Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tomb Raider, Torture Porn, and Looking For an Audience That Exists

Someone thinks this will arouse you.

So let's talk, months late, about the recent Square Enix Tomb Raider reboot, which I played on the PS3.

First off, let me say that it's a really well-made game. Excellent production values. Flat but reasonable writing. Fun gameplay. Enjoyable combat and puzzles. Environments that are neat and worth exploring.

I have to make it really clear before I get into the mess: This is a good game, and the people who made it should pat themselves on the back.

And yet, one simple decision, one minor choice of tone and content, blows the whole expensive thing up.

Here's the thing. Yes. Tomb Raider was a hit, kind of. It sold millions of copies.

But this Tomb Raider is the newest game in an iconic franchise, with brilliant design and top-rate production values. Of course it sold a lot of copies. It just wasn't the hit it could have been, and, more importantly, it wasn't the hit Square Enix needed it to be.  This is a phenomenal shame.

I think it's obvious why it didn't perform.

Yes, this is a lake of blood and rotting human flesh. Alas, the game does not contain soap.

First, About the Bewbs

I have no problem with using sex appeal to sell games. As of this writing, I've spent the last several weeks listening to females in my acquaintance wax rhapsodic about Benedict Cumberbatch and Thor. They can let me have an athletic young archaeologist/grave robber in a tanktop.

However, here is the first rule of Sex Appeal: If you want to make something sexy to sell it, it has to be sexy.

This game is meant to be an Indiana Jones-style romp, with a sense of lightness and fun. I mean, watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again. (This is never not a good idea.) This is a movie full of gory death and violence and Nazi melting faces, but it's still FUN. Look, Spielberg is a true master, and I don't expect everyone to pull off the miracle of getting this tone right, but you have to come closer than Tomb Raider did.

The problems start with the packaging. When I picked up the box and turned it over, I saw three pictures of Lara Croft covered with mud, filth, and blood. It's gross. Not sexy. Also, ewwww.

This doesn't stop when you're playing. The game is full of gratuitous gory bodies and chopped off limbs and cannibalism and tortured corpses. Set aside that this is the most obvious, cliched way to depict the evil cultists that serve as your foe. It's excessively gross and boilerplate, but that's not even the real problem. 

Warning: Do not look at this image.
OH! GOD! OH! ACK! NO!

Tomb Raider is violent. Like Saw movie murder porn excruciating to watch violent.

Sure, Lara brutally kills hundreds of evil guys. It's a video game. We can kinda sorta live with that, though I really wish they'd come up with a more clever solution. Instead of killing ten guys and then ten guys and then ten guys in a series of boilerplate shootouts, I wish they'd had a way to have there be far less killing but for it to require more care and cunning. 

(The Ellie boss fight from The Last of Us should be played by all designers for a perfect example of how this can be done. Also the Mr. Freeze fight from Batman: Arkham City.)

But that isn't even the problem.

Tomb Raider has lots of Quick Time Events ("Press the triangle button now FAST or die! Ha! You suck!"), which is already unfun design. They are really tricky and fast, which is even more terrible. And when you fail (and you will, a lot), you will see Lara die in a really horrible way.

You will see Lara, for example, have her throat ripped out by wolves. Be hacked with machetes. Have the neck impaled on a wooden stake. Swim through a lake of blood and rotting human flesh.

When you die, we're not talking about the camera cutting away and you hear nasty sound effects and get to imagine the gruesome thing that just happened. No, when that bad guys strangles her, you will see it lovingly animated, no detail lost as the life slowly drains from her eyes.

Gamers are inured to this sort of horror. It's time for a reminder that most people aren't.

This is what fun looks like.
The Finest Game Critic Working Today

Talk show host Conan O'Brien does a series of segments for his show called Clueless Gamer. In them, Conan, a self-professed non-gamer, tries out the hot games. Watching a civilian come face to face with all the bizarre design choices we've all trained ourselves to take for granted is a humbling and educational existence.

They're also hilarious.

It's real game criticism, the sort we need, the sort that doesn't shrug our shoulders and let us get away with lazy crap. (His Grand Theft Auto V segment does an awesome job of getting at what works and doesn't work about the series. I wish so much they'd had him play the torture mission.)

The Tomb Raider segment is particularly informative.  Jump to 6:00. Watch the gruesomeness. Listen to the audience reaction. Listen to what Conan is saying. "Don't let it happen again." "This is a nightmare."

This is what the game industry is selling. This is what we're proffering to people as Art. The problem isn't that Normal Humans see us as creepy sociopaths. The problem is that it's hard to argue they're not right.

