Tomb Raider Shows Where Video Games Are Still Lacking In Narrative
I love the new Tomb Raider. I’ve been playing it recently and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it in all the right ways. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s the first truly great game of 2013 for me. The rest have been average (or in Aliens’s case far, far worse) to decent at best, with nothing really engaging me or amazing me in any remarkable way. That is, until Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot. However, as much as I’m enjoying it right now, early on I saw quite a big failing in the narrative, and it got me thinking about how video games in general battle with getting this particular aspect to be believable and well translated in the game. Before I babble too much, let me get into today’s topic.
As a writer myself, I value story and narrative exceptionally highly, and I know that these elements are the main reasons many play certain games. Video game narratives have truly progressed to amazing levels, but now isn’t the time to hold it back. We need to keep encouraging a higher standard and constructively criticizing so that writers can improve. And this in particular is an area where video games are still lacking. Perhaps the most evolved and powerful narrative in recent gaming has to come from The Walking Dead, and I believe video game writers need to take a careful look at it to get ideas on how to construct a story that is believable, progressive and character-focused. I would reference the spectacular narrative of Spec Ops: The Line, but it doesn’t fit in this context.
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I’m sure you know which scene in Tomb Raider I’m referring to. Early on Lara is forced to kill a human for the first time, and it’s a pretty emotional scene that the narrative emphasizes. However, directly after the rather engaging cutscene, Lara is suddenly killing twenty guys in the gameplay like it’s nothing. Sure, later on the narrative does sort of address this when her companion mentions how hard it must have been to take lives, to which she replies “I’m surprised at how easy it was”, but this doesn’t change the fact that all that killing in the gameplay broke immersion, was hard to believe and honestly it was really jarring to experience directly after the emotional and compelling moment of making that first kill.
There’s a simple explanation as to why the developers have done this. It comes down to one fundamental problem in video game narrative. Developers often see gameplay and story as two separate entities, and as such don’t try to connect them cohesively. It’s sort of like, what happens in gameplay stays in gameplay, and the same applies to the story. Now, the upside of this is that it allows the developers to be uncompromising with the entertainment value and level of action and scale of set pieces in the campaign. However, the downside is that it breaks narrative immersion, engagement and belief, which I believe is a far more severe cost. And this is where video games are lacking when it comes to narrative. That is, connecting the gameplay to the story in a way that feels natural.
I’ve heard arguments from friends that you’ve got to keep the campaign entertaining, and going lengthy periods of time without action would damage the experience or lead to boredom. Valid and partly true, but my response is that many of the most iconic and compelling moments in gaming for me have had zero action in them. There were the nightmare sequences from the Max Payne series. The freaky and disturbing codec conversations from my favourite game series Metal Gear Solid, with specific reference to Sons of Liberty here. There was the grand reveal in BioShock. More recently, there was the final, beautiful section of the incredible Journey. And in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, there was the amazing sequence in the desert after the epic plane crash set piece which was devoid of action and showed a struggling Drake wading through the vast desert slowly losing hope.
In Uncharted’s case, for many, it was jarring and severely damaging to the narrative that directly after witnessing an almost dead Nathan Drake, and after all you went through in the desert, you still easily fought an army of soldiers in a normal shootout. It utterly destroyed belief, immersion and connection to the narrative. I believe that it would have been far more epic if you were fighting a losing battle in that scene, and Drake was slowly weakening as the screen started fading to black, showing that he was passing out. And only as the soldiers closed in, did rescue finally come. That for me would have been the cherry on top of an absolutely remarkable section in the game. Instead it became meaningless, and you found yourself questioning how someone who had been trapped in the desert without shelter, food or water for days could suddenly take on dozens of trained soldiers with machine guns and even RPGs. I love Uncharted, it’s one of my favourite games and it really is an incredible achievement for the action adventure genre, but that was a dark spot on an otherwise wonderful narrative.
The truth is that any action game doesn’t have to involve frequent mass shootouts to be entertaining. I actually felt a little insulted in Tomb Raider when that happened, because it made me feel that the developers thought I wouldn’t be having fun if I wasn’t killing hundreds, or that build-up time was over and now it was time to just shoot-all-the-things. A narrative has to be progressive to be believable. I can sort of point to Far Cry 3, a game I completely adore. While it wasn’t perfect with its setup to making the orindary protagonist a killer, at least there was a small sense of progression to it. Your first kill was an accident during a frantic chase scene where your character was running from gunfire and an enemy jumps him from above. After that, you’re trained to use weapons and made to hunt animals so that killing is something you become more comfortable with. Then, your first actual human kills have you wiping out a small camp of few people with a group of your friends joining you to see it through. While it stretched the imagination a little, it was progressive and connected the gameplay to the narrative.
