Gimme Danger

tomb raider combat

The recent Tomb Raider reboot, mistakenly cited by Tom Chick as one of the best games of this generation, is bullshit AAA games-making at its worst for a number of reasons. But the moment where I decided to check out  of it was when I was tasked with guiding Lara Croft across a girder spanning a chasm. The camera tilted forward to show me the danger of the fall. Lara’s arms went out to balance, and I assumed that I would need to carefully nudge the stick, moving her slowly so as to maintain footing and overcome the perilous obstacle. I stopped halfway and I watched her, fidgeting and nervous, feeling that strange fear of ersatz death that video games can sometimes create for us. And then I just started jamming on the stick to see what would happen.

I wasn’t even treated to one of the many canned, grisly death animations that the newly “empowered” Lara is subjected to throughout the game. Instead, she did this ridiculous chicken dance- literally unable to fall. The danger was a lie. Lara was not in jeopardy, there was no stake in using skill, patience, and a steady hand to overcome a perilous situation. Imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark if the camera pulled back during the boulder sequence to reveal that there was no way Harrison Ford could actually be crushed by it. Between realizing that I could fool the game’s enemy AI by running up and shooting bad guys in the face at point blank range with a bow and arrow and this moment, I realized that despite all the adventuring and derring-do, there was no actual danger in this game. Zero threat to anyone involved, including the player. The only casualty was suspension of disbelief. This is something that is all too common in big budget, story-driven games. The sense of risk is completely neutered, and this can render narrative and subtextual content completely sterile when it comes down to defining how the player’s actions interface with the script.

I did realize that I could push the jump button and actually make her fall by apparently clearing the invisible wall, but the game was too far gone. It caused me to reflect on the nature of danger, risk, and threat in games and how games like Uncharted and any number of recent adventure or action games have mollycoddled and pampered a fictional gamer-consumer (cooked up by publishing house executives and cowardly game designers) that is apparently afraid of failure, particularly in regard to story-driven games. It is in some sense the difficulty question that comes up from time to time, usually with games like Dark Souls and a Roguelike or two waiting in the wings to put in an appearance.

But it’s more than just a question of how “hard” a game, how much resistance its level design, AI, or other elements put up against the player. I like tough games, I like to feel that I’ve overcome a challenge because I’ve developed the required gameplay skills or acumen and answered the designer’s call to learn and play. I also like to feel like I’ve just barely squeaked by with a touch of luck, left wondering how in the hell I made it through that part of the game. I like the exhilaration of being almost to the end of a level in a difficult platformer, tensing up, and being afraid to lose. There’s no reason that a game that’s telling a story shouldn’t be as demanding in terms of skill as a classic arcade game. Make me work for the story. Change it up if I miss the mark. Make me feel that I am in real danger.

Not everyone wants the roadblocks and frustrations, I get this. Some folks want to play a game and face no resistance at all, just to see what’s in it and move on until they get the good ending. That’s fine. But there is a major issue in question here when game designers are removing any sense of risk, challenge, or danger through silly mechanics like Uncharted’s failsafe “golden ledge” platforming. If it’s a high-spirited, seat-of-the-pants adventure and the only sense of danger is quite literally faked as in the case with Tomb Raider…what’s the point, at that point, of playing that game instead of watching an Indiana Jones picture that completes the illusion of threat much more completely and believably- sans chicken dancing on a girder a million feet up in the mountains?

I want to see story-based games that aren’t afraid to take things away from me if I lose or hit whatever failstate there is. The faltering survival horror genre was great at this, until making horror games more “accessible” meant piling in more bullets, health packs, and hit points. Permadeath is obviously one way that designers of games like Fire Emblem or XCOM accomplish this by removing characters from your roster. The Souls games and later ZombiU brilliantly built in a sense of high stakes as well as an impetus to learn and try again by leaving your bloodstain and all of your accumulated souls way down in some dungeon at some point you’re afraid you won’t make it to again and this is all built into the narrative and setting of these games.  Metro 2033′s higher difficulties, including the absolutely grueling “Ranger” mode, make the surival aspect prominent and grants the game an almost overwhelming, insurmountable sense of despair and fatalism. These are meaningful ways to make games feel dangerous and challenging but also engaging at a storytelling level.

These days, a “hard” difficulty setting is just a bone thrown to gamers that remember when you actually had to learn to play games to beat them. It usually just means that the bad guys need five or six more headshots to kill or there are more of them. The AI isn’t any better, and the stakes aren’t any higher. It’s a way to fake a challenge, as are achievements and trophies. All of these options are low risk to the developer and publisher, afraid of gamer-consumers who might be scared to lose and take their money elsewhere. And none change the vaunted, terrible scripts to which these games are metered and tethered.

