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Opinion: Narrative turns creepy in  Tomb Raider
Opinion: Narrative turns creepy in Tomb Raider
June 19, 2012 | By Tadhg Kelly

June 19, 2012 | By Tadhg Kelly
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    114 comments
More: Console/PC, Design



[In this opinion piece originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer and Gamasutra contributor Tadhg Kelly analyzes the controversy surrounding Tomb Raider, and how games inherently disconnect the player from the character.]

I'm never on the side of censorship, but that does not mean that I have no sense of taste. It's the difference between saying that some forms of self-expression should not be, versus saying that I personally find something crass, tacky or offensive. So in that vein the issue of violent content at this year's E3 is one of personal taste for me: it puts me off wanting to buy some of those games.

However there's one game whose whole pitch is actually disturbing me. I'm not talking about the typically desensitizing headshot shenanigans of yet another shooter, nor the roustabout splashing bloodiness of a God of War. I'm not even thinking of the somewhat more personal-yet-understandable tone of the forthcoming Last of Us, which while heavy still feels appropriate.

No, I'm talking about the new Tomb Raider.

Much is made of the transition to a new Tomb Raider as a more real-person game than the old Lara Croft. To hear every journalist tell it, Lara was apparently a sex symbol video game character with many complex facades of empowerment and so forth.

As someone who actually sold games in stores back when Tomb Raider launched, I cannot remember anyone actually thinking of the character in that way, and that the game was more beloved because of its puzzle-driven Indiana-Jones-esque gameplay, but the media sphere seems to believe they did.

So the setup for the new game is that of a prequel. You play a young, more realistically proportioned, Lara trapped on an island fighting for your survival. You're caught in a very tough predicament, with a variety of bad guys chasing you and many other hazards to overcome. So far it sounds like a straightforward action adventure game.

My problem with it started at E3 2011, where the original presentation for the game showed a young girl beaten, bloody and terrified, yelping, screaming and otherwise really very afraid. All while being relayed thoroughly dispassionately by the hosts. I thought to myself that perhaps this was within context, that conferences tends to be bloodless, and the game could be much like some movies or survival horror games Though it made me feel uncomfortable, maybe that was a part of the art of games. Maybe it was a challenge to me, the player, to think differently.

Fast forward to this year and it's more of the same (limping, bleeding, crying etc) and the threat or inference of rape. What really pushed it over the edge for me was some interviews that I read with the game's makers talking about how this was all intentional, that the idea is to bring some reality into games, to really make the player want to protect this young girl, and so on.

[Editor's Note: Developer Crystal Dynamics has since published a statement claiming that its comments in interviews were misunderstood, and that the game will not have an attempted rape scene or any sexual assault themes.]

Depending on who you are this sounds either highly avant garde or the subject of appallingly crass male fantasies. It also sounds highly equivalent. In a few debates on the subject this week, for example, I have encountered many opinions that state that the level of violence is no different than many movies. This is true. Similarly that if the character was actually male I would have no issue. This is false. Male injured characters in games are rarely portrayed as actually terrified or threatened with sexual violence.

Tone and gender are not where my disquiet comes from. It comes from the objectification of pain, which is an area that games sometimes stumble into without realizing it. It's that all games tend to reduce down to their components, and in a sense are dehumanized. It's not about the fact that you're placing the player in a situation of protection, power and control, but rather that the hoped-for emotional connection that the game's maker believes will happen tends not to.

This is so for two reasons. First, the play brain. Its whole job is to synthesize any scenario into a set of components that form the levers of problems it can solve. It tends to reduce, to smooth, to quantify and objectify because that's how it figures out how to win. I often say that perhaps the main reason that games are attractive is that they are simpler, fairer, fascinating and more empowering that real life, and that's largely about the appeal to the play brain. While the game may inspire with its setting and theme, the mechanism matters.

Second, players do experience empathy for game characters, but not really for their own doll. The doll is not a hero and they are not roleplaying. They are simply projecting themselves into the world and interfacing with it through what amounts to a remote controlled action figure. It's a lensed extension of self.

This is why so many of the great icons of the game industry are paper thin as characters. Nobody knows nor cares about the motivations of Mario or the back story of the Master Chief because each is just a suit of clothes that the player gets to wear which can perform empowering actions. However narrativists often don't believe that and insist on trying to add character, motivation and empathy to the one part of the game that doesn't need it. So we get cut scenes and dramatizations and exposition. And, occasionally, shock that becomes schlock (also pathos that quickly descends into bathos).

All of that characterization just gets in the way, and it can also lead to some pretty weird places. For example, in Mass Effect one of the big moments of significance (to hear the press and the developers tell it) was this idea that your character had sex. It was hailed as a big moment in games, a sign of artistic maturity and a coming of age. Yet in reality this scene proved to be so emotionally null as to have the unintended air of comedy. Here was my action figure taking a quiet moment with fadeouts and so on for some reason that had no readily useful (play brainish) purpose. Um, okay. What's next?

Another example is the scene in Heavy Rain where you as Madison Parker are chased around your apartment by black clad thugs in your underwear. It's supposed to convey vulnerability, but in reality (largely because the quality of interaction is so incredibly weak) it becomes a weirdly dislocating scenario. It is as though you expect David Cage's head to pop up with prompt cards to tell you when to be afraid, or sad, or laugh.

The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character.

The difference between a new Tomb Raider and a Scream is not the level of screaming and slashing, it's that in the film you are empathizing with a heroine, but in a game this action sort of happens to you but not you at the same time. So the feeling is either decidedly 'Meh, get on with it', or 'I don't really find the sensation of pushing this doll into torture scenarios joyful'. Where is the sense of winning in such a scenario, as opposed to just watching it all play out for reasons passing understanding? It gets a little grim, no?

And it makes me wonder about the game designers who come up with this sort of idea because of the stark dissonance between what they think they are making versus what they are actually making. How do you end up at a place where you think that the threat of sexual assault is a perfectly valid way to jazz up an action adventure?

How do you square the knowledge that players will treat the game mechanically with this idea of artistic significance? What does it say about you as a person that you end up treating real human pain as just another tool in the box? By putting that kind of control in my hand, how have you not just created a very expensive new kind of exploitation game, like Postal?

That's why I find this game (what I've seen of it so far) creepy. And that's why I personally won't be buying it.


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Comments


Damian Hernaez
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I'm going to do the same as the writer of this post. I'll do a critique without actually reading what he wrote since he hasn't played the game yet.

I'll keep it short though:

You don't judge a book by it's cover or a movie by it's trailer. Don't do the same with a E3 Demo.

Tadhg Kelly
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Actually, you do. Everyone does.

Eric McVinney
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Tadhg, that doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it or that it makes for a legit argument.

Tadhg Kelly
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And yet people do. If we did just judge on merit there would be no need for the E3s of this world.

Eric McVinney
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... Give me a few minutes to get that processed in my head... Nope sorry, brain won't take crap :|

"And yet people do. If we did just judge on merit there would be no need for the E3s of this world."

Again, that doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it. Just makes you look like an ignorant critic, that's all.

Eric McVinney
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Sorry for the double posting...

