An Ode To Sam Nishimura From Tomb Raider

Once upon a time, there was a girl. She was a film studies graduate and looking for her big break in the world of post-education. She followed her friends to a mystical and mysterious island, documenting their travels.

When we as an audience first met the girl, it was only for a few seconds, where we saw her dragged off by a scary-looking man with a knife. She was hidden away until the release of the full story.

When the story was released, we saw the girl in a different light. Sure, she was still a little bit of a damsel in distress, but she turned out to be a lot more than that.

We saw her playful but sensitive banter with our protagonist. We saw the half-smiles. We saw the girl and the protagonist bond over the course of the narrative. And of course, some of us saw a little more, underneath all of the subtle movements and words. Something that kept us going. Something that pushed us forward.

But that girl is now forgotten, passed aside with a hand-wave explanation in the sequel, and only slightly more of a payoff in the side-stories.

At this moment, we are just like our protagonist. We think we know about sacrifices, but what we have here is a loss, a choice that is made for us. Despite the cries to bring her back, we must sadly think that the girl will never come grace our screens again.

***

I’ve been mulling over the loss of Sam Nishimura for the past few weeks. With the months leading up to the release of the new game, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, we’ve been seeing a lot of people ask the developers, “where is Sam?

And I sadly have to admit, I’ve grown apart.

Please understand.

I love Sam; in the same way I love Lara as a character. But sometime that is not enough. And we need perspective. Lara is our protagonist, not Sam (although I would totally buy  Tomb Raider Snap, a spin off in the style of Pokémon Snap, where Sam tries to photograph Lara beside certain objects like a T-Rex, a relic and holding her dual pistols).

To love her knows when to let her go. Not forgotten, not a footnote, but a defining part or our heroine’s legacy. And with her departure, Lara can eventually start to heal and move on.

I, along with many others in the Sam Nishimura movement were unsatisfied with the way Sam was maligned during the interim between 2013 and RotTR. But I can see why they decided to focus on Jonah rather than Sam.

With Lara flying from desolate desert to hazardous hiking expedition, she needed someone to keep up, and Sam isn’t that. Jonah, Reyes, Roth, they would all be able to keep pace with our lead. Sam could not, not without changing a large sense of her character from 2013. Sure, Alister and Zip (Lara’s mates from the LAU trilogy) wouldn’t keep pace either, but a different Lara calls for different rules.

So I begin to look to the horizon. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is nearing completion, so unless Eidos Montreal throw us a curve ball, these would have to be in a sequel.

So, what do I want from Lara’s belle?

Easy one start with, keep her ambiguous enough. I know, I know, we all want her to make out with a girl by the end of the game, and with Kassandra in AC: Odyssey and Ellie from The Last Of Us II at this year’s E3 being major talking points, TR could have been riding ahead of the curve with it’s non-straight lead.

Maybe it’s me, but I’m more of a fan of all that sweet hand-holding and the longing stares rather than character full on snogging each other. Yorda and Ico’s closeness in Ico has much more depth to it than if the characters just made out.

The problem with trying to add a character in is the questions that it poses. With Lara jetting off around the world, she needs a character that wants to wait for her and understands what her job is and where it takes her. For her to be a recurring character (which is needed if the interaction is going to have any bearing on the story), she needs to compliment our heroine, essentially becoming the “other half” or at least offering vital help.

And the major problem is, is that Sam was those things. Which is why it hurts more to cut her out and start anew. Because it was there. It was within reaching distance and possibility, but it wasn’t used.

So how to construct it?

The new Tomb Raiders take much from Uncharted, so here is another thing it can take from them. In Uncharted 2, Nathan Drake had a diary filled with sketches, notes, and importantly, phone numbers and names of girls all around the globe (this was actually inspired by a tweet by @pfangirl, who has written extensively about Lara Croft being a gay character).

Lara has a notebook, filled with her Dad’s notes, but soon they will be full of her own. She’s taken notes all the way since AoD and Anniversary. Her notebook can be filled with numbers and drawings. Jonah, Reyes, Conrad’s daughter (wouldn’t that be a scene to watch? Lara talking to her surrogate father’s ACTUAL daughter), these are all people from the first reboot game that Lara helped and in turn they helped Lara become the Tomb Raider.

