Tomb Raider: Where the Survivor Stumbled

Let’s get the full disclosure part out of the way up front, shall we?

  • I love the new Tomb Raider.
  • I’ve never played a previous Lara Croft game.
  • I have 100% campaign completion on Normal, am going back through for my Hard playthrough, and recently bought a few cables so that I can play multiplayer with voice chat over PSN.
  • Nothing I’m about to say precludes my resounding recommendation that people go buy and play this fantastic game. It tells a great story, it’s set in a breathtaking environment, has some fantastic, memorable music, and is just a ton of fun, particularly if you’re the sort of person who feels compelled to find and collect anything that causes an incomplete fraction to pop up on your screen when you find one of it.

But in the wake of news of “disappointing sales” and a flood of unhappiness and ranting following the announcement that no single-player DLC is planned for the game, I think it’s worth looking at what happened and considering why.

The number one problem I have with Tomb Raider is that it is too easy. I say that not as a long-time fan who misses the challenges of older games, but as a platformer aficionado who has tackled extremely challenging and hazardous tombs in, say, several Assassin’s Creed games over the years (tombs which aren’t even fundamental to the franchise’s story or branding) and found that the most difficult moments in Tomb Raider were a cakewalk when compared to other games it can’t help being held up against. I had to work far harder to achieve full campaign completion in pretty much every other platform/exploration-driven game I’ve ever played (going back to PS1, say).

That’d be alarming even if this weren’t called “Tomb Raider” and if the franchise’s core fanbase hadn’t fallen in love with the challenge of each tomb. So while I think any fans who pass on this game because of its representation of Lara are simply making an incredibly ignorant decision, the fans who pass because of the lack of challenge? They have a point. It may be a great game, but it isn’t the type of game they wanted to play, not the type of game Tomb Raider used to feel like.

So here’s my “review.” If you played Tomb Raider for Lara, pick this up. If you played Tomb Raider for the sense of mystery, discovery, and adventure, pick this up. But if you played for puzzles that could stump you for hours, and if your sense of achievement is tied to the difficulty of overcoming extreme challenge? Then maybe this isn’t for you after all. And I think the extent to which that may apply to a lot of people who loved Tomb Raider in the past is rather sad. But beyond that, I can’t think of many reasons not to play this game.

While all that may seem a bit unrelated to the backlash over DLC, it honestly isn’t tangential at all. The campaign established a great toolset and delivered progressively harder tombs as Lara combed Yamatai, and I don’t think I was the only fan who not only hoped but took for granted that a “challenging tombs” pack was going to come out sometime soon. We were prepared to pay extra money for the challenge that was blatantly missing from the game. And then we found out it wasn’t coming…ever.

I attended the Tomb Raider panel at PAX East this weekend and the difficulty of the game (or lack thereof) was brought up. Crystal & Square recognize the outcry, and acknowledge the more rudimentary challenge level of this game. While what was said doesn’t necessarily excuse them (or the lack of DLC), it’s worth mentioning here. Two culprits were pointed to, each with its own merit.

The first is the tone of this Tomb Raider in contrast with past games. 2013’s Tomb Raider is rugged and real, powered by emotion and character rather than action and diversion. The story maintains a rather constant urgency and that’s a tone which is difficult to maintain even in the best of games. While diversionary romps through hour-long tombs may make sense for Ezio (especially if he hasn’t reached the next narrative waypoint to guide the story along), Lara is in a very present battle for survival and rescue. In terms of “gamey” mechanics, it simply wouldn’t make narrative sense for her to meander off into dark and dangerous dungeons while her best friend is in real danger of being sacrificed, or while she herself has not developed an affinity for crypts as of yet and would just like to be home in a warm bed. Sure, as the game goes on we begin to see the “old” Lara surface and a confidence emerge which ensures future games will have to up the ante. But in terms of this story? Extensive tombs really just wouldn’t have worked.