On topic: So what if this were to be shown at PAX? Would we then have no need for that when we could just "judge" on merit alone?

Tadhg Kelly
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What makes you think PAX is any less of a marketing event?

Eric McVinney
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That's the point. Even if there were some controversy over a few titles being shown, it's either intentional or accidental, and in this case it appears to be accidental. And when I say accidental, I mean that they (the devs) knew that they had to take a risk in order to keep the IP/franchise fresh, BUT didn't realize that the leap they took was too big in doing so.

Michael Rooney
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I think the beginning of Tropic Thunder did a good job of explaining why not to judge a movie by it's trailer. I think it extrapolates well here.

For a concrete example, the trailer for the academy award winning "Crash", and one of my favorite movies, was pretty terrible. I actually didn't see the movie till after it won the Oscar because the trailer was so bad. That doesn't make it a bad movie.

Coincidentally it also features sexual harassment.

Tadhg Kelly
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I get what you're saying about the difference between the two, but again what people should do and what they actually do are two different things.

Joe Cooper
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The cover, the E3 demo, trailers - these things are where creators put forth what they want you to know about the game and think resonates with you. They are perfectly judgable.

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Joe Cooper
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The work being judged -is- the trailer.

Tadhg Kelly
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Exactly Joe.

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Tadhg Kelly
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In a few other posts I've often made the point that when actively being controlled by the player the avatar really does just become a doll of action, whereas sometimes in cut scenes or the like (depending on execution) this changes.

So for instance there is the Niko Bellic that you control who runs comically and wisecracks. Then there is the Niko Bellic of cut scenes who broods and is wise beyond his years. It's like they are two different gears, two entities, and so while there is connection and empathy with the uncontrolled version, with the controlled version it really is just more like an RC car.

As a result, inevitably this kind of connection really just a series of snapshots of film (or book, comic, however it's presented) but not the game itself. Even when a small amount of agency gets involved (such as branched dialogue, or the Madison Parker scene in Heavy Rain mentioned above) this connection falls away in the face of 'solving' the scene.

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Tadhg Kelly
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I aim to change their minds :)

Bryan Ferris
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I would agree with you to a certain extent, Tadhg. In most games, we project ourselves on to the character and, while we're playing as them, we forget that they even are characters in order to find the best way to solve the current challenge.

However, this need not always be the case. I'd argue that part of that is due to the way we make games, giving a problem and having one (or sometimes two or three) 'right' answers in order to solve it (which I think is connected to the similar problem of 'one right answer' in education, but I digress). I find it convenient that you brought up heavy rain in your article, and again in this comment thread, for that is the perfect example of how to do things differently.

First off, I agree with you that the scene you mentioned was done clumsily. However, the game itself did a number of things that other games don't; these things aren't better or worse in a vacuum, but they are situationally better or worse.

The aspect that I would like to focus on is the fact that there are no 'wrong' decisions in Heavy Rain. Your actions may lead to different outcomes, but there is no "Game Over" screen. This freed me, during gameplay, to find my own direction. [SPOILER ALERT] When I was trying to crawl through the power plant as Ethan, I was bound and determined to get through in order to save my son. When I found out that Shelby is the killer, I felt betrayed because, while playing as him, I had done my best to help him reach his goals. Without the game telling me that there was a 'correct' way to go about things, that certain actions *had* to be taken in order to make progress, I was free to allow help or hinder characters depending on where my sympathies lied, even while I was projecting myself onto them.


TL;DR I generally agree with you that games, as they are right now, don't allow much sympathy for the characters you play. I believe that, in some, perhaps even the majority, of cases this is a good thing. But I would argue that it is not a fundamental limit of games as a medium, simply a symptom of the way we perceive and create games.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Bryan,

So I agree that games which are only built around 'one right answer' designs tend to be limited, and indeed many of the best games feature multiple paths to success. Whether that is laid down in split paths (a la Deus Ex) or as a result of the emergent effects of play, I would argue that it is essential for really engaging players. After all who really wants just a series of QTEs dressed up as 'gameplay'?

However I don't agree that Heavy Rain is a sterling example of this. The difference is that in all of the above examples there is the possibility of failure, and this is important. Risk, something gained versus something lost, is vital. Risk makes the success feel real, significant and emotionally invest-able. Whereas the game which only wins? There's just nothing interesting there, all it is is making choices and playing out permutations.

The funny thing is that I think there is an emerging other class of interactive work (which I've written about in various places such as Edge and my own site), which are a bit like promenade theatre. The player walks through them, even activates buttons and such from time to time, but they are largely a vehicle for authorial expression. These 'virtual promenades' categorise everything from Dear Esther back to Facade, and they might not be games but they are fascinating to me.

In a sense, Heavy Rain feels like it wants to be one of those kinds of work, but keeps trying to re-add the game and a plot, so even the killer reveal has the sense of a big 'whatever'. Where you see interesting permutations I saw several situations where the interaction felt utterly token, and in some cases if I chose to simply do nothing the game sort of solves itself anyway.

Thanks for the reply.

Bryan Ferris
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I think you misunderstood me. I wasn't criticizing the games for having linear paths to victory, I was criticizing them for telling you what victory is and isn't. In Heavy Rain there is no concept of winning and losing, there are only actions and consequences. This encourages you to consider the characters and their motivations in the world so that you can orient yourself and understand how you want to behave. In games that simply tell you "Kill these enemies to move forward" (which are fine games in their own right), there is no need to understand anything other than the mechanics in order to move forward. As you said, "(The play brain's) whole job is to synthesize any scenario into a set of components that form the levers of problems it can solve." Having to determine the problem to solve before engaging the play brain forces you to look at the characters and (hopefully) empathize with them. Note that I am not trying to say that Tomb Raider will do this, but that the problem is not an inherent limitation of the gaming medium.

Thank you for being so active in the comment threads! It's good to see authors care enough about the words that they write to continue the discussion of them afterwards. =)

Chris Hendricks
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I'm with the author on this one.

Have I played the game? No, of course not. I only have the trailer and gameplay footage to go on. But, through sheer needs of time management, I have to judge books by their covers, movies by their trailers, and games by their sneak peeks of gameplay footage all the time, and my judgement of what I've seen lines very much up with his.

Dave Bellinger
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Certainly entitled to your opinion, Chris, but what you, others, and the author that judge and formulate opinions like this before all the facts are in place should understand is that while I respect your right to have an opinion, I give it no weight personally and in fact am a little disappointed that you feel people should have to hear it even though you've not given the product the time it deserves for such an analysis.

It's kind of unfair if you ask me. I think we're all aware (but without speaking for everyone, I am) that any game with this kind of tonality and subject matter is not going to be comfortable for everyone. Neither are documentaries on serial killers, gang warfare, or a guy eating McDonald's for 30 days straight. If you feel this is not for you, you are not its market and were never going to be if you judged it before even playing a demo.

Chris Hendricks
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"If you feel this is not for you, you are not its market and were never going to be if you judged it before even playing a demo."

I fully agree with this.