Are gamer-consumers really afraid to fail? Will they not buy a game if they think that they can’t win or complete a storyline? If this is the case, then why is competitive multiplayer from Call of Duty to Starcraft II to League of Legends so popular? Why was Dark Souls a big hit with its taunting come-on “prepare to die”? Why are sports games, where you have a binary win/loss outcome, popular? Everybody that’s ever played a tower defense game knows that the best part is in those last few minutes of a game gone pear-shaped, where you’re trying to hold out and turn it around. Same goes for any “horde mode” you care to name. In these games, failure is real and meaningful. In a story-driven game, the best you might get is an item on the quest list marked as “failed” with a minor variation in the outcome or a different ending based on a facile moral choice. Larger games like Mass Effect might manage to weave a larger tapestry of successes and failures to create a greater sense of player agency, but ultimately there is still little at risk in terms of completing the game or its intended arc.

But in a big-budget, AAA action adventure game like Tomb Raider, danger is when the entire image freezes on a scene of Lara about to be stabbed by some guy and a big circle closes in on whichever button you’re supposed to press. Or you crouch behind a waist-high wall, moving when the bad guys throw some kind of explosive or incendiary because the designers can’t work out how to make a believable or realistic firefight with believable or realistic AI. It’s not gameplay, it’s not tension, it’s phony drama. The only thing at risk during one of these scenes or in any other life-or-death situation is usually two or three minutes of playtime. Nothing changes in the story, it carries on as it was written by­­- in the case of Tomb Raider- D-grade 21st century kinda-sorta television writers aping JJ Abrams. The “interactive media” mask drops, revealing that the game is just as fascistic in directing the viewer as a film is. You just get the option to make the character dance on a girder during a false life-or-death sequence.

11 Responses to “Gimme Danger”

  1. Mark E April 2, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    Hey, my second favourite game of the year behind Fire Emblem!

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, since opinions amiright, but I do feel bad you couldn’t take away from it the same things that I did.

    • Michael Barnes April 2, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      There was just too much falseness to the game…like the hunting at the beginning…when you first do it, it feels like it’s setting up some kind of Roguelike thing where you’re going to have to hunt to feed yourself- not unlike Snake Eater (one of the best games ever made). But it doesn’t mean anything other than to serve a half-hearted plot point about Lara learning to survive. It’s a slap in the face of the context that there are skills that specifically state that they give you bonuses for “looting” animal corpses.

      The hooey post-Lost story was trite, and the transition between Lara shooting a guy awkwardly and suddenly becoming fucking Robin Hood slaughtering bad guys a la Nathan Drake was almost hilariously abrupt. The series of open “boxes” connected by very, very narrow corridors is pretty sorry world design, IMO, and hunting for meaningless relics isn’t really any different than it is in Uncharted, where it was NOT as celebrated.

      I don’t know, for the first couple of hours I thought it was going to be good…but then I realized that the game was tricking me with such high production values and its overall _intent_ to do something fresh.

  2. mth April 2, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    “And then I just started jamming on the stick to see what would happen. I wasn’t even treated to one of the many canned, grisly death animations that the newly “empowered” Lara is subjected to throughout the game. Instead, she did this ridiculous chicken dance- literally unable to fall.”

    I don’t actually think this horrible. TR is a 3rd person game. Lara is not exactly synonymous with the player, and a has little bit of independent agency. She always struggles, no matter what. Even if you purposefully fail the various QTEs in the game, she’s still on screen kicking and flailing and trying to live. I think that preventing the player from making her commit gratuitous suicide reinforces the idea that she’s desperate to survive. It’s only when the player fails at button mashing that she dies horribly. I like this as a mechanic for establishing player blame. It increases the emotional impact of her death: “Lara isn’t stupid, and she never gives up. She only dies when you let her down by not pressing the Y button fast enough.”

    “Are gamer-consumers really afraid to fail? Will they not buy a game if they think that they can’t win or complete a storyline?”

    Wasn’t it Valve who published stats that revealed that a shockingly low number of Portal and Half Life actually finished those games? I think the answer to your question is “yes”. The counterexamples you name are either MP and sports (in which losing is part of the game design), or else “Dark Souls”, which specifically designed to be hard as hell, and which I rather doubt will sell nearly as many copies as the new TR. Like it or not, the modern gamer is just not as hardcore as you.

