Archive for gaming

Medal of Honor: Post Titler

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Medal of Honor: Warfighter (EA)

Medal of Honor: Warfighter has received quite a lot of flak for being repetitive, uninspired, short, and buggy to the point of unplayablility at launch without a hefty patch. It’s been mocked for its almost fetishistic obsession with the breaching of doors – despite how inconsequentially aesthetic this mechanic is – and for the creepy little soul-stealing she-demon NPC daughter character that haunts the uncanny valley of those computer animated cutscenes.

But what struck me – having scarcely seen the game in action – what I think it really deserves to be called out for, is that name:

Warfighter.

Was that meant to be a joke? War. Fighter. I imagine the writer’s room for that decision:

‘So we need to brainstorm some titles… We’ve got the Medal of Honor part. That’s in the can. But what about the subtitle? Anyone got anything? Come on, let’s think outside the box. Yes? You. Tom.’

‘Well, in the game you’re fighting…’

‘Good. Good work, Tom. I like it. Fighting. Lots of fighting. Follow that thought through…’

‘And you’re in a war.

‘Great point also, Gerry. You are. You’re in a war.

‘And you’re fighting…

‘Yep. I heard you before, Tom. See? I already wrote it on the whiteboard.’

Medal of Honor: Stare Into the Abyss and the Abyss Stares Back at You.’

(* sound of a throat being cleared *)

‘…Glenn, what did I tell you about that stuff? Now, go for a walk while the rest of us sort this out.’

I mean, to end on Warfighter – the most a trite collision of immediate, obligatory noun and verb that one could possibly apply – does that mean we now have sequels like Medal of Honor: Gunshooter, and Medal of Honor: Soldierbattling to come? Each one more superfluous and hackneyed than the one preceding?

Indeed, it reminds me of a joke in 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon, hounded by the fear that writers are a relic of the past – an occupation no longer necessary in a world that glorifies ‘unscripted’ reality television and mindless special effect pyrotechnics – stumbles across a poster for an upcoming film that reads:

Transformers 5: Planet of the Earth.

Written by No One.*

She sees a placeholder name – words without context or meaning. A vague gesture toward sense that leaves the goalposts so wide anything could fall within its purview.

But there really is no excuse for such vagary. When you look at the titles of texts that have endured, there is rarely such artless phoning-in of the titles. Even in the world of videogames, where franchises are (most often very wrongly) accused of being thoughtlessly cranked out, there is frequently great consideration placed in the names with which these experiences are published.

In Assassin’s Creed you get that lovely collision of the antisocial and dangerous ‘Assassin’, with the notion of order and adherence to stricture in ‘Creed’ – a thematic conflict that plays out in every level of the text, from the battle between the Assassins and Templars, to the player’s own experimentation and exploration within the mechanics of the game/animus. Further to that, subtitles like ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘Revelations’ allude to shake ups in the formula (albeit minor in ‘Revelations’), proving a good deal of depth in their meaning.

Grand Theft Auto is another ingenious descriptor. Despite each iteration of the game shifting beyond the narrow parameters of this one criminal act, the title nonetheless captures that sense of social abandon built into every level of the experience: you can steal a freedom of transport. It’s subversive; it’s reckless; it’s about escape and escapism – an antisocial defiance through which culture and civic order will be examined.

The Uncharted series, Mass Effect , Gears of War, Deus Ex – hell, I would say even Skylanders – every one of these franchises seems to have put thought into their titles than Medal of Honor has this time around. Each uses their name to reflect some fundamental element of the experience that the game is hoping to evoke, whether it be exploration; consequence; the gritty grunt work of battle; the collision of man, fate, and machine; or, uh… living on a land …um… in the sky. …Or something.

And yet: Warfighter.

Where you play the muddled, buggy experience of fighting wars.

Having already whinged about this lack of creativity elsewhere**, I was informed (to my complete astonishment) that ‘Warfighter’ (although not recognised by my Word program) is in fact a real term that the US Department of Defence (DOD) use to describe military service personnel.  Although in my (extremely pathetic) defense, the term is apparently used by the DOD precisely because it is the most generic, all-inclusive, nonspecific, gender-neutral title that can be applied. It is designed to reference everyone in a blanket definition, rather than single out any specific operative or experience.

