|Someone thinks this will arouse you.|
So let's talk, months late, about the recent Square Enix Tomb Raider reboot, which I played on the PS3.
First off, let me say that it's a really well-made game. Excellent production values. Flat but reasonable writing. Fun gameplay. Enjoyable combat and puzzles. Environments that are neat and worth exploring.
I have to make it really clear before I get into the mess: This is a good game, and the people who made it should pat themselves on the back.
And yet, one simple decision, one minor choice of tone and content, blows the whole expensive thing up.
Here's the thing. Yes. Tomb Raider was a hit, kind of. It sold millions of copies.
But this Tomb Raider is the newest game in an iconic franchise, with brilliant design and top-rate production values. Of course it sold a lot of copies. It just wasn't the hit it could have been, and, more importantly, it wasn't the hit Square Enix needed it to be. This is a phenomenal shame.
I think it's obvious why it didn't perform.
|Yes, this is a lake of blood and rotting human flesh. Alas, the game does not contain soap.|
First, About the Bewbs
I have no problem with using sex appeal to sell games. As of this writing, I've spent the last several weeks listening to females in my acquaintance wax rhapsodic about Benedict Cumberbatch and Thor. They can let me have an athletic young archaeologist/grave robber in a tanktop.
However, here is the first rule of Sex Appeal: If you want to make something sexy to sell it, it has to be sexy.
This game is meant to be an Indiana Jones-style romp, with a sense of lightness and fun. I mean, watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again. (This is never not a good idea.) This is a movie full of gory death and violence and Nazi melting faces, but it's still FUN. Look, Spielberg is a true master, and I don't expect everyone to pull off the miracle of getting this tone right, but you have to come closer than Tomb Raider did.
The problems start with the packaging. When I picked up the box and turned it over, I saw three pictures of Lara Croft covered with mud, filth, and blood. It's gross. Not sexy. Also, ewwww.
This doesn't stop when you're playing. The game is full of gratuitous gory bodies and chopped off limbs and cannibalism and tortured corpses. Set aside that this is the most obvious, cliched way to depict the evil cultists that serve as your foe. It's excessively gross and boilerplate, but that's not even the real problem.
|Warning: Do not look at this image.|
OH! GOD! OH! ACK! NO!
Tomb Raider is violent. Like Saw movie murder porn excruciating to watch violent.
Sure, Lara brutally kills hundreds of evil guys. It's a video game. We can kinda sorta live with that, though I really wish they'd come up with a more clever solution. Instead of killing ten guys and then ten guys and then ten guys in a series of boilerplate shootouts, I wish they'd had a way to have there be far less killing but for it to require more care and cunning.
(The Ellie boss fight from The Last of Us should be played by all designers for a perfect example of how this can be done. Also the Mr. Freeze fight from Batman: Arkham City.)
But that isn't even the problem.
Tomb Raider has lots of Quick Time Events ("Press the triangle button now FAST or die! Ha! You suck!"), which is already unfun design. They are really tricky and fast, which is even more terrible. And when you fail (and you will, a lot), you will see Lara die in a really horrible way.
You will see Lara, for example, have her throat ripped out by wolves. Be hacked with machetes. Have the neck impaled on a wooden stake. Swim through a lake of blood and rotting human flesh.
When you die, we're not talking about the camera cutting away and you hear nasty sound effects and get to imagine the gruesome thing that just happened. No, when that bad guys strangles her, you will see it lovingly animated, no detail lost as the life slowly drains from her eyes.
Gamers are inured to this sort of horror. It's time for a reminder that most people aren't.
|This is what fun looks like.|
The Finest Game Critic Working Today
Talk show host Conan O'Brien does a series of segments for his show called Clueless Gamer. In them, Conan, a self-professed non-gamer, tries out the hot games. Watching a civilian come face to face with all the bizarre design choices we've all trained ourselves to take for granted is a humbling and educational existence.
They're also hilarious.
It's real game criticism, the sort we need, the sort that doesn't shrug our shoulders and let us get away with lazy crap. (His Grand Theft Auto V segment does an awesome job of getting at what works and doesn't work about the series. I wish so much they'd had him play the torture mission.)
The Tomb Raider segment is particularly informative. Jump to 6:00. Watch the gruesomeness. Listen to the audience reaction. Listen to what Conan is saying. "Don't let it happen again." "This is a nightmare."
This is what the game industry is selling. This is what we're proffering to people as Art. The problem isn't that Normal Humans see us as creepy sociopaths. The problem is that it's hard to argue they're not right.
The Real Problem
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, about writing, "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." This is brilliant advice. Don't try to write for too many people at once. It will just dilute your work.
So who is Tomb Raider written for?
Is this game for people who want to ogle a young, attractive woman? Hey, I don't categorically oppose using attractive people to sell product. I'm as intrigued by a sexy assembly of polygons as the next guy.
But I have a hard time getting into my "Hey, that's sexy!" headspace when the woman I'm supposed to ogle is being constantly horribly mutilated and coated with filth. I don't want to ogle her. I want to give her a sweater.
Is this game for people who want a rollicking Indiana Jones style of adventure? The sort of thing promised by the name "Tomb Raider"? Then bear in mind that most people who want to explore catacombs and look for treasure may also have a small tolerance for watching young women being strangled in long, lovingly animated segments.
Is this game for young women who desperately want to play a game with a protagonist who, in some way, reminds them of themselves? Like, say, my daughters. My seven year old was playing a little World of Warcraft the other day, and she asked me, exact quote, "Why are all the pandas boys?" My family wants games with women in them, and we spend money.
Well, I won't let my seven and eleven year old daughters get within a thousand miles of Tomb Raider. Pity. They might have become lifelong fans of a series that wouldn't give them perma-nightmares.
Is this game for young dudebros who grew up watching Saw and other torture porn and get off on a bit of the old ultraviolence? Well, I get e-mail from these kids all the time. They will only rarely play a game where they control a female character. I think they're afraid they'll catch the gay.
So I'm really trying to think who this otherwise terrific game is being aimed at. Apparently someone who's saying, "I want to spend my leisure time watching a young, talented woman being repeatedly tortured and mutilated. But I also like puzzles!"
Hope For the Future
It's a real shame because, I must again stress, there's a terrific game in here. If you can look past the gruesome (and many people can), Tomb Raider is a ton of fun.
I've read that a sequel is in the works. I really hope so. If I can get through it without needing therapy, I'll totally buy it. My little hope? Man, I would love to play it (or parts of it) with my kids. I hope it works out.
Another good analysis of the game is at Errant Signal. And, as always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.