    As far as the animal corpse looting, yeah I agree that it’s dumb. It feels like game design gone awry, like… shooting a deer started as a tutorial element and then some bright lad got the idea of RPGizing hunting into a game mechanic. Really, the game would have been better served by making Lara’s skills unlock based solely on story progression. The XP progression mechanic doesn’t fit into the game at all.

    Otherwise, I think the new TR is pretty great. I have a lot of other quibbles with parts of the game: enemies are a bit too numerous, you have to hunt down all the environmental unlocks to get the backstory, there’s not enough puzzles, etc., etc.

    But… I think it’s greater than the sum of its parts, or at least… the stuff that bugs me about is easily ignorable. To it’s credit, it’s a very refreshing naturalistic take on the “Indiana Jones”/”Uncharted” genre of stuff, and Lara as the hero is slyly different from archetypical male action hero in ways that make sense, given that she’s a woman. She’s not just Indiana Jones with boobs, like she was in earlier installments of the franchise. Lara’s death scenes are so well done and horrible that they make me feel like a failure as a human being whenever I let her die. The environmental design is just really, really amazing: there’s a lot of, “OMG just look at this place” moments while you’re exploring. The supernatural elements of the story are phased in slowly and with appropriate skepticism, etc., etc.

    There’s lots to love and hate in it. You’re right that it tries too hard to be “something fresh”, but even so it succeeds in being fresh in a lot of ways.

    • Michael Barnes April 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

      Great comments, thanks for contributing to the discussion.

      I get what you’re saying about the design preventing the player from “committing suicide”, but that’s not the issue in that particular scene or others like it. It’s that there is a dishonest depiction of supposed danger that really doesn’t exist. It’s not that you can’t willfully kill yourself, it’s that the game suggests that you have to cautious…but you don’t.

      I love your turn of phrase about “establishing player blame”, though. I think that’s a very interesting way of thinking about _third person_ games in particular, and I know that one of the design goals with TR was to make the player “care” about Lara…that’s a potentially very powerful game element. But there again, if you’re going to have blame then there needs also to be danger, risk, and the possibility for failure.

      I don’t think that wanting challenge and friction is necessarily a “hardcore” trait. It comes more from wanting raw gameplay that encourages skill development and experiential development rather than story advancement and occassional stats increases.

      I totally agree about the _look_ of TR- the environmental design is absolutely and frequently stunning. I think this is why I played it for as long as I did, because so much care and attention was given to the environments.

      I didn’t buy Lara’s character though- so what if she huffs and puffs a little more than a typical action hero. It still turns out that she’s one woman slaughterhouse. This ties into what you said about enemies being too numerous. How much more powerful would that first time she killed somebody be…if she didn’t shoot anyone else in the entire game? But nope, lots and lots of opportunities to kill people, since that’s what video gamers like to do best.

      • mth April 2, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

        “It’s not that you can’t willfully kill yourself, it’s that the game suggests that you have to cautious…but you don’t.”

        I’d say that since the designers bothered to animate Lara refusing to let you kill her, the game is suggesting that Lara is cautious even when you’re not. If she was stuck on rails, and she didn’t do her chicken dance and take step back onto the bridge when you tried to run her off, you’d definitely be right. That little animation felt to me like she was refusing to let you kill her. And I think it’s consistent with the way Lara’s 3rd person mechanics work: she automatically does stuff that prevents her from dying. She automatically goes stealthy when she hears enemies, she automatically takes cover during combat, she automatically catches ledges when she’s leaping, etc. etc.

        I guess I’m not saying that you’re wrong about the game establishing a false sense of danger, but to me, not being able to drive Lara off of a bridge or ledge is a design decision that’s consistent with a bunch of other gameplay mechanics that both prevent Lara from dying as easily and help establish the impression that she’s not stupid and helpless. For better or worse, Lara does (or refuses to do) a lot of stuff automatically that would require player action in other games.

        “It comes more from wanting raw gameplay that encourages skill development and experiential development rather than story advancement and occassional stats increases.”

        Well, I can certainly understand why you’d want such things, but I don’t know why you’d have bought Tomb Raider thinking you’d get them. I mean… loving certain types of gameplay is great, but not all games are going to have the gameplay you love. Shouldn’t you evaluate Tomb Raider on what it was designed to be, rather than what you want it to be? It’s pretty obviously a story-driven game about the reboot of a franchise protagonist.