When you consider past Tomb Raider games, you’ll notice more of an emphasis on fun and fantasy, elements which while not absent from this game are definitely (and intentionally) subdued. Seldom does a moment arise in the new Tomb Raider where your suspension of disbelief is broken: Yamatai feels real, the danger feels real, and part of you wonders if that dangerous island isn’t actually out there, amassing shipwrecks and downed planes and populated by a manic and lost cult. Every tomb feels like just that: a tomb, a place actually used by real people who had a real purpose for the environment. The challenge of traversing it feels practical because it wasn’t created to be challenging, it just became challenging as traditional footpaths and the like eroded and decayed over time. In much the same way as a person who drops a ladder needs to find another way down from the roof, Tomb Raider‘s challenge isn’t overtly gamey. It makes sense contextually.

One panelist pointed out how in previous games the difficulty stemmed from mechanics like having to pull a lever in one room which seemed disconnected from the door that lever opened in some other room. We’re used to this in games, but if you think about it, no actual person would ever develop a system that complicated for getting into a room. Believability and difficulty are ever at odds in these tombs and in this particular case, with narrative in mind, I actually appreciate the thought that went into the design of each one.

And the second point, which is so obvious it’s almost surprising, is that you didn’t need to use survival mode to get through the tombs. I’m sure there are SOME people out there who figured everything out easily enough without that aid, but anyone who complained that the tombs were too easy after having used such a blatant newb-friendly crutch should re-evaluate whether the game lacked challenge because it was inherently too easy, or because they opted for the path of least resistance. The goal of this reboot was to open the door for a new generation of players to a franchise which had become stagnant and rather esoteric, and to the extent that accessibility precluded forced difficulty, the onus may be said to be on players for challenging themselves if the standard experience proved too simplistic. This mirrors my own thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII‘s auto-battle system: sure, I wish the fighting had been more complex and demanding, but I could have chosen to mix up my fighting and made battles more interesting of my own accord; my decision to do otherwise can’t really be laid at Square’s feet.

So perhaps you can understand and appreciate why the game’s core tomb set was easier than it might have been. But that level of forgiveness is trumped by the absence of DLC — an admittedly more “hardcore” product insomuch as casual players aren’t likely to seek it out — and the knowledge that people who wanted to buy more Tomb Raider content in the spirit of the original Tomb Raider were deemed less worth developing content for than the ostensible multiplayer crowd definitely stings.

This, then, is the second major issue I have with Tomb Raider, and that’s its focus on multiplayer. Now like I said, I look forward to playing multiplayer. I have heard decent things about it, and it sounds like it’s got an interesting twist on the typical formula. But the fact remains that no one is going to buy Tomb Raider on the basis of it having a multiplayer mode, robust or otherwise. And while the people who do play will obviously need a fresh supply of content to keep them hooked instead of wandering off to play other games, it seems a bit more balanced approach would have been appropriate.

I’m not going to repeat the (now trite) complaint that single-player games are having multiplayer shoehorned into them and that development costs are being taken away from making a better single-player product because of it. There’s some merit there for sure but I don’t think the issue with Tomb Raider was that not enough time was spent polishing it. If difficulty is my prime concern and it can be explained for non-resource-related reasons, then obviously something more is at play.

In this case, it may simply be the failure to recognize that reigning multiplayer champions like Halo and Call of Duty are simply not going to be usurped. Variety is great but the popularity of such stalwart mainstays suggests that the reason people keep buying and playing them is more to do with how they don’t change than with how they do; familiarity, rather than freshness, seems to be driving those mind-blowing sales.

So to come along and expect, as Square clearly did, that a game-changing multiplayer might make Tomb Raider more of a hit — and to back that assumption by developing multiplayer-exclusive content — seems a rather foolhardy decision. And it’s a shame, because you know they realize that too. A cursory glance at the backlash reveals a rather clear message: We don’t want more multiplayer. We didn’t even really want it in the first place. And the money we would have given you gladly for other content, you’ll never see, because you’re not making that content.

