Sunday, December 18, 2016

Game Levels

Just reviewed the chapters to date of my Tomb Raider/SG1 fanfic. Funny how much it looks like it was planned, even though I know I'm pretty much writing it as I go along.

I started with a McGuffin; a small jar in the shape of a falcon. About all I knew was that it was connected to the ancient Egyptian god Horus. Next I needed a setting for the opening scene. The yacht from the third game, of course. Put it in some nice waters for skin-diving; where? How about near Malta.

I literally had not made the connection until I was writing the first scene set in Valetta and thought of tying the Tribute of the Falcon -- yes, the Black Bird itself, the Maltese Falcon -- to the story. Similarly, I had already passed through Libya before silphium became an important plot point. It wasn't until doing research eight chapters later I realized silphium, that wonder drug of the ancient world, had only grown in a narrow strip of coast near Tripoli. And these were not the only bits of serendipity (it helps, of course, that I cast my net very wide in the first place, including putting lots of random trivia in each passing chapter that I might later profitably mine).

The main place where the lack of planning shows up is that the evil scheme the protagonists eventually discover isn't that interesting, and doesn't lend itself to a satisfying resolution. But, then, similar could be said of the plots underlying many of the games. Where things worked out in a surprising way is how close I came to the game framework of go to an exotic locale, pick up a clue amid the archaeology and/or history there, and have a bit of action (a fight, some climbing) before moving on.

The first "Level" is essentially Malta. Surprising this location hasn't been used in Tomb Raider before. It is close to the center of a number of the historical events around the Mediterranean and is littered with the archaeology of Romans, Byzantines, Turks, etc., etc. For my story I concentrated mostly on the period when the Knights of Malta were in conflict with the Ottoman Empire in a multi-nation struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean that came to a climax at the Battle of Lepanto (not coincidentally the last major naval battle conducted between rowed galleys).

The "action" for this level, however, takes place in a flashback, in which a teenaged Lara climbs up and BASE jumps off the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building in downtown San Francisco.

The next level is Cairo, and this one is almost complete; for archaeological puzzles there is the mysterious object dug up in Giza in 1928 and spirited away to America before the Second World War, and mysteries surrounding a newly-discovered Amarna-period tomb in the Valley of Kings (the real-world KV63). There's a brief tomb crawl with a bit of life-or-death gymnastics, and a knife fight with some thugs on the outskirts of "Garbage City," the grass-roots recycling center in the heart of Cairo's slums.

Outside of fulfilling the basic game objectives (the sprawling, semi-abandoned munitions plant in the desert would of course have made a great map in an actual game) this sequence also fulfilled some more literary requirements. I got to talk a little about the long history of Egypt and current sociopolitics, and as well explore a little more of Lara's psychology and her ongoing inner struggles. (It also took me much deeper into the rabbit hole of research, including staring at old sales brochures trying to identify exactly which guitar donated by the Red Hot Chili Peppers hung on the wall of Hard Rock Cafe Cairo).

The following level is on the face of it less exotic; Colorado Springs. I touched a little on the gilded age and silver barons, and the natural history of the area, but this is largely about NORAD. There are excursions to another bit of Cold War history, the Strangelovian "Project Pluto," and to the tiny idiosyncratic would-be island nation of Sealand, as well as passing mention of Semipalatinsk, Tsar Bomba, Bluegill Prime et al, but the star is NORAD, that underground city behind giant blast doors. The action in this level is a long climb in very much the style of the games.

As for literary purposes, I am most happy with a little scene that came out of thin air. I wanted a little excitement before Lara went into the mountain, and I threw some local punks at her. And then in the middle of writing the scene discovered the unexpected and comedic resolution.

The level I'm most proud of is Prague. I feel like I almost had a good grip on the whole mix here; the mystery and McGuffin, the historical background, the scene-setting, the Tomb Raider style action. It also accomplishes the "layers" which is part of my favorite levels in the various games. In this case the team visits modern-day Prague (with some short side conversations about occupations of World War II and the following Communist take-over), goes into the Gormenghastian Prague Castle, then has to struggle past booby-trapped passages left by the SS to get to where secrets of alchemists and seers were hidden, at last solving a 17th-century puzzle...and encountering the Golem of Prague in a neolithic cave.

In almost all of the games Lara's home is an optional level. So I sent some of my cast there to explore the Abingdon Estate, wrapping that sequence up with a big fight. The archaeological revelations, if you could call it that, is expressed in a long bull session concentrating mostly on the period of transition between Egyptian pre-history and the first recorded dynasties. Side lines included various and sundry artifacts on display in the manor, with passing mention of events as varied as Gallipoli and the Siege of the Legations.

The next "level" is essentially the American Southwest, focusing on pre-Columbian archaeology, but with a secondary emphasis on particular bits of 1950's ephemera; Roswell and the "Gray" aliens, Route 66 with the usual roadside attractions of giant lumberjack statues, and Trinity with the first atomic bomb. So far the big discovery has been a paleolithic site in New Mexico, and the action has been a little run-in with a heavily jimmied solar power facility.

And from the looks of it, I'm going to conclude at Mount Shasta, bringing in as archaeology mostly clearly false nonsense about Atlantis and Mu and the Shaver Mysteries, but also tying in an ancient alien engineering project that had been the background threat of a stand-alone sequence I did on Thera during the height of the Minoan civilization.

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