So maybe I’m being unkind. Maybe that was the point of Medal of Honor: Warfighter: to let the player know, right before the load screen had even flashed into view, that this was just another generic shooter. There will be levels with heat blasted sand. There will be turrets. There will be obligatory vehicle sections. Stuff will blow up every thirty seconds or so. There will be ham-fisted nods to current political unrest, and rote acknowledgement of the real life sacrifice of actual soldiers sandwiched between staccato onslaughts of headshots and kill streaks. There will be bad guys menacing innocents in ways that make it easy for you to gun them down without qualm. A squad mate or two will die a tediously scripted death so that you feeeeeeeeel something, damnit! War is hell…  But not really, because we’ve got nothing new to say about it.

The makers of the game seem to have embraced the broad meaning of the word, but not bothered to subvert it with genuine individuality – which is a shame, since it sounds like there was room there to explore something new within such a wide purview.

Medal of Honor: Warfighter.

The name feels redundant, because you’ve played it all already, a hundred times before.

IMAGE: 30 Rock (NBC)

*  From the episode ‘Plan B’ from series five.  Tracy is on the run, so everyone starts considering what their back-up occupation will be – and Liz realises she doesn’t have one.  (It also has a pretty hilarious hallway walk-and-talk with Aaron Sorkin.)

** http://whatculture.com/gaming/medal-of-honor-warfighter-whats-in-a-name.php

‘This Whole System Is On Trial!’: Surprises and Self Reference in Game Mechanics

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2012 by drayfish

[To avoid what little spoilers for Chrono Trigger there are, skip the middle section surrounded by bold.]

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger (Square Enix)

Here’s something y’all might need to know about me: I’m always late to the party.  Any party.  And it’s not a ‘fashionable arrival’ thing.  It’s usually incompetence.  I got lost on the way.  I saw something shiny and decided to stare at it for a while.  I fell into a wardrobe and awoke in a magical land.  That kind of crap.  In short: I seem to operate at some kind of socially and culturally staggered pace.  If I’m praising the greatness of a television program, it was no doubt cancelled years ago (‘Have you guys seen this new Deadwood show?’); if I like a band, no doubt their popularity has already peaked and waned (‘The White Stripes sound so awesome, I wonder if they have any other albums?’); books (‘This Jane Austen guy might be kind of cool’)…*

So when you see me praising something as great, it almost always means both that everyone has experienced it already long ago, and they have most likely already written at length about why that experience was so important.  Please keep that fact in mind as I utter the following words:

I am only just now, for the very first time, playing Chrono Trigger.

And it is…

ohmygoodnessthiscouldbethemostadorablefantasticgameI’veeverplayed…

iloveitsomuchagaaaaahhhh….

And let me tell you why…

SPOILERS (ONLY FOR THE FIRST HOUR OR SO) OF CHRONO TRIGGER FOLLOW:

I’ve just been put on trail.

On freaking trail!  In freaking COURT!  Where I’m gonna be put to death!

I came back to the castle, leading the princess home, and I’m all:

He-ey guys, here’s your princess and everything!  I’m just doing the whole thing where I bring-the-princess-back-to-her-castle-and-get-a-new-quest-deal’ – and they freaking arrested me!  Hauled me off to a specially designed courtroom splash-panel where I got judged for my actions.

But here’s the thing: they really were my actions.  All of the insignificant, insubstantial, who-gives-a-second-thought kind of actions that I had made up to that point.

Did you eat this old man’s lunch?

Hey! I didn’t mean to!  I was just standing there and I pressed a button and it was gone!  It was an accident!  And when it happened the princess laughed!  She thought it was adorable!  And – And I didn’t reload cause the next time I went back the lunch was there again!  No harm no foul…  Come on! 

Did you just run over and pick up the locket that the princess dropped before you even saw if she was okay?

…Um.  Well, yeah, okay, so maybe I didn’t talk to the princess before I picked up the locket, but it looked like game loot!  That’s what I’ve been trained to do!  Pick up game loot!  That’s RPG 101, man!  Some gear drops, you pick it up!  Right away before it disappears.  Years of gaming experience have programmed me to think that way – now I’m being judged for it?!

