Sunday, July 27, 2014

More Ludonarrative Dissonance

I already mentioned (heck, lots of reviewers have mentioned) that what is presented in the cut scenes of Tomb Raider 2013 fails to match up with the actual play. Heck, the actual narrative doesn't match up with the cut scenes. For instance, having her uncertain about whether boarding the rescue helicopter is a good idea. Uncertain? A few cut scenes before, she witnessed a four-engine plane being shot out of the sky by magic lighting! The cutscene is very definitive that the plane was attacked, and destroyed without either difficulty or mercy.

In the inverse case, when she meets up with the other survivors late in the game they are all, "Glad you could join us." Oh, like you had a tough time of it, Reyes! I had to fight my way through a giant fortress that was on fire, killed about a hundred guys, got hit umpty times by machine gun fire, now I'm covered with gore (half of it mine) and I'm carrying four or five insanely customized weapons and a whole pile of grenades. How could they not see the evidence of what she's been through?

Similarly, when you are trying to convince the others, you are shown in cutscene making some vague, unsupported statements about German scientists and stuff. How about, "And here's the log books I picked up, and journals, plus the goddamned sword of her top general."

Sure, some of this depends on style of play. It is just possible you would reach these cutscenes with different information, different collections, different experiences.

Except not really.

At the center of the ludonarrative disconnect is that this reluctant warrior who throws up at her first kill is going to (while under your control, and in general only while under your control), kill hundreds of people. In generally messy fashion.

This is not a stealth game. You can not avoid engagement. In many, many places, the only way to proceed is to kill.

On my second time through, I felt really bad about killing the armored giant on the Endurance. Okay, first time, he was a pain. And he's insulting you through the fight, and whacking you around. But even then, there's a streak of chivalry in him. He could easily kill you on any of those times he grabs you and picks you up. But he tosses you away and taunts you to come at him again. And, hey, even on the first time through, when you start making progress, he gets confused and a little lost and it feels bad to take advantage of these moments of weakness.

My second time through, I gamed for skills -- focusing on bow and axe, getting to the axe as weapon and the various dodge counter and dodge kill skills as quickly as possible, and putting all my upgrade points on the bow. And I also made it a point to practice the dodge and the dodge counter.

(Including on wolves, the most dangerous non-boss enemy in the game. Oni can only swing swords at you. Wolves attack you with Quick-Time Events.)

That meant that when I faced the giant again, he was completely outclassed. I had to seriously mess up in order for him to hit me even once. And this became the worst kind of bullfight. I'd just stand there taunting him to charge. Dodge away, causing him to cry out in hurt confusion, "How did you do that?" -- then slam an arrow into his knee. As he cried out in pain I'd shoot him a couple of times in the face, causing him to go to one of his almost-sobbing states, ("No! No! What is happening to me?")

And then you bury an axe in his skull. I mean, why? Fuck you, Crystal Dynamics. I felt so bad, and I wanted so much to spare him. But the game forces you to kill in order to progress. Makes me want to write a fanfic excerpt in which she refuses to execute him, and tries to talk to him instead.

Because I respect the big guy. Okay, he may be brutal and horrible and guilty of all sorts of things off screen, but that isn't shown. What is shown is that he's a strict but helpful supervisor, and he takes pride and joy in his work (which includes wearing what has to be really hot, heavy, and uncomfortable armor.) He takes legitimate pride in the toughness of what he has made of himself. Killing him is like killing a Bengal Tiger in its prime. From a tower. With a machine gun.

It was actually less bad going through the Oni. I mean, you'd sort of feel bad for them, given that they've been living corpses for a thousand-odd years, surviving and drilling just to protect their Queen. And when the worst threat that has ever come at her appears, they are forced to give up their night raids and throw everything into a massed frontal attack.

