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.