From Rise, there is Sofia (because you could cut that sexual tension with a knife) and Nadia (who also had a full-on crush on our protagonist), two women who mirrored our protagonist; characters that she could relate to and find solace from their shared experiences.

And aside from character from the games, there could be a myriad of one-time flings; girls from Kathmandu to Kansas. Have her wake up next to a girl a la Girl With The Dragon Tattoo beside some watering hole in the backwoods of whatever country she’s in. There are so many ways you could play with this idea.

However, with the loss of Sam, I’m kind of annoyed that instead of a monogamous, strong relationship between two characters will be swapped out for the “promiscuous lesbian/bisexual” trope (I personally read her as ace, since I see Lara as seeing sex more as a biological need than an emotional one). But with Lara’s lifestyle, she can’t ask for a special someone to wait for her while she spends other ten months shooting chickens with fire arrows or petting another twenty llamas.

Conclusion

I had never thought about Lara as being part of a couple before 2013. And with Lara and Sam’s time together, seeing that vulnerable side, I was touched, because it was sweet and adorable, in that way first blossoms of affections are (and relationships of any kind are rarely seen in AAA games). But then I become irritated, because that vulnerability gives us a character like Sam, but then discards her. Would it have just been better to never have that part of Lara? The heart doesn’t miss what it doesn’t know.

I also see the limitations. I recently replayed 2013, in my series of “Play-Games-While-Listening-To-Podcasts-And-Achievement-Hunt” and despite talking to Sam several times; she doesn’t have much of a character. There is a base there, but not a fully developed character. She needed shades, she needed dimensions. To give her those aspects would have taken time, which would have disrupted the pace of RotTR, unless it was incorporated as an integral feature. Which as a side-story, it wouldn’t be.

Again, please understand.

I love the character. But I have to stop. I need to say goodbye. Because while Sam has been a character in my heart for half a decade, Lara has over four times that. And between the girl I have grown up with, against the girl I met when I was an adult, the former will win out every time.

Let me conclude with the poet Rumi’s #1849 from Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi, which I feel fits the moment…

 

“The moment you find a companion in joy,

Is the moment you find your life’s own fate,

Beware that you don’t waste that moment in vain,

You will find very few such moments again.”

 

Sayonara Nishimura-san. 

Thank you for being there, for both the fans (so many who were brought in by you) and for being there for our dear Lara.

 

Banner Photo Source: Video Games Source, July 23 2013, Tomb Raider – Coastal Forest: Samantha Nishimura, Mathius Introduction Cutscene HD Gameplay PC. [YouTube video].

Tomb Raider’s St Francis’ Folly & Intention In Level Design

Level design is one of the fundamental building blocks of creating a game; it is the world that we inhabit. We can all think of great games with some excellent level design and all in different ways.

Some games use their design to aid you with traversal through a single path; Faith’s “Runner’s Vision” in Mirror’s Edge guiding the way through colour, or scratched/worn down walls in Prince Of Persia showing you can wall run are two that come to mind.

In a similar vein, other games allow a wide range of possibilities from a single starting point. Metroid and Castlevania have an almost exclusive hold over this type of design (so much that “Metroidvania” is a portmanteau in gaming culture). Newer titles such as Hitman and Ratchet And Clank also deliver this type of world. You may not be able to reach all the nooks and crannies until you have gone away and learnt new skills.

Other games use their level design to bring their worlds to life. Bioshock’s flooded and rusting hallways, blossoming gardens and…everything about Fort Frolic perfectly paints the dying embers of a Galtian wonderland. Remember Me’s narrative snakes around its levels, with the Bastille Lake and St. Michel Rotunda amplifying the narrative beats that occur in those levels. The hidden tombstones in Modern Warfare 2’s “Contingency” highlight a possible cultural heritage of the area.