Aw no.  Hell no.  I’m not guilty.  You’re guilty!  This whole system is guilty!  We’re all part of the machine, man!  We’re all just cogs in the machine!  Attica!  Attica!  Attica!!!  ATTICA!!!

What about the girl I helped with her cat?  Doesn’t that count for something?  I could of just left it there!  I had to walk it across the whole screen!

No?!  Nothin’?  Guilty?! 

Damnnit!

NOW CEASETH THE SPOILERAGE

What amazed me was the game’s capacity to call into question the very way that I play such RPGs – the decisions that I make, without a thought.  Do you arbitrarily pick this thing up?  Do you bother (for seemingly no reason) helping that other person out?  It invited me to consider what it would be like if people actually did notice and respond to the way that a player operates in a pixilated adventure world…  What would people say about you if you were really behaving this way in real life?

In a game like Mass Effect or The Witcher this kind of in-game response is expected, it’s part of the package: your actions will be remembered, will be folded into the design, will be commented upon.  But here it was a thrilling, experience-altering surprise, one that actually led me to consider the manner in which I approach games themselves – how my character avatar behaves in these spaces, and what that says about me.

I’ve heard that – in a far more grim and dire manner – the recent release Spec Ops: The Line has been designed to perform a similar function, to invite the player to consider the very nature of military shooters, their jingoism, their moral dimensions.  I’ve not played the game, so I have no comment myself, but it is intriguing that this can be a definite communicative purpose in videogame design.  One I find particularly intriguing.

So, my question is: what games – and perhaps more specifically what surprise moments, mechanics, or ideas in games – have had this effect on you?  Have made you question the very action of playing games itself?  Even shaken up the way that you behave in game, or the way that you relate to the genre as a whole?

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger ‘Courtroom’ (Square Enix)

* Also, have you guys heard of the Beatles?  I think they’ve got a promising sound.  Could probably use some more experimental Japanese avant-garde sound-scapes though.  I hope someone can help them with that…

Show Us Your Human Bits: Play and the Shifting Paradigms of Art

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by drayfish

pacman2_0

IMAGE: Pacman installation Art by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille

(Website: http://benedetto.new.fr/)

Everyone ready for a self-indulgent rant? Because I bought this soapbox in from the car, and they only let you hire out these megaphones for the day. So, ready? Excellent. Testing. Testing. Is this coming across self-righteous enough up the back there? Can you hear me being all judgmental? Okay. Here goes.

I’d like to take a moment to dive back into what I admit are the thoroughly fished-out waters of the film critic Roger Ebert’s now infamous declaration that videogames cannot be Art. I want to explore this premise again, briefly, because I think that it is still in this presumptuous, ill-conceived dismissal that we can see many of the most pervasive misconceptions that continue to stifle the discussion and celebration of the videogame medium in its relative infancy.

And yes, at this point you might be thinking to yourself: but why? Why bothering referencing Ebert again? I mean (you will probably ask) does it even matter if some film critic foolishly tries to wade into utterly foreign territory? Hasn’t he already revealed his own ignorance by superimposing foreign rules upon an artistic medium in order to point out how it has failed to live up to criteria under which it was never intended to function? And is this just because he recently (vaguely) slagged off Naughty Dog’s upcoming release The Last of Us,having neither seen nor played it, because he believed it would ‘leave absolutely nothing to the imagination’?

You might even inquire whether this is all just my petulant, thinly-veiled jab at a cantankerous, nay-sayer because he disregarded a medium that I hold with genuine affection. ‘You’re not that petty, are you?’ you might very well ask.

…Well, yes. Yes it is. And yes. Yes, I most certainly am.

In 2010, after belittling the artistic merit of videogames, it was suggested to film critic Roger Ebert that he should watch a TED presentation by game designer and cofounder of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago. It was hoped that he might get a greater perspective on the medium, even a vague respect for its potential, and its new breed of auteur. Ebert viewed the talk, but rather than gaining any insight, he instead responded by immediately doubling down on his comments, offering a condescending opinion piece in which he declared that videogames could never in his opinion each a point at which they might be considered Art. He dismissed them as wholly devoid of any relevant narrative, tonal, or thematic potential; finally aligning them (at best) with intellectual sport:

‘Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.’*

He effectively likened them to time wasting amusements such as Jenga or Hungry, Hungry Hippos – mere exercises in rote memorization or reflexes – and waved them away as not worthy of serious consideration.

