Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Art of Living Dangerously

Robert Rath | 11 Apr 2013 16:00
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Another effort to strike a balance is the now-classic chase scene. In third-person games this usually involves running along a collapsing structure or evading pursuers, while in FPSs it usually means making some kind of running jump, whether to an adjoining building or the ladder of a waiting helicopter. The latter is a mainstay of the Modern Warfare series - consider the escape from the sinking ship in Call of Duty 4 or the Favela raid in MW2 - while the former makes appearances in Uncharted, the new Tomb Raider, and is essentially the only action in Temple Run. In all of these cases there's a threat, whether it's a collapsing bridge or a horde of Brazilian militiamen, that forces the player to keep moving. Next, there are obstacles to keep the player guessing and raise their stress level, usually involving periodic jumps or navigating winding corridors, and finally a punctuated ending like a near-impossible leap. The psychology of this is simple to explain but difficult to implement: players need to be kept going as fast as possible so they don't recognize the on-rails experience, and there need to be threats of death that come up suddenly but are also clear enough visually that players can avoid them on the first try. That's a harder thing to design than it might first appear. Visual cues and mechanics need to be tight and fine-tuned, and when they're not it's painfully obvious. On my third play through of Uncharted 3, I'd still regularly die during the cruise ship escape because the camera angle makes it hard to see incoming obstacles. Likewise, there's a building-to-building jump during the Panama mission of Call of Duty: Black Ops II that's so finicky I always miss it at least once. And like all videogame stunt sequences, the moment never feels as special once you've already died.

Which brings us to Tomb Raider, the latest installment in the action-adventure genre and a major innovator in how stunts get visualized in-game. Tomb Raider does a little bit of everything mentioned above. It has Uncharted-like sequences that aren't dangerous, but convey a sense of threat such as when Lara runs along a burning rooftop or squeezes through claustrophobic tunnels. It has collapsing-bridge chase sequences with periodic jumps and (thankfully, slowed-down) QTEs that involve Lara fighting off enemies or jumping from zip line to zip line. It even has a new sequence - let's call it "the waterslide to Hell" - where Lara falls down a crevasse and slaloms back and forth down a slippery chute, shot-gunning obstacles in her way. They're well-designed sequences overall, though when they cross over it sometimes leads to deaths that feel cheap (that "Press X to Regain Handhold" thing should never be thrown in the middle of a chase sequence). Overall, it's a smart evolution mechanically that gives the player a range of experiences without overusing one type - with the possible exception of the waterslide to Hell, which comes up a lot. The only issue is the threat of bodily harm and character death, which is a little too credible for an action-adventure game.

There's no denying that Lara gets put through the ringer in Tomb Raider. Failing a QTE or zigging instead of zagging down a chute means getting strangled to death or impaled on bamboo poles. That's a departure for the genre, which normally avoids player-character gore. You'd never see that kind of thing happening to Nathan Drake or Indiana Jones because it would ruin the optimistic action-adventure vibe of the game. When characters die in adventure games, they usually die bloodless deaths and restart quickly to let you try again. Players don't see their characters bloodily dismembered because, frankly, that's not what the game wants to emphasize. In action-adventure games, spectacular success creates a greater impression than spectacular failure - when it's the opposite, you're playing survival horror. While Tomb Raider's stunt system is generally rather innovative, it also has the genre backward. Incentivizing the player through the punishment of grisly imagery rather than the thrill of success basically tosses out the action-adventure playbook in favor of a darker tone. Violent death sequences brilliantly underline the game's underlying message of survival against the odds, but they're such a break from the classic conception of an action-adventure protagonist that they reclassify Tomb Raider as survival-adventure, something similar to Touching the Void or The Grey. These are stories where defying death brings relief, not excitement; where the main character pushes human limits not because they're trying to steal an artifact or save the world, but because they need to survive. It's an interesting direction, but it makes Lara more Isaac Clarke than Indiana Jones - which is why some people had a negative reaction, feeling that the game cast Lara as weak and fragile. She's not weak, she just switched genres.

As game mechanics advance, it's likely that developers will find more ways to give us incredible leaps and narrow escapes. But as we advance down that road, it's important to strike a balance between perceived danger and actual danger, between scripted sequences and player agency, and above all, we must remember the conventions of the genres that inspire us.


Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas.  You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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