Tomb Raider is a great game, and hopefully the beginning of an extraordinary new life for the Lara Croft franchise. It would be tragic for the “poor” sales to preclude further games with this level of excellence being made, and on that basis alone I reiterate my encouragement to go buy yourself a copy. But I sincerely hope that, now that the origin story has been told and a “survivor has been born,” Crystal and Square learn from their mistakes here and deliver a follow-up which will live up to the bar they’ve set while thrilling the disgruntled fanbase that just wants to be forced to think a little harder. Just cater to the masochists and introverts.

We are gamers, after all.

Chronos & Kairos

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. Saint Augustine, Confessions, XI.14

This time travel crap just…fries your brain like an egg. Looper

Chronos

The trouble with time travel is, it doesn’t work. It never has. It never will. And so long as you accept that, there’s great fun to be had with the concept.

Or perhaps I should say that messing with the timeline doesn’t work. Because a timeline implies a single, fixed path. And whenever some story comes along in which someone has to fix history, the same problem impedes it: if the fix is successful, there will never have been a problem to go back and fix, and thus the fix would never have happened.

A man goes back in time to prevent another man from rising to power. If he succeeds, then he never had a reason to come back — in fact, success of his mission should preclude his existence in the past entirely. But that, of course, precludes the prevention of the rise to power, and necessitates his presence in the past. And so on, ad infinitum.

The best a time travel story can hope for is to provide a look at an eternal present, the place in between actual time where the things causing time to run as it does are happening, perdurably. Anything else is destined to fail, for we have the paradox of two concurrent, impossible, yet inevitable realities: the one in which the problem is eternal, and the one in which the fix is eternal. And so like a hair the timeline splits, and this for every possible variation in what we call history.

It’s fun, if not taken to unhealthy extreme, to consider how our lives would be different had we done certain things differently. But for even basic changes, the potential consequences are staggering. Pluck the wings from a butterfly and chaos ensues.

I recently saw Looper, and (as with Rian Johnson’s previous films) I quite enjoyed it. Looper provides a great deal of entertainment, a refreshingly cool scenario, and stellar acting performances all around. Moreover, Looper happily avoids most of the pitfalls of the time travel genre. Like the concept of loops on which it’s based, the movie nicely wraps things up in a mostly satisfying way. It fails to close the ultimate paradoxical loop, but then I suppose it couldn’t have been expected to.

Movies are pretty brief in the grand scheme of the entertainment spectrum. Even were Looper more ambitious in scope, to the point of pursuing the alternate reality side of the time travel equation, it would likely have lacked the time or the resources to do that pursuit justice. To truly achieve a satisfying grapple with time travel, I think other media are required. Something long-form, like a novel, a television mini-series. Perhaps a game.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time playing Final Fantasy XIII-2 (henceforth 13-2) over the past month. As a sequel, it shines, correcting (if occasionally overcompensating) for every complaint the first game generated. The battle system is more compelling (put another way, it’s a lot easier to die when just relying on auto-battle), the dialogue less stilted, the music more memorable.

More germanely, the story is no longer linear. At all.

Final Fantasy XIII was an ultra-linear experience, one to which the subtitle “The Longest Hallway” would have been aptly applied. It is a perfect illustration of the way we tend to look at time: one line, stretching from start to finish (let’s leave eternity out of this for the moment), unwavering and unchangeable. Aside from the form-enforced exception whereby saved files can be overwritten and failures replaced with victories, there is no alternative to the one path.

One might even argue that the save/load feature enforces the concept of inevitability, for death in battle precludes continuation of the story, a story in which the characters did not die in that battle, and thus you must repeat that piece of history indefinitely until victory — the “true past” — has been achieved.

The sequel, which plays as an apology for its predecessor, obsesses over the consequences and implications of choice and change. Its inciting incident transpires at the end of the world: a protagonist hurled back through time to prevent this reality from happening. And so the red flag is raised: if I prevent the disaster, I’ll never have been sent back to prevent it.

But perhaps not. For it doesn’t take very long for you to realize that in 13-2 the resolution of temporal irregularity results in the generation of a new timeline; or, more accurately, a new branch of the time web.

