Sunday, August 14, 2016

Yamatai II (fanfic thoughts)

I've written before about my issues with the reboot "Tomb Raider" (2013). I'm left with no firm idea of how one could have made it a better game. However -- and topical in that a movie is apparently about to enter production -- one can put aside questions of playability and game balance and ask only what would make a better narrative.

And this is another rambling ranting essay, so the rest is below the fold.

There are a number of fanfictions written in the reboot universe. Most are post-Yamatai, dealing with a traumatized Lara Croft and the complexities of her evolving relationship with Samantha Nishimura, and some of these are quite good. So far, however, I haven't seen anything that confronts the issues of the game head-on and tries to retell Yamatai itself with a narrative that is both more believable and, well, internally consistent.

Because this is at the crux of the problem. Not the character portrayal per se, or the linear narrative (as displeasing as this is to players who have seen the potential of branching narratives and significant player choice). Nor even the slighting of archaeology. (Well, mostly. The games have never really been about the process of discovery, but at least in previous games there is an illusion that Lara is using her intellect and learning to progress through the game. The 2013 Lara Croft is not passive; she actively seeks out new information, and events develop from her efforts, but nothing actually comes of it. For all intents and purposes all she ever needed to know was that Sam was in trouble over there, then proceed in using whatever weapons came to hand on whatever was threatening her, be it cultists or the mysterious undead magical Queen of the island.)

But, no; the real problem at the heart of the game is a disconnect between the story it is trying to tell of Lara's growth from frightened shipwreck victim to hardened survivor, and the nuts-and-bolts of a standard-issue Third-Person Shooter, where you direct her in killing hundreds of people -- with extra points scored for brutality -- shrugging off bullets and firing off thousands of arrows until the scale of the battles and the body count reach completely ludicrous size.

So if anything is a given, it is that the heart of the story is simply incompatible with Lara machine-gunning her way through hordes of cultists and undead warriors and wildlife. That core internal conflict, and the three-way struggle for the secrets of the island between Matthias, the Oni, and the shipwreck survivors, has to unfold in ways other than constant combat. Through stealth, through bargaining, through teamwork, through tactics, through knowledge.

So what might this look like?

It might be illuminating to look through the sequence of events as given in the game. I have no real problems with the Endurance: with the original setup, the mission, the shipwreck itself. I've gone back and forth a couple times on this and I think it works fine to start in media res; the major problem I have with the game is not how the other characters are introduced (with a clumsy-but-serviceable flashback through watching some of Sam's shipboard videos) but that they are developed too little and introduced too soon after that. The game puts you in a position of having to care about people that you haven't really been told anything about. And you have far too little on-screen interaction with them -- which all takes place long after you've risked your life rescuing them.

(For whatever reason Roth works better. There is the right amount of interaction with him where you really do develop the caring that motivates your actions on his behalf.)

(There's another note to be made here, however. Yes, there is a bit of teamwork, but the "Stop...go now...stop" sequence is a vastly poorer version of the sniper sequence in Half-Life2 Episode 1: in the latter, Gordon and Alyx are active partners. In the former, Lara is entirely passive through this "fight" and merely climbs or halts when Roth tells her to.)

The smuggler's cave sequence is not...unusable. The strong through-line through the early scenes is that Lara is separated from the other survivors and has to find food and shelter on her own. That's all great -- in fact, I think the story is stronger if Reyes and co. don't show up quite so soon. As it is told in the game, she flips between convenient sessions of solo survivor, joining up only to be separated again for increasingly implausible reasons.

Of course Stephanie has to go. The developers realized this in time to remove any commentary from Lara, and the knowledge that this is the strung-up body of one of her own crew-mates is hidden from the player (and only seen in supplementary materials).

But it's too little of a correction, too late. Even if this body is random, and years old, this is absolute evidence that there are people on this island who torture shipwreck victims to death. Sorry, but that's a no-go for every other thing the game shows, from her merely surly suspicion of Matthias to Whitman's willingness to disarm before the scavengers to, well, every other thing she does right up until the Fire Ritual (where Himiko has to step in to rescue Sam).

It just isn't possible. If you are going to develop a slow dawning realization that something is really wrong on this island, you can't lead with a brutally murdered corpse. And if you want to have Lara deciphering ancient inscriptions to discover that Sam is being threatened with human can't show this is standard operating procedure within her first ten minutes of waking up on the island. Unless that body is clearly an aberration, it demands the survivors stay together and shoot first. And within very few scenes, that body is not alone.

