Karen, The Gaming Goddess

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Tuesday 30 December 2008

City of Vilcabamba: Lara 3, Bears 0

TR_COV

Spoiler Warning: I mention plot points in Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid in this entry. If you haven't gotten around to playing either of those yet, you may want to just read the capsule review at the bottom.

"Vilcabamba" is a really fun word to say. Say it a few times and you'll see what I mean. It also sounds like a delicious new flavor of Bubble Yum to me for some reason. This level really made me want gum.

SecretWaters

This opening area seems to have been a town based around a well, which makes some nice real-world sense. It's completely unnecessary to enter the underwater portion of this level in order to advance, but some pretty cool secrets lie in that direction. I remember being really confused as a kid, because I kept trying to figure out how the underwater part helped you progress, and it doesn't.

CoVDanger

For the life of me, I have no idea why the Vilcabambans were so afraid of this stupid medipack. I can only speculate that this skull-adorned cubbyhole originally contained something decidedly more threatening.

These first few levels are going to get some of the longest write ups, both because they're some of the most memorable, and they're simply the ones I've played the most over the years. Like a lot of people, often I would pop in my TR disc and just play through the game up until somewhere around Tomb of Qualopec, and then move on, my tomb-raiding craving sated. I have played through the game in it's entirety several times, but I've played through these first three or four levels way more times than any of the subsequent ones. In the case of City of Vilcabamba, there's a lot to talk about: The wolf ambush that begins the level, the completely optional underwater pathway, the three(!) secret rooms, the contrast between the simple architecture of the village square versus the grand architecture of the temple area, etc. However, I'm going to go in depth about NONE of those things in favor of A RELIGIOUS TOMB RAIDING EXPERIENCE. You'll see.

CoVBear1

I start this level off in the right way: Killing a bear. Lara 2, Bears 0.

Every once in a while in a game you get a moment where you really understand the feeling that the developers have been trying the whole game to put across to you; Any decent game will communicate the developer's intentions to a certain extent, but great games often have one or more moments that crystallize the essence of the game. For lack of a better term, I tend to call these video-game religious experiences, but while I originally was using the term jokingly, it's not really as silly as it sounds. The traditional idea of a religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a God, or creator received by a normal person, a denizen of the world: A video game religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a creator, the creator of the game (and humans are at their most divine when they create their own worlds) to a normal person-- a denizen of their fictional domain. I'm an agnostic with no religious agenda, so if any of this is making you uncomfortable, don't be: My point here is more about the potential for the creator of a game to move you, not about religion. If you don't want to consider the religious parallel, just think of it as a moving experience.

Some examples of this phenomenon that I've found: In Final Fantasy X, when you're on the road to Zanarkand after Tidus has finished telling his story (and you're finally in the present), and everyone bands together to protect Yuna one last time, because the time is coming when they know they'll never be able to protect her again; they don't want to go forward, they want to stay on that journey forever, but they keep pushing forward, towards the dead world of Zanarkand, while the beautiful version of the main theme-- "Someday the Dream will End"-- plays in the background, fading slowly to the battle hymn of Zanarkand while the sky darkens and fills with pyreflies, the souls of the dead. In the original Metal Gear Solid, at the very end Naomi makes peace with Snake, and herself, as the sterile environment of the Shadow Moses nuclear facility is traded for beautiful footage of the Alaskan countryside-- Snake is a creature of technology and war, like Shadow Moses, but when we see the snowy mountains and the wolves, we feel happy for him, because we know he's going home. Even if just for a little while, he can have peace. And in Tomb Raider, there's the suspended pathway in City of Vilcabamba.

CoVTemple

The exterior of the temple. I've always assumed it was a temple, although there's no sign that says "Temple of Blah-Blah-Blah", so I could be wrong. Maybe it's a bathhouse with delusions of grandeur.

I mentioned in the Caves write-up that music is used very sparingly in Tomb Raider, and scenes like this are the big payoff for that creative choice. Toward the end of the level, as Lara ascends a tower of broken platforms in what was once a beautiful temple, we hear Lara's theme for the first time in the game. It plays in the menu, but it's in this instance that we really pay attention to it. It's a surprisingly sad, mellow song-- the opposite of what you'd expect if your only exposure to Lara was through the movies, or even the more recent games. It's a song that makes you think of lost beauty, and quiet reflection, and more than anything, being alone. It's the sound of patience, and persistence: it's the siren's song of a puzzle you need to solve. If you have a copy of PS1 TR, you can put the disc into your computer and listen to it like a soundtrack, and see what I mean. You can also listen to the song via other methods, but I wouldn't know anything about that.

If Lara were in a lot of danger, with the kind of locked-door traps and spiked pits and stuff that start to pop up with increasing frequency later, Lara's theme would seem out of place --it's not a song of peril. But in this puzzle, there's a safety net: the broken platforms are suspended, on both towers, over a pool of water. Even if Lara falls from on high, the water catches her harmlessly. Lara has to struggle to get to the top, but the tomb doesn't really want her to fall. In one sense, she's an invader-- she's "raiding" the premises-- but this obstacle was not put in place to kill her. This was a city that was once alive, and though it's been devastated by war, or famine, or disease, and it can never go back to that time when it was teeming with life, it can save this one lonely visitor, just this once. It will never let Lara in without making her work for it, