The Human vs. The Gamer

The Prince and the Tomb Raider

Videogames, it can be argued, were never meant to be cinematic, much as David Cage would like to pretend otherwise. It can be said that the work of auteurs such as Hideo Kojima (a man I both respect and loathe), has pushed the medium further into the realm of cinema – for better or worse. Say what you will about pervy uncle Kojima, but he does a fantastic job in the direction department. Like him or no, he’s contributed to pushing the medium further towards being recognised as a true art form. At the same time, the hour-long cut-scenes and the opening credits on every single mission make it clear what the creator’s intent was: recognition by way of imitation. Likewise, playing Cage’s Heavy Rain is like watching an HBO drama unfold where you’re being constantly asked for input. Rather repeatedly and annoyingly, at times.

But this isn’t what Pong was about. It was about moving a simple pixel from one end of the screen to the other. It all went downhill from there. The more sophisticated videogames grew as a medium, the more we players felt like we could relate to the increasingly detailed stick figures on screen. We even started creating our own stories around some of them; creative minds filled up the gaps where we felt they needed that added narrative that the game itself either didn’t provide or was found wanting. It may or may not have been the creator’s intent, but people are an imaginative bunch – as hard as that is to believe at times. Since childhood we’ve been used to this. Give a kid a pair of sticks and by the end of the day you’ve got a veritable telenovela unfolding.

And I know I’ve just written a post about Lara Croft, but…

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Yup. Lara Croft again. Deal with it.

At this point, I have to bring up that word that some people who write videogames seem to hate so much… ludo-narrative dissonance. That’s two words, but fuck it. It’s a good pair of words. It describes what happens perfectly and efficiently. It is a real and present issue in the writing and execution of videogames and their respective stories (if they can be bothered to have one). Sometimes, it’s not a problem. If you’re playing a shooter and you’re told to shoot people, then that’s your lot. You get what you pay for, well done. Sometimes, it goes into the weird… why is a plumber jumping on mushrooms and turtle things… don’t think about it too much. But when games profess to tell an engaging story, a human story and try to make that jive with the gameplay, it will happen that it’s just not going to dance to the beat that the writers envisioned.

That’s the best part, the gameplay reinforced the story perfectly. The Prince starts as a runny-nosed little twerp of a royal kid who just wants to impress his dad, and still manages to be a spoiled brat while on a clucking military campaign, Zarathustra grant me strength. As the narrative progresses, you unlock new skills for the runt, the combat (such as it is) evolves, you get new abilities, and the Prince himself evolves as a character. He matures literally overnight (in terms of the game’s timeline), and he becomes wiser and a much more likeable character in the process. Visually, this is represented by the wardrobe change. Rather amusingly, the Prince loses bits of his garb the whole way through. It’s justified by what’s happening (the man’s taken a beating), but it’s still a bit of cheese (or, I guess, beef), and by the end he’s a bare-chested, scarred and grizzled veteran… and still a hunk. Ah, remember when male characters were objectified as well? Maybe that’s a topic for a different article. But I digress… point is, the new gameplay elements back up the story’s arc expertly, and the two are in lockstep the whole way through. Masterfully executed. And oh, sweet daeva, that soundtrack… did I mention the soundtrack?

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Would you just look at that slab of man-meat?

Then there’s Tomb Raider. A story about a girl growing up, similar to the Prince (notice how many of these games are really about puberty? I should stop planning my future posts…). On top of that, you get an arc about sisterly love, in place of your usual throw-away love interest. And the story was wonderful, it actually had me in tears. And this gets mentioned a lot, but that’s because it illustrates the point so well, there’s this scene where Lara tearfully kills a deer in order to survive (something you never have to do again, by the way)… and then proceeds to gleefully murder her way through an entire island’s population, because I guess, videogames.

Had the game been more of a platformer than a shooter this would have worked. Had Lara’s story been more like Kate Walker’s (see previous post, yadda yadda, shameless self-promotion), this would have been perfect. If it had given me no combat but the boss fights, maybe one or two fight scenes (or the one with the wolves), I’d have been satiated. I wouldn’t have even complained if they were mostly quick-time events. As it stands, though, I have to say Lara’s got a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on. There’s the writer’s Lara who is a beautiful, human character, and there’s the gamer’s Lara… an unstoppable, petite murder machine.

And there’s the rub. The real dichotomy isn’t between game and narrative. At the player’s side of things, it’s between the human and the gamer. See, the human in me wants Lara to be the character in the deer scene. I want her to be kind and emotional, I want to feel what she feels and get that cathartic ending where she overcomes her demons (and those of the island). The gamer in me wants to finish this bloody 60 dollar product I bought, and there’s a heap of gameplay between now and the ending I want. Then there’s the collectibles, and the secret bits on the map, so the completionist in me wants that 100% badge. That’s where the immersion breaks, the 4th wall implodes in on itself and I stop caring about the STORY and just want to finish the GAME. In other words, the human element is played down and the gameplay takes prominence.

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And that just gets me right in the feels.

This isn’t always the case. It’s not a given that videogames can’t tell a good story. Just look at Prince of Persia, or Heavy Rain to name but a few. Most of Bioware’s RPGs are famous for good writing. But good writing isn’t the issue. It’s marrying the writing to the gameplay and telling them to see the Rabbi before they decide to split. Then you have to argue about who gets to keep the kids and who gets the cat, it’s all just a mess, really. Why get into it at all? Why can’t we just get along?

But isn’t that just the cliché. There you are, a sensitive, well written story and you know what you’ve got to offer… a nice, tried and true linear structure with a dramatic build-up and a great pay-off at the conclusion. Then you meet this wild child… a real rebel, with that mischievous look that promises exciting action, pace like a Formula 1 race and all the spectacle you can… spectate. They lure you in with violent violins, mellow cello and a brass section that makes Hans Zimmer go “wait a minute…”. It’s never going to work, is it? You know it, they know it, but there’s that twinkle in the eye, that little guilty spark that makes you think… hey, maybe we can swing it. Sure enough, it doesn’t work and it ends in tears, as it was always going to.

But sometimes you don’t have a choice. Your mum makes you get with the bad boy with the bad temper but the good finance. Or you get paired off with the shikse whom you know is too good for you, but hey, you can show her a good time. Ok, this metaphor has gotten away from me now.

Point is, sometimes you get a well-written story that gets paired off with unsuitable gameplay. Either you’ve got a massive company with two completely different teams working off the same whiteboard but reading completely different things into the same game plan. Sometimes it may very well be just cynical corporate execs telling the “artsy types” to suck it up and give the gamers what they want. And that’s the one that grates my cheese the most. “Give gamers what they want”.

You hear that bandied around a lot. Some call it pandering, some call it marketing. But that’s not the part that bugs me. It’s the notion that “gamer” somehow implies your typical, basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching, Mountain Dew-soaked, pockmarked teenager with a boner for violence, disproportionately chested women and the shooty-shooty bang bang. Somehow, despite a medium that has given the world The Last of us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Life is Strange… there’s still this stigma that gamers will not or can not appreciate a well-crafted story that isn’t paired off with a Michael Bay level of spectacle.

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To illustrate my point about gamers, here’s concept art from the Prince of Persia sequel.

Those can be fun too, I wouldn’t imply otherwise. But you can’t give the mechanics of Battlefield to Syberia’s Kate Walker… and, as it turns out, you can’t even trust them with a story of World War 1, but more on that some other time, maybe. The gamer in me will always appreciate fun bits of gameplay, but the human in me can’t stand to see a good story waste away in a bad pairing.

I’m soft like that, I guess.

Feminism in Siberia: Lara Croft & Kate Walker

I love Lara Croft. I’ve always loved Lara. As a kid, I enjoyed playing the role of the intrepid adventurer – swinging from vines, solving complicated puzzles and parkouring across ancient temples before Altaïr made it look cool. She was everything a star-struck kid hoped to see in a hero: adventurous, self-reliant, unerringly cool and eminently badass in a way generations of videogame characters have been trying to capture ever since. And she had a gorgeous pair of… guns, but more on that later.

Plus, she was English. Which meant her accent was proper for a change.

Archaeology like it’s 1899

Of course, when you’re a little kid, excited about jungle temples, ancient mysteries and Lara’s amazing set of… athletics skills, you tend not to care that much about realism or the fact that you’re shooting endangered species and destroying precious relics for the fun of it. Undoubtedly, Lara went to the Indiana Jones School of Archaeology, where Nathan Drake got his degree as well. But hey, it got me interested in palaeontology (it’s more or less the same thing).

And despite all the criticism levelled at the character, from feminists and modern game critics (justifiably so), I found the character to be quite relatable. More than other characters at that time. Despite the obvious… exaggerations, Lara felt real. She was good at the parkour because she was a gymnast; she knew her way around ancient temples because she had studied archaeology (under Professors Indiana Jones, Charles Marlow and Kurtz, admittedly); and she’s good with guns because this is a videogame so of course she is. And she can afford to do all of this because her family’s rich and they live in a place called Croft Manor, for goodness’ sake! You might say this makes her hard to relate to, but she’s still about 6 black belts away from being Batman, so I call that realistic enough.

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A survivor is born.

Put on your feminist trousers.

The 2013 Lara is even more of a real character. Unlike her older incarnation, this Lara shows emotion. She’s vulnerable, but strong of will, and she’s determined. The new Lara is a step in the right direction for female game characters and for games in general.

Let’s talk about the obvious first. 2013’s Lara looks more like an actual human being. The 2016 sequel even more so. She has a normal-sized waist that looks like it can actually support her body, and she no longer looks like she’ll break her back from the weight of her double D’s and I’m not talking about the twin Desert Eagles. Everything about the new character design is great. She’s not sexualised, she looks more realistic and she’s even wearing sensible khaki trousers instead of the signature hot pants of old Lara.

