That’s gotta hurt!
So last week I did indeed review Tomb Raider.
I enjoyed it, to a point, but there was a fly in the ointment and it wasn’t the visual bugs. Nor was it the actual length, nor the shallow and inhuman “Survival Instinct” that defeated any real point to the humanisation of Lara Croft as an individual. No, what disturbed me most was the flagrant… well, people are calling it ‘Torture Porn’, but that’s not really true. Because that’s the sort of accusation I would level at Mortal Kombat (PS3 Owners in PAL regions can now get that game free on PS+, just a heads up!). Mortal Kombat is bloody, senseless violence for the sake of it. It’s always been the Mortal Kombat way, and the most brutal for me is Noob Saibot and his frankly alarmingly gory tug-of-war fatality. Mortal Kombat intends for you to not only enjoy the violence, but actively dish it out with repeated gusto. You have the control. You have the power.
Tomb Raider is brutal and bloody – but in its punishment of you, the player, for its own shortcomings. At times the game handles like an absolute pig, with twitchy and specific quick-time event sequences that are so specific that it’s impossible to get them first-time. Your “reward” for failing is to watch helplessly as Lara Croft is brutalised, battered and murdered by forces beyond your control. There are a few moments where you need to direct Lara down a set of rapids, or navigate a forest whilst descending on a parachute. The collision detection and navigation is so wonky and poorly-planned that your reward for hitting that invisible marker is to see Lara impaled through various parts of her body on big, sharp, pointy objects in the game world. Your “reward” for the lack of control is you get to repeat it. Over and over again. Until you’ve sussed out which path and which parts need to be avoided.
I have nothing against Quick-Time Events. But a game doing them badly these days should not be acceptable; when we had them in Resident Evil 4, there were some really crummy sequences like the Krauser Knife-Fight sequence, which was easily for me the single worst bit of the whole game. Up to that point the quick-time events had seemed minor, simpler, relaxed. When you reach the Krauser scene, there is no room for error. The game hasn’t really prepared you for the timing, and makes damned sure that when you get there it will offer up the worst buttons to press at the same time. It was, at the time, a major bugbear that thankfully eased off as the Wii Edition of the title eased up on the quick-time event demands. Some accused it of “dumbing down”. But really, where is the fun in a deliberately crappy quick-time sequence? Where is the enjoyment in focusing more on the buttons than what is going on in the scene? “Dumbing down” in this case isn’t the correct term; fixing what is already hideously broken is perhaps more accurate.
I don’t find broken controls and stupidly wonky collision detection “fun”. I do not derive pleasure from being the submissive, being the one who is receiving the punishment. I am, to all intents and purposes, a control freak. I am making a game (more on that in the future) and my need for total control over every aspect of what I am doing is definitely noticeable. If a game is punishing me for my own mistakes, such as Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, I get frustrated but I get over it quickly too. Those mistakes are me not yet being in control, and those are games which reward the control freak, who deliver enjoyment to those who master their surroundings. Tomb Raider. God of War 2, with it’s quick-time events that win or lose still end up with the same result (thereby rendering the Quick-Time Event utterly pointless in every way). Battlefield 3. FEAR 2. There are plenty of examples of the hideous “Press X To Not Die” trope.
But there are good examples of quick-time events.
Assassin’s Creed 2 had them, where in certain scenes, you were prompted to press a button. There was no overall “punishment”, but they enriched the game somewhat, for example shaking hands or removing a buxom woman’s bosomy dress. Little things. Big difference. You kept an eye out for them because they made things more interesting, more impressive – I don’t think in some cases it’s wrong to prompt us to give someone a high-five. I’ve had many times where I’ve simply not bothered, usually when someone unironically uses the term “Bro”. I can’t let you do that, Dave…
When it comes to lousy collision detection issues though, that’s just polish. Or, often, a lack of it. Sonic the Hedgehog has always, always been the best example in the world of wonky collision detection and he’s never really managed to get over it. To the point I’d almost say that SEGA could be deliberately making damned sure there are wonky collision detection moments there still. Deaths through stupid camera angles? But for all of these, Sonic Adventure was still a nice game. Not perfect, but nice. It’s a shame that SEGA never fixed the modern ports up, but again – this is the Sonic thing. Love it or hate it, the series isn’t going to get rid of it.
Navigating Lara down rapids and controlling her descent whilst having little time to react to obstacles blindly placed in your way isn’t enjoyable. Some of us play racing games to memorise and plot out the track, but this isn’t a track and there is no-one to beat. If anything, the constant brutality levied against Lara Croft often feels like rudimentary padding, artificially lengthening the game to the point where two or three of the ten or so hours it takes is spent frustratingly wrestling with the controls, the QTE’s and the wonky collision. And a 20-30% failure rate is simply not acceptable for me in a modern game of this kind, especially one which has taken Crystal Dynamics five long years to make. To be let down by such simple, careless mistakes must be gutting for them. I feel for the team behind it, not least because the credits showed they had fun making it and were hoping we’d all fall in love with it. It must hurt them deeply that many of us are being critical of what would quite likely have been minor issues to fix.
But I can’t be nice about it. That’s the problem. We’ve been given lots of ways in games to enjoy the pain and suffering of virtual characters – be it humiliating the undead in Dead Rising, the gory and comically ridiculous fatalities in Mortal Kombat or the satisfying crunch of a backstab in Dark Souls – but we’re in control of much of this. We’re put in the position of power. In Tomb Raider, the player is in the position of Lara, the submissive position, and the repeated and constant killing of Lara in the game world just doesn’t come across as enjoyable. When you are in the submissive position, you aren’t getting the same thrill. You aren’t delivering the pain, you aren’t a casual bystander. You’re in that position and you’re having to take what is being dished out. Many people have expressed reasons why the Quick-Time Instadeath Events of Inhuman Reflexes in Tomb Raider are bad. But I find myself simply thinking that as gamers, we’ve been placed very often in a position of power, as a mystical force of unprecedented malice that can get away with some truly grotesque things in a virtual universe. When a game thinks it’s being clever by punishing the player by humiliating them and robbing them of any power at all, it’s really only playing the flipside of the coin. And it’s the side of the coin people don’t enjoy, and don’t want to be reminded of. We don’t want to be humiliated. We just want to be entertained.
And when the best parts of Tomb Raider involve no quick-time events at all, when the exploration, navigation and treasure hunting is such a star, being made to wade through such a stream of filth and bile in order to get to the good stuff just doesn’t quite work either. I’ve tried to tell myself that “Press X To Not Die” events can be made better. But really, I find myself continually doubting that they will. They seem to be a hindrance rather than anything meaningful. A cold slap in the face. I find myself more and more wondering if the “Press X To Not Die” thing should in itself be forced to “Press X To Not Die”. I don’t find myself thinking them to be a fair gauge of skill. I find they in a modern world simply force us to retread certain events and areas repeatedly until we get it right. And that just stops the flow of the game.
I don’t want to not die in games. But I want to feel that I’ve justified that telling off. I want to feel like it was my fault. That I messed up.
If I don’t press X and I am told to redo a fifteen minute stretch of game, the only button I will press after that is the “Off” switch…