In lieu of doing my typical editorial, this week fellow editor Clint Prentice and I have a letter-based discussion about ludonarrative dissonance in Tomb Raider. In functions as a complementary piece to his review, which you can find here.
I’d like to start this discussion off with a short summation of some of my time in Tomb Raider.
Early on in Crystal Dynamics’ newly released Tomb Raider, Lara Croft lights herself on fire, plummets twenty feet headfirst into the ground, and impales her side with a stick (all right after another, I might add). After a brief quick time event, Lara dusts herself off and walks away as if nothing had happened. A short time later, Lara must defend herself from an attacker, and is forced to kill him in the process. It’s an evidently traumatic event, and it’s also more or less completely undermined when Lara immediately starts killing enemies with complete ease only a brief time later.
Tomb Raider has a few good things going for it, but it’s hard to ignore the damning disconnect between gameplay and story (which can also be referred to as its ludonarrative dissonance). The narrative and mechanics of Tomb Raider may be good on their own, but the game as a whole seems to approach each as entirely separate entities. The narrative of Tomb Raider seems to be mainly concerned with a coming-of-age story, one where each new challenge she faces is met with trepidation and emotional trauma. The gameplay of Tomb Raider, on the other hand, is largely concerned with being a third-person shooter with some focus on exploration. There’s really nothing that connects the two thematically (with perhaps the exception of an upgrade system, but that seems to be linked more to AAA norms than anything else), and it makes both facets of the game altogether jarring.
The story and gameplay of Tomb Raider are clearly not complementary, but it doesn’t just end there; the two are inextricably linked together through the game itself, and just end up harming each other. The decision to make Tomb Raider an exploration of Lara Croft’s transformation from naive archaeologist to hardened, well, tomb raider is admirable, but I’d argue it’s nearly impossible to do so within the confines of a third person shooter. Lara comes off as far too skilled from the start at easily picking off swarms of armed assailants, especially considering how difficult it is for her to kill the first person she’s forced to. I’m also just not particularly sold whenever she’s injured, because she’s completely fine when I resume play. This lends itself to a lot of incidental weirdness. The frequency and magnitude of Lara Croft’s injuries are absurd, but since they rarely have any sort of impact on the gameplay, it feels a touch unsettling (giving practically the same effect as a snuff film when coupled with the brutal death sequences), and also just emotionally manipulative.
Because of this extreme case of ludonarrative dissonance, everything about the gameplay and story just feels off to me. I won’t say it’s exactly easy subverting this issue, but when done (as I believe something like Braid has), it can have the effect of pushing the game well beyond the sum of its parts. If Tomb Raider wanted to do the same, it should have modified its narrative (the base of the game could work well as a reboot to the Tomb Raider of old) or changed it’s gameplay. Instead, it just sinks under the weight of its own inconsistencies.
I totally get where you’re coming from and do agree with you, at least to a point. The narrative is disconnected in some major ways to what Lara actually does in the game. You can clearly see exactly what the story wants to be, but can’t because making that into a game isn’t compelling. We can all complain about moving slowly through caverns as the game masks load times, but if that’s what you want the gameplay to be because of how battered and bruised Lara gets, then you’re in for a terrible experience. It’s not fun to play a slow-moving, injured character. It’s the reason why racing games have gotten away from car degradation, or kept the damage to the exterior, but not affect the actual car handling.
Yes, the easiest thing to do is not make those types of games, or to come up with a good narrative/gameplay reason to remove those qualms, or just don’t beat up Lara so much. Of course, if the story doesn’t put her through a trial of sorts, then how is she going to grow as a character? Does she even need this amount of character development; is it warranted? Or even, is destroying her the only way to develop this character?
It all comes down to that first moment you kill another person in the game. The gun falls out of her hand and she just stares at his blood-spurting corpse on the ground. She’s shocked and terrified, but she has to keep moving. So she looks at the gun and hesitates to pick it up, but she does, knowing full well she’d probably have to do this again in order to survive. That moment totally and completely works in the context of the game. In later cutscenes you see her unraveling a piece at a time, until she actually points a gun at an innocent person. It was that point that it hit me how much she did gradually change within herself, and she wasn’t going to take any shit anymore.
It’s Darwinism. It’s kill or be killed. She doesn’t have a choice in the matter. She kills in order to survive, which is entirely believable from where I’m sitting, it’s just not conveyed within the game hardly at all. It all works well, the game accomplishes everything it sets out to do. But it doesn’t mesh. That’s the only problem: It doesn’t mesh.
I’m not excusing the narrative dissonance, because I think it is a problem with the game. But she still grows and develops, the game is just missing those moments in between killing the first man and pointing a gun at a good guy that fills the gap and makes the jump truly believable.