But more than that, Lara starts the game by being insecure. She’s young and inexperienced. We learn that she has quite the shoes to fill, and an impressive name to live up to. Meanwhile, she’s still a young girl with a life ahead of her. That life and all hope of normalcy gets taken away when she and her crew shipwreck on a dangerous island inhabited by a Cult of Demon-worshipping White People on a Japanese Island (let that sink in for a second). Through various trials, we see Lara grow as a hardened individual and as the adventurer we remember her to be.

There is an incredibly emotional moment when Lara has to kill a deer in order to survive. Moments like this are rare in videogames these days, and the care and attention given to it say a lot about this new Lara. The moment is somewhat ruined by how she later proceeds to gleefully murder her way through the entire populace of a small island nation. Despite a certain degree of ludo-narrative dissonance, Lara’s journey to becoming a survivor is believable, emotional and relatable.

Unlike your witty cookie-cutter rogues like Nathan Drake, Lara is a character who shows a full range of emotion. She is an extraordinary human being who nevertheless feels very real, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and her journey is a beauty to behold.

I’m looking forward to playing Rise of the Tomb Raider when it finally arrives on PS4 in October, and I can’t wait to go on adventure with Lara in Siberia. The new setting and the possibility of world exploration are particularly intriguing, and it reminded me that there are a whole slew of female badasses who have explored Siberia under worse circumstances.

Which reminds me…

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Syberia with a Y

While the new instalment of the Tomb Raider’s adventures takes our teenage crush Lara to the cold reaches of Siberia in search of ancient treasures, six years after Lara’s first adventure hit consoles in 1996, another game was capturing my imagination: Syberia. With a Y. Y? Because of reasons.

At a glance, the two games have nothing to do with each other. One is a puzzle platforming adventure game with the shooty-shooty bang bang action, while the other is a point-and click with practically no violence in it. But both feature memorable female leads, and interestingly, both take place in some fictional form of the cold Siberian wastes.

Adding to the list of brave women who’ve explored the tundra is Kate Walker, an American lawyer whose law firm sends her to Steampunkville, France (the town is actually called Valadilene and I don’t think it explicitly says it’s French, because to me it feels more like Switzerland, but anyway). When Kate arrives just in time for her client’s funeral procession lead by automata, she then goes on an adventure across a Steampunk version of Europe and Soviet Russia, to locate the sole heir of the company, an eccentric recluse who is obsessed with finding mammoths, even though we all know they’re extinct. Eventually, she helps him reach the island of Syberia where (spoilers) the last living mammoths are found!

Feminists today might find the character not quite what they expected in a “strong female lead”. She often finds herself helpless in situations where Lara Croft would somersault her way out of trouble. While the Tomb Raider would dive into freezing water to retrieve her quest items, Kate has to enlist the help of small boys, old men and (I kid you not) penguins to be able to move forward. But this is more a fault of the game genre. Try getting Guybrush Threepwood to do anything physically demanding.

But Kate is intelligent. Both in the problem-solving, puzzle-breaking, moon-logic way of the old school adventure games, but also on an emotional level. She empathises with her automaton companion, and manages to relate on a deeper level with the world and the characters around her. She relies on her wits to get out of sticky situations because she did not study at the John Travolta School of Law. The game’s story is quite deep and despite the cartoonish fantasy style, it gets pretty dark at points. In other words, Kate feels like an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances, which makes for great storytelling.

As the main plot unfolds, we learn more about Kate and we witness as her personal life evolves. We get a front row seat to her deteriorating relationship with a jealous fiancé, and the constant arguing with her overbearing mother. Given the trend in videogames today, watching this seemingly mundane story was quite refreshing. I felt happy for Kate when she finally broke up with her fiancé. It felt cathartic, it was a big moment in her becoming an adventurer. But more importantly it showed a curious quality in the character… she was just so damn nice.

And you don’t see that in games these days.

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You’d almost be forgiven for saying the kind of look the same.

Militant feminism? Or just joining the boys club?

Just take a look at this year’s roster at E3, broken down by gender of protagonist and percentage of games that rely on violence as a game mechanic. It’s a little disheartening.

Not only are compassionate characters a rarity, especially female ones, but more and more, problem-solving in videogames revolves around unchecked violence and wanton destruction. Lara Croft is a feminist icon in her own right, but she tends to play the same role as a male character would – resolving the plot by shooting her way through it. Some would argue that feminism is about more than just doing the same things that male characters do.

Lara’s old-school sex-appeal and newfound badassery makes her a figure of female empowerment to some, but to others she is a product of the patriarchal establishment. In this sense, Kate Walker is the subversive character – the non-violent, unbelievably friendly lawyer whose only weapon is her razor-sharp wit and her unyielding empathy. In the end, it’s all about agency. Both characters have it, both survive their respective challenges in their own style. It’s up to you to decide which is right.

Syberia 3 is meant to launch December this year, after so many years of wait. And I’m definitely looking forward to it. I played the original games again recently with a friend spectating. We both found it strange and amusing, sometimes infuriating how Kate never said a mean word to anyone, she always helped people no matter who they were, she always listened and understood to all the characters. In other words, she made the world around her nicer and made the people she met feel better about themselves.

You can’t do that with guns, Lara.