The Real Problem

Kurt Vonnegut wrote, about writing, "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." This is brilliant advice. Don't try to write for too many people at once. It will just dilute your work.

So who is Tomb Raider written for?

Is this game for people who want to ogle a young, attractive woman? Hey, I don't categorically oppose using attractive people to sell product. I'm as intrigued by a sexy assembly of polygons as the next guy. 

But I have a hard time getting into my "Hey, that's sexy!" headspace when the woman I'm supposed to ogle is being constantly horribly mutilated and coated with filth. I don't want to ogle her. I want to give her a sweater.

Is this game for people who want a rollicking Indiana Jones style of adventure? The sort of thing promised by the name "Tomb Raider"? Then bear in mind that most people who want to explore catacombs and look for treasure may also have a small tolerance for watching young women being strangled in long, lovingly animated segments.

Is this game for young women who desperately want to play a game with a protagonist who, in some way, reminds them of themselves? Like, say, my daughters. My seven year old was playing a little World of Warcraft the other day, and she asked me, exact quote, "Why are all the pandas boys?" My family wants games with women in them, and we spend money.

Well, I won't let my seven and eleven year old daughters get within a thousand miles of Tomb Raider. Pity. They might have become lifelong fans of a series that wouldn't give them perma-nightmares. 

Is this game for young dudebros who grew up watching Saw and other torture porn and get off on a bit of the old ultraviolence? Well, I get e-mail from these kids all the time. They will only rarely play a game where they control a female character. I think they're afraid they'll catch the gay.

So I'm really trying to think who this otherwise terrific game is being aimed at. Apparently someone who's saying, "I want to spend my leisure time watching a young, talented woman being repeatedly tortured and mutilated. But I also like puzzles!"

Hope For the Future

It's a real shame because, I must again stress, there's a terrific game in here. If you can look past the gruesome (and many people can), Tomb Raider is a ton of fun.

I've read that a sequel is in the works. I really hope so. If I can get through it without needing therapy, I'll totally buy it. My little hope? Man, I would love to play it (or parts of it) with my kids. I hope it works out.

---

Another good analysis of the game is at Errant Signal. And, as always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.


24 comments:

  1. Nice blog, but this comment - "Well, I won't let my seven and eleven year old daughters get within a thousand miles of Tomb Raider." shouldn't even be here. This game is rated 18 (in the UK, and presumably in the US as well) therefore you shouldn't even think about letting children that young view the game, same as you would not let them watch a horror film or an adult film (both 18 rated as well).
    For me, the game was about the journey of Lara "having a really bad day", rather than viewing it as some sort of horror story.

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    Replies
    1. These rating systems are intended to give parents who wouldn't dream of playing video games a way to make that judgement call. I would like to think someone involved to this degree should be capable of showing more initiative.

      Delete
    2. The problem is that I routinely read about 5 year olds watching R movies and playing M games. Routinely.

      Gamer parents who are young enough that they are still trying to prove their maturity by putting down Nintendo as 'kiddie crap' are on forums talking about how their 3 year old (I kid you not) is already bored with the entire Wii and DS catalog and therefore is playing M games by 4. These are bad parents - and there are loads of them.

      So sadly ... Jeff needs to mention this.

      Delete
  2. I must admit, some of the cut scenes made me feel pretty uncomfortable, and I've played some pretty gnarly games, and watched some pretty gnarly movies.

    It IS a fun game and there's a lot of stuff in there, but there's this undercurrent in the whole thing that just sits wrong with me.

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  3. Excellent article. Interestingly enough, I used to play through the original PlayStation Tome Raider once a year and the deaths in that game (and the series) are all pretty upsetting (which, given the game was mimicking and upping the violence of Prince of Persia's death scenes to some extent, made sense in a weird way).

    That said, the new game's realism and the decision to focus on the death scenes instead of cutting away or using less graphic camera angles turned me off of the game after some failed attempts at QTE's and assorted traps and such. I managed to complete the game but haven't touched it since.

    But it's a weird thing that this stuff is upsetting, yet I can blow zombie heads off in some fps or hack up a baddie in Diablo III and I'm in for the night and then some. And paradoxically, that new Mortal Kombat is still a turn-off. My head hurts.

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  4. I'd just like to say I have 8 Avernum games and love them.
    But this review... What?
    So... it's too violent? But the sex appeal is okay...?
    I'm sorry. I completely disagree and find no real substance in this.
    Just because you want Tomb Raider to be dumb and funny (and sexy) doesn't mean anyone else does.
    I thought the game was magnificent.

