The opening sequence of Tomb Raider (the first twenty minutes in particular) is as bad a case of ludonarrative dissonance as it can get, cramming in as few minutes as possible all the biggest problems with how AAA videogames envision interactive storytelling nowadays, which is a bit sad because the intentions were good (I want to play a vulnerable character for a change) and the writing is above average, for the most part, so let’s honor this eloquent case study by taking it apart.
After the introductory cutscene, the first moment of gameplay involves Lara tied up in a dark cave, head upside down. Actually, this is quite an apt metaphor of how the player will feel for the rest of the sequence, bound by his lack of agency, but I’m not sure it is the kind of captivity Crystal Dynamics aimed to express. The metaphor doesn’t last long anyway: cinema-Lara (I mean the Lara on screen and not the one I’m playing) has to think her way through the situation and use her wits to regain her freedom, but I don’t have to do any of this because some divine instinct (the game calls it “survival instinct” but either way it’s only the Designer showing the way) tells me that I need to press A and D to make the rope swing back-and-forth. So, while cinema-Lara is trying to survive, improvising and reacting to a dangerous environment, gameplay-Lara is merely following instructions on the screen. I really can’t think of two more opposite experiences, and it’s quite frustrating because normally the beginning of a game can feel like being thrown on an unknown island of sort, since the player has to discover and experiment how a new game works, how this unfamiliar virtual space behaves, but a tutorial negates this feeling of exploration (Dark Souls this is not). You can’t feel vulnerable when you’re told what to do at every moment, much less explore what’s already explained for you.
This is a lesser problem, but I still find it quite annoying: one of the lamest tricks in cinema are these expository voice-overs explaining what’s already happening in the images, but videogames have their equivalent with “obvious player’s objectives flashing on the screen”. In Tomb Raider, it’s the game telling me that I need to “find a way out”. Ok, so Lara wakes up hanging from the ceiling, in a cave adorned with skulls and blood, with two other corpses besides her: do the designers really think I can’t understand this setting? Do they feel so unsure of their script that they need to explain it again in words? Even if I feel insubordinate to the game’s fiction and decide to do some speleology on my own, it’s not like the game will allow me to do any exploration anyway: I’m trapped in an artificial hallway so I will follow whatever objectives the designers have chosen for me, and whether it’s “get out” or “find a good motel” doesn’t matter. I have no choice on the subject. When the narrative and/or the level design are clear enough, why does the game need to repeat it in bold white letters on the screen? (I know some players don’t watch cutscenes, but these players probably don’t care about the objectives anyway, or else they would watch the cutscenes, because that’s partly what they’re for, setting up the next objective.) But I guess it still isn’t clear enough, or some players are dumber than I can imagine, because the game proceeds to follow in the most unimaginative way possible the famous rule-of-three* that reigns over Hollywood, and Lara says, just in case, “I need to find a way out”. Oh, now I know what to do: I need to find a way out! Here, the problem is not so much ludonarrative dissonance but on the contrary an over-emphasis of the already obvious: when your story or the environments are well defined, as it should be, the game doesn’t need to reiterate, moreover in such an artificial way, the same information.
But, what’s worse yet, it’s not even a real objective: I did not “find” my way out because I didn’t need to search in the first place. Lara is supposed to feel lost, but how can I feel that way if I’m stuck in a narrow corridor with only one way to go? All I can do is press W and move forward (even the player's control over the camera is at time restricted). Again, I was following instructions, the route that was designed for me; survival seems pretty frivolous in the AAA world. And then, after pressing W some more, and some wild variations of A and D, I “found” the exit, got out of the cave and on the island proper. Freedom! A game! But no, alas, once you’re out, your survival instinct takes over and control your gaze again so you’re sure to see the wreckage on the island shore (and the title, obviously you want to know which game you’re playing). But most importantly, it shows you the way forward, in case you want to turn back and try to hopelessly force your way through the wall behind you. Oh, what is there? A forest! That looks like something I can get lost in… but no, it’s still a cramped one-way corridor, green and brown instead of grey. Then I’m thinking: how lucky Lara is to find herself on an unknown island made of one-way corridors! That sure is easier to find your way around! I mean, that’s the kind of island I want to be shipwrecked on (well, except for the blood-thirsty cultists).