        “It still turns out that she’s one woman slaughterhouse.”

        I definitely think that combat in the game should have gone the “survival horror” or stealth route and not the shooter route. There should have been fewer enemies that were really hard to kill, and Lara shouldn’t have picked up any firearms until late, late in the game.

        That said, if you can suspend disbelief enough to put some mental distance between the combat and the story, then I think story and characterization were pretty good, for the genre.

  3. drunkenpandaren April 2, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    I’ve always liked the way Crysis most difficult mode changed the way the AI worked. Instead of yelling out orders in English, they would do it in Korean. They wouldn’t go out by themselves to inspect the suspicious bush while having someone else cover for them. They weren’t completely blind to where the player was if they used the stealth system if you moved by them.

    • Michael Barnes April 2, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

      That’s pretty cool, I haven’t played the first one.

      It reminds me though of playing the first Half-Life. Even though a lot of the enemy intelligence was faked (because it was scripted), there were a lot of moments where you really felt _in danger_. Like that bit where you’re crawling through the pipes and you hear the guys below you realize that you’re up there. That’s such an amazing moment in video game history- before that, we were still really playing games where the AI was mostly “run and shoot at that guy”. Then there was that first time one of them threw a grenade back at you. Jeez. I very distinctly remember thinking that it was the first time that a game made me feel threatened by the AI.

  4. The_Prodigal_player April 3, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Mike,

    I haven’t played the game, but hopefully that doesn’t completely invalidate the point I’m about to make.

    From my own gaming experiences, when I an walking a character over a tightrope/chasm, it is often FAR too easy to simply fall in. When that sort of thing happens, the first thought that goes through my head is “come on, the character I’m controlling isn’t that stupid”. That speaks a lot to the perceived distance between myself and the character I’m controlling that MTH mentioned above.

    But on a more abstract game design level, leaving easy and cheap openings for the player to die pointlessly where there isn’t really any plot payoff is bad design. I am actually relieved to hear that stupid en-route death traps have been removed from the game, leaving (hopefully) more meaningful moments of danger to engage with. If the game fails on that account as well, fine, you are probably right that the game is overall flawed, but fixating on the issue of crossing the girder feels a lot to me like you are focusing on the wrong game design decision and drawing a broader conclusion about the game that is negatively coloring your perception of the whole.

    But even if they decided that having the potential to die randomly on a girdle doesn’t really *meaningfully* contribute to the experience (and even if it makes the game seem more scripted), having Lara appear uneasy as she crosses isn’t misleading. It’s simply an attempt at verisimilitude, and it doesn’t strike me as any more dishonest than a bird that flies by but can’t be interacted with. To have decided that she could neither fall nor appear to struggle would have been a bad call. To decide that she *shouldn’t* be able to fall there, but at least make crossing look realistically perilous, well, that makes sense to me.

    But no one should be able to shoot an enemy in the face with a bow and arrow. Seriously.

  5. The_Prodigal_player April 3, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    “girder” not girdle. Yeesh.

  6. drmcscott April 4, 2013 at 6:39 am #

    I cant disagree with a single well made Barnes point.

    Yes I love the Shawshank Redemption but every now and then I want to watch an 80s Arnie film. We all have guilty pleasures and you know its shit. But its enjoyable shit.

    We’ll… that’s Tomb Raider in a nutshell.

    I’ll give it a whirl, run along flash danger and turn my brain off. Afterwards I’ll get back to something hearty and nourishing like the Witcher 2, in which I’ve barely scratched the surface… had it for ages, never turned it on because I knew its a real investment of time. Two days in and I’m hooked.

  7. rainynight65 April 10, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    You know… If you had written this article ten, fifteen years ago and asked me for my opinion.. I might have agreed.

    These days, being in my mid thirties, with a full time job that’s not gaming related, a personal and social life and way less gaming time than I used to have… I just don’t have the time or patience to try, try, try again in a game until I succeed. I’m also notoriously bad at ‘learning’ games by identifying patterns and timing – something that’s required e.g. for the Souls games. That kind of stuff usually gives me the shits and makes me frisbee the disc. Or the controller.

    I vaguely remember some games where you had to balance across chasms and stuff… Every single time I made it through such a passage, I felt peeved and thought, why is the game dicking me around like that. Never once did I have a sense of accomplishment or fulfilment. Maybe I’m not wired that way. I feel satisfied when I see the closing credits of a game that I really enjoyed. Sometimes I might want to see more of the game. But gaming for challenges and accomplishments has never been my thing.

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