Thursday, 11 March 2010

I love Lara.

Last night, I watched a fairly chastening episode of House in which House tries to figure out what is wrong with a woman who is an obsessive blogger. If you watch House, you will be aware that House usually works out what is wrong with his patients when he realizes that they are lying about something, and most of the time they haven't said anything because it is a dark secret that would destroy their marriage or their career. Anyway, in this particular episode, House and his team try and figure out what's causing their patient's symptoms by reading her blog.

As per usual, House overlooks a vital clue until the last five minutes of the episode, whereupon he realizes that in her blog, the patient has neglected to document her bowel movements over the last year.

I don't really need to illustrate that with a picture of House, but I'm told that pictures break up the text and makes reading a bit less daunting for people who haven't had their morning coffee yet. Also, I think better a picture of Hugh Laurie looking handsomely dishevelled than a picture of a bowel movement.

I mention this because (sorry to spell it out, but lots of things are difficult before coffee) I too am writing a blog. Because it is a blog about video games and not about myself, I believe I am unlikely to start writing about my bowel movements as a matter of course. Or lying about them. However tempting it may be. If I ever experience unexplained nosebleeds/hallucinations/muscle spasms, House would probably have to look outside Well-Rendered to figure out why.

That said, I feel compelled to let you into my real life for a moment in order to tell you that I will be taking a break from Well-Rendered for the next three weeks because I will be traveling around Egypt.

Although this is terribly exciting for me, it has little to no bearing on the life of Well-Rendered, EXCEPT that Egypt is the spiritual home of Lara Croft. This means that I finally have an excuse to talk about Tomb Raider for a whole post, thereby hopefully getting it out of my system.

I have been dying to do this. It's hard to express the impact Tomb Raider has had on my gaming life, and by definition, my actual life, but in the noble spirit of self-indulgence, I will give it a go.

We'll start with the music. There's nothing to watch here, but why not turn up the speakers and let this play while you read? It's lovely.

Tomb Raider may owe a lot conceptually to Indiana Jones, but the soundtrack is far removed from John Williams' orchestral extravaganza. I'm no music critic (as will become evident both by the next sentence and anything I henceforth choose to write about music), but that piece of music conveys an air of mystery far more than it does an air of action.

And that's what the Tomb Raider games really did best. They are games about exploration, about spending hours among beautiful ruins looking for the tiniest inconsistency in texture which would lead you to a hidden room. Sometimes you would spend so long doing this you would forget how frustrated you were and become completely immersed in the world around you that you fail to notice the boulder. Or the doberman. Or the poisoned darts.

Alright, so it was extremely time-consuming and difficult. But so were most games in the mid-90s, when big game releases were fewer on the ground than they are now and almost anyone who owned a games console was a hand-on-heart, T-shirt wearing gamer. Mainstream games were almost universally difficult and frustrating. Nowadays, almost any big-budget console release will ask you to select your difficulty before you start playing. This is because changing demographics mean that games today need to be playable by and enjoyable for a much wider range of people than they did back in the 1990s.

For example, at its highest difficulty, Mass Effect is a demanding and time-consuming game. Battle is difficult because your weapons do not help you aim, your enemies are highly resistant to damage and your squad has no free will, meaning you have to command their every move. Off the battlefield, you have to think very carefully about how best to spend your experience points. Would it be better to become more charismatic in order to win friends, influence people and avoid battles? Or would you be better off becoming a better engineer? Playing Mass Effect on its hardest difficulty with all targeting and squad assists switched off can take upwards of two weeks. Switch everything to "Easy" however, and you have a game which can be completed in half the time. Not only are your enemies weaker, but your squad can act independently. Moreover, you don't have to worry about how to build up your characters, the computer will do that for you.

I don't think for a moment that this is a bad thing. If games are to appeal to a wider demographic, they have to be able to adapt. It's not just a case of enabling less experienced players to get a foot in the door. It also means that time-poor gamers are able to complete a massive game like Fallout 3 in less than a month. I try not to be ashamed of the fact that I only managed to finish Fallout 3 in the time I had available because I played it through on "Easy". It is a much better game with much more depth on "Hard", but I would never have been able to finish it over the course of one study week (I'm afraid so, Goldsmiths lecturers who might be reading this) if I had played it through at that difficulty.

Which makes me wonder whether Tomb Raider would have had such an effect on me if I had been born ten years earlier (or if the original Tomb Raider had only just come out). It is a game which demands an abundance of time and patience which I find it hard to muster these days. I'm sure that Tomb Raider's importance to me is equal parts content and good timing.

