Monday, June 27, 2016

Feminazi Tomb Raider and the Unshakeable Curse of Cinematic Adventure Games

With the possible exceptions of Avengers, Avatar, or any reboot directed by J.J. Abrams, whenever a Hollywood blockbuster trades logic and pathos for flashy special effects and chaotic bursts of red, it’s lampooned as a puerile, vapid, Michael Bay explosionfest made by and for an audience of undiscerning teenagers.  Whenever a triple-A video game blockbuster does the same, it’s hailed as a “cinematic” joyride with dazzling “set piece moments” and amazing graphics.

This is OK, because it’s 2016, and video games are still perceived as stupid, expensive toys produced for teenagers’ amusement, while movies’ status as high “art” is never called into question.  This is also the lesson taught by the phoned-in 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, a game possessing neither art nor soul that nevertheless seduced critics and commoners alike into fawning over the high-definition rendering of Lara Croft’s youthful, always mud- or blood-streaked face.  Crystal Dynamics’ Lara is to the gaming press what Scarlett Johansson was to a lot of unfortunate Scottish men in Under the Skin, a pristine and irresistible example of how pretty and “progressive” games have become – look, a strong and hardened female protagonist who does everything Nathan Drake can do and more!  The difference: as strange and mechanical as Scarlett’s beautiful extraterrestrial appeared to viewers of that film, she still made a far more personable, sympathetic, and human entity than this decade’s quasi-Feminist Lara, who’s more of an SJW-inspired construct for a character than a character herself.

Tomb Raider feels very much the same as a game, never deviating from its packaged Indiana Jones-y plot or giving one a reason to care about anything that happens to its “characters”.  Visually it’s one of the better-looking games I’ve played – or shall I say experienced, as getting through its lifeless narrative often feels more like work than play.  As Lara, I virtually dragged myself through the last hour and a half, not out of duty to any boring comrades or interest in solving the mystery but merely out of fairness to the designers who had already succeeded in wasting so much of my time.  In retrospect, maybe I played so long under the delusion that the writer was obliged, or maybe indebted to give me a satisfactory ending, though I like to think I’m smarter than that now.

But I was about to talk about how gorgeous this thing is.  The landscapes and lighting are indeed befitting of a tropical paradise retreat, one where hundreds of well-armed plane crash survivors converge to pointlessly murder and get murdered by you.  There’s truly no greater reward in Tomb Raider than getting to pause and gape at the lovely mountain ranges between one forced firefight or untimed rescue effort and the next.  The weather effects are impressive and varied enough that you can run through a snowy, a rainy, a nighttime, and a sunny level in one hour of real time without leaving the island.  The character animations are astonishingly true to the adventuring life, and I never tired of watching Lara jumping, climbing, somersaulting, grabbing onto ledges while plummeting, and never getting tired through any of it because she’s a weightless “platforming game” character.  The best fun to be had from this title, besides setting scads of random, bloodthirsty lunatics on fire without remorse, stems mainly from charging around wide, open villages where the game isn’t bossily directing you down a tunnel to the next pit stop in the story.

These sections, it goes without saying, are very few and far between.  Most of Tomb Raider’s so-called gameplay involves running and occasionally jumping down a straight path while structures blow up and collapse around you in spectacular, preordained fashion.  To save Lara from falling to certain doom with the rest of the crumbling, largely unexplained ancient architecture, the player follows predictable on-screen prompts to press this or that button or to jerk the joystick back and forth maniacally.  None of these “quick-time events” will challenge anyone who knows the layout of the controller, nor do they amplify the intensity of the scripted cutscenes they replace. Rather, they serve as an obnoxious reminder that one is simply furthering a fictional, deeply linear interactive movie, and a really uninvolving, tensionless movie at that.

