Ideas For Post-Shadow Tomb Raider

It has just been over one year since Shadow Of The Tomb Raider was released. I wasn’t bowled over by the game (Rise is still my favourite of the new reboot series), but it had enough to keep me engaged.

However, I feel a need for change is coming on again. 2013 was a revelation, creating a Tomb Raider game and a Lara we hadn’t seen before. Rise built upon its predecessor’s work and tweaked and refined the experience.

Shadow… it feels a bit like replication. It is a very good replication and has a few nifty surprises hidden in its backpack, but it is not so much a step forward rather than a step sideways.

I don’t think this is just personal bias. For all the talk of Shadow being the final event that turned Lara Croft into the Tomb Raider, it felt like a story being stretched further than it needed to be.

So, with the reboot trilogy finished, let us throw a few ideas around that I would want to see in a new Tomb Raider game.

Where Should Tomb Raider Go After Shadow Of The Tomb Raider?

  1. A Different Lara

One of the things I find fascinating about Lara is that in twenty years she has gone through several redesigns but remains instantly recognisible. That may be a statement on female characters in gaming, but also could be because of her iconic outfit and accessories.

Now that we’ve had half a decade of hyper-realistic Lara, I wouldn’t mind a touch of cartoon styling for her next appearance. I don’t mean make her the impossibly proportioned character from the 90s, but something a bit more…Amazonian (a descriptor that was actually used in The Angel of Darkness at 1:03:16).

Lara is meant to be this kickass character able to throw herself up sheer cliff faces and fight a whole manner of creatures, so make her the peak of ‘killer kickass’. Shadow teased us with a character model with biceps before they nixed the idea. Let’s see that this time around.

My main two ideas for a cartoony Croft were Gridlock from Rainbow Six Siege and Laura from Street Fighter V (seen down below respectively). Both these women look like (and can) go toe-to-toe with any male character in their games, and I think it would work well seeing a physically imposing Lara, showing how she has changed over time. I wouldn’t even mind if they kept the scars from Rise and Shadow, another token of the change and history of the character.

With a less realistic design we could change Lara’s movement as well. I’ve recently been replaying Legend and one thing that struck me was that Lara’s movement is…goofier?

For example, instead of just climbing up a ledge, Lara will fling herself up using only her upper body strength and onto her feet. If a player continues to tap the Roll button, Lara will throw herself into a gymnastic display worthy of an Olympic gold medal. I haven’t even mentioned the swan dive and handstand that she could perform in the original series. I like these more over-the-top approaches.

In terms of character, yeah, I kind of want to see a more playful Lara next time around. Rise had a few moments, but I felt Shadow had hardly any levity (although that game was about the apocalypse so I’ll let it slide). And regarding her parents, it’s been cleared up, let’s move on.

  1. A Reworked World

It was quite a big step in 2013 to have Tomb Raider set in an open world, although it seems rather obvious. Previous games would have massive levels (with some in TR4 actually having multiple points of entry and having to return to a few of them several times), but 2013 nailed a great formula.

But just like a change regarding Lara, I am feeling an itch for a change in the level design. While I was playing Shadow I went for a trek and found some interesting places and hidden nooks, but then when I returned and spoke to the NPC to start a mission, the NPC took me through a whistle-stop tour of everywhere I had just been. It felt so weird to play through, and this would happen multiple times throughout the game, to the point where I stopped exploring (which is the antithesis of the game’s vision).

However, going back to a more linear frame would hamper the series, as it seems to have flourished now it has more room to play around with. So let’s make a compromise; a big but linear hub world, with several paths leading to several tombs. These tombs can be signposted by small but very deliberate signs like rocks in an odd formation or a broken tree (similar to the Monolith Puzzles in Shadow, which I suggested could be a gameplay feature back in 2017).

Once we play through the tomb we return to the hub world and follow another path to another tomb. The hub world could be a mash-up of Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge, with Tomb Raider’s aesthetic and individual trappings giving the world flavour (come to think of it, with all that climbing, surely Lara Croft would have learnt some gymnastics or parkour?).

Prince of Persia 2008
Prince Of Persia (2008) had several paths leading to each hub world, making the land feel expansive despite having a linear design. (Source: ripostedisponible.wordpress.com).

The hub world also allows us to open up geographically. While I enjoyed the single locations of the past three games (with Yamatai and Siberia having some geographical variety), the hub world allows our explorer to find all the pieces to a treasure in one location (after finishing all the tombs), before heading off to a new location with its own hub world and selection of tombs.