Zack Ribbe
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I disagree with almost this whole article. The reason I play games IS to get immersed and emotionally connected to the character. I do care about the characters back stories (referencing the master chief comment), I care about what obstacles they have to overcome and how they develop as a character. That is why I am really excited for this new Tomb Raider game. It is much more realistic, and I feel that once I play this I will feel immersed in the game and want to protect her.

I also feel there were a lot of generalizations in this article saying that players (meaning every body that plays games) feels the way you do. Games are different for everybody, yes some people may not care about the motivations or back story of some characters, but there are some of us out there that do. I am glad the steps games are taking and I look forward to this game.

Brandon Perdue
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Definitely agree, Zack. I think a lot of this article makes sweeping generalizations about players and games alike, when in fact both things are highly diverse. I like games that give me main characters to relate to equally well as those that give me a Master Chief; I just think they're different animals and trying to do different things.

That said, I'm not a huge fan of what I'm seeing from Tomb Raider so far, but not (mostly) because of the sexual assault overtones. I'm worried that bit is lazy writing, but it can be done well. I'm more concerned that this may take a series I enjoy for being more about platforming and puzzle-solving and make it more about action and combat. There's lots of good action/combat games out there, not so many platforming/puzzling ones (at least AAA anyway). I don't need more of the former.

Mihai Cosma
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While the article was well-written, it did come from a place of generalisation. In Mass Effect, since it was mentioned, i actually surprised myself at how attached i got to my Shepard. And that all came from dozens upon dozens of hours that i spent feeling, acting and reacting in that universe.

In the end, my Shepard was not a meatbag though which my actions were conveyed, she was an actual character, a person, if unreal, that i grew to respect.

Whitney Lai
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I posted a similar comment on the last Tomb Raider story, but I'll post it again. By so many people critiquing the game and emphasizing the "inferred rape" or how "helpless" she looks, you're just trying to frame a video game--of you you haven't actually played, but only seen small snippets and clips--in your own perspective. And what does that really say about you, or our society in general? We *want* to look for female characters put in positions like that, even when they're not there. As a female gamer myself, I never even thought anything of the clips until I read so many articles like this pointing it out. Lara Croft was a huge role model for me as a little girl; she's strong, smart, independent, and tough. Why can't people just see and appreciate that instead of trying to frame her into all these things she's not, just to write controversial articles criticizing a game?

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Eric Geer
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Opinion pieces/articles like this come out of a little idea called "The Nanny State"

If video game "experiences" want to become more serious, and if the industry wants to be taken seriously, well, you need to take on more serious situations.

As of now anytime any of these instances comes up everyone want's to shit all over it because it makes them "uncomfortable". Hint hint, it is supposed to.

Personally I didn't take any offense to any of the things that happend in any trailer/demo. I took it as a person going through a very rough situation, on an island(assuming) that is most/all male population...how many movies have you watched in which a woman is groped by a male? how many times have you seen a movie where the damsal is in distress? Numerous and too many to count. But the key to this is that it is a "coming of age" story, she is becoming the woman, the Lara Croft, we all know and love.

This is an issue, if it doesn't sink this ship, that will bring games into a more serious light, and I am hoping it comes sooner than later.

Mike Griffin
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"There is no such thing as a player character."
Well, yes there is. And the permutations are typically subject to the eye of the beholder.
That's the make believe of games.

Sean Kiley
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I can see the author's point. Emotional connection with a character is tough when you know they are just a doll, so how do you make this connection stronger. The author sees the threat of rape as a "creepy" way to try and do this.

"players do experience empathy for game characters, but not really for their own doll."
I've heard people who have gone though traumatic experiences "remove" themselves from the situation. It's a way the brain lets you deal with what is going on. In games this natural instinct can easily disassociate with the "doll" in times of danger, so I'm not sure how you can get around this.

I know I felt Nathan Drake's pain when he was lost in the desert, starving and dehydrated. However, my connection was broken when I suddenly had to fight twenty people with machine guns in that state. In this case, I think the emotional break was because of the design/story.

Brandon Perdue
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Agreed. The fact that poor execution happens does not discredit the fact that the opposite does as well. That's true of any aspect of game design, because it can be really hard to get things right.

Tadhg Kelly
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I honestly think it is inevitable. Even in a game as awesome as Journey this disconnect between storytime and gametime can be felt, from spiritual journey to dicking-around time.

Michael Martin
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Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Male protaginist? Sexist. Shallow female protagonist? Sexist. Emotionally deep female protagonist? Well, apparently that's sexist too.

I have a hard time swallowing the argument that character development and emotional depth is bad. I would hope that not many people developing games share this view.

Georgina Bensley
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Making up and trivialising other people's arguments is always a great way to understand them!

Hint - it is possible to have a game that contains sexist themes regardless of who the protagonist is. Jumping from 'There is something problematic in this game with a male protagonist" to "This game with a male protagonist has zero redeeming features" to "All games featuring male protagonists have no redeeming features" is crazy talk.

... Of course, I'm quite certain that there are people on the internet who DO have that opinion, because there are massive amounts of stupid on the internet. But that's not the general argument, and if you think it is, you ain't listening.

Tadhg Kelly
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I mean 'bad' as in 'misapplied'.

Luke Skywalker
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I enjoyed this article, and while I get some joy out of the separate personification of my character in relation to the 'story' - I think Dead Space 2 is a great example of this, and it built splendidly off of the stoic image of Isaac from the first game - I agree with the author's assertion that in many ways the character is just a suit we put on.

None of us have played the game, but we have seen the demos, and we have listened to/read the interviews from the developers so I don't see how dissecting it from both a thematic and a gameplay (albeit in a limited fashion) is entirely premature. We have been provided with plenty of detail.

The end of this article sums up the point nicely for me:

".....in the film you are empathizing with a heroine, but in a game this action sort of happens to you but not you at the same time. So the feeling is either decidedly 'Meh, get on with it', or 'I don't really find the sensation of pushing this doll into torture scenarios joyful'. Where is the sense of winning in such a scenario, as opposed to just watching it all play out for reasons passing understanding?"

Or - what is the mechanical value of watching this? How gratuitous are these moments going to be? I think many of us don't mind interludes of disempowerment in games, but I think we have all seen this be too gratuitous and that's the point at which we stop "playing" and start waiting. Waiting for it to end so we can get our character suit back on and play the game.

Dave Bellinger
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Interesting point, but it relies on that belief that most players don't care about the characters they play. This isn't just untrue from a logical standpoint, it's rather undeniable, I feel. Several people will purchase this title because of what they've seen the game can do, or the gameplay mechanics, or the setting, or the tone. Still, several people will buy this title because they care about Lara Croft, with a lot of them having gone through several Video Games and Movies with the character.

Will everyone play it for Lara, or even *just* for Lara? No, but that doesn't negate the fact that she's a character people care about just by attrition, just by having been part of the industry this long. To assume that no one, or not even a lot of gamers care about the character is like assuming everyone sees the latest superhero movies for the action, and not because those superheroes have been a part of their life for many years. Essentially, I'm saying this assumption the author makes incredibly minimizes what I think is a rather significant market for this title.

