Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Laralex, Polygons, and Post-Post-Processualism

I was quite under the weather for a few days there. Each time I'd sort of recover, I'd do another early-morning show and between the missed hours of sleep and the tension of the show I'd slip back again.

The CAD is coming along slowly. This is the hard part now. This week is also load-in of my next lighting design. And Maker Faire is not all that far down the road.

But I was sick and my concentration shot so I basically slumped on the couch with lots of hot tea watching Cynthia Rothrock movies and reading Tomb Raider fan fiction.

Oh, yeah. Discovered another odd relic from the late 90's. Apparently when the King Tut exhibit was on tour, the Times (yes, the Times of London) wanted to remind everyone that they had helped bankroll Howard Carter. So they contacted Eidos/Core Design and had them re-use the engine and assets from TR4 (Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation) to make a short game homaging the Times' involvement in the opening of the Boy King's tomb.

In the game, Lara is hired by the Times (as if!) to explore a newly discovered annex to KV62. Complete with rampaging mummies and all the usual Tomb Raider action, of course. The game is a full stand-alone and a free download and as a Win98 game runs near flawlessly on Wine. It is also the original "tank controls" Lara, who really does handle (as The Escapist puts it), like a cow in a trolly. But it was worth it just to experience 200-polygon Lara first-hand.

It's been a long strange journey. I was never attracted by the character or the games until one bored evening I stumbled on Tomb Raider: Underworld on a $1.99 sale at Steam. And that game was a lot more fun than I expected. My only real interest in the older games, though -- even the Crystal Dynamics remakes of them -- was from that same sort of completisim that drives one to read all the books in a series even when the first one wasn't that great.

Actually, this is more of a problem when you started with one of the later editions. I didn't want to play "Legends" so much as I wanted to find out what was the deal with Amanda and Natla and all the hints about Lara's previous history with them.

Anyhow, the fanfic.

Fanfic in bulk follows trends. The stories people were writing after AOD (Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness) were largely about continuing adventures of Lara and Kurtis and more appearances by the Monstrum (or whatever...I never played that game, although perhaps I should, given the Prague setting of part of the action).

Following the 2013 game, the main meat for most fanfic is what might have been called in the old days of Star Trek fanfic "slash" stories -- Kirk/Spock then, Lara/Sam now. Like several recent writers in popular markets, Rhianna Pratchett included a subtext (in this case, in the relationship between Lara and her best friend Samantha "Sam" Nishimura) that is so barely under the radar it practically counts as canonical.

But another major trend to fanfic based on the 2013 reboot is, basically, fix fics. Specifically, versions in which Alex doesn't die. Which is kind of odd. The shape and flavor of the game is pretty much a grimdark in which Lara loses most of her friends and is pushed slightly beyond the bounds of sanity, coming back someone who will willingly put a flaming arrow through a stranger's neck in order to survive.

Alex is one of the disposable NPCs. More specifically, he is a nerdy guy over his head, led by Lara's example to an unwise attempt at heroism himself. His entire reason to exist in the narrative is as a combination object lesson and one additional sorrow for Lara. Maybe it is the way that he is so utterly eclipsed by Lara that draws so many fanfic writers to him, and towards his attempts to win (and grow enough to earn) an actual relationship with her. And it isn't nerdy young boys who are vicariously living this dream, either, but young women.

There's some fun stuff out in the fanfiction world. I've been reading one story that sends her to the Plain of Jars. I wish I'd thought of that one -- mysterious neolithic cultures and thousands of tons of unexploded wartime munitions makes a perfect playground for the Tomb Raider. Another I'm subscribed to is a hurt/comfort fic (Lara/Sam, of course) that beats the poor kid up worse than the 2013 game. But does some cool stuff both with Greek mythology and with pulling in some of the characters and situations from the previous games.

My own fanfic is basically Crystal Dynamics canon, but taken before the events of Underworld (mostly because Underworld concerns Thor's Hammer and the Stargate SG-1 side of my plot involves, among other things, the Asgard).

I did scribble one quick Tomb Raider 2013 sketch, though. Which was entirely a take-that at one of many bits of ludonarrative dissonance in the game. Might be a little hard to explain. You see, the game makes it possible to go back through all the previous levels after defeating Mathias and freeing Himiko (aka, after winning the game). And this makes no sense within the presented narrative (any more than the reluctant hero of the narrative meshes with game mechanics that encourage you to do especially brutal kills in order to earn more points).

Come to think, my previous one-shot was also a take-that -- this time at the railroad nature of the plot. Which is why I had Lara set fire to Himiko's body the first time she saw it. Not like she doesn't spend half the game setting fire to everything in sight (mummified bodies included) anyway!

What attracts me most in fanfics is alternate histories. Especially stories in which one thing is changed, and the changes propagate until the entire original narrative unravels. And, yeah, in my opinion Tomb Raider 2013 could really do with some of these. Pity that none of the Laralex fics I've seen so far do much but re-tell the exact same game only with Alex following along like a strangely-shaped shadow.

But all these Heroic Alex fics made me tempted to send Jonah down to the beach to look for survivors instead. Which would mean Lara would never go through the opening sequence with the mummy bag. And might even end up with Stephanie being rescued. And between Jonah's sturdy, unflappable nature ("I'm not going to die with an empty stomach") and Stephanie's irrepressible good spirits, the story would evolve in very much not the grimdark way it does in the game.

Instead of course I'm doing an SG1 cross-over. Which started as a one-note joke; a desire to observe the clash between Daniel Jackson and Lara Croft, despite both practicing essentially the same Indiana Jones school of archaeology. But what has become the alternate universe aspect, really, is my attempts to rationalize both the Forbidden Archaeology of the Tomb Raider world, and the Ancient Astronauts of the SG1 world, with something resembling the real world we live in -- one in which archaeologists carry soft-bristle brushes, not whips.

One of these conflicts is going to become important in my next few chapters and I'm still trying to figure out how to approach it. Tomb Raider, like much fictionalized depictions of archaeology, is artifact-centric. Which is not incorrect for an earlier era, the time of cabinets of curiosities, of Carter, of Schliemann (who, it is quoted, did to Troy what the Greek army could not). But really, this depiction comes straight out of much older story-telling traditions; fables and fairy-tales, stories of magic swords and geese that lay golden eggs.

Far from being artifact-centered, one could argue that a modern dig is site-centered. A site is explored horizon by horizon (essentially, layers of time) instead of the bulk being hurriedly tossed away (as it was by Schliemann) in the search for museum-ready pieces. And all the detritus of the site goes under the microscope, analyzed by every method from botanical to statistical to build up a picture of the culture under consideration.

And even this conceit -- the idea of archaeology as a neutral observer which could use tools of economic analysis and time-motion studies to reconstruct a society's needs and goals, started to be questioned as far back as the first cultural anthropologist to openly admit that they were incapable of painting a picture of life in a remote village -- they were instead painting a picture of life in a remote village that had an anthropologist visiting it.

Almost every lovely economic theory eventually founders on the harsh reality that people do not make rational purchasing decisions. So, too, did processualism falter on the conceit that a stone age tribe put their physical and emotional needs in the same boxes as a college graduate in the western world of the 20th century. But then, too, did post-processualism fail in throwing these tools (of using our own constructs to analyze the workings of a very different peoples) completely away.

And, of course, amid all these heady and competing theories, and in a world where site access is fought over and observing the legalities is everything to an archaeologist's career, the reality of a Daniel Jackson or Lara Croft is still going to be going after those rare magic swords that, in their version of the world, are still out there.

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