One request though, cut the collectibles, at least in the hub world. I get anxious whenever I access an open world map for the first time and all the items load in, and I can’t be the only one (not to mention ‘Touch The Shiny Thing’ doesn’t exactly get my blood racing). Keep the secrets to the levels and leave it as that. However, a counter argument to this would be,

“Why have an open world if there is nothing to do in it?”

This is a valid question. So I propose another solution to go with the level-based secrets; unmapped locations.

While Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Skyrim had some locations off their maps, the main game that gave me this inspiration was the original Mafia.

Mafia had an open city to drive around in, but many prominent locations were just off the map edge, giving the countryside a sense of danger and making any mission set outside the city tenser. There were several places in the city of Lost Heaven that the player was under no obligation to visit, such as the Lost Heaven Lighthouse or Dam. I think something like this but for Tomb Raider, like a disguised path leading to an optional tomb or puzzle, would be a good addition.

Mafia Lost Heaven Dam
The Lost Heaven Dam from Mafia. This location is not on a map or used in-game, yet makes the land feel richer for its inclusion. (Source: mafiagame.fandom.com)
  1. The Combat

Part of Lara’s iconic image is the twin pistols. They were missing from the reboot series, instead replaced with another now-iconic weapon, the bow.

Whoever the developer of the next game ends up being, the bow has been an integral inclusion of the rebooted Tomb Raider games and it would be a little sad to see it leave after three games.

The pistols were seen for one small scene near the end of the 2013 game, with Lara wielding akimbo pistols to shoot bad guy Mathias off a cliff edge. However I thought the dual pistols scene looked silly (even in a game about Sun Queens and zombie samurai) because the game had been aiming for realism for the past 20+ hours. If the series were to take a less realistic slant then twin pistols could make a return, complete with flips and kicks.

In terms of gameplay, of Lara is already throwing herself over ledges and walls why not have her take a leaf from Max Payne or Rubi Malone and fly through the air? TR has dabbled in bullet time before, both in set pieces and player enabled so it might be a cool thing to include.

The main reason why I wanted to mention combat is violence and death. The older Tomb Raider games got away with some gruesome deaths by their lack of graphics. Spike pits, being set on fire, drowned, shot, stabbed, eaten alive, blown up, disintegrated, all that jazz got Tomb Raider an 11+ rating.

Over time the series has fluctuated between 11+ and 16+, with the reboot being the first time that the series broke the 18+ rating. President of Eidos Interactive, Ian Livingstone, said the change was made to deliver the “gritty realism” that players wanted.

And I get it, the market in 2013 was heading in that direction. However, a lot of the violent deaths in the reboot felt that they were going for shock value (especially that spike through the neck, you know the one I’m talking about, 2:02).

The market today is a lot more colourful and cartoony. I want Tomb Raider to be playable to anyone who wants to pick up the controller, and I think taking that step back on the snuff film aesthetic would be a bit more refreshing.

Tracer Overwatch
Overwatch, a game with fast frenetic gunplay and only a 12+ rating. Uncharted only got a 16+ rating. Why can’t Tomb Raider go lower? (Source: polygon.com).
  1. The Story

I’m not going into an in-depth “what-I-would-write” post, but there was a tease at the end of Shadow as to where Lara would be going next before it was patched out. On Lara’s desk in the original epilogue scene, there was a letter addressed to her from a Jacqueline Natla. Natla was the head baddy in both Tomb Raider 1 and the remake Anniversary.

I don’t want this to be the next Tomb Raider game. That story has already been done twice and I don’t know what making that game a third time will add to the experience.

So instead, I propose this. This is the trailer to the Hitman reboot, released in 2016.

To fans of the Hitman franchise (such as myself), this was a geek-out moment. All of the kills featured come from the previous games.

The sniper kill is “Kowloon Triads in Gang War” from the original Hitman game. The sushi death is from “Tracking Hayamoto” from Hitman 2. The drowning man is Fritz Fuchs in “Traditions of the Trade” from Contracts. The cello player is Don Fernando Delgado in “A Vintage Year” from Blood Money. And the final bullet through the one-way mirror kills Dom Osmond during “Hunter and Hunted” from Absolution.

There was a lot of grumbling in the Hitman community as to what it meant to the legacy of Agent 47 when 2016’s Hitman was referred to as a reboot. Fans were assuaged when we heard David Bateson’s voice in the “Sapienza” trailer, and this trailer was even better. We weren’t losing the character’s history, this trailer showed we were continuing on from Absolution.