Luke Skywalker
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Hi Dave - we do 'like' the character, and I see the character itself as a part of the 'suit'. That being said, the most likeable character in the world won't make up for a bad game. So the experience of the character in a good game skews the value of the character in my opinion.

As a qualifier - I have the coolest Shepard in the Galaxy, hands down!! (I just wish I understood what happened to him after he defeated the Reapers)

Furthermore - games with too much exposition outside of the gameflow, ala Metal Gear Solid 4, break that immersion. I loved Metal Gear S4 but I had a hard time putting the character back "on" after 45 minutes of exposition.

So I see part of Tadhq's criticism as being two fold, too much exposition takes you out of the character and breaks the immersion, and that in some cases that can be downright creepy.

Personally, I see his point, not sure to what degree I agree or disagree, but it's an interesting point that I think some on here may have missed.

Tadhg Kelly
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(Luke) Quite.

When playing Postal 3, for example, it's a mechanical game like any other. It presents a (repellent) narrative like many action adventure games. But do we feel that we are playing the character running around strip clubs doing unmentionable things? Or is it just us being tasked?

Tadhg Kelly
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(Dave)

No, that's not true in my experience. This is where the big disconnect for many in the industry with those outside exists. Players continually buy into franchises with weak characters but strong worlds, from FIFA and Call of Duty to Halo and Command and Conquer.

The whole process of inspiring players to play comes from 'Look at this cool stuff you get to do', whether it be smashing up Liberty City or solving puzzles or walking down creepy corridors. The character barely matters at all, except as a way to show that off. So Kratos is far more about super-duper-chain-swords and far less about the story of slain wives and such.

This is why the blank slate matters. It's also why roleplaying games are so popular: the player imprints a large amount of self onto it, dressing and using it like a doll to enact and do and have fun.

It's really only within a loud but hollow chamber called narrativism that there are game makers, students, journalists and exec producers that think they are basically in the interactive movie/comic business, and they are always eventually disappointed by the results of watching players play. Like that touching moment in Indie Game: The Movie (spoiler alert) where Jonathan Blow admits to deep depression following the realisation that most players did not seem to get the internal conversation that he thought the game was having.

Clearly it's an emotional point for many (scanning the rest of the comments), but it's a pattern I've seen repeated again and again. The art of games isn't the art of the interactive play. It's its own art, and while some of what narrativism brings to the table is brilliant and valid (such as passive elements, helping to illustrate the world, alongside dialogue and so on, called "storysense"), it always falls down on this player-character connection.

The two groups for whom it does seem to consistently exist are children (who always fantasise way beyond any experience they are having, and good for them) and self-selected believers in the game-story idea who know the author's intent and so read in that layer of meaning consciously. Perhaps there is something to be said for tracing a line between one and the other, and so suggesting that the motivation of wanting to see that happen in games today is wrapped up in the crushing realism of adulthood.

It just doesn't happen for most other people though. They play as themselves and encounter the game world as themselves. And perhaps the reason why this sort of reasoning elicits such strong reactions is that deep down, most of us inside the wall secretly know it.

Dave Bellinger
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@Tadhg

Thanks for the reply, but you seem to have not addressed the issue of my comment at all, I will repost it here:

"Essentially, I'm saying this assumption the author makes incredibly minimizes what I think is a rather significant market for this title. "

Your blanket belief based on your own "experiences" is flawed in that it assumes there's no market, let alone a large one, for the game in question. There's no doubt FIFA (Which uses actual Football/Soccer teams, a selling point for a fair amount of fans, I'm sure) Call of Duty and others that don't focus on a character driven narrative are popular. All that supports is that there is a diverse market for video games, not that it's all gamers want.

It's very clear that you've got a very narrow viewpoint when it comes to video games in general. The fact is that people cared immensely about what happened to Shepard and Co. at the end of Mass Effect 3, people cared as the character slowly died to the atomic radiation in Call of Duty, and there might of even been a few people who cared about Aeris/Aerith dying in Final Fantasy 7.

Oh, and people care about Lara Croft. The point you're "trying to make" is quite simply wrong.

Tadhg Kelly
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(Dave)

Sorry, missed that on the tail end of the rest of the comment. The ace in the hole of that 'assumption' argument is completion rates. With action adventure games, particularly longer ones (GTA) they often drop well below a 50% threshold.

It's my own personal experience/judgement/etc that this is an important (though often ignored) aspect of these games that players won't sit through and play them through to the end to see what happens. In the old days we used to chalk that up to difficulty, but modern games are much easier on the one hand, and we have better metrics on the other. And yet still, the majority drop away.

So my supposition about player characters and emotional connections comes from this instead: The doll is a conduit to the world. It is *the world* that retains interest or not, fascination or not, I-want-to-see-what-happens or not. Modally speaking the game is really only as interesting as the place and the content that it serves to the player.

And while it can always be said that some players do in fact invest and conjure a narrative in their minds about the experience, that is a function of the player themselves. A narrativist player fills in that gap because he knows he's supposed to. It's an outlier behaviour, like any kind of deep fan.

As to the conduit/doll itself? It can have charm of course. I'm not saying that players are slave-driving automata. In cut scenes (when it becomes a character) it can be emotive to watch its travails. When actually being played with, however, that sort of emoting just gets in the way.

I realise that it's a thorny issue and perhaps my explanation is not really clear enough yet, but that's generally how it seems to be (to me at least).

Thanks again

Luke Skywalker
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It seems to me like there really two different viewpoints in the large volume of replies here, that of the player/enthusiast and that of the creator/developer. It's interesting to see those two different vantage points converge and diverge.


@Tadhq - your comment on completion rates is spot on.

Cary Chichester
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Well this is all in just a cutscene, right? You don't feel empathy for her when you're playing because she's a doll that you use to win the game. When you're out of the game and watching a cutscene you're now the viewer instead of the player, so I think you would feel empathy for the character. Seeing my character get shot in the game and in a cutscene are often two very different experiences.

Aaron McClay
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Great point.

Shane Murphy
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The issue I have with what we've been shown so far is the dissonance between the mechanics of the game, and its themes. Crystal Dynamics is going above and beyond to put Lara in situations where she can scream, and gasp, and howl in pain, but she leaps 15-foot gaps with aplomb. She dangles from tenuously-suspended wooden wreckage with a torch in one hand. She falls umpteens of meters and is not slowed, let alone injured. She is innately proficient at archery. But we're supposed to ignore the constant mechanical affirmation of Lara's superhero status because she makes noises and faces like a scared little girl. If you're going to make the player feel disempowered, you can't give them so many powers!

Also, it seems like it's going to be a big deal to kill that first guy, but the next hundred or so are a matter of course. I suppose it might be interesting if Lara's whole reason for adventuring is that she kills her first person, and likes it. But otherwise: dissonance.

Bart Stewart
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Why assume that there's only one kind of gamer, and that this ur-gamer doesn't identify even minimally with fictional characters?

Certainly some people don't do this kind of emotional projection. I've commented before about the "it's just a game" gamers who see avatars as people-shaped vehicles. For these gamers, an avatar's "death" just means reloading, and representing pain on the avatar's part is just weird and annoying as a distraction from the action mechanics.