Today I wanted to write about a level that encompasses all three types of design, to varying degrees. That level is “St Francis’ Folly” from the Tomb Raider series. “St Francis’ Folly” is a level in the first TR game, meaning that it was remade in Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider Anniversary. So I wanted to talk about the two in tandem, because even though they are the same level, the way they differ gives a different tone to each level.

How “St Francis’ Folly”’s Meaning Changes Through Different Level Design

“St Francis’ Folly” is probably one of the most recognisable and memorable of the original Tomb Raider levels. Jason Botta, creative director for Tomb Raider Anniversary ranked the level second only to the “Lost Valley”, (mainly because the latter had a T-Rex) (2:14).

“St Francis’ Folly” is a really good example of a jump in a difficulty spike. The first four levels of TR1 are spent getting you used to the controls. You’ve done a bit of swimming, a bit of climbing, running, jumping, and most of it is forgiving. If you miss a jump, you just climb back to the spot and try again. “St Francis’ Folly” does not give you that privilege. If you mess up, you will most likely die. It’s really easy to die because the whole point of the level is being REALLY HIGH UP. The structure is so tall in the original game you can’t see the bottom; the draw distance fades to black.

Toby Gard, designer for the original Tomb Raider and Anniversary, stated the goal for the area;

“…It’s quite common that game designers even when they have a 3D vertical space that they can play with, they tend to sort of end up making long, flat things anyway. So that particular area from the original game was just sort of let’s go as vertical as we possibly can…” (2:55).

The level is virtually unchanged from game to game, only with a few trickier challenge rooms for TRA’s more nimble Lara and appropriately named rooms (TR1 had “Neptune” and “Thor” in a tomb in Greece).

The major change to the level is the opening just before the vertical room, so let’s jump back a bit and discuss that section.

Let’s Rewind To The Beginning

The openings of the level are again, very similar. All the designers really had to do was update the climbing and traversal mechanics and it was pretty much set.

But the main difference is GETTING to the vertical room and where in relation it is to the rest of the level. Lets start with TR1.

The start of the level introduces the vertical aspect, in a safe-ish way. You jump from pillar to pillar, working your way around the room. You have some fun with pressure plates and open the big door at the other end of the room. However, this does not lead to the next stage. It is another room with a switch.

The door is in fact above the entrance where you came in. You have to use the previously mentioned pillars to jump up into the rafters, before sliding down into a flooded tunnel and eventually finding the way out, into the vertical room.

Now onto TRA. 

The level starts off pretty much the same. You have a pressure plate that needs to be weighted down, which opens the big door at the far side of the room. You jump between the pillars to get into the rafters to secure the weight for the pressure plate, move it to the ground floor and proceed through the big door.

Then you proceed down a long, long corridor and into the vertical room.

So What?

This is such as small change, but for me it changes the meaning behind the whole set of Greek levels.

All levels in both Tomb Raider and Anniversary are built on top of each other. It is historically accurate; invaders have built on top of previous religious sites and settlements as an attempt to exert their dominance. It’s also thematically relevant, as the “origin” tombs are supposed to be hidden away, kept secret from the world.

But the opening for the first section of the Greek levels in Tomb Raider changes this meaning. In TR1, the vertical room (and by extension, the rest of the subterranean settlements) is hidden back the way you came. It takes a little more thought to figure out where you have to go. And even if you get that far you then have to survive an underwater current and a very hungry crocodile. It feels like a secret entrance to an underground network, somewhere hidden away so that grave robbers can’t just waltz in.

Tomb Raider Anniversary by comparison doesn’t feel like the entrance to a secret tomb, hidden away beneath 4000 years of history. It’s a straight line from the start of the level, the big door beckoning you forward. It feels more like the door to a vault (which is a rather good way of keeping people out). However, a vault-type opening indicates there is something precious behind it, giving grave robbers the incentive to break through rather than giving up because the entrance is hidden away.

Conclusion

It was only recently after playing the two games in comparison that I saw this minute difference. And it only really makes much of an impact if you are interested in the lore or the narrative of the world of Tomb Raider, but that distinction was big enough for me.