I think this would be a good way to reintroduce Lara. A trailer in a similar style, seeing Lara at Yamatai, Kitezh, and Paititi (the reboot games), then St. Francis Folly (TR1), Venice/Barkhang Monastery (TR2), River Ganges/RX-Tech Mines (TR3), Valley Of The Kings (TR4) and beyond would be a great moment. It would allow Lara to grow beyond the reboot without throwing out the character established in the past three games.

Call it a soft reboot; heading back to square two, restarting the series but with the knowledge and experiences of previous games filling in Lara’s backstory.

Speaking of all of that established lore, a soft reboot allows us to keep the excellent Camilla Luddington as Lara and bring back many characters. Winston and Jonah are a given and I would personally love the return of Sam, Zip, and Alister as periphery characters.

One thing I would love to see in Tomb Raider are rival archeologists. We had Pierre and Larson in TR1/TRA and Chronicles, Von Croy in TR4, Chronicles, and Angel of Darkness, and Carter Bell in The Temple Of Osiris. It would be fun to have a story where Lara is facing off against people who are just as smart and slick as her. There is even a multiplayer component there, having players face off against each other if the developers wanted to.

Conclusion

I remember when Shadow was first teased, Square Enix said in a statement that it wouldn’t, “…be very long between the official reveal and when you can play.” With Shadow Of The Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition releasing earlier this month, a new lease of life has been given to the instalment.

There will probably be a moderate wait before any new moves for the franchise are announced. Square Enix, working with Eidos Montreal on Shadow, were able to deliver a relatively quick follow up to Rise as most of the pieces were in place. But for now they should have some time to relax, celebrate their success, before coming back with whatever new ideas they want to explore.

The reboot was a much needed boost for Tomb Raider. It brought me back to the series, and brought in a whole new set of fans. I don’t want to forget it, but I think Tomb Raider needs to strike out again.

 

Gridlock Photo Source: rainbows.fandom.com

Laura Photo Source: reddit.com (r/StreetFighter)

Photo Banner Source: twitter.com (@tombraider).

Learning To Love The Uncharted Series

During the late 2000s and most of the 2010s I was the owner of an Xbox 360. I think my main reasoning behind choosing that system was that all my friends had one, so if I wanted to play with them, that would be the console.

Before I had chosen a 360 I was scouring through games that looked interesting to me and I remember one catching my eye. I remember going into game stores and continually picking up one box and reading and re-reading the back cover.

That game was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I knew nothing about the series at that part of my life, but I was already hooked. I mean, it looked like a modern Indiana Jones game. Anyone who knows me knows I love Tomb Raider, so another treasure-hunting simulator would be right up my street.

But alas, when I finally picked up an Xbox I realised that Uncharted was a PlayStation  exclusive title, therefore I couldn’t play it (and I was not the position to buy a separate console). So Uncharted moved to the back of my mind until I picked up a PlayStation 4 in mid-2018.

With Uncharted being one of Sony’s premiere exclusives, the first three games were given a quick polish and sent out as a boxset to customers. I quickly bought the collection and settled down for some classic shooting/platforming fun. I mean, these games were beloved, how could they be anything more than excellent?

Well…

What Spending 100+ Hours With Nathan Drake Looks Like

I felt very confused while playing Uncharted 1. Here was this game, lauded as inspirational and influential in its design and gameplay…yet all I could think was single sight plains, flat geometry, and tedious whack-a-mole gameplay.

I died many times just to try and speed up the process; it felt like my life was ebbing away from me as I continued to play. The only time when it livened up for me was when the Nazi Mutants appeared, changing gameplay into a more run-and-gun affair. This was on normal/moderate difficulty setting (because ‘normal’, as the word suggests, would be the standard way to play the game), yet it was like pulling teeth.

UC1 ElDorado
The game certainly livened up by the end, but couldn’t save the rest of the experience for me. (Source: engadget.com).

I rationalised my thoughts by thinking, ‘Maybe this was standard for 2007.” However, 2007 also gave us Assassin’s Creed (genre-defining), Bioshock (narrative behemoth), CoD4 and Halo 3 (game-changers). Even Tomb Raider Anniversary, much maligned by its own fanbase, felt fluid and fast, the complete opposite of UC1.

So maybe this was just a blueprint game, one that would get better with subsequent titles.

I put those bad feelings aside as I booted up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. This one was going to be good. It is generally accepted as the best game in the series.

Hhhmm, how to put this…Uncharted 2 made me want to stop playing games.

There have been times where I have played games I haven’t enjoyed. There have been games I’ve actively disliked. But never have I played a game that has made me waver in my love of the medium.

Most of my complaints for UC1 were back, but tenfold. Long flat corridors or arenas, plinking away from behind cover with ineffective weapons, I could feel that draining sensation again.

The gunplay was serviceable, but it was nothing compared to the climbing. In most platforming sections, Uncharted 2 switches to a cinematic camera. I’m all for the cinematic approach to games, especially when it heightens the gameplay.

I hated Uncharted 2 from the very first sequence because of that bloody camera. Climbing up the train cars is a moment most gamers found thrilling, but because of the camera switches I couldn’t even figure out where to go.

The angles would throw off my depth perception, making me push forward and die when I should have been pushing sideways. Dying over and over again two minutes in because the game is giving you insufficient information will drive anyone to anger.

UC2 Train
Even now I still can’t do this sequence in one go…I feel my blood pressure rising already. (Source: playstation.com).

Even the introduction of Chloe Frazer hardly tempered my loathing. Just like UC1, the game picked up during the final stretch at the monastery, mainly due to the excellent level design and geometry, and the inclusion of the Nazi Mutants again.

As I booted up Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I was worried. Was this third entry going to be more of the same? What was wrong with me? Was I playing the game wrong?

I knew I liked third-person shooters; I’ve spent unknown hours with several 007 games, I love all of Remedy Entertainment’s work, Spec Ops: The Line is my favourite game of all time. Even at the same time of playing UC2 I played The Order: 1886, Ready at Dawn’s Victorian-steampunk shooter PS4 launch title. I loved that game and still hope to see a sequel some day.

So, I started Uncharted 3…and a new feeling came over me. I was having fun. Good-hearted, honest fun. I thought there had to be a catch, but none came. It was a blast.

The fights and shootouts in London, the rooftop chases in Colombia and Yemen, the attack on the citadel in Syria, the shipyard/sunken cruiser (with a beautiful cinematic camera, this time not obscuring the way to go), the cargo plane…repeat, THE CARGO PLANE, the horse ride into the desert, then finishing off once more with an ancient city crumbling to dust, I loved it from start to finish.

UC3 Plane
Uncharted 3 still has some of the best set-pieces in all of gaming. (Source: YouTube.com, GameSpot).

Upon finishing UC3 I had a lull in my games at the time, so I went back to the first two games and cranked up the difficulty to Crushing. I had nothing to lose if I didn’t enjoy it, but I adored every second.

I don’t know what came over me, but it was like experiencing the game for the first time again, but this time being the game that everyone told me it was. Even in Uncharted 2, it seemed all the levels I had hated had switched positions, making the final push towards the monastery even better.

Uncharted 4 follows in UC3’s stellar footsteps. I’ve always liked when Nathan has had someone to bounce off like Charlie or Chloe, and Sam is a great addition to the narrative. Throw in some excellent set pieces and locations and delving into the married life of Elena and Nathan (something seldom seen in games), I think this one might be my favourite one.

Conclusion

So what changed? Well, obviously the graphics and design became better and more intricate as subsequent games were made, but what about that turnaround for UC1 and UC2?

As I said previously, I’ve played my fair share of third-person shooters, but I wasn’t exactly raised on them in same way I was raised on racing games or Tomb Raider. Looking back at my favourite TPSes, most come from the PS2 or 360 generations. I haven’t played a straight, linear shooter since Spec Ops, because they aren’t really made as much any more.

Sure, there are shooting games galore, but not many single player shooter games. Even Amy Hennig said they are “…a harder and harder proposition.” (Takahashi, D. 2019). The closest I could think of besides The Order: 1886 was Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which is another open-world extravaganza from Ubisoft.

Order 86 GP
If you haven’t had the chance yet, please play The Order: 1886. It looks and sounds stunning. (Source: huffingtonpost.co.uk).

That might be the reason. It is enthralling to see a gameplay or mechanic that hasn’t been felt in over a decade, to see a simple beginning-middle-end structure with some shooty bits in the middle. I know, what a concept!

But that sounds offensive, ‘I only liked your game because I had nothing else to play,’ that is definitely not the case. I must come clean and say the problem was probably me.

I just needed time. I came to Uncharted with my own ideas on what it would be and my own biases. I wasn’t on the game’s wavelength, and I found it increasingly hard to get a handle on.

It may have taken a few games to get me to understand, but I get it now.

I like it now. I love it now.

I’ll treasure the experiences, both good and bad.

 

Banner Photo Source: gamespot.com

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

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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.