Going back to Tomb Raider, I’m not suggesting that the game should have been devoid of action or killing for the next few hours. Not at all, but there are many ways in which you can let the narrative and gameplay flow naturally together to create believable character development for the protagonist. For instance, Lara could be forced to kill someone who is trying to murder her friend. This already would create a believable second kill moment, and it would be the perfect time to introduce the theme that killing is not actually difficult, and that it becomes easier the more you do it. Instead, the game has you kill twenty soldiers directly after the emotional moment of having to kill one, and only after all of that does the theme of killing being easy get introduced, which is in no way progressive or natural. It’s like a forced explanation. For a game that spent a lot of time introducing Lara to pain, building her up to fend for herself, making her desperate and toughening her up mentally, it was puzzling as to why this important element of narrative was done so badly, especially in a game of such high quality.
Essentially, once you have appropriately built something up in the narrative and established it with your audience, then you can run rampant within those boundaries. For example, only once Lara has effectively progressed into an efficient killer should the game throw that many enemies at you. And by boundaries I mean that it wouldn’t make narrative sense to kill five enemies and then suddenly take on a tank and tear it to shreds moments after killing your first man. That doesn’t mean that the game needs to take hours and hours to craft a murderous Croft, but if the game is willing to devote ten minute cutscenes to side characters you don’t really care about or like, surely it can add the minutes to progress Lara’s character. It’s far better to have a build-up before a peak. Three of the best television shows around, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, are all about slow build-ups and brilliant, meticulously crafted narratives. There is nothing wrong with a slow build-up if it makes the narrative believable and progressive. I am not talking Assassin’s Creed III’s painful six hour tutorial version of slow, God no, but I am talking about the construction of a well-rounded and flowing narrative. Pacing is one of the most important aspects. It is gradual; you have to go from A to B. You don’t need a build-up for everything, but when it comes to character progression you most certainly do.
The moment you sit back, raise your eyebrows and think to yourself something along the lines of, “what’s going on here?” or “that’s a bit of a stretch”, then the writer has lost you, and you’ve disconnected from the narrative. Questioning the narrative in that way is something the writers of it should be doing, and not the viewers you’re trying to engage. It of course doesn’t ruin everything, but it does defeat the build-up and in the moment break the engagement, connection and immersion you have with the story and protagonist. And the gameplay to story connection needs to work in other contexts as well. For instance, it makes no kind of sense if you easily take down armies of soldiers in the gameplay, only for your character to get outmatched by two grunts in the next cutscene. Effectively, the thought to process here is that what’s believable for the gameplay should also be believable for the narrative. They should follow the same rules and connect cohesively, not contradict each other. You can absolutely have all the explosive set pieces and mass shootouts that you want, as long as the narrative or game itself has set this as something you can believe when you’re actually playing it.
To elaborate on that, examples need to be used. The Uncharted series is packed with mass shootouts and over-the-top action set pieces, but there are many ways the game gets you comfortable with this and not questioning it. For instance, the game itself early on establishes itself as action-packed and explosive. Nathan Drake himself is made out to be a character who is almost immune to the fear of danger, and actually gets a kick out of it. And you also always have the sense that Drake is already more than equipped to deal with the dangers he’s facing. Going back to Tomb Raider, the character plot is all about a girl who has to toughen up and learn to fend for herself and ultimately become a survivor and warrior, so it’s obvious that this danger and violence is new to her and that she isn’t ready for it. It’s quite a stark contrast between the two games, and it emphasizes why Tomb Raider needed to take greater care with how it handled these themes when constructing a narrative you could accept. Again, it’s of course not something that ruins the game or makes Tomb Raider hate-worthy, but it is something that needs to be addressed in video game narrative and improved on in the future.
Bringing this lengthy write-up to a close, this is a time where video game narratives can be on par with movies and even books. In certain ways video games can transcend both mediums by virtue of the fact that they’re interactive and allow for powerful immersion. Often in narrative, the little things matter. The build-ups are often equally powerful, or in some cases more so, than the resolution or destination. The simple reason is because they make the destination matter and mean something. What this means it that video games should improve in this area, and focus on connecting the narrative to the gameplay, allowing for a greater engagement with it. Treating them as separate entities can have far more negative consequences, and in my opinion it isn’t worth it for that extra bit of action fun in the campaign. But a game where the story and gameplay are carefully interconnected makes for a far more engaging game that has the player gripped and immersed throughout. And it’s here, in this context of character progression and story to gameplay connection, that video games are still lacking in narrative.