But it's equally certain that there are people -- and plenty of them -- who do identify with characters at an emotional level. If books and movies, and yes, computer games, aren't capable of inspiring some level of identification, why are there science fiction and fantasy conventions? Why is there "slash fiction"? Why even conceive of an idea like the Hero's Journey if the experiences of fictional characters (including protagonists) have no resonance in our lives, if they're all just people-shaped vehicles?

The Gamists are not wrong. In a game, mechanics and rules matter. But in a game about people, the Narrativists are not wrong, either. Story -- character and meaning -- also matters.

I have no problem with functional criticisms of storytelling. There's plenty of room for improvement.

But to cast out protagonist-identification storytelling utterly takes such criticism too far. It would unnecessarily impoverish computer games as a form of dramatic experience.

Tadhg Kelly
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I don't think I do.

A closer analogy would be that there are many types of music but the vast majority of it shares some basis of beat and form that audiences of all types respond to.

A W
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My problem with the whole thing is if it is a game or just an interactive movie. Tomb Raider games where never movies to me. They where always cleverly designed puzzles with great game elements and most of the time you where just staring at the back of the avatar as you moved form one puzzle to the next. I still think I would rather play a game that is made for the sake of games. Does making it a gritty realistic interactive talking cinema make it a better game? People and time will let the market know. For now I'm in the camp of "NO" it doesn't, it might just make it a bad movie though.

As for pushing gaming into some sort of adult acceptable market. I think it's already at that point. It's not the narrative that makes it adult, its the delivery. When developers understand that I think this push to be the most mature story in games will end.

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Jason Weesner
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There is a huge gap (well chasm) between the marketing of a game (hype, half-truths, and hullabaloo) and the reality of a game (what the finished product delivers as an experience to the player both objectively and subjectively). It seems more than a little premature to make the jump from one side to the other without having played the game and judged it by its own merits. This piece points a considerable amount of blame at the game designers (in a schoolmarmish fashion) while missing out on a great opportunity to take marketing and the press to task for fumbling around with what could be an interesting and refreshing take on the franchise. I look forward to playing the game!

Josh Rough
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I don't understand Gamasutra. Apparently the bar for industry expertise is near-to-the-ground low.

I was curious about this person's perspective and what might have informed it. Why is he so easily and aggressively critical of other designers and their creative decisions? What kind of games has this designer designed? What kind of actual learnings are they bringing to this opinion piece?

I followed the link to his blog. There he does an excellent job of talking about how awesome he is and all the services he can offer to paying customers, listing a large volume of d-list developers he's worked with. But no actual major studio or developer titles held or published game credits listed.

On to Mobygames where I find this interesting note. "Tadhg Kelly is a senior video game designer, producer and creative director." Really? He does all of those things? At the same time or at different times? He then makes claims about having worked at BSkyB, Lionhead, and Climax, but again, no titles listed and no games mentioned. Then, there on Mobygames, I notice that Tadhg has only ever been credited on one game. The Movies. As a Scene Designer. And that's it. Not a damn thing else. But hey - there's always room for benefit of the doubt, right? I notice a link to Simple Lifeforms Limited, a "social gaming company" (which, these days, seems like code for I work at home and code iOS games), for which Tadhg left BSkyB in 2008 to become Chief Creative Office of a (seemingly) two person company. I guess it's easy to be King/Queen when there are only two people in the kingdom?

And hey. There I find it. The presentation of brilliance that entitles Tadhg to his expert opinion. The only other game I can link Tadhg to beyond his small roll on The Movies. It's... wait for it... "Vampire Cities" - a masterpiece. It's described with the tagline; "Acquire Blood. Dominate Locations. Become the Vampire Lord of your Town." Oh but wait... it's still in testing and not an actual game yet. My bad.

Okay, you win Tadhg. You're clearly an artist and the rest of us are just missing the point when we look at what Crystal Dynamics is doing by trying to create a version of Lara Croft that doesn't rest on huge tits and daisy dukes. You've cracked the code and you've got all the answers.

Now please make a game we care about. Surely with all the Creative Director juice that somehow isn't linked to a single game credit I can find to help legitimize the cryptic 20+ years that you spent making games (which apparently included selling them when the original Tomb Raider went to market - not sure how working retail figures into a dev career but okay), you can do something to solve this problem beyond an opinion piece, but maybe an actual game that does it right?

So easy to sit and point fingers from the fringe. Something entirely different to build a game that matters and move the industry forward. One requires hot air - the other; talent. Which one has this guy got?

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Josh,

I have one small 'Consulting' link at the top-right of my site and an 'About' page. Aside from that I have around 200 posts, close to a quarter million words, a big-assed Glossary and other entirely free materials for you or anyone to read, discard, love, hate, whatever. None of it is self-promotional, it's all discursive.

Beyond that, Mobygames. Among the projects that Moby doesn't really track are many mobile, social, PC and other games that come out under various platforms. They also don't track many periphery markets such as interactive TV or tabletop games. Nor do they keep any record at all of unpublished works. Most developers work on at least as many unpublished works as published in their career, whatever Mobygames has to say on the career of anyone in games is generally incomplete.

I've never claimed to be anything other than the following:

* I designed many tabletop, LARP and so on games and scenarios in my student days as a part of the Irish games scene. I miss working on these lately for some reason.
* I've worked at Asylum Entertainment, the BBC, Havok, Climax, BSkyB, Simple Lifeforms and now as a lone consultant in roles as low as tester all the way up to 'senior game dev manager' and, yes, CCO of a startup. Many of those were unsuccessful.
* I now write and run WGA, in which I provide many articles, resources and so on for free. Sometimes that also leads to consulting work, but I don't really advertise it, it happens organically. So far I've contributed to around 35 games/related projects while doing so.
* Vampire Cities, by the way, is actually not a game I'm involved with. Not that it matters.

As to the "why don't you go and make something" point. Who knows? I may do. At the moment I really enjoy writing (Well, mostly. This evening not so much) and working on the theory side, consulting and doing some teaching. It's interesting to me to have the room to do the kind of work that I'm doing. Is that kind of focus bad? Well some think it is, and that's their prerogative, but this is what I'm about right now.

All of this information is ordinarily available and I'm quite happy to discuss the some successes and many failures that have been my game making career so far, rather than acting as though you've uncovered the whereabouts of Lord Lucan.

Josh Rough
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Sorry, but you have no real credibility. You're welcome to an opinion but in this case it's laughable, has forced you to do some interesting back-peddling, and seems to be coming from a place of relative inexperience.

'nuff said.

E McNeill
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Seriously, Josh? Not only is Tadhg well-known and well-respected for his writing, but your attack doesn't even try to address his argument at all. It would be one thing to attack his points on their merits. It's quite another to just bash him.

Dave Bellinger
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@ E McNeill

Josh is appropriate in his judgment, considering the author and his piece is being featured on Gamasutra. There's a fair amount of expectation for GS to feature perspective from well qualified individuals in the industry, of which Tadhg Kelly does not seem to be, at least not as it pertains to the subject matter he writes about.