Still, I appreciate the change of scenery (I’m so tired of tutorial in caves or dungeons), so I try to move the camera a bit, because the decor is quite impressive and I want to take the time to… but no, not now, my survival instinct is still stronger than my natural curiosity and it takes control of my eyes again, because it wants to make sure that I won’t miss the big remains of the boat standing in front of Lara, taking half of the frame. You know, there’s no way I could have missed that boat because this is the only way forward, the only path I could have take, and the boat stands just after a corner, so the moment Lara turns that corner, the boat will appear on the screen no matter what, so why does the designer need to control the camera at that moment? Does he worry that the player will direct the camera at the road, fearing to walk in a pool of mud, and somehow miss the boat? Turn around and go back towards an already established dead-end? A designer taking control of the camera makes sense when he thinks that a player could miss vital information in the environment, but when the player has no choice but to go towards that vital information, I think you can trust that he will stumble upon it by himself at some point.
The game opens up a bit after that boat, the QTEs and corridors mostly disappear, but some of the problems remain. Notably, the shooting mechanics are so smooth and refined that they don’t express Lara’s reluctance to kill. Her bow, in particular, is really enjoyable, and it feels great to hunt those deer at the beginning and later to silently align head-shots with it, but this is not how cinema-Lara is depicted. She’s not supposed to feel good while killing that deer, even less be entertained when she kills men later on (not at the point I’m at anyway). Tomb Raider is too good a shooter for its own good: the game takes the same mechanics that were designed for games with all those arrogant indestructible soldiers proficiently shooting people in the face with a smile on their lips, polishes them and then expects to tell a story about an inexperienced archeologist who unwillingly uses violence and shivers every time she kills someone. I’m only two hours in now, and I know Lara is supposed to become more powerful and confident, or that she will discover some inner strength that was in her all along, so maybe at that point the shooting mechanics will make sense, but for now, they sure feel inappropriate.
It reminds me of the state of Hollywood nowadays, and what film scholar David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity”: most modern movies are shot the same way, a barrage of close-up with extremely fast editing (a shot last 2 to 4 seconds on average). It doesn’t matter whether it’s an action movie, a romantic comedy or a thriller: the same aesthetic is used in every scene of every movie. This visual style can be meaningful on occasion (the Social Network is a masterpiece of intensified continuity) but a good director should adapt his mise en scène to outline the particularities and subtexts of each of his scenes. Filming everything the same way is inconsequential and the particular expressiveness of a fast close-up gets lost if there’s no more contrast with some longer medium shots. The same can be said about gameplay: in Tomb Raider the shooting mechanics should evolve throughout the game and follow the character’s arc. Without this contrast, within the game itself and with other similar games, the possible meaning of the gameplay disappears.
Or, like John Teti wrote at Gameological: “Tomb Raider treats game design as a commodity rather than a venue for expression—“game-ness” is merely a thing that is bolted onto a preconceived experience.” In other words, the gameplay of Tomb Raider isn’t meant to be expressive or meaningful, only to be “fun”, even if this “fun” is contradictory with the fiction. Just like the intensified continuity of blockbusters is for the most part meaningless (and often incoherent) because ultimately only the flamboyance of the spectacle matters, the gameplay of Tomb Raider is insignificant and doesn’t care about the story it tries to tell. Gameplay becomes a mere obligatory way to pass time (it’s a game after all) between each set pieces that are the core of the “experience” envision by the designers.
Just to be clear: I’m not asking for a simulation of survival and vulnerability. I'm well aware that gameplay is not a 1:1 simulation of reality; it’s an abstraction, a system that tries to express a particular emotion, feeling, idea, etc. But at the very least, gameplay and fiction should work in conjunction, help each other to tell the same story, not repeat or contradict themselves. A game must adapt its mechanics to its fiction. And so far, for a game that’s mostly about survival, Tomb Raider feels pretty familiar and comfortable.
*Screenwriting guides often insist on the importance of this rule: essential information in a movie has to be repeated three times to make sure that every spectator will understand it. A good director will find a way to present the same information in three different ways (a gesture, a close-up on an object, a dialogue, an expressive cut, etc.), or offer some variations of it, but more often than not it makes dialogue looks like this: “John, do you see the dust over there? I think Indians are coming.” “Sorry, what did you just say, Paul? Indians are coming?” “Yeah, John, that’s what I said, Indians sure are coming this way.”