The omnipresent non-threat of A.I. bad guys, who are especially susceptible to arrows in the head and can very seldom make it to the end of the map where you’re hiding, also draws attention to the artifice of the game’s world, a lost island infested with savage cultists who have no connection to outside civilization and who ostensibly slaughter anyone who wanders into their domain.  Since there are no female, childbearing cultists observed within the game and the bad guys have a marked hostility to anyone who might prolong the survival of their circle, it doesn’t make sense why there are literally hundreds of bad guys to begin with, bearing literally hundreds of firearms and molotov cocktails.  Are plane and ship crashes such a recurrent phenomenon on this isle that arch-villain Father Mathias is able to recruit enough unfortunate passengers to settle, patrol, and randomly disperse lanterns, scrolls, and arrow quivers (recovered from the wreckage of transports that just so carried such things?) all over the place?  The only logical explanation for the magnitude and prevalence of the cult is that the developers were afraid of alienating anxious Call of Duty gamers who’ve grown accustomed to looking for and stylishly disposing of scores of nameless, mostly impotent baddies.  And disposing of them is pretty fun, up until the point you realize that the only reason you can kill so many people with such ease is because you’re playing a mindless, dumbed-down movie-game, and the people you’re killing exist in such quantities only because the medium of an Uncharted-esque tentpole release calls for them to be there, because the unskilled, unrefined masses would cry foul if they got anything less for their $60.

When performing awesome, death-defying feats is as easy as pressing the X button and the bland protagonist is for all intents and purposes invincible against man and nature, it’s impossible to form the slightest investment in what happens to her.  She’s Superman without a conscience (if I had a dollar for every time she yelled, “Die, you bastards!” or “Go to hell!” or something of the sort), and watching her narrowly skirt catastrophe over and over with little to no agency outside of basic directional commands makes for possibly the least involving experience one could derive from a game.  Even if cutscenes and camera changes didn’t constantly yank the player out of Lara’s boots, the game’s passive method of forcing Lara into a “sneaky” crouching stance whenever danger arises would accomplish that just as well. Tomb Raider doesn’t have a “cover system” per se, as has almost every 3rd-person shooter in the wake of Gears of War and Uncharted, but that doesn’t preclude it from reminding the players at every turn of the sheer disdain the designers held for their basic competence.

Normally I would say that the developer should have just made an uninterrupted cutscene, more commonly known as a movie, but Tomb Raider’s story is so fundamentally broken it wouldn’t work as anything.  I don’t want to ramble too much about the actual script as I’m more concerned with the storytelling methods broadly, but here’s a quick rundown of Tomb Raider’s many inanities.

* Battle dialogue. Again, the Die you Bastards thing, but also creative stuff like:
[Cultist 122] “She’s just one girl!”
[Cultist 123] “That one girl is kicking our ass!”

* Other dialogue:
“Look, I know this is a crazy plan.”
“It is, but right now crazy is all we got.  Let’s do this.
“You think you’re a hero, Lara?  Everything I’ve done I’ve done to survive!”
“Oh my god.  Sam – a vessel for the sun queen’s soul.  I have to stop this madness.”

* The mythological sun queen plot actually being treated seriously, despite it being the least appropriate thing to put in a story about the formative molding of Lara Croft.  The only adversaries needed were a band of loony cannibal cult-worshippers, some vicious wolves (the wolf-to-human ratio on this uninhabitable, storm-ravaged island is and should be something like 50:1), and the elements of the island itself.  Instead of a bracing, primal survival story about a frightened woman outwitting and fighting men who’ve forsaken any moral boundaries, what we get is a silly, unbelievable fantasy romp wherein the crazed savages are actually right and the hero must appease the angry, mythical sun creature to calm the storms enveloping the island.

