Thursday, July 13, 2017

Informative Tombs

I was dashing off a couple simple scenes for a Tomb Raider fanfic when I suddenly stalled. I wanted to put a little color in the bit (from Tomb Raider: Anniversary) about Natla telling Lara the location of lost Vilcabamba.

Trouble is, Vilcabamba isn't lost. Well, it was, but only a little. Hiram Bingham found the site in 1911, it was identified in 1960, and in the 70's the identification was widely published.

We can give the 2007 game a pass as it is a fairly faithful reproduction of the 1996 game. But, really -- calling it "Lost Vilcabamba" in 1996 is pretty shoddy research.

There's a more important omission in the game, however. And that is, lost or not, Vilcabamba is interesting. What it was and the part it plays in the final act of the Incan civilization is fascinating enough that at least two works of fiction were inspired by it. But all the game does is throw out the name.

(At least the player gets that much; they might be inspired to look it up. There is a major location in the first game of the Crystal Dynamics "trilogy" that doesn't even get a name. In fact, only indirect evidence even tells which country the site is located in!)

This is particularly sad because the art direction of all the games has made an effort to bring in some of the artistic motifs, architectural elements, living arrangements, natural surroundings, etc., appropriate to the various cultures brushed against.

The 2013 game does a little better. Particularly nice are the "artifacts," in-game collectibles that have a nicely textured model that can be turned and examined, along with a charming commentary by this game's college-student version of Lara on the artifact's history, use, cultural context, etc.

Pity these are outside of the main plot. In fact, few elements that are important to the plot or the gameplay are examined in any interesting detail. Heck; there are plenty of people who would enjoy a name given to the various wartime wrecks littering the island and the handy weaponry (mostly left behind by the Japanese Army) that Lara picks up. At least there's a bit on the (actual) Himiko, but what the game gives is almost entirely unique to the plot and has little to do with any actual historical myths.

I do realize games are rarely about context. Gameplay is king, and that only makes sense. But the Civilization games made a name in part by referring to real historical developments and making it possible to learn things about them that went beyond what was strictly necessary for game play. In a very different example, the game Skyrim is absolutely stuffed with context, with artifacts and cultural ways and histories and architectures and stories, stories, stories.

In and among the gold pieces and healing potions stuck into treasure chests or littering a bandit's hideout are plates and bales and pots and eating utensils and other cultural relics that can be picked up and examined, and also books, books that add no skill points, carry no hints, have in short no influence on game play, but books that contain multiple readable pages of text. Of stories and legends and songs, all there just to give more background, more detail....more texture to the world.

So, yeah. If I'm playing a first-person shooter set in W.W.I, I want to have equipment that is modeled after the real things. And I want the game to tell me the real names. And some of the context. To name the battle, to name the leaders, to explain why it matters, to tell me (or better yet, let me experience personally) how it unfolded in history.

I don't need this for every game. But any game that flirts with history would, I think, want to make that history breath. To have more than just a name here and there or an accurate in-game model, but to make it possible for you to learn from it. To inform, just enough so you get the value of that peculiar thing games can do; to allow you to walk within and interact.

To experience the thrill and the sorrow of walking the ruins of that last Incan stronghold, knowing what you are looking at...and why it matters.

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