He then went on to make several attempts to classify what Art actually was, arguing in each example that games do not and cannot fit any definition he could cite. In one notable instance he even referenced Plato’s discussion of mimesis. (Although if a philosopher who called all artists mad and who advocated the most draconian censorship of literature in history was his go-to for such classification, he might not want to throw stones: there’ll be no more watching Taxi Driver or Singing in the Rain in the Republic either, Ebert…) Believing he had seen off the possibility of their being confused with ‘real’ Art, Ebert then antithetically attempted to dismiss some examples as not even being games – at least by his extremely narrow, antiquated conception – arguing that he failed to see how a work like Flower could even operate in the absence of a scoring system or ‘win’ state.

As one might imagine, Ebert’s satisfaction at disregarding games he happily admitted not being bothered playing soon grows tiresome – he even goes so far as to describe a handful of examples ‘pathetic’ despite having only glimpsed seconds of them in action and without ever holding a controller in his hands. Reasoned, contextualised criticism at its finest this was not; indeed, using Ebert’s logic, if someone hadn’t seen Citizen Kane it would be okay for them to arbitrarily bin it as a dreary, pretentious, ill-lit bore – an undergraduate mess where people draw lines on their faces to indicate that they have aged. …And how come the dude likes roses so much?  It’s probably some dumb reason. Best not bother finding out.

When responders inevitably called nonsense on Ebert’s ignorant proclamations he swiftly bowed out of the debate – although conceding nothing – admitting that he was still unwilling to play a game to explore the experience for himself. He effectively shrugged, passive-aggressively asserted that some people just evolve their artistic perspective differently, and clamoured back out of the  mire to return to the higher ground of novels and film, where the once hotly-contested battles for artistic integrity have already been fought and won long before he appeared on the scene.

But it was in this, his tactical retreat from the discussion, that Ebert revealed the fundamental disconnect at the heart of his position: he argued that in every conception he could conceive Art must remain static. His issue with the videogame form is that the very element of interactivity that gives them identity renders them too fluid to be artistically expressive. If one could re-spawn and replay the ending of Romeo and Juliet again, he said, it would render the tragedy and pathos of their original deaths meaningless. But this line of argument is, at best, misguided, at worst, wholly disingenuous: of course one can’t get a do-over on Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play. It obeys different conventions. Just like you can’t see a song, or listen to a painting. They necessitate entirely different engagements with their audience. And to demand that new media be dictated by the limitations of the old is a fatuous, knee-jerk response mired in outdated thought, one that stifles rather than elucidates artistic innovation.

Ultimately Ebert’s comments reveal that it is he and not videogames that had failed to meet the standards of Art. With the proliferation of games that flaunt expectation and convention, that provide innovative and immersive experiences that expand our understanding of communicative possibility, anyone arrogant enough to dismiss the possibility of games being Art based solely upon their personal failing to wrestle the medium into some preconceived notion of what Art must be, or what it needs to contain, exposes their own incapacity to adapt to the shifting dynamics of expression. Such categorisations are based upon outmoded, ill-conceived notions that have remained nebulous since humankind first applied colour to cave walls; and Art should never be shackled by the expectations of the old. Art is innovative, progressive. It manifests human experience; and if we are nothing else we are creatures of adaptation and evolution to new stimuli. A contemporary Art that remains mired in old thinking loses the capacity to meaningfully reflect anything of our existence back to us.

And if the purpose of Art is to articulate something of the human condition; then it must acknowledge that we are creatures of play. It is through play that we develop language; is how we learn social structure; how we develop our motor skills. Storytelling is a manifestation of imaginative play; theatre is an expression of imitative play; music; visual art; dance; all have their basis in the freedom and modulation of play. And it is arguably only now, in the birth of this new medium of videogames, that we can see one of the most natural and engaging forms of crafted play in our history.

Massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or DayZ allow for explorations of play and social organisation on unprecedented new levels; game like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire provide an immersion in genre arguably more striking and intimate than film can provide; an adaptive game like The Witcher 2 allows us to play out moral ambiguity and consequence; and this is all before even calling upon the more nebulous gaming beasts like Heavy Rain, Journey, Braid and Fez. To dismiss all this as childish fancy (as critics once did with graphic novels); or merely a tacky commercial product (as they once did with cinema), or a thoughtless leisure activity (as they once did with the novel form), only further perpetuates the same tired reactionary fear of the new that has consistently plagued all Artistic development.

Todd Howard (of Skyrim) spoke in his keynote address at the 2012 D.I.C.E. conference of the way in which games are the only form of artistic expression capable of evoking the sensation of pride in an audience. Because we as the player participate in the activity of bringing the game’s narrative to life, he said, we invest in an expression of the game that has the capacity to inspire triumph at our successes; and it is a form of satisfaction that is only possible because of the unique interplay between player and text. Games therefore don’t just communicate in new ways: they have the capacity to evoke whole new emotions and experiences; sensations that film, fiction, music, by the limitations of their form, cannot.

So while I’m sure that in many other discussions Ebert has some profound things to say (although lest we forget the man gave Speed 2 a glowing thumbs up), in his foray into the debate over videogames he has proved himself to be a critic staring at the precipice of something altogether new, but remaining utterly blind to its significance. His comments are a stark reminder of why reviewers have the capacity to be such dangerous creatures; his arbitrary definitions of Art are so ingrained as to have already begun the steady decline toward intellectual stagnation.

Ultimately, the final word should probably go to another critic, Anton Ego (a character from an animated film; yet another medium once patronisingly dismissed as being only for the frivolous delight of children) who said:

‘In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critic must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something: and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent. New creations. The new needs friends.’

– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

I believe that we need to acknowledge that games can be Art (even if, as yet, not all of them are), because that sad truth is that if we players do not take it upon ourselves to defend the new against those who would ignorantly malign it: no one else will. If we, like Roger Ebert, rely upon trite, reductive patterns of analysis, striving to draw categorical lines around the expressive potential of gaming before it has even grown into being, we risk strangling the most experimental and dynamic medium to emerge in human history, missing perhaps the finest opportunity, through the Art of play, to better understand ourselves.

* here

‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’: Batman and the New Gods of the Super-Heroic

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by drayfish

In the wake of the release of The Dark Night Rises the popularity of the world’s greatest detective is currently at its peak.  Earlier this year a copy of the first issue of Batman (Batman no.1, 1940) was sold in Dallas for $850,000.* Two years ago, the comic book in which the character Batman first appeared (Detective Comics no.27, 1939) was sold for over $US1 million.**  And only days earlier, the first issue of a comic in which Superman appeared (Action Comics no.1, 1938) sold for exactly $US1 million.  Aside from answering, once and for all – and forever – which hero is the greatest (psst: It’s Batman…), I think these extraordinary sales can be seen to say something of the significance that these characters have as legitimate social artefacts.  And with The Avengers having just Hulk-stomped the box-office in wholly unprecedented ways, it’s worth exploring why it is that these super heroic narratives are so embedded in modern cultural iconography.

When we think of comic books it is easy to be put off by the lesser, gratuitous works that can be seen to litter any medium: works of adolescent sensation where Lady Spandex and Captain Forearms fight the ferocious Explosion Monster (I’m copyrighting that by the way).  But if you cast your mind back to the characters that have lasted – some for almost a century – who have been revived and re-contextualised with each generation, you can see some quite intriguing archetypes on display.  Most obviously there are the early superhero characters that have their origins in Greek and Roman mythology: Wonder Woman is an Amazon; early artwork of The Flash depicted him as an exact replica of his mythical antecedent, Hermes (or Mercury) messenger of the gods; but the superhero genre as a whole is a modernisation of these ceaseless epic tales.  These are Gods among humankind, warriors granted unearthly powers; and like myths in their time, which sought to rationalise the human experience through fantastic tales of morality and fatalism, these superhero narratives, and the heroes they gave rise to, often speak to the concerns of the modern world (with equal smatterings of violence).