    Also--maybe there are some people out there who think a total bad ass chick covered in blood is sexy... (I would never deny needing professional help.)

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  5. WoW has girl pandas too! Actually WoW has lots of female characters, it's not so bad.

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  6. I don't agree. I'm seeing this as "If I (male) see a chick that has a nice body I need her to be a sex object". One does not entail the other. You almost write like a female protagonist can have only two purposes: being a sexual turn-on, or being for girls. Males should see a female protagonist as something more than that, as someone you care for and don't want to die (fight for survival). I don't know if it was intentional, but in the end the game in a way challenges the idea that having an attractive body means anything in the face of death. Sorry for sounding like a hardcore feminist here, but you seem to miss the point when putting equality sign between male sexiness and female one: the thing is in our culture males have a choice - you can present them as asexual or not, regardless of the physique. With women - if you're sexy, you are a sex object. Unless you cover yourself feet to head arabian style.

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  7. Preach it. The games industry is self-ghettoizing to a large extent. People like my wife (and me, increasingly, as I age) love to play games but there are some really off-putting conventions in games if you approach them with an outsider's viewpoint. I like the historical-romp aspect of Assassin's Creed, for instance, but have zero interest in playing an assassin, so I've largely sat out the series. My wife cringes every time I go into a stranger's house in a JRPG and break all their crockery.

    It's tough; designers are often people who came up through the trenches in QA and they don't have tons of life experience outside of games. It's like how I roll my eyes every time a song about the life of being a singer/songwriter comes on the air (you could seriously probably play 24 hours straight of those songs without repeating).

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  8. I partially agree. I don't object to their choice of tone in general. It's clear they wanted this to be realistic and gritty—a deliberate move away from what you're suggesting it should have been. I think I would have liked your version better, but I can't say they chose incorrectly. The problem is I think they didn't execute it very well. The game is brutal to its protagonist start to finish. It's completely over the top. I ended every play session wanting to take a hot bath and dollop ben-gay on my imaginary bruises. Just watching her get beaten, fall, run for her life, etc. made me exhausted. A little restraint would have gone a long way.

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  9. Another "not-a-point" article. I'm not telling my gorefest horror fan friends they're probably sociopaths and shunning them in disgust. I'm not going to church and bothering everyone by telling them they're delusional and irrational.

    Not-gamers are exactly that - not playing games. Either because they don't interest them, because they hate fun, or because they think it to be childish. Who cares? Who cares what they think? Christians think DnD is satanic.

    Who is Tomb Raider for? Obviously not for everyone. And that's fine.

    "someone who's saying, "I want to spend my leisure time watching a young, talented woman being repeatedly tortured and mutilated. But I also like puzzles!""

    This is especially disingenuous. The main lead happens to be a woman and she happens to die horribly on camera if you suck at the game. You're implying it's designed to appeal to a very specific sliver or its real audience and that this sliver are the sadistic sociopaths . Won't please someone think of the children?!! If only we could have puzzle games without murder!

    The presence of violence is a by-product of the "realism" approach to design. Every time you die should teach you not to do something wrong. If you show enemies getting horribly killed, there's no reason not to show the protagonist getting it as well. It sounds like weird sheltering of the player, obfuscating all the violence you yourself are all too happy to participate in.

    Plus, "normal" people have way too much fun watching others in pain, we're fascinated by death and mutilation. Do you think only sociopaths watch fail compilations on Youtube and google "murder", or type rotten.com in their browsers out of morbid curiosity?

    Dunno, sounds like you're totes fine with people's faces melting off if the rest of the game/film is played for laughs. But god forbid we made a serious game with the same amount of face melting!

    Why not start with the last paragraph, even better - why not tweet a first world problem: "Wish there were more non-violent games I could play with my kids!" ?

    There, done.

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  10. I've played all the Tomb Raider games from the original in DOS. I've played up to about five times some of them. My father had fun watching me play all of them. We were very pleased when we heard that there would be a new Tomb Raider. Unfortunately is was not at all what we would call a Tomb Raider game. My father looked at me play for about an hour and had enough. I continued to play because I had paid for the game and was wondering if it would get better.

    It did get better but not as a Tomb Raider game. I liked the game but it may be the last Tomb Raider game I will ever play. I will return to the previous ones and forget about the new ones. For me Tomb Raider was a fun adventure with puzzles but this one is not the same kind of fun.

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  11. there is a way of shownig gruesome death and making it funny.

    original dead space.

    death was actually so fun , sometimes , you WANTED to die at least once (-well, if the checkpoint was near , anyway)
    most players remember the horrible but so fun ways to die, real production value here, and take the drama out of dying.