In 1999, when I first played Tomb Raider, Lara Croft imagery was ubiquitous, so I was already well aware of the character. She appealed to me mainly because she wore big heavy boots and was British. That's about all we ever had in common, but at twelve, that was enough. I've already discussed Lara Croft's appeal (or lack thereof) as a feminist icon or indeed as a pin up, so there will be none of that today, but if you're interested in Lara Croft as a pop cultural or feminist poster girl, Douglas Coupland and Germaine Greer have a lot to say on the matter. As far as I was concerned, Lara Croft was cleverer, more aspirational and better dressed than the Spice Girls, and I wanted more of her.

Like many people just too young to have played Tomb Raider in 1996, I first came across Lara in one of her marketing campaigns for Lucozade. I don't think you can accuse her of selling out. I mean, a girl's got to find some way to fund her globe-trotting, right? Seriously though, all video game characters are arguably created as much with a view to game sales as artistic integrity. Not all gamers read gaming press or buy gaming magazines, so the image on the game box and the character's potential recognisability has a huge influence on how a lead character turns out. It was Tomb Raider's mechanics which were revolutionary, not Lara herself. That said, I doubt Tomb Raider would have been such a success without her.

As soon I began to play however, I discovered that although Lucozade Lara was a brilliant marketing tool, Tomb Raider Lara was another animal altogether. Even nowadays, I struggle to think of a video game character with as many moves and actions as Lara who is an explorer as opposed to a fighter. The Bayonettas, the Kratoses and the Chun-Lis of this world may be able to do more things with their bodies, but everything they are able to do is geared towards destroying an enemy. Lara may be able to shoot the enemies she comes across, but these enemies are like the cardamom pods in your curry, if you will, the little chunks of unexpected bitterness which richen the whole once the initial shock has worn off. No, Tomb Raider is about exploration, and I honestly cannot think of another game in which the central character has so many means of navigating his or her environment. 

Lara can walk. She can run. She can execute several kinds of jumps depending on the gap she has to navigate (backwards roll, left roll, right roll, standing forward jump, running forward jump, jump and grab, running jump and grab). She can climb ropes. She can swing on ropes. She can jump from ropes. She can crawl, climb and monkey swing. She can push and pull heavy blocks. She activate buttons and use keys (evidently, she is well educated). She can sprint and execute a diving roll at the the end to make her way under a descending wall at the last minute. She can perform a 180 degree roll. She can swim. She can swan dive. She can swan dive and perform midair somersaults if there is enough room. She can vault up onto ledges as well as performing a handstand on top of them if you aren't pressed for time. She can shimmy along ledges. She can do this cute little roll if you crouch down on a ledge before you jump off. You know when I showed you that picture of the Playstation controller with all those buttons? Tomb Raider makes full use of them.

And with the odd exception (swan dive possibly), the player has to master every one of those moves in order to traverse the environments and complete the game.

The early games began in Croft Manor, Lara's stately home, which I think she inherited from her father, though she might have bought it with proceeds from her Archaeology books. Everyone knows that Archaeology books sell like hot cakes. Either way, accounts differ. In the first game, Croft Manor existed solely as a training ground so Lara could explain in her cut-glass accent how exactly to perform a backwards roll. In the sequels, Croft Manor became an exciting level in its own right. Without the sense of peril with which the main game was imbued, Lara's house became a leisurely place to explore and discover. The second game featured a hedge maze with a button to open a timed door into Lara's trophy room. The third featured a treaure hunt which began in the attic, ending in the basement. Here, Lara finds the key to her quadbike track, which she keeps in her fishtank.

You could put the decision to keep a key at the bottom of a fishtank in a room which is only accessible by pushing a timed button in the attic down to poor ergonomics, but Lara's butler Winston suggests otherwise. Tomb Raider Chronicles takes place entirely in retrospect, as Lara Croft has gone missing in Egypt. Both her friends (yes, she apparently only has two, but never mind) come to her house in order to drink brandy and share their memories of her. Winston opens her trophy room using a lever concealed as a candelabra, making a rather sweet comment about how Lara enjoyed her little games.

The games themselves were filled not only with laborious exploration but with traps. This is an unusually action-orientated sequence from Tomb Raider 3's London Underground level, Aldwych.


My very favourite Tomb Raider game was The Last Revelation. Set entirely in Egypt, it was perhaps the longest, most difficult video game I have ever played. It starts as Lara undertakes a regualar Tomb Raiding operation in order to find some trinket. Unfortunately, in removing the trinket she finds, she unwittingly releases the angry Egyptian God Set, whose unpleasant burial we witness in flashback. The majority of the game is concerned with her efforts to put him back. The sheer scale of the game is monumental, and it carefully strikes a balance between dark horror, beautiful open spaces (the Alexandrian Coast, for example) and a good interplay between our heroine and the primary baddie, her former mentor Werner Von Croy.