Early on, you meet a group of people at whose behest you enter a paradox to destroy a time-straddling threat from the space-time out of which it is operating. You then “return” to the time period whence you came, but no one recognizes you; the threat you saved them from never existed. Elsewhere — or, really, elsewhen — the original versions of these people are still waiting for you to destroy that monster. And they always will be — until, perhaps, it destroys them — because for you to destroy it would, in that timeline, preclude your impetus for doing so.

The ramifications of this discovery for the protagonists are staggering. They have undergone a sort of apotheosis, alone (or, at least, quite rare) in their capacity to see and (for lack of a better word) remember every version of history they encounter, and alone in their capacity to change time without obviating themselves.

Or so it seems. I am not terribly far into the game, and already I get a sense that my actions could lead to terrible paradox. I may at some point act in such a way as to generate the aforementioned impossible loop, solving not the problem of others but my own, thereby liberating myself of temporal agency and creating an impossibility  both conceptual and, more importantly, playable.

Meanwhile, changes to the past and future are irrevocably tied to one another. There is a very real possibility that successfully eradicating the apocalyptic future from which Noel was sent will also eradicate Noel. And while that would be extremely problematic for a film (for how, absent Noel, would Serah have embarked on her journey?), it may work in the game, for he would still have existed in the other branches of the timeline wherein his presence was necessary.

The ultimate goal is simply to unlock a good future for Serah and Lightning, in which their past never went so wrong, away from which Lightning was never whisked. Even if memory of the journey taken to achieving such a timeline is lost to its participants, the journey itself is for the player that eternal present to which I earlier alluded. As such, while it’s too soon to guarantee, I think 13-2 is the most successful experiment in time travel as a plot device I’ve ever encountered.

Successful or not, experiences like 13-2 and Looper have had me thinking quite a bit about time lately, and particularly about an encounter, an epiphany of sorts, I had a couple weeks ago while praying rather more urgently than usual.

Kairos

I’d been pressing in for a while, disheartened by a feeling of disconnect, that I was engaged in mere parody of prayer, speaking aloud to an empty room because that was the role I should be playing, not because there was an eternal deity with which I was presently conversing. I wanted to understand God as He really was, not as some character or distant “thing.”

And then a moment of true revelation, the vastness of God, transcending space and time. I don’t know how else to put it. I saw, for a moment, the implications of true omnipresence, of a being unbound by time or space. I could only think of it in terms of the very time that reality defied. At that moment, God is.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

God’s presence. His state of being present. Not just in what we understand to be the present, but also in our past and our future. Wherever He is, He is present, and He is everywhere.

I have never felt as small as I did just then, or as empowered. For I realized that at that moment, the only moment, God was in that room, with me, speaking to me. He was also parting the Red Sea as Israel crossed. He was causing Jericho’s walls to fall. He was guiding the stone from David’s sling. He was freeing Paul from prison. He was watching Augustine steal a piece of fruit. He was witnessing my birth. He was witnessing my death. He was riding triumphantly on a white horse. He was reigning forever.

He was bleeding on a cross.
He is bleeding on a cross.

“Crucifixion,” 1954. Salvador Dali.

Everything that God was doing in that room He is doing right now, and always will be. That is what it is to say that God is unchanging. It is to say that all things are happening at once, which is to say nothing “happens,” for everything simply is. To happen implies a past and future which are merely experienced by us, limited and temporal beings. The concept of changing past or future is therefore preposterous, because while the repercussions are unknown to us they have been, will be, are known to God.

The Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the timeline, the past, present, and future as we tend to think of it. Chronos does not allow for interference. It is inevitable and sequential. Things which do not align with chronos are antithetical to time — anachronisms.

Looper, despite the good it may offer, is bound by chronos and its laws, and judged thereby. It seeks but ultimately fails to introduce kairos into the picture. Kairos is the moment of importance, the thing that matters, perhaps the thing that intrudes on or supersedes chronos. Kairos doesn’t so much change the timeline as define it.