It's more of a problem with GS featuring the article than Tadhg's opinions, he is after all entitled to write about what he pleases.

E McNeill
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Dave: Thanks for taking a reasonable tone.

Josh's argument mentioned Gamasutra in passing, then proceeded to bash Tadhg in a needlessly rude way.

Further, Josh's arguments are slim. Tadhg is not some wannabe (as he points out above); he's instead a well-respected and generous contributor to the games community. And besides, you don't need to be a best-selling game designer to be a good writer and commentator.

Tadhg Kelly
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Indeed, we can't all be John Carmack or Tim Schafer, and if those were the only people to write for Gama I suspect it would be very much on the thin side. You'll just have to put up with my and some others' second rate ramblings instead I'm afraid.

:)

Luke Skywalker
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@ Josh

Perhaps before providing your pointed and abrasive assesment of someone's 'experience' you could provide us with your long list of experience and accomplishment's to better appreciate your 'perspective'?

That being said,

I think the site you are looking for is www.ign.com

Adam Bishop
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Your repeated insistence (both here and in comments on other articles) that every gamer experiences games in exactly the way that you do is bizarre. You may not enjoy the narrative, settings, characters, etc. in video games and you may not make an "emotional connection between player and character", but many other people, including me, do, and to suggest otherwise is objectively incorrect.

Tadhg Kelly
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Again, I don't.

Dave Bellinger
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@Tahdg

Just want to keep reminding you about this bit, from your article:

"The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character."

I think the problem is that this quote does not leave much room for misinterpretation.

Tadhg Kelly
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Dave,

No indeed, it is a strong statement. Strong than I actually realised given the volume of reaction. I hope to follow it up soon with something clearer. Watch this or some other spaces :)

Bruno Patatas
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"The emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not."

WOW!

Just...

WOW!

*closes browser tab. goes back to play Zelda, because I do care about Link, and during my childhood he was like a close friend*

I will not comment in detail, as this article is so absurd that it's not even worth it...

Tadhg Kelly
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If I may, while I think the comments of "marketing vs the game" are absolutely fair, the point of this piece was a little more about the pitch and appearance and marketing of the game. E3 and the like are pure marketing events, with games either showing their best or worst feet forward, and so what I'm finding fault with here is the appearance of the thing and why that puts me off.

The argument we've not played the game yet is true, but also somewhat beside the point.

Josh Rough
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"...the point of this piece was a little more about the pitch and appearance and marketing of the game." -Tadhg Kelly

"By putting that kind of control in my hand, how have you not just created a very expensive new kind of exploitation game, like Postal? That's why I find this game (what I've seen of it so far) creepy. And that's why I personally won't be buying it." -Tadhg Kelly

Oh yes, how could I have missed this careful distinction!?

You clearly wrote an opinion piece about the odd -presentation- of Tomb Raider, not a criticism of Tomb Raider itself, even though your article is titled "Narrative turns creepy in Tomb Raider". I can totally see how we all read it the wrong way. My bad. Your article had nothing to do with your own crass opinions about the creative decisions made for and within the game itself, the adult themes surrounding Lara this time around, and how you feel this impacts the game and your desire to own it. Nope. Instead, this piece was full of remarks aimed at explaining that your real problem is just with the way that Tomb Raider is being marketed, and that you're quite sure that the game itself is amazing. Wow. So sorry. That went totally over my head.

That, or...

Tadhg Kelly
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*sigh*

Tadhg Kelly
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*sigh* x2

Josh Rough
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It seems as though you're very good at sighing, but not very good at making games. Perhaps instead of writing ignorant opinions and sighing at your detractors, you should go build something. Just a suggestion.

Tadhg Kelly
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*sigh* x 2.001

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Keith Thomson
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I believe the developer stated they wouldn't be doing the rape thing...

As for the rest, how about if you reverse it and see if it would still be a good game if you did all of the things in the movie to Nathan Drake instead. If it would be creepy if it happened to Drake, then they shouldn't do it to Croft either.

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James Cooley
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The game sounds icky. It will be skipped. Problem solved.

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James Cooley
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While prior comment was flippant, I do want to point out context. If Mario and Luigi were put in a game where there was Max Payne 3 levels of graphic violence, then audience would go WTF. At some point, you need to look at a character's and game's legacy and expected parameters. If you want to make something other than a Tomb Raider game, then create an original IP. It is also fair to ask whether there is a point where the violence, sex, foul language, and psychopath-simulator nature of various games is simply appealing to the lowest common denominator of gamers. These game are claiming to be "art" and for "mature" audiences, but they are practically aiming for the audience that attends "gore-porn" movies.

I refuse to play certain games (or watch some movies) because I would feel uneasy about myself if I enjoyed being a psycho and sadist. What are my boundaries and should I want to be "entertained" by certain things?

Some studios (games and movies) are trying to be "over the top", but they are actually scraping the bottom... Their audience may be the modern-day version of the mobs who loved a dog fight or a public hanging.

Dave Bellinger
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You make a valid point on the surface, James, but you fail to consider how character re-imagining can take an established IP to a new level. Look at Tim Burton's Batman, a start contrast from the Batman of old, and then later Christopher Nolan re-imagines the character in an even more radical perspective. Additionally, I think by labeling presentations such as this as "gore-porn" is overreaching and only serves to have most people take your impression less seriously.

Lara Croft is no Mario and Luigi, in previous games she could also be shot to death, fall to her doom, and even be mauled by a T-Rex. This new perspective is not attractive to everyone, true, and the proper course of action to take is exactly what you've said, refused to play them if you feel uneasy. The problem is that it seems like most are calling for outright censorship.

Vincent Hyne
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Personally I thought this article was very sound, taking into account the premises it seems to follow from. Unfortunately, the central premise, that there is not and that there can never be a connection between the player and the actor (the character the player controls) is impossible to agree with.

I have played many, many games, and there have certainly been games where I identified with the main actor, which enhanced my caring for the overall story. I also know that in the games where I have identified with the actor, many people had the opposite happen to them as players, where they ended up reviling the actor and stopped playing the game, generally disliking the game itself as a result.

Point being, your own experience may vary, but take the hard line, and a generalization at that, that no one has ever cared for the "doll" that they controlled, and that they are just an extension of the player's will, is an assertion that has been patently proven wrong in this industry. The proof is in the diversity of the main characters that served as the player's actor in the gaming industry so far. From Gordon Freeman, a character intentionally left blank with nothing but weak background information in order to facilitate the void for the player to step in, to characters like Nathan Drake who you get to know intimately throughout the course of his adventures, yet have no power to influence yourself (all actions that are playable are per-determined). This standing in juxtaposition to RPG characters like J.C. Denton, who gets to make so many choices that by the end of the game he becomes the avatar of the player's will, thus confirming that the player has a vested interest in forming the actor.

In fact, if you subscribe to the "Driving Off the Map" theory by James Clinton Howell (http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/MGS2/DOTM_TOC.htm), Metal Gear Solid 2 by design functions as an intentional manipulator and disruptor between the player and the actor.

Getting to Tomb Raider, I will offer my two cents.