In terms of the original and Anniversary, there are more changes that are made for thematic reasons. “Sanctuary Of The Scion”, the final level of the Egyptian section of the game is one that springs to mind. In the original game you come out of the side of the temple, with your prize unceremoniously placed to your left.

In Anniversary, the sanctuary is at the end of a long corridor with a large gate blocking your entrance. You have to use the other two pieces of the Scion (the artifact Lara is searching for) to open up the gate. Thematically this makes much more sense that finding it on a pedestal, as it is the final piece of the artifact that has been locked away for safety.

Another one is the very first level, “Mountain Caves”. The finale of the level is once again, a large door, but to get to it you have to “run the gauntlet” of darts being shot at you. In TR1, you appear on in the corner of the room, an unglamorous (and not death defying) entrance to a hidden civilization.

The point I’m trying to make is the subtle differences between the two games. It’s almost like a translation error; giving us the same work but just off somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I love both version of “St Francis’ Folly”, but their thematic difference makes the original feel more “believable”, even in a game about mutants from Atlantis.

It’s a small change, but it manages to change the tone of the level for me. That’s how important level design is in creating the feel of a world.

That’s not a new observation, but it was very interesting to see it in action.

 

Banner Photo Source: gametripper.co.uk.

Thoughts On The Tomb Raider Trailer

Back in June 2016 I wrote a piece on the then announcement of Alicia Vikander being cast in the role of Lara Croft for the new Tomb Raider film. There have been quite a few updates from when I last spoke about the film, the major point being the release of the poster and the first teaser trailer for the film. For those who haven’t seen the latter, let’s have a look right now, then I’ll go through parts I like along with some other general stuff

Okay, so let’s get into this.

First things first, the film has a reported release date of March 16 2018. At the time of writing that is still half a year away. Teaser trailers are usually sent out before the film has been signed off, so a lot of people complaining about poor CGI quality, it’s not fully representative of the final film. Yes, it’s odd to show it in a trailer if it’s not representative of a final film, but hey-ho, look at Suicide Squad. But while the CGI doesn’t look particularly good, the stunts are done for real. Looking at this behind-the-scenes featurette (warning: may contain spoilers), you can see for yourself that the sets are largely built and that the Stunt Co-ordinator is none other than Franklin Henson (whose list of credits is extensive). He has worked on similar themed films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom and National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, which if they are anything are fun, pulpy adventure films that Tomb Raider should fit comfortably alongside.

One point I also want to make is that I love how many references to the 2013 game are in the trailer. The majority of the film is based on the 2013 reboot, along with dashes of the sequel to said reboot, which was released in mid-2015. These are more than just a wink-and-a-nod to the audience who are in the know, these are the scenes ripped direct from the screen to the…erm, slightly bigger screen. The slow-motion jump from the ship, falling through the broken glass of an airplane cockpit, climbing the broken wing of another airplane; these are all shots players of the reboot will recognise. This is probably to appeal to us fans since the film won’t be truly following the game, but that’s adaptations for you, what works for one medium won’t work for another. One scene from the game that hasn’t been shown in the trailer is Lara’s first kill. Lara is using her bow and axe in the trailer, so it’s guaranteed they’ll be some bloodshed, so I hope that this dramatic and memorable scene from the game, where Lara is covered in blood and in shock after killing someone for the first time is in there.

Sadly, there is no Sam or Sam-approximate featured (Lara’s possible beau in the reboot series), just a few lines from Kirsten Scott Thomas being the only female interaction in the trailer. Vikander stated that the film will pass the Bechdel Test, so there has to be some more female characters in there. In the same interview, Vikander also stated the film “…actually has relationships and stories…” so maybe it could be a subtle approach to the perceived “not-straightness” at play in Tomb Raider, which I’ve written about here.