I think Werner must be a nod to Indiana Jones.

Sorry about all the videos, I'm just not sure how I'd convey it otherwise.

The first five games were filled with puzzles and areas so labyrinthine that I would never have navigated them without a little help. Stella's Walkthroughs is by far the best video game guide site I have ever come across. Perhaps because its author, Stella, is so dedicated to the cause. Back in the day (by which I mean 1999), I would print off pages of Stella's warm and friendly prose, and with it find the strength to delve a little deeper into the Tomb of Semerkhet. Without her, I think the games may have become overwhelming. The sheer loneliness of the early games was such that the smallest enemy had the power to reduce me to a quivering wreck. Sometimes, I needed Stella's wise words to let me know that "high up in the cave wall on the right is a GIANT WASP HIVE".

It's at this point that  I feel compelled to mention something else that Tomb Raider has done for me. Despite my affinity for games, I have always been a little daunted by commputers. Much less so now, but at a time when many of my peers were downloading patches and playing online games, I was still a little bit cautious around e-mails. Tomb Raider went a long way to shining some light on these mysterious machines.

As you can see from the picture of the wolf above, Tomb Raider wasn't always a sleek and shiny animal. Until 2003 (or thereabouts) the game was formed almost entirely of squares.

I know the game was only that geometric because it wasn't powerful enough not to be, but its lack of smooth rendering actually showed me (in a very rudimentry fashion) what a game engine was and how it worked. For example, if I ran across a floor in a cave, I knew that if I trod on the fourth square (you could always see the "seam" where two squares joined), I would trigger the arrival of a wolf or a GIANT WASP. Simple though it may sound, this acually opened video games and computers up to me more than any game or application before or since has ever done.

*     *     *
You will notice that I have written much of this article in the past tense. Given that the last five Tomb Raider games were released this decade, that may seem odd. It's just that the last three Tomb Raider games have been written by a different developer, American Crystal Dynamics as opposed to British Core. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I doubt Tomb Raider would have made its way onto the XBOX 360 under Core, and I understand that things have to evolve in order to survive. It's just that Tomb Raider's epic loneliness and daunting size were replaced under Crystal Dynamics' rule with a headset, two jaunty sidekicks and multiple costume changes.

I really do think it's fair enough. Core's last effort was the overambitious and deeply flawed Angel of Darkness. It's a shame about the flaws though, because it had one of the best stories I have come across in any video game. Following her incerceration in a cursed Egyptian tomb at the end of The Last Revelation, Lara emerges into society understandably disturbed and with conflicting feelings towards Werner VonCroy. At the beginning of the game she finds herself in his Parisian appartment unable to remember how she got there or why he has been killed. She is also unsure of the meanings of the symbols scrawled across his tasteful wallpaper. From the beginning of the game, she is on the run.

It was always going to be hard for Core to top The Last Revelation in either scale or innovation. But I do feel that Core at least went in the right direction by setting Lara's Playstation 2 debut in two dark, rainy European cities (Paris and Prague) and imbuing it with such dark menace. The game follows Lara on a desperate search for four occult paintings which she hopes will either prove her innocence or explain to her why she killed Werner. The best sequences in the game take place in the (fictional, I think) underground Strahov fortress in Prague, where Pieter Van Eckhardt is overseeing the ill-advised process of resurrecting the Nephilim.

Eckhardt was perhaps no more ill-advised than Core, who perhaps should not have tried to introduce selectable conversation trees into the game. And although Kurtis Trent was a surprisingly good foil for Lara, I wonder whether allowing the player to control him was perhaps a step too far. The lengthy sequence where the player takes Kurtis around the Strahov's sanatorium is well-executed, but in a game which is so defined by its protagonist, it was a very risky move.

All in all, I loved Angel of Darkness, and it took me a while to warm to Crystal Dynamics recent efforts, not least because of the liberties they took with Lara's background. But I can't tell whether my objections are rooted in reason or nostalgia, so I'll let them go. Their games are a good deal shorter, which is a shame. They also try to cover more countries rather than putting greater detail into each one. But that's just the opinion of a weekend misanthrophe who prefers her video games long and lonely to short and flashy. Whatever my reservations (and the difficulty I had trying not to think about Tipping the Velvet whenever Keeley Hawes' voice came out of Lara), I'm glad Tomb Raider is still around, and I've grown fond of Amanda Evert.

So there you have it. I could go on for weeks about my favourite levels, but I won't.

All I will say is thank you for reading, and come back in three weeks for more Well-Rendered fun. Oh, and if you fancy it, you can buy the first four Tomb Raiders as a box set for about 20 pounds, which I heartily suggest you do.

Until next time, farewell.

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