Then, there is Lara's convenient glass skull. It is just barely acceptable that she is KO'd on the beach by a scavenger with nefarious motives. It is terribly convenient, but fiction has been accepting the premise of easy risk-free unconsciousness for a long time. However, as presented in-game, the intent was to kill her. And this isn't even the only time it happens! At least twice, she suffers the narrative convenience of being left for dead, then waking up with seemingly no ill effects to fight on.

Really, the better narrative is to skip the whole damned cave scene and have her wash up on the same beach where she spots the lifeboat. And go directly from there to the ledge where she makes her first fire and waits out the night (with or without the idea of trying to follow Sam's trail until she washes down a gully). I suspect editorial interference was the problem here; that somewhere in the higher levels of the development team they were afraid they'd lose the audience without an action scene early in the narrative. But it twists up the narrative through-line, changing the emotional thrust too often (in addition to introducing information that needed to be withheld).

But if you have to...  a much more difficult way to write the sequence is to have her wash up on the beach, all right, but have the guy from the cave "rescue" her. To take her into shelter and take care of her. You hardly need a rock to the head to get her from A to B here; she's just been fighting for her life in storm-tossed surf, and is likely to be semi-conscious at best in the first place.

So the whole smuggler's cave can be shown. Himiko Shrine included -- but sans any recently deceased victims, of course. And this could be someone who is at the most a marginal part of Matthias' Solarii Brotherhood. Someone who isn't going to turn her in, but who is insane/scared enough to not be terribly informative about what is going on. And to be disinclined to let Lara go; somewhere on a grade between truly protective and having mentally constructed huge castles in the air where the rescued girl gratefully stays with him in his sea cave full of shipwreck salvage, happily ever after.

This could be psychologically intense -- at the least creepy as hell -- without getting into territory of her having to kill in order to protect herself, or getting a really clear glimpse into the hell that Matthias has constructed.

Be that as it may. The B52 scene is ludicrous and the gully bit is manipulative, but one way or another we can do the Lighting a Fire scene on the ledge more-or-less as the game does it. Probably without the home movies; in narrative, she can simply remember her interactions with the crew and her friends on the Endurance, and define those stronger.

And it is tempting to leave the hunting scene alone, but...

First off, how exactly does this work? She knows how to dress a deer, but has never killed one? That's a bit of a reach. And a deer is a hell of a cookout anyhow; a rabbit would serve better. And running around with a stick bow is not a great way to get dinner, even if for some reason the deer in this particular box canyon have completely not noticed the overpopulation of hungry cultists on the island, or the smells of butchered meat coming from the pillbox right there.

Snares make more sense. Roots and berries even more (heck; the game lets you -- praises you -- for getting some berries. But insists that you haven't actually been fed yet until you kill that deer.) Oh, and let's see -- every other location in the game is crawling with salvaged canned goods. Which were visible in the lifeboat supplies Sam left behind in the previous scene.

The deer is there to ramp up slowly towards killing a human being. Obviously. And the bow hunting is because the game loves it that bow and wants to establish early what a cool killing machine it is. So lets you go postal on wildlife in this otherwise safe area. But I have to feel these could be better approached. For instance; a couple scenes later, she's forced to defend herself by killing several wolves. With that bow. Doesn't that do most of what we're trying to do with the deer? Is there really a point to be made -- that needs to be made -- about the essential innocence of the deer and the moral choice that her life is more important?

Oh, and the smuggler's cave scene from the game goes out of its way to inflict a nasty wound. Which is then never mentioned again until several days later, when it suddenly becomes motivator for a search for first aid. Couldn't this be part of what she struggles to attain in these early scenes of finding food and shelter?

So I'm not sure where to go here. I think I'd skip the weird midnight meeting where she finds Sam and Matthias -- the radio will suffice to make this narrative point, and it might even build Matthias up better if he is only described second-hand. Also skip the rest of the Endurance crew running in, because that goes nowhere; they show up then conveniently vanish before there's even a chance for a reunion. Leave Lara alone until she meets up with Whitman.

And take Whitman further. This is something that's slightly easier in narrative, but this is a game that is so incredibly on rails it could carry it off, too. Basically, have Whitman take charge. So the revised sequence; she climbs out from the pillbox, encounters and has to kill a wolf or wolves, then discovers Whitman and Whitman takes over. He doesn't let he wander off in search of salvage, he brusquely directs her. And doesn't listen to her fears.