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    Replies
    1. I didn't enjoy "Tomb Raider's" death scenes, but they did shock me and make me feel something. Which should be a GOOD thing when it comes to video games. How often is it that video games give you a visceral reaction to the violence on the screen? Almost never. But "Tomb Raider's" death scenes actually had me cringing in pain.

      I mean, I'm not going to argue that they are some sort of brilliant critique of the way violence is made to have no emotional, ethical, or dramatic weight in video games (that'd be kind of silly given how many people Lara ends up mowing down herself with nary a second thought).....but I will say that they did, in the least, jolt me out of the "business as usual" aspects of playing the game and got me thinking. Which I don't think is a bad thing.

      Plus, no one's yet pointed out that the original Tomb Raiders were known for their (graphic at the time) death scenes. There's that famous scene from the TV show "Spaced," for example, where Simon Pegg's character, while down in the dumps, watches Lara drown to death over and over and over.

      Delete
  12. i am not aware about torture porn movie but i know about Viagra.

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    ReplyDelete
  13. "Tomb Raider's" single biggest influence is not "Saw," but the 2006 horror/action film "The Descent" which was an awesome mash up of Aliens, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cliffhanger.....all with a bunch of strong, well developed, female protagonists at the film's center.

    The above screen shot of Lara emerging from the pool of blood is a direct recreation of a similar scene in "The Descent." And "Tomb Raider" lifts its general tone and three act character development structure (from trauma, to hardening, to killing machine) from the film as well.

    I really liked "Tomb Raider." I wouldn't say it's torture porn, though, I think it's general aesthetic is much more 1970s Grindhouse--which has a long storied tradition of putting its strong female protagonists through the wringer. And I do think the new Lara Croft is one of the better realized female action heros in a video game ever. Heck, I even think she was probably the best written action heros of any action game released last year. She has a definite character arch (which is more than can be said for most video game protagonists), but most importantly, while she eventually becomes very tough she also maintains a plausible core of vulnerability to her which ensures that things stay somewhat grounded when the plot takes a turn toward the insane in the second act (what with the cults and mowing down hundreds of enemies, etc, etc). You end up doing some crazy stuff as the game progresses, but I found that I was much more willing to swallow the crazy just because Lara herself always seemed emotionally plausible even if the events going on around her were trending toward the insane/silly.

    And I don't highlight her vulnerability because she's female. I think male action heros would equally benefit from a similar sort of vulnerability. I mean, male action heros in AAA games tend to be a pretty shallow, cliched, lot. So I think they could learn a thing or two from how Lara was handled in "Tom Raider."

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  14. Yep, media in general is getting grosser and cruder. I'm glad you're writing about these games because I wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole. Despite the ratings, I'm sure they will be doled out by the tons this Christmas to underage kids. You don't have to be Freud's great-grandchild to know that sex and violence are often paired, and I'm sure it won't be long before we have people dismembering each other during acts of intimacy in games. I won't make any comparisons to prostitutes and media purveyors because that is unfair to the prostitutes, but probably, psychotherapist is a good career choice going forward.

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  15. I could not even read the rest of this article,'cause it's all BS!.TOMB RAIDER is a great game, nothing should be changed about it. People who don't like the game thats fair enough but in my opinion, its good. I dont see why a little blood in games afect people, yeah its a biy gruesome, but that makes it even more real and fun.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I could not even read the rest of this article,'cause it's all BS!.TOMB RAIDER is a great game, nothing should be changed about it. People who don't like the game thats fair enough but in my opinion, its good. I dont see why a little blood in games afect people, yeah its a biy gruesome, but that makes it even more real and fun.

    ReplyDelete
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  18. I partially agree. I don't object to their choice of tone in general. It's clear they wanted this to be realistic and gritty—a deliberate move away from what you're suggesting it should have been. I think I would have liked your version better, but I can't say they chose incorrectly. The problem is I think they didn't execute it very well. The game is brutal to its protagonist start to finish. It's completely over the top. I ended every play session wanting to take a hot bath and dollop ben-gay on my imaginary bruises.http://www.zoqq.net/ Just watching her get beaten, fall, run for her life, etc. made me exhausted. A little restraint would have gone a long way.

    ReplyDelete
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  20. there is a way of shownig gruesome death and making it funny.

    original dead space.

    death was actually so fun , sometimes , you WANTED to die at least once (-well, if the checkpoint was near , anyway)
    most players remember the horrible but so fun ways to die, real production value here, and take the drama out of dying.

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