A story in which a person goes into the past to change time but, by her actions, causes the very thing she sought to change — that moment would be kairos. Yet though it cannot be predicted or pinpointed with the exactness of chronoskairos still occurs within chronos‘ confines — and so there is no kairos that does not already have its fixed place along the path of chronos; we cannot expunge these moments from the record or add new ones to it. What changes is simply our awareness of the moments that truly mattered. We see kairos only after it happens, never during or prior, but for one unbound by time, the kairos is there all along, speaking for itself.

In that moment, the absurdity of speaking of God’s fore-anything had me dumbstruck. All the arguments against His “doing things knowing x would happen” felt silly. And of course that’s the point, the reason for his response to Job. His prerogative, yes, but more than that: Job’s questions were framed from a position of temporality and were therefore fundamentally flawed.

I recently discussed Job with an atheist (perhaps agnostic?) who condemned God on the basis of his treatment of Job, acerbically saying “because of course children are fungible” in his denouncement of the supposed consolation for Job’s faithfulness. And admittedly, the whole ordeal still troubles me, for reasons just such as this.

But after that night, it troubled me less. Because I realized that any explanation for the existence of such terrible things in our world as the death and sickness and misery and poverty of people would be beyond my comprehension, and the futility of my understanding might well preclude any attempts at explaining. It is frightening to encounter the reality of one’s limitations, but comforting as well. Boundaries are not inherently bad; they can guide us towards more worthwhile pursuits.

I’m not a universalist. Maybe someday I will be. But playing through 13-2 and watching Looper and having this breakthrough in prayer have all made me think more about alternates, about the very fabric of reality. In 13-2 there is a “true” timeline, the one in which all things end well, in which the bad is not merely corrected but made never to have happened at all.

There are some Christians whose greatest objection to such thinking is that without eternal consequences for sin, the whole exercise was meaningless. But I’d disagree, just as I’d disagree with those who, if 13-2 concludes with Noel never existing and the journey — in the true timeline — never having taken place, would argue that with such ends the means lacked all meaning.

No, so long as we are aware that things could have been different, and are able to appreciate why they aren’t; so long as we can know the extent of evil, and relish in its full and lasting extirpation, then I don’t think an end in which everyone “lives happily ever after” is pointless. I don’t think it’s antithetical to God’s nature either. Paul says that as sin entered all humanity through one man, so shall salvation. The only way that metaphor works is if the salvation is as irresistible and ubiquitous and indifferent to individual volition as was the sin nature it replaces.

But like I said, I’m not a universalist.

What I am is a person bound by chronos, seeking a serendipitous glance at kairos as it unfolds, appreciating the power of a story in which an outside force enters the flow of time and, dying, brings life.

A life in games. In music. Part Two.

I’ve played many games over the last eighteen years. Some were evanescent, forgotten even as I met them. Others, like childhood friends, are fondly remembered but vaguely; time has dissolved their features, erased the details. Ask about them and I’ll say “ah, yes,” and smile, but my brow will furrow if you press for much more than a name.

But another group remains: the indelible. The ones that have, for decades, stayed with me on my journey. The ones that changed that journey’s course. These are the games I seek to share with you, but sharing is impossible. Games are special because they’re interactive, and that means our fondness for them cannot be taught or shared. To love a game is to catch a fever and burn with it, perhaps for a season or perhaps forever, but always alone. Two discussing their love for one game may be at accord on many of its traits but never all of them; in a way, no two people ever play the same game.

Still, we try. You know the games I never played; here, then, are the ones I have. My words are mere formalities, meant to amuse but then, who knows, right? My hope is that by the time you reach the end of this you’ll understand me better, and where my words fail perhaps the music I’ve chosen will speak more clearly. So take a walk with me through my life. Remember these games if they’re part of you, and explore them if they’re not. These are the games that shaped my life; perhaps you’ll meet one here that changes yours.

This is a continuation of my musical journey, begun here.