Consequentially, there is inestimable pleasure to be had dissecting the many allegorical facets of these seemingly innocuous adventures.  Like Gothic fiction before it, where social angst could be played out with the aid of invasive, inhuman vessels into which our paranoias might be poured – Dracula as the personification of our xenophobic terrors; Frankenstein’s monster as the scientific desecration of the natural; the Werewolf as our primal desires stirred alive to roam free – comics can likewise play out collective neurosis and escapist ideologies.  Sure, we don’t see the Hulk stooped to recite Milton in the flickering of a fading fire, but he still speaks something of a retribution visited upon mankind for its foray into unnatural science (gamma radiation, wasn’t it?), or the id left unchecked to rage and destroy.  Superman, often seen as the adolescent fantasy (the underestimated Kal-El hiding his true power under the awkward mask of bespectacled Clark Kent), is also the ultimate American immigrant magnified.  …And in a cape.  Spiderman is puberty.  The X-Men are (perhaps a little heavy-handedly) intolerance in all its forms.  The Silver Surfer is… Well he’s… Okay, I don’t know what the hell he is.  The dude is naked and surfs through space.  That’s weird.

I assume that I am not the first to draw this comparison, but to me Batman is the modern Hamlet.  Sure, he’s a little more proactive, is perhaps a little kinder to his sidekicks (he doesn’t send them off to get executed, at least), and doesn’t have quite as unnerving a fixation upon his mother, but the thematic similarities run deeper.  Both are characters whose narratives are born in the death of their parents (Hamlet’s mother is just as lost to him in her debasement), both are Princes motivated by revenge to seek justice, both are contemplative, melancholy, and use artful deception (skirting the edges of madness) to bring their opponents down.

“That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Should don a cape and cowl and leotard,

Punch clowns and freaks and ne’er-do-wells,

drive a hellacious car and date a Cat…”

…Okay, so maybe I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far.

Perhaps most tellingly, however, is the parallel between their environments.  Something is rotten in Denmark, and the entire state reeks of this corruption.  The new King is morally poisoned; wise figures such as Polonius sink into drivelling inanities; dear friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray and are betrayed; Ophelia is lost to insanity when she forgets to use a floatation device.  The world is a manifestation of the turmoils within Hamlet’s mind, and the forces waging to tear his psyche apart.  And in exactly the same manner, Gotham City is Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue projected outward on his urban sprawl.  The city is awash in lawlessness and vice, its colourful criminals manifestations of a perverted communal consciousness – indeed, there is profit in reading the entire Batman narrative as merely the elaborate delusions of a rich kid named Bruce lost in the haze of a dissociative disorder, sitting in his own Arkham Asylum cell.  Thus, few of Batman major villains are superhuman.  In most cases they are intriguing psychological tropes: Two-Face is the self-loathing schizophrenic; Joker is the psychotic unchecked by the superego; Poison Ivy is the environmental militant blinded by her convictions; Penguin is the social climber haunted by an inferiority complex; Riddler is the sad, self-sabotaging egomaniac.  And king amongst them all is their antagonist, Batman, who nightly wages war on the excesses of these personal demons, never able to kill them, but outwitting them, beating them into submission, and returning them to the momentary quiet of the subconscious where they fester, waiting to spring forth again.

And so he occupies a unique space in the comic book pantheon.  He is a terrifying figure, not noble and bright, but slinking through the shadows, almost Goya-esque, heroic not because he is granted super powers he is obliged to use, but a mortal man (now over seventy years old), battling against the neurosis that threatens to overtake us all, and haunted by the profoundly human realisation that his struggle can only end with death.

* http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/12456511-418/batman-no-1-comic-sells-for-850000.html

** http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-02-26/news/27057382_1_action-comics-comic-book-detective-comics

‘Hey Lara! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!’: Scraping Lara off the ‘boot’ of her gaming Reboot.

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: EIDOS

In 2013 Lara Croft will be reborn anew, emerging from the chrysalis of the old to attempt to reclaim her place in the pantheon of gaming heroes – but you’d be forgiven for thinking that at this point that the birth pangs have been a little excessive.  Admirably, developers Crystal Dynamics have recently announced that they are going to delay the release of their new iteration of the classic game until next year, taking extra time to polish their work rather than rushing out an unfinished product for the holiday purchase period; but it is not only the development process that is proving painfully excessive in this rebirth.  Lara herself has been taking a physical pounding in the pre-release advertising, culminating in a controversial trailer for E3 in which it appeared the she was also under threat of sexual violence.