(This also may be the only explanation of how you are actually winning through most of the game. Although there is equal narrative evidence against it, it is plausible that the Solarii worked almost entirely by stealth. They pretended friendship, like Mathias does. They suckered small parties of bewildered, shipwrecked survivors into trusting them, or raided them at night picking them off one by one. You -- and presumably Roth as well -- are raiding them. Instead of sitting in a well-marked camp waiting for them to snipe from the bushes, you are taking the fight to them, and catching their small raiding parties out in the open and unprepared. And the few times they try massed ambush to take you down, they show they just don't have any experience at coordinating their efforts. They can't even manage to get the whole-hearted cooperation of all of their guys; half of them are skulking behind cover refusing to show themselves.)

Anyhow, the Oni probably would have wanted it that way. They went out fighting, not being sniped from behind. They probably would have preferred it if they knew they were succeeding in protecting the Queen, but there's a strong thread in that culture of The Good Fight, whether or not you actually win. And if nothing else, their half-life of continued deathless service is finally coming to an end.

The Solarii...jeez. With all the energy they use creating things like that Fitzcarraldo's dream of a tramway, and putting up fortifications all around the island, they could have built a pretty good paradise. Heck, it rains a lot in Seattle, too. The caverns, and the inferred cadre of "Enforcers" that hints of a hierarchy of control, still does not excuse them.

But, still...from a Doylist perspective, the Solarii were created to be unredeemable. And for Lara's actions to be excusable. This is why Tchaikovsky or whatever his name is was created to be so despicable. Because they didn't want Lara's first act of active resistance to be ambush-killing some poor twenty-year old kid guarding a road.

Anyhow. I mentioned already the almost complete disconnect between any of the archaeology and the actual game progress. This game offers a wide variety of collectables, but only one of them has any effect on game play. Salvage allows you to make your weapons more powerful. Some other collectables give you a bit of experience, but otherwise they don't have anything to do with the in-game world or the progression of the story. You can save Sam and leave the island without collecting a single one of the Chinese daggers or GPS locators or magic mushrooms. These only buy you some kind of badge that you display on your Steam wall, and which ten thousand other people already have anyhow.

Really, outside of salvage, the only thing worth picking up is the optional tombs. Because they give you lots of eeps; they are usually worth a skill point, and a weapon part as well.

Sure, reading the notebooks is fun the first time around. The way the back-story of the island is presented is very nice, and the only flaw here is that there should have been more. There are tantalizing hints, but no way to follow them up. No way to even stay with one story; as you progress, one notebook will talk about 14th-century ambassadors to Himiko's court, and the next notebook will be Whitman rambling on about his divorce settlement.

But once you've figured out the gist of it, there's no point in picking up any more of them. Besides, it isn't as if you the player need to know anything at all about the plot. It will all happen, usually in cutscenes, anyhow. You are going to be railroaded towards staking Himiko regardless of whether you bother to translate any wartime letters or collect any 100-yen coins.

There is a different affliction with skills. There are a lot of skills you can collect. Only some are unlockable early in the game. Those skills will only be used early in the game.

Even if you game things thoroughly, it is essentially impossible to achieve the majority of survival skills before it no longer becomes necessary or even particularly useful to have them.

You can at least to save salvage. Because it is possible you could perform all the upgrades on a weapon only to get something better. I can see a player spending on the bow, then the pistol, then never using either of them again after the rifle (and grenade launcher!) falls into their hands.

In a similar balance problem, I basically never ran out of ammo. Not even on the big battles, which often have re-spawning ammo cans spread around. This suggests to me that all the playtesters were hosing the battlefield and mashing the buttons. If you aim your shots -- if you can get even a quarter in headshots -- you rarely have an ammo problem.

How nice it was that the Oni made sure to stash cans of ammo for weapons they never use all over their own village! The ammo cans, and a few of the other collectable items, are even more reality-breaking than the health packs that litter the ground in games that pretend less to realism.

But this is another sign that you are meant to play bullet-sponge fashion. You are meant to stand up and hose, ducking behind cover only to heal up. And this has damned-all to do with the small, lightly-built girl with an aversion to killing and a torn t-shirt for body armor. It is really as if the game created by the writer and the voice actors and some of the resource designers was spliced on to a generic first-person shooter engine and gameplay mechanics. And, somehow, no-one noticed the disconnect.

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