What disturbed me personally about what was shown of Tomb Raider this year is as follows:

-The yelping and the crying. It's either the voice actress getting on my nerves with how fake it sounds, or it's the fact that the main character goes through so many situations that warrant a "ow, ouch, YARRGHHRBLLLLLL" that it ends up being overdone, and as a result, a really bad arrangement culminating in what could only be described as a musical of an aural holocaust.

-The "nothing stops me" gameplay. She gets shot at, falls off a cliff, slides down a mountain, body slams a plane, falls out of a plane, parachutes and glides into trees, hitting nearly all of them during her trek falls from the height of many feet, bleeds, and then gets up and starts jumping over chasms like Mario with that dreadful jump animation that has a set distance both vertically as well as horizontally, breaking immersion because she defies the laws of gravity, not to mention common sense with her Herculean endurance. The only thing that would complete the picture for this technical malfeasance is if she was given a double-jump.

-The fact that for all her troubles and her pain, she dispatches at least 50 human beings to their deaths during the demo, slaying all of them on her "survival" trek. This is really the central point for me personally showing that games are going _nowhere_. For all your attempts at trying to evolve character interaction, graphics, physics, story assembly, and challenge stereotypical depictions of leading females in games, you are still doing nothing more than populating a world with "bad guys" that need killing on your path down the mountain (or wherever the hell she's going on that scripted path). Maybe if she just died when she fell on that rusty pipe in the catacombs, six hundred muscular threating men would live, no matter how evil they may or may not have been.

As for what sparked this controversy, her attempting to escape with her arms tied behind her, while one of the big bad men caught her and moved his hand from the side of her arm down to the side of her hips for all of seven to ten odd frames (because let's not forget, that is what we're talking about here), I actually thought that was a positive depiction of male-female relations. Not the act itself mind you, but its depiction. Key difference there.

Finally, a game that depicts reality. A man in a clear physical position of dominance and hostility is going to treat a captive woman like a resource and an object. If he is as bad as the game has made him out to be by its virtue of simply depicting the situation, it should be safe to assume that he would, at least in theory, be ready to transgress and commit acts that we in the western society who have the luxury of owning computers/game consoles and playing $60 games would condemn as being morally abhorrent.

I would say "Bravo" at the attempt of depicting a man that would look at a woman as an object and a resource in a hostile manner, to do the next logical thing, which is sexually assault her. It makes logical sense, if nothing else.

For those ten frames during the "male gaze" period of the sequence where Lara is re-captured by her male oppressors, the game actually depicted reality, which led to the entire gaming press industry starting to flip the fuck out, this article being only one culmination of the mass panic.

The game must be doing something right.

Tadhg Kelly
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Thanks for the thoughtful response Vincent.

Of course experiences may vary. What I said that the connection that some makers perceive to be there isn't, but that doesn't mean we are devoid of feeling. Just that I think it is perhaps much more neutral than we'd hope, especially when the doll is actually under your control. Nathan in cut-scene is essentially a different entity to Nathan in shooty-shooty-jumpy mode.

I'd also argue that dolls in games are about as diverse as variants of apple pie, that they're largely all the same. What happens in between (again in cut scenes) may show something different but when you're looking through the eyes of Freeman he largely falls away, and most of the time with Drake you're looking not at him but at where his target lies. Your focus is actually on the surrounding space of the doll, not the doll. (which leads me right the way back to one of my original points about the art of games being about worldmaking, not story). Even when you do look at him what you see is the back of his head.

Karl E
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I have no serious opinion about the rapey stuff (or whatever people talk about above).

But the trailer is totally tone-deaf to anyone who actually remembers the original games.
So there is a definite smell of a fine IP being butchered.

This is just so pointless. The thing with recent Tomb Raider games is that they didn't even sell that bad. Legends sold 4,5 million. Why mess with a winning formula? Why not create a 12-rated, more exploration-oriented game (between Uncharted and Zelda) that would actually make use of the franchise? It would sell a lot more than this game will.

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sean lindskog
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I'm on the fence about your character empathy argument. Regardless, excellent piece - very thoughtful, thought provoking, and well written. Thanks.

Tadhg Kelly
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Thanks Sean

Keith Thomson
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The comment about the player "doll" is a very western-centric one. In JRPGs, the players are often controlling the whole group of characters, or able to switch between all of the characters, rather than just playing one, and all of the characters have their own story. They aren't just blank slates for the user to project onto.

Tadhg Kelly
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It's not necessarily the case that you only have one doll in a game. Sure, they may change, shift etc. Sometimes dolls become characters (out of your control), sometimes the reverse.

Samuel Batista
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It's my firm belief that great games use storytelling and exposition to make the player feel compelled to roleplay the main character in the video game, and literally feel as if they are in the game world. This is achieved through excellent game mechanics and a compelling narrative that the player buys into without questioning why something is happening. I remember playing Shadow of the Colossus and moving my head in sync with the character as he readies his sword to slay the beast. I had never felt more immersed in a game, and rare moments like that are what make me love video games.

The use of pain, torture and grotesque violence in this latest Tomb Raider installment might cause some people to immediately be thrown out of the experience because they simply do not want to roleplay, or watch their favorite character be thrown into that situation, and that's totally fair. But personally I'm curious to see how this gamble will pay off. I can see myself be drawn into the experience, because I won't question why Laura is killing off dozens of people in gruesome and satisfying ways (and therefore be immersed in the moment to moment gameplay). The screams and pants and other general pain sounds did happen quite a lot in that demo... I hope they're aware that can get quite annoying and overdone.

I don't know if Crystal Dynamics will be successful, but at least they're attempting to provide a strong justification for why Laura goes around killing dudes and being all badass, instead of just giving you guns and throwing dozens of enemies at you and generally make death and killing seem like a trivial and inconsequential thing.

This was a well written and through provoking piece, but I still hope this game will attempt to push the boundaries of the usual "comfortable" narrative in games. Regardless of the fact that it might turn off some people to the title.

Charles Herold
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Mr. Kelly has a rather binary attitude towards avatars. He sees them in cut scenes and cares about them as people, but the moment he sees them in gameplay they become soulless dolls. Personally, once I have empathy for a character it does not simply disappear when I start playing moving my analog sticks. I feel bad when my avatar dies. I don't just feel, oh, I failed in my objective, I feel guilty that I put them through that. It's terrible to hear those bones breaking and hear their last shuddering breaths. But that's just me, and I know that. Mr. Kelly does not seem to understand that, like me, his feelings only represent *his* feelings.

I would assume that the author believes games should not try to make us care, since he considers it an impossibility. He would be content with nothing but Master Chief and Mario. But I would not be content.

In movies, the sort of creepy, threatening fondling at the heart of the Tomb Raider controversy happens in almost ever action picture every made. Sometimes it is an effective way to make the audience fear for a character they care about, and sometimes it is cheaply exploitative. But because it is not always done well in movies doesn't mean it should never be done at all.

I just saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which has a harrowing rape scene. It works because you are horrified, because you feel the woman's powerlessness and fear and pain. And that makes it effective. Clearly the scene in Tomb Raider is meant to make Lara's first killing of a human being something she is forced into, because the makers want to give that murder import. To me it is refreshing for a game to say, "killing is a big deal." Will the game succeed in bringing home the brutality and horror of taking another life the way the famous murder scene in Torn Curtain did, or will it just be an insignificant moment in the game with no emotional resonance? I have no idea, but I believe it is worth trying to make gamers feel now and again.

I like to see characters who are more human than hero, because I find that relatable, not being a hero myself. The one justifiable criticism of this Tomb Raider is that vulnerable, terrified women are so much more common than vulnerable, terrified men. Rather than demanding that we keep Lara Croft bloodless, heroic, and soulless, I would like to see Master Chief shell shocked.

Give me heroes who care, and struggle, and with whom I can form a connection. Tomb Raider looks like it wants to do that, and I hope they are successful.

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Matthew Mouras
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So you've played the game, Joshua? Let's reserve judgement, shall we? We don't know exactly how this game is coming together.

Charles makes some great points above. One that I can specifically relate to is the desire to see some vulnerability in a male characters. It was hinted at in some of the Halo 3 trailers. I got excited, but was let down with another standard implacable hero story when playing through the game. Bruce Willis was clearly tough in Die Hard, but he was also vulnerable. He could be hurt... His perseverance made him an interesting character. Where is that aesthetic in AAA video game characters? There is often no sense of character progression because your character is never affected by the carnage. Again - hints of it in Max Payne 3, but not quite the pathos that could have been.

Maybe Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider will have it, or maybe the devs won't be able to walk that fine line and it will be exploitative. Regardless, I think the attempt is worthwhile and we should wait to see how intelligently her character is handled.

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Michael Rooney
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I think the much larger problem I'm noticing post E3 is that we aren't even capable of respecting each other as artists. If we can't respect each other, then how do we expect anybody else to?

Michael Joseph
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Tomb Raider was one of those games that I felt I would be too embarrassed to be caught playing... so I never did. It just seemed taboo-ish. That probably says more about me than the game. :)

Tomi Vesanen
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"The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character."

I personally think you are only speaking for yourself. Granted, many if not even most players I feel do take this position, but there are many people who do make an emotional connection to the player character, especially in RPG games where your decisions and actions mold the character itself - myself included.

If you were correct, do you really think so many people would have been up in arms about the ending of Mass Effect 3 as there were?

Tadhg Kelly
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Yes. In fact this goes to the heart of it.

Through Mass Effect players get to self-express, create their own doll, make their own decisions and impact the outcomes of their own games significantly (or at least they believe they do). That setup is the heart and soul of the appeal of the game.

And then when it decides it's storytime, time to be in character for the last X minutes, the whole thing feels fraudulent.

Darcy Nelson
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(I'm going to preface this comment by saying I don't really buy the What Games Are idea that player characters do not exist in video games.)

"The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character."

Respectfully disagree. When the main character of Valkyrie Profile had an emotional breakdown because she realized she inadvertently sent her lover to his doom, I teared up. When Big Boss saluted The Boss's grave at the end of MGS3, that was a powerful moment for me as the player.

Now, this is just my personal experience, but I think it goes to show that some people do indeed have emotional connections to the player characters.

I do think that you're right in that the devs don't always hit the mark they're aiming for, however. I couldn't care less about Desmond's fate, he is merely the vehicle by which the stabby happens. (Like the "doll" from What Games Are) The examples of Master Chief and Shepard are also great, they're the perfect 'empty shell' for players to project onto.

Maybe it's less that the emotional connection doesn't exist, and more that it's nigh impossible to predict who will develop a connection with any given character.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Darcy,

Bearing in mind what I said about the duality of the cut-scene character versus the player-controlled character in a few responses above, would you still say that?

Matt Glanville
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The way I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong, Tadhg) is that when you feel an emotional connection to a player character it is outside of the confines of the game system. The narrative veneer is exactly that and exists separately to the game mechanisms. When people say they feel attached to Lara or Snake or whoever, that attachment is derived from the non-gameplay elements like dialogue and appearance. The time you spend actually interacting with the game elements develops a different connection, which is based on the "play brain's" (as Tadhg calls it) desire to understand and beat the system.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Matt,

Largely, yes. In play mode it's all about you. You conduit through a Lara into a world, so your emotional connection is with that world and not your conduit for the most part.

Ernest Adams
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Horatio Hornblower possessed a peculiar disability: he could not appreciate music. He thought it was just irritating noise. He was, however, prepared to admit that OTHER people could appreciate music even though he could not. He did not go around asserting that the whole world was wrong to like music and that only he was right. He was self-aware enough to recognize that the disability was his own, not that of everyone else.

Tadhg Kelly
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And the band played on....

JB Vorderkunz
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Ernest casts Greater Poetic Reasonableness...
It CRITS for 5000!!!

Tadhg Kelly
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To be fair, Ernest and I seem to only ever occasionally encounter each other across these kinds of thread, so I understand that he may have this impression of me as some narrow minded dolt.

But it isn't really the case. As it happens I have a long (and oft missed) background in running story/event games like LARPs and the like.

Ernest Adams
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In the Neolithic Age

Rudyard Kipling

IN THE Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses' pelt.
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
Were about me and beneath me and above.

But a rival, of Solutré, told the tribe my style was outré—
'Neath a tomahawk, of diorite, he fell
And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, "It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong."

But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole-shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: —
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
"And every single one of them is right!"

* * * *

Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail.
And I stepped beneath Time's finger, once again a tribal singer,
[And a minor poet certified by Traill!]

Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow
When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
Still we let our business slide—as we dropped the half-dressed hide—
To show a fellow-savage how to work.

Still the world is wondrous large,—seven seas from marge to marge—
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
"And—every—single—one—of—them—is—right!"

yoshitomo moriwaki
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"The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character."

This might just be too strong a statement. Having control certainly diminishes the emotional impact of things that happen to that character. The act of control is like an ECM event that jams emotional connection. I'm personally very much like Tadg here, I feel close to nothing. But over the last 10 years I feel more. Having kids appears to have had a large impact on that. But there's no escaping the fact that I get super clinical when I play games, and I really enjoy playing games. It's like the positive emotional enjoyment of playing and interacting immediately cranks to such a high volume that it drowns out other finer emotional resonance. My take on things is that NPC's offer more effective emotional connections since you can empathize with them, and you can't make their choices.

I think the article is very interesting and thought provoking, but I wouldn't ever pass on something different because it made me feel uncomfortable. The art in the world is there to explore and variety is the spice of life. Would I make something like that myself? That's a very different conversation.

Jed Ashforth
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The interesting side to this, IMO, is the player's choice as to whether they'd let this happen or not. Same with Maddison's lingerie escapades, or 'No Russian'. Common enough dramatic situations you could find in other media, but here the player might be able to make a moral choice of whether or not they allow it to happen, and can try out all possible outcomes.

Knowing I can reload and 'erase' the horrible thing happening, and set it all right again afterwards, is a power that raises an interesting internal morale choice - should players let it happen at least once, 'just out of interest', just to see the content they've paid for?. The fact that we can enable that kind of voyeurism raises questions I'd love to see a game itself explore.



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