* The hero having to prove her ability in order to honor her family name, which should mean something to us but depends entirely on unearned nostalgia.  “You can do it, Lara,” says the grizzled beta male companion in a scene sampled by a lot of advertising materials.  “After all, you’re a Croft.”  “I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft,” protests Lara, but the older man quickly rebuts that notion.  “Sure you are.  You just don’t know it yet.”  Before playing the Body Positivity version of Lara Croft, it never occurred to me that I might appreciate an origin story about the legendary tomb buster besting her weak self-confidence or sense of familial isolation.  Tomb Raider made sure to dispel that uncertainty within the first two hours or so of the game, which is equivalent to verbally dropping daddy issues in the first twelve minutes of a mainstream movie without ever bothering to show said daddy in the flesh.  Guardians of the Galaxy kind of did that, twice, but at least it wasn’t boring.  Tomb Raider’s story, however, is a more violent, overblown riff on an American Idol or Chopped episode; all are built around disgustingly manipulative backstories of people losing elder family members and trying to “prove themselves” by overcoming some challenge for the deceased, but while the character development on reality TV offers an antidote for a main attraction – bad karaoke, cooking, wedding dress shopping – that is frankly unbearable, the character development in this video game injects an unbearable distraction from the only possible attraction, which is setting off explosive barrels and stabbing people in the face.

A Lara I cared more about than the one in Tomb Raider

* Internalized misandry, or perhaps just misandry, because the lead writer was a woman.  Right around and subsequent to Tomb Raider’s release, much hullabaloo was being raised on the left side of the interwebs over supposed “misogyny” in the video game industry, by which accusers were referring either to the unsatisfactory proportion of vaginas on game development teams or to what they considered unflattering depictions of female characters in mega-successful game franchises.  Tomb Raider seems to have been commissioned directly in response to these complaints, not just in the way it desexualizes a character once embodied by young Angelina Jolie, but in its larger, subtler scheme of making almost every man in the game a ruthless, sadistic monster answerable to no greater code or principles but the dictates of an even crueler monster.  If GTA can be condemned as sexist because all its female characters are helpless or – less offensively – whores, then detractors of that major series should apply the same logic to the minor Feminist Tomb Raider reboot.  I forget if any one of the enemies go so far as to levy rape threats, but I don’t recall playing as Lara to be a very pleasurable or relieving experience, and I would have left with a profound distrust of all men if I didn’t know that this was fiction.  Goons in Batman: Arkham City often make leery, sexually charged threats against Catwoman, but that game’s prison setting takes for granted that its denizens are the lowest, most far gone drecks of uncivilized society.  Tomb Raider, on the other hand, might as well be labeled a 3rd-person patriarchy murder-fantasy simulator, and one of the worse ones in the genre.

In case I haven’t been clear, make no mistake that killing patriarchs as Lara can be pretty fun, and after an hour, I had gotten really good at killing them.  The problem is, in modern video games, killing people has gotten far too easy.  Any kid, heck, any crazy person who doesn’t even play video games, can walk into a shop, or go on Craigslist, buy any 1st-person action game, and start senselessly mowing down tons of people with assault weapons, and whenever someone tries to stop them, they can just duck down and let their health recharge.

Now there are two ways we can respond to this.  We can pretend the problem doesn’t exist, keep praising crappy military-style games like Tomb Raider, saying that Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Jonathan McIntosh, and other Feminists are trying to take these games away, which… is just not true.  We can tell ourselves that Tomb Raider is an A+ story when it’d really be a C- movie, because we think the jokes are funny, or the violence is provocative, or we like watching buildings fall down and blow up.

Or we can say enough is enough, admit the problem exists, and start working on tough but common-sense solutions to the “cinematic”, self-playing okey doke that is Tomb Raider.  Solutions like a modern Metroid game that isn’t Other M, or even Half Life 3.  We’ve got a long way to go, and the choice of how we go there lies with us.  But the time has long since passed for doing nothing.  The road ahead is clear.  With the courage and determination of the gaming community, Tomb Raider will be just another bump in a very rocky road.

6.5/10.  I have nothing good to say about this game.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please be aware that Google/Blogger has a regrettable habit of crashing before you hit the Preview or Publish button, so writing out longer comments separately before entering them into the browser is well advised.

Moderation is to combat spam, not to muzzle dissenting voices.