So this gives space to explore the interpersonal dynamics of the Endurance expedition, and better delineate his character, and better yet: it allows room to explore her struggles within the academic system. There's a lot of material which is hit only glancingly; how she has separated herself both from her family's money and from her father's interest and reputation (in, that is, the kind of para-historical/mystical thing she's found herself in the middle of on Yamatai). Having her struggle within her subservient student role with Whitman echoes and emphasizes perfectly her struggle to move from victim to survivor.

And then...Vladimir. I think the game's choices are fairly effective here, with one exception. I don't like the way the game re-introduces dozens of previously un-introduced and completely anonymous Endurance survivors only to make a point by shooting them all. I dislike anything that ramps up the body count, especially this early, as each little step moves the game from the tragedy of the struggle for survival by her and a few friends to the statistics of giant battle scenes.

Sigh. As much as it seems like going back on what I said earlier about Stephanie, I think this is the place where you can ramp up the pathos. Which means there is a small number of survivors and Lara knows them. That there is actual interaction going on here and they are killed before her eyes as the situation develops.

And at this point I have to part ways from the game. I like (most) of the Roth stuff, although this getting split up/coming back seems far too episodic and should be either condensed or handled differently; say, establishing Roth in a fixed camp and having Lara essentially running missions/errands (like the in-game Wolf Cave bit) and then returning to care for him.

The basic pattern of exploration is fine. The island has many interesting secrets, and I think even the sequence in which they are discovered in-game works decently. It isn't a problem to have Solarii crawling around, either. But she has to be able to avoid them, evade them, or fight them in ways other than straight-up firefights. Okay -- I'm not against that happening once or twice, since that is a story-telling point, too, but it should be the norm.

But I really start to think that the kind of exploration and archaeology we'd want -- the space to indulge a sense of wonder -- works better without having to look over her shoulder every second for mobs of gunslinging crazies. Plus, paradoxically, their threat is diminished by the way they show up so soon brandishing firearms. They are at their most menacing when you don't know what they may be capable of. After they've already tried to shoot her down -- and died for it -- they become less a menace to be feared and more an obstacle to be overcome.

Which is great within the overall picture. She should be responding to them that way by the end. But she shouldn't already be in this mindset by Chapter 2! If she's already outdone dozens in a firefight, the only way to make them threatening is by bringing them out in ever-increasing numbers.

And...the Oni got short-changed. They had a great build-up in the game, from the early discovery of diaries from the Japanese Army units stranded on the island during the war, to mentions of them by the Solarii...but by the time they make an appearance, the threat of the Solarii is so obvious and immediate (and it is already so beyond belief Lara is surviving those encounters) the Oni become merely the same kind of enemy with a different weapons mix. Even the Giant Oni is just another boss battle, defeated exactly as you defeated the armored Boris on the wreck of the Endurance.

How to make the Oni dangerous again? Perhaps you NERF the Solarii. Perhaps you introduce them first. Probably best is a mix; have Lara skulking around places where she is in fear of discovering/being discovered by the Oni before she gets into open fighting with the Solarii.

And...the game hints at it but doesn't really carry through...have the Solarii living in armed fear with a network of fortifications and hides and deadfalls to try to keep the Oni at bay. So Lara's difficulty in working her way through the Solarii-held territories is not that they have built up and armed up to be a credible threat against a particularly determined shipwreck survivor, but that all the barriers they have placed in the way of the Oni become a problem for Lara as well.

And besides. The Solarii are scarier psychologically. They should (and the game hints they have) proceed through misdirection, through befriending shipwreck survivors and getting them to let their guard down. But take this further; instead of pulling out guns and forcing whomever they don't shoot outright into the machinery of their enlistment process, have them more slowly talk outsiders around into joining their cult -- people who have little idea of just what the initiation ceremonies will entail!

This is a more powerful approach in so many ways because the internalized counterpart of the conflict between Lara and Matthias is about becoming a survivor without becoming a cold-blooded killer. It can only help to show, in detail, and to even make superficially attractive, the Solarii way. To place Matthias foremost as someone she might fall under the sway of, instead of making him so absolutely antagonistic.

(Well, sort of. There is a gendered element to the Solarii that is worth preserving, and part of the conflict between Matthias and Lara is that he is completely unwilling to credit her as being capable of the same brutality as he is. As the game portrays it, she wins against him not just by being more determined -- harder to kill -- but by willing to go further to survive than he thinks she can.)

And...that's enough for today's essay.

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