The trailer and the behind-the-scenes featurette do sadly give away a bit too much of the plot for my liking. Maybe that’s my fault for watching too much, but to be honest, apart from the trailer and poster, I’ve stayed away from news about this film. I’m not going to go through the trailer and start dissecting all the scenes and speculate about what might happen in the story (despite previously doing it for Red Dead, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and many more on this exact site) because the trailer is pretty clear on the narrative beats, evil scheming and all. Thinking about it, it’s better than Assassin’s Creed, which hid half of its bogus story away from the trailer, making us all believe more than half of it was going to be in the Animus.

Talking of Assassin’s Creed, yeah I know. We’ve all been burned before. Assassin’s Creed was a personal one for me. I’m going to keep harping on about Macbeth forever, because it was the perfect precursor to what an Assassin’s Creed film could look like. That film was excellent, and yet despite having the exact same cast and crew, Assassin’s Creed was a confusing mess, despite showing us the exact opposite in it’s promotional material. Maybe I’m too forgiving of Hollywood, maybe I’m clutching at straws in the hopes of a game I love being adapted for a wider audience. All it has to do is not be terrible. That really shouldn’t be a big ask.

Finally, I just want to address the wave of backlash against Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. Check out the comments for the trailer up above, or the comments in IGN’s thread on the trailer. I called this back in May, that Vikander was going to have a hard time because she wasn’t “real Lara” i.e. Lara from the 1990s. Despite Vikander herself, the trailer, the behind-the-scenes clips and the poster all saying or inferring that this is an origin story, some people are just not getting it. However, the lovely Easter Egg at the end of the trailer with the dual pistols is a neat nod to the series roots, especially since they look like the same pistols from Angelina Jolie’s TR films…

And hey, Nick Frost is in there, it’s always nice to see him.

Those are my thoughts (or looking back on it, ramble) on the Tomb Raider  trailer. Time will tell if the film is going to be any good, but I’m already excited.

 

Banner photo source: nerdist.com.

How To Make A Good Video Game Film – Part Two

After sitting through the awful Assassin’s Creed movie three months ago, I wrote a blog post titled, “How To Make A Good Video Game Film“. It’s probably one of the highest-viewed posts on this site and I had fun writing it and it led to some good conversations with people who disagreed with my points.

I was playing some Minecraft with some friends and I mentioned that there was a Minecraft movie in the works. My friend sighed loudly and said there was no point to making a Minecraft movie because, “…it would take out the entire reason for playing Minecraft, the gameplay.” I understood where he was coming from, (it’s one of the main reasons given for stopping game-to-movie adaptations), some games are inexorably tied to their gameplay.

(SPOILERS AHEAD for Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line) Bioshock is a key example. While it might be fun to see Rapture on the big screen, “Would You Kindly” (the phrase that controls the main character) would lose pretty much all of its awesomeness, since we are not playing. Spec Ops: The Line is another. We decide to enter Dubai, we decide to use the white phosphorous and game chastises us for how we play the game. Those choices wouldn’t be there in a non-interactive medium.

To take away the thing that separates games from all other media makes sense, so we should stop game-movies, right?

HOWEVER…

Before we decide that, let me show you a few things.

The Defence of Video Games – The Last Question

Books have been a main source of adaptation since the inception of filmmaking. The Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Christie; several key books and authors have been successfully transposed from page to screen. Heck, Chuck Palahniuk is on record as saying the film version of Fight Club is better than his book.

So, we can all agree that book to movie’s work. And believe it or not, there are some books to games. A non-interactive media working in an interactive one. Let’s look at some examples.

  1. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

i_have_no_mouth_and_i_must_scream

One of the best science-fiction stories ever written, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi story is a slim tome, I think it’s around ten pages. And they managed to make it into a sprawling hours-long adventure game. Reading it again and again, I’m surprised they managed to make this short story, one with not a lot of character backstory or traditional narrative, into a game, but they did and they managed to create what is regarded as an actual mature game, when mature meant dealing with themes such as sexual assault and the Holocaust (see the link below), rather than mature meaning an 18 Rating and lots of blood.

Harlan Ellison worked on the script with the creators (showing that getting people who care about the property makes it better) and it while it is technical ‘sequel’ and throws out a couple of the themes, it’s thought to be one of the best point-and-click games ever created.

