Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pathetic Fallacy

I fired up Tomb Raider 2013 recently just to play the hunt-for-your-food sequence again (and try out some DLC -- like a warm jacket, finally!) And I couldn't help noticing this time around that no matter how long you spend wandering around the woods, the rain starts the very second you shoot a deer.

But I've also been playing other games, and reading reviews, and a lot of what impressed me earlier no longer impresses me. There is the core of a nice little story there and the voice acting and motion capture support it well. But ninety percent of the game is a stock first-person shooter with stock mechanics, graphics tricks, game assets, character AI, etc. As nice as some of the shrines and other scenery are, the majority of the art assets are the same tired variations of room full of boxes and cluttered alley between cookie-cutter buildings.

The new game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, ups the graphics, adds a little more variety to the combat options and improves the crafting system, but basically is the same routine. Of which an absurd amount is still the barely-interactive scripted sequences.

Really, what happened with games? So many of them are striving for spectacle. Sure, with modern graphics cards you can do spectacle, but Hollywood can do it even better. The peculiar strength of gaming is that it is interactive. And spectacular action sequences that force the player to be an almost completely passive viewer are not playing to this strength.

I've said this before. There's one sequence in Tomb Raider 2013 where a scared (but determined) Lara has to climb to the top of a rusted, shaky, and very tall radio tower in order to send out a distress call. On the first play through, this is nail-biting, seat-of-the-pants scary. But on a second play, a terrible truth becomes obvious; the entire sequence is so tightly scripted you can not fall even if you try. In fact, the only action you as a player ever take over the entire five-plus minutes of this sequence is to hold down the "go forward" key.

And so many games do this. They put in pre-rendered cutscenes. They put in quicktime events (which stab themselves in the back, as they force the player to not get involved in the spectacle but instead focus narrowly on whatever symbol has popped up that requires that corresponding key to be hit). They don't even make it possible (in far too many cases) to skip through this junk on a second play-through. So they sacrifice playability in that way, too; they force the gamer to do things that aren't interesting (like waiting through a Quicktime Event) instead of letting them, well, play.

Interact. Be involved in the material. Be immersed, in those ways that games permit and movies do not.

I also just played one of the old Call of Duty games -- a World War II setting, in keeping with my current interest in history. And the biggest problem I have with this game is a similar one to that which I have with Tomb Raider 2013. I want it to be more about the purported subject, and less about generic mechanics.

Not that I think this would be easy to achieve. Or even necessarily sell well. Call of Duty is very much a "twitch" game. Now, it does focus on events -- such as the Normandy Landings -- which were incredibly fast-moving and chaotic. But I've taken part in military exercises and outside of the last moments of a banzai charge the pace is a little slower.

The first sequence, for instance, places you as a Soviet peasant conscripted into the defense of Stalingrad. It actually frames pretty well, with such cute bits as having you practice how to throw a grenade with a bucket of potatoes, that the Soviet army is poorly equipped. But then combat begins, and for all intents and purposes the only reason to ever conserve ammunition is because the reloading animation takes so long. Really, like practically every other first-person shooter, you are encouraged to hose the landscape.

I made a point of going through even large parts of the Normandy sequence with a rifle, and choosing to look through the sights rather than firing through the hip. And this slowed down the breakneck pace just a little, but it is still far from a realistic experience.

And, yes, there are nice models of appropriate settings, uniforms, equipment, There are little set-ups in film reel style, and short diary entries. Just enough to where I did sort of get the sense of being a British soldier at El Alamein (or whatever). But really the mechanics trump any need to pay attention to specific details; grab any weapon you see on the battlefield and pull the trigger whenever the cross-hairs turn red, run in the general direction of the big arrow and keep shooting until the next cutscene begins.

Now, I'm not asking to have to study a topo map and strain to understand static-swamped radio messages in order to figure out the next objective, any more than I'm asking to have to spend three hours scraping a one-meter grid with a trowel to find the next artifact in Tomb Raider. But I think there's room for a lot more context.

And I think the standard model of the first-person shooter was sufficiently exercised by the time Doom II came out. Playing as an Army Ranger at the cliffs of Point du Hoc should not be essentially identical to the experience of playing as a young archaeologist shipwrecked on an island filled with savage cultists and an ancient mystery. Let's not be afraid to tinker a bit. Especially, lets find a way to support game length other than spawning a truly ridiculous number of essentially-identical targets.

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