Narrative dissonance is just a problem with games right now. It’s more than just Tomb Raider; it’s Uncharted, Batman, Ni no Kuni, Dead Space, and probably at least another five games that I just can’t think of right off the top of my head. There’s a massive disconnect between gameplay and story in just about every story-driven action game today. But we don’t really think about it since the story just serves as a driving force to the next awesome gameplay moment. It’s glaringly obvious with Tomb Raider, and I think that’s because what they do with Lara’s character does work to some extent, but it isn’t part of the design philosophy within the rest of the game so the problem becomes much more apparent.
I’d like to address your response in three parts.
First, I’d contend that it is completely possible to make a compelling Tomb Raider game that maintains this game’s themes while also resolving any gameplay oddities. Granted, this is a bit hypothetical at this point, but consider this idea: Lara Croft and her crew crash on a mysterious island not dissimilar to the one in Tomb Raider. The game could explore themes of loss, personal growth, vulnerability, and survival (just like Tomb Raider), but incorporate different gameplay mechanics to facilitate these things. For one, the game could step away from the template of the third person shooter, and make any combat encounters rare and fairly difficult. The core of the gameplay could instead revolve around survival, with the player tasked with gathering food and supplies as they venture deeper into the island in search of a way out. It could also do a better job of representing its roots by making puzzles and exploration both more common and more challenging. Toning down the rate at which Lara is harmed couldn’t hurt either.
So I don’t think it would be impossible for a Tomb Raider to exist that largely subverts, and instead is empowered by, ludonarrative complications. The question of WHY this game doesn’t exist is equally answerable: it would stray too far from the bounds of what is generally considered profitable. That is, of course, another issue entirely, but it’s important to briefly address it here because it largely addresses why Tomb Raider is ultimately done in by its narrative.
Second, I’d like to delve further into what I think is one of Tomb Raider‘s greatest failings; Lara Croft is never seen as being in a place of vulnerability as far as the core shooter gameplay is concerned. I’m not suggesting there aren’t scenarios where Lara is put into a comprising situation, as there are indeed several. What I am saying though, is that Lara starts the game off as Wonder Woman and only becomes more indestructible as the game progresses. There’s no point where the combat has any degree of challenge, something that could have been at least partially remedied by adding symptoms of Lara’s uncertainty, like a wavy reticule or high recoil. This could have gradually changed over the game through level-ups or story sequences.
Third, the permanence of ludonarrative dissonance in gaming right now is, to me, somewhat irrelevant. It certainly is a problem that could be attributed to dozens of popular games. I just think the way to fix it starts with drawing attention to the problem itself; otherwise, nothing’s going to get done about it.
I think we’re coming at this from two sides of the same coin, because once again, I completely agree with what you’re saying. But, like you mentioned it just isn’t feasible because of high-and-mighty Men in Suits swimming in their Scrooge McDuck vaults really want to add a diving board, but don’t want to take any risks to further develop game creation.
What you described kind of reminds me of recent games like Don’t Starve and Miasmata both of which explore this idea of survival in an interesting way. With Don’t Starve you’re doing everything possible to survive by scavenging the environment for supplies. You don’t encounter any enemies (that I recall), and you’re focused on the act of surviving. Miasmata takes a different approach where it’s all about moving around a world. You only have a map and the landmarks around you and you use these landmarks to pinpoint your location on the map to keep moving through this island to your destination (whatever that may be). Also there were rumors about a monster chasing you which sounded really cool, but that’s not really relevant.
I think in this climate of games costing millions of dollars and not selling near as many copies as in years past, it’s just not worth the risk to develop that kind of game. Which, hopefully, with the rise of independent development and experimentation therein, games can reach the pinnacle of telling an engrossing story in a believable world. But at the same time, do we necessarily need all games to be believable? Most certainly not, and Tomb Raider is probably the worst example of trying to bring in believability with character, when the entire story revolves around an angry dead lady making it rain a bunch. A game just needs to follow its own logic, and if that logic begins with believability, that third act Raiders of the Lost Ark twist isn’t viable anymore.
Your third point is pretty spot on; nothing will ever be fixed if we don’t say it’s kind of stupid. So, maybe we should start a petition to re-reboot Tomb Raider to be the narrative experience they were striving to achieve. I mean, they do achieve something like 50% of what they set out to do, and like I said in my review, it’s a fun but campy kind of story with a really interesting character in it. I’d argue that she’s a really great character, but I’d also argue that that bar is set pretty low in terms of video game characters right now. I think Ryan said something about being able to count the number of good female characters on one hand, which is crazy when you really think about it.
It’s high time video game storytelling kicked it up a notch, and if that means redefining gameplay systems to suit the story, I’m totally on board. But I still love me some third-person shooters, so don’t go changing too much, right?
I think I can agree with you there as much as can be expected. While games like Tomb Raider might be a lost cause as far as offering radically different experiences goes, we’ve still got the indie games. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to chat!