The Lara Croft of old was an impossibly fantastical creature.  Statuesque, resourceful, quippy, with a handful of PhDs in pseudo-psycho sci-history and fabulous wealth and beauty.  She was proportioned like a Greek goddess and capable of 5-foot standing flips while shooting dual pistols.  Part Angelina Jolie, part John Woo, part Indiana Jones; it was as though she had been concocted in some Weird Science-style lab, drawn from the design specs of …well, of me when I was a 12 year old boy.

And because of this she felt curiously alien, almost inhuman.  She felt no pain, did not get dirty, never ran out of bullets, could take down a freaking T-Rex without breaking a sweat (yet somehow had an extraordinarily underdeveloped special awareness that would send her plummeting to her death off a rocky edifice every thirty seconds).  Even in the realm of videogames she seemed to sit firmly outside the bounds of reality, in a fantastical narrative nether-space reserved for the likes of James Bond, Superman and Dorian Gray – attractive, impervious and eternally young.

In the previews and trailers for her upcoming return to popular culture, however, Lara, and we the audience, are being reintroduced to the frailties of humanity.  Bruised, beaten, starving, chilled and lost; this is not the traditional superhuman Lara Croft with whom we were first acquainted.  Indeed, developers Crystal Dynamics seem a little obsessed with showing us that this Lara bleeds.  And vomits.  And cries.  She’s also breakable.  And flammable.  And impale-able.  And makes for some tasty meat for the crazed, psychotic cannibals stalking her in the wilderness.  …Oh yes, she’s stalkable too.  And can be shot.  And it has been confirmed – as the E3 trailer controversially implied – that she can even be subjected to an attempted rape (a danger that the studio head Darrell Gallagher has thankfully made clear will go no further than the depicted threat).*

Indeed, the footage was starting to get to be a little gratuitous for me, reminiscent of those scenes in the Superman films where Lex Luthor would inevitably throw some kryptonite into the mix and start beating the snot out of the Ubermensch:

‘You’re not so powerful now, are you Ms Croft?’

(* boot *)

‘You thought you were immortal?’

(* knifey-stabs *)

‘Where’s your grapple-thingy now?!’

(* backs over her with a car *)

(* flicks cigarette in her face *)

(* writes unkind things on her facebook wall *)

There’s an almost borderline fetishistic quality to the pre-release material.  So much so, in fact, that you start to wonder whether this is some kind of triple-A title snuff film.  I kept expecting the sound of slow banjo music to come drifting through the trees…

Thankfully, after several minutes of torture porn and petrified fleeing Lara grabs a bow and arrow and the dynamics finally begin to change.  And hopefully this will be indicative of where the majority of the game is headed: toward an affirmation of power.  Not because of some ridiculous notion that she must be broken down in order to earn her agency in this tale; and certainly not because of some ludicrous notion (as has been suggested by producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku**) that by showing Lara in such physical and emotional peril we as players will feel the need to ‘protect’ her; but because she, like any other protagonist – female, male, alien, cartoonishly exaggerated plumber – has the right and capacity to be the champion of their own tale.

We should not be being manipulated into wanting to tuck Lara into our pocket and warm her fluttering heart like a bird with a broken wing.  Crystal Dynamics may want us to empathise with their re-imagined titular character – to remind us that unlike the creature of old she has frailties that make her human – but this should not necessitate gratuitously stripping her of the agency and drive that define her as a hero.

Hopefully this is merely a miscommunication in the publicity cycle that will be clarified with the release of the game.  Certainly as the current commercial goes on Lara ends no longer the trembling figure that she begins.  Sleazebag McRapeington gets both deservedly kicked in the crotch and shot, and then Lara makes a break for it.  In the flurry of scattershot imagery we see the Tomb Raider in action, even carrying her signature pistols – no longer shivering and weak, no longer cowed, but tempered, newly resilient; hopefully ready to tear that island, its assortment of mercenaries, murderers, wolves, any (as-yet-unconfirmed) lingering dinosaurs, and anyone else who might make the mistake of trying to dominate her, apart.

Just as she always should.

* http://www.tombraider.com/gb/base/brandsite?refer=19&

** http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft

(Originally published at WhatCulture.com)

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