Tombs=Raided, Hearts=Won; Tomb Raider Rocks

tomb-raider-5

I don’t usually wish that I paid more for a game.  But I liked Tomb Raider so much that I almost wish I hadn’t bought it on sale.  I want the people who made it to know how much I liked it, and I want them to put as much high-quality work into making the next one as they put into making this one.  Because there’s a next one.  I mean, even if I didn’t know that Rise of the Tomb Raider is coming, I wouldn’t have any real doubts (except, I suppose, if the studios involved fell apart or lost the rights, which would be terrible).  The end of Tomb Raider left it clear that Lara is nowhere near finished with being the awesome badass which she’s become, and that makes me very happy.  Watching the announcement trailer for the new game has reduced me to a quivering pile of enthusiasm.

Why am I so happy about all this?  Tomb Raider is a brilliant game, and does things with story-telling that remind me why games are such a fascinating medium in the first place.  It’s an adventure novel with audience participation, a new entry in a genre that I love, and it evades the problematic trappings that spoil so many other adventure stories for me.

Ok, spoil is a strong word.  I love adventure stories enough to enjoy them despite their frequent problems, but being able to enjoy one that isn’t so inherently problematic is a breath of fresh air.  It doesn’t hurt that this particular story is extremely well written, with characters who feel like real people, and who share history with each other that seems fitting and unforced.  It’s a little bit like someone crossed Tintin with Indiana Jones, turned the tone dial to ‘gritty and a bit bloodthirsty,’ and then put you through the Bildungsroman of Lara Croft as she goes from untested and unconfident archaeologist to self-assured and competent survivor and adventurer, hellbent on keeping herself and her friends alive.  Wait, no, that’s almost exactly what it’s like.  It’s glorious.

Look, you don’t have to take my word for it.  You can play the game yourself.  But if you want to read more of my thoughts on the topic, including the few reservations I have, please be my guest: 

Ok, yes, I do have a few reservations.  Specifically, I don’t like quicktime events.  They remind me of “games” from my early childhood that involved memorizing a sequence of button presses through repeated trial and error (and by error I mean death, where you have to start over at the very beginning).  There were other games which I eventually learned to the point of creating my own best set of button presses (Ninja Gaiden leaps to mind, complete with memorizing levels until I knew where enemies were before they came on screen, and attacking before I could be said to have reacted to their presence).  But there’s something very different about playing a Nintendo-hard exercise in masochism which can still allow a player to find their own winning series of moves, versus playing a game in which you simply must press the right button when the game reaches a certain point, or else be forced to start over.  I don’t like that second option.  These days I don’t much like the first option either, but it does fit comfortably in my (likely misplaced) nostalgia.

Tomb Raider has quicktime events.  I don’t like them very much.  Or, rather, I didn’t like them very much.  I feel, gameplay-wise, that there are better ways to achieve most of the things that you’d want to do with a quicktime event, and some of the times that Tomb Raider used quicktime events I felt that they’d made the wrong choice.  But by the end of the game I had at least partly changed my mind.

I should clarify: when I say quicktime event I mean something that looks a lot like a cutscene but which requires you to press a button (or many buttons) part way through in order to make your way out the other side.  They don’t, as a rule, allow you to solve things your own way.  You have to traverse the path which the designers set out for you, in the way that they feel you should, or else you lose.  A cutscene simply shows you a video of events that happen in the game, and Tomb Raider has these as well.

Back on track, Tomb Raider is nearly as much a story as it is a game, and as best as I can tell there are a few story moments that the writers wanted the player to experience in one particular way.  But because they also wanted the audience to engage with the game instead of checking out completely and watching a cutscene unfold, they’ve used quicktime events.

Oddly enough, this design choice takes something I dislike and uses it to do a few things that I really admire.  The passivity of a cutscene would kill your connection to Lara and her story, where the forced engagement of a quicktime event lets the writers put you through a specific set of circumstances without letting you disengage.  And it’s clear that they knew exactly what they wanted you to experience in most of the quicktime events.  I don’t think I’ve played another game where being killed felt so terribly personal, intimate, and yet utterly uncaring (on the part of my murderer, that is); a few of the quicktime events left me feeling soiled and yet shocky with adrenaline.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that I don’t usually identify as strongly with a video game protagonist as I do with the Lara Croft of this Tomb Raider.  And I think the quicktime events have something to do with that.

All of which is to say that Tomb Raider managed to change some of my opinions about quicktime events, which is pretty impressive as far as I’m concerned.  I think they make good sense when they’re used to lead a player through a specific storyline that is integral to the advancement of the game’s plot, though I prefer for them to be used sparingly and their quality is dependent on the quality of the game’s writing in the first place.  The fact that Tomb Raider is so well written, and that its quicktime events contribute to that, is really what wins me over.

One last thought on the topic, one which is full of *SPOILERS*

I’m glad that I couldn’t just watch Lara desperately claw her way out of the clutches of that fucker, Vlad, in a cutscene… something about being forced to figure out how to murder him before he could so casually dispose of me engaged me in a way that doesn’t usually happen for me in games.  It was also traumatic.  But it beautifully establishes Lara’s recognition of her kill-or-be-killed situation, which is the starting point of so much of this game, and I love it for that.

Ok, *SPOILERS OVER*.

What else do I want to say about this that won’t spoil things for you?  Despite feeling a little hampered every so often (it’s not an Assassin’s Creed game, and while it still feels dynamic it has significantly more linear environments), this game is excellent fun.  As I said at the start, it feels like an adventure novel that lets you participate, and it delivers.  The writing is excellent, and even inspiring to one such as myself.  There were a few moments that felt a little buggy to me (I’m looking at you, Tomb of the Adventurer DLC), but none of that detracted enough from my enjoyment of the unfolding story for me to care.  Plus, stalking around and hunting my enemies with a bow is just wonderfully rewarding.  There’s too much fun and goodness to be had here for me not to recommend it.  Besides, how many pulp action adventure games pass the Bechdel test with flying colors?

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