. In short, this is not a game about a physically-privileged female "doing stuff", but about such a woman engaged in... tomb raiding. A fantasy rendition of tomb raiding, certainly, but still exploration first and foremost. As such, the focus of the game is not placed on keeping things moving, but on the design of the tombs themselves ; creations which incidentally include "St. Francis Folly", one of the most amazing levels I have ever played.

Having gone out of my way to play it three times now, I can safely stand up for the belief that, save for a routine opening involving standard pillar action, "St. Francis Folly" incarnates everything there is to like about Tomb Raider. There is quite simply no way to describe (and certainly no way to reproduce) the experience of facing the dizzying vertical core of this level for the first time, and to start puzzling the way to circumvent its endless supply of obstacles. There is, however, an important point to be made about how its design requires the player to summon every navigational skill imaginable. Observation, memorization, association ; those all come subtly into play here (and are facilitated by the game's clear identification of the various structural elements). Successful feats of path-finding are also rewarded, in a way, by accessing separate rooms containing their own discrete systems, which are also a joy to piece together (at least for the most part). While other levels, such as "Midas' Palace" or "Obelisk of Khamoon", propose similar ways to structure the progression, none of them quite approach the scale and complexity of this one, which feels autonomous and full.

Still other levels, like "Temple of Khamoon" or "The Lost Valley", unfold in a completely different manner, guiding the player through a series of carefully-crafted challenges, sometimes looping back to a previous location that was altered somehow ; closer to an obstacle course than to a puzzle box, we could say. This approach, while very commendable when executed well, has a way of soliciting attention in much smaller bursts, and its prevalence in Legend is the basis of a distinct kind of immersion. What I believe, in short, is that this approach sets up a loosening of the level of investment not only in any given scenario, but in the series of exercises as a whole. In the case of Legend, this effect is reinforced by the constant stream of information, color and variety that is thrown at the player ; quite simply, inserting motorcycle rides to spice things up every so often, as brisk and fun as they are, doesn't make for a very focused adventure. And so, almost subconsciously, this game is likely to spark a much less involved engagement on the part of the player, and an overall experience that doesn't feel nearly as rewarding.

In a recent column for Resolution Magazine, Fraser McMillan has written about "isolation" as one of the recurring themes in the freeware platformers of late, as well as one of the key emotions that their authors are able to convey through mechanics and aesthetics. In Fraser's words, "these indie projects are able to do so because they’re unrestrained by profiteering marketers and, to revert to appropriate modern vernacular, the general bullshit the mainstream industry’s creatives have to put up with". But while I mostly sympathize with his views on the restraining factor of business, I don't see why, at least in principle, a fully-financed studio with proper 3-D tools couldn't achieve the sort of intimacy with oneself described by McMillan. Tomb Raider: Anniversary, while still including much of the "bullshit" ascribed above, perhaps provides a glimpse of how this can be achieved: through its core design and aesthetic choices, be it the overt fragility of the heroine, the sudden appearances of the animal foes, or simply the way that light pierces through the cracks in beautiful particle showers, Crystal Dynamics have crafted an atmosphere of disarming loneliness. Unlike most of Legend and many other contemporaries, much of Anniversary does not feel immediately empowering, but rather unfolds patiently, often frustratingly, matching the player's focus every step of the way, until one crucial advance is made, and what remains is the satisfaction of a job well done. As such, while I would not exactly place it alongside Lunnye Devitsy as far as "isolation" goes, there is little doubt in my mind that this particular game contains some of the most well-considered and -- dare I say it? -- artful design a major development studio could hope to conceive.

"All those satellites and computers just to perfect the science of talking to oneself", utters Lara during one of the rare moments of Legend in which she is deprived of communication with the outside world ; an oddly perceptive line in a game that otherwise doesn't bother too much with insight, and one that creates an interesting moment of suspense. In fact, you could argue that this earlier game succeeds much better as a narrative experiment than its quieter successor (I was especially impressed by a certain "flashback" portion fairly early on), even if the actual development of the fiction turns out to be just as run-of-the-mill and anger-fueled as any action story of its type. Anniversary, on the other hand, manages to instill the character of Lara Croft with some genuine feelings of guilt and concern through its smattering of hammy cutscenes, and offers just about as much narrative as you should expect from a game about a curvy woman skipping around piles of rock (sculpted or not). But is it possible to do better? Is there a middle ground to strike between pompous verbosity, insistent banter and muted restraint? Is it even requisite to fill any game's crannies with bits of fiction, as gripping as they might be? Those are questions I shall not tackle now, but suffice to say that those elements of presentation, coupled with the layouts of the levels, can play a large part in establishing widely differing tones and levels of engagement, even when the underlying mechanics are basically the very same.

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