  1. Metro 2033

metro2033.jpg

I got to read Metro 2033 before I played the game, surprising how it came out in the United Kingdom the same year as the game did. The Metro series, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky tells the story of people living in the Moscow Metro system (partly designed as the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb shelter) twenty years after a nuclear war.

The game follows the same story of the book fairly closely. Players/readers follow Artyom as he travels from one side to the other trying to save his station while encountering hostile humans and supernatural enemies. In the game we get all the main characters from the book, like Bourbon and Khan as well as some of the minute details such as staring down the Librarians or the mummified lady in the ticket booth. I guess this is what happens when the writer of the book helps write the game.

  1. Rainbow Six

rainbow six.jpg

Much like Metro, I read Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six before I played the original game (which sold 25m copies when it was released). There has only been one R6 novel, and while the newer games have made their own stories, the first game stuck extremely close to the novel, with missions directly lifted from the novel. It’s not even a run-and-gun shooter. Violence is to be feared in Rainbow Six, where one stray bullet can kill you, something which the book emphasised heavily. And again, just like the two cases before, Tom Clancy not only helped develop the game but was one of the founders of the company that made it, Red Storm.

Closing Arguments

So what’s my point? Well, if a book can be turned into a film and be successful (LOTR, Harry Potter etc.) and a book can be turned into a game and be successful (the three above, as well as The Witcher and Parasite Eve) why can’t a game into movie work? A book into game shows a non-interactive media working in interactive, so that dispels the usual video-game-to-film argument that the film would just be gameplay footage.

Heck, most games have equivalent films. Tomb Raider is Indiana JonesAssassin’s Creed is both The Matrix and The Mask Of ZorroRainbow Six is Sicario (not to mention the five other Tom Clancy films, showing that his action can work in all three mediums). This is what I meant in my original article about choosing a correct property, something that would work as a film, not Angry Birds or bloody Tetris. A follow up argument might be, “well why do we need video-game films if other films do it the exact same?” That’s a non-argument. Every slasher film has pretty much the same story, but we watch it to see the new things added to it.

Tetris
Why is this a thing? Do not go see it, I beg all of you. Don’t go even as a joke.

And if we want to look at it the other way, we can. Several games have been turned into books, and not just concept art books or behind-the-scenes. Max Payne 3 had a three-comic series written by Sam Lake and Dan Houser which fits right into the series. Halo, Splinter Cell (a Tom Clancy property) and Assassin’s Creed (which was also based off a novel, Alamut) have all jumped from games into book form and are well-received by their fan-bases. The new Tomb Raider comics had Rhianna Pratchett and Gail Simone (the latter being comic writer of Deadpool, Wonder Woman and Batgirl). That’s an interactive media moving into non-interactive.

And to finish, there is a long-running game series known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is set around the nuclear site at Chernobyl. And before it was made into a game, it was a book before being turned into a play, another book and even a tabletop role-playing game. The creators managed to move between all those types of media, both interactive and non-interactive. But the main thread I want to bring up was the film that was based on the same text. The film is called Stalker (that’s where the game got the name from). And do you know who made that film? Andrei flippin’ Tarkovsky, one of the premier filmmakers to ever come out of the Soviet Union. That film is ranked 29th at the BFI’s ’50 Greatest Films Of All Time’.

While the game is much more bang-bang-shooty than the film, which is a 163-minute philosophical breakdown, the New York Review of Books still said that, “…much of the players activity is oddly in-keeping with Stalker‘s spirit, sometimes even managing to expand upon it.” And while NYRoB says, “…on the face of it, the games don’t have much that in common with the film,” S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t just defined by it’s shooting. Again, it’s one of those games that it’s gameplay might be boring if it were beamed straight into a theatre, but moving away from that might create a great film. I never said that game-films had to stick to their gameplay, but it’s knowing which gameplay can translate into movie action well.

So, let me put that question to you again. If a book can be turned into a critically and commercially successful film and a book can be turned into a critically and commercially successful game, why can’t a game be turned into a critically and commercially successful film?

Argue with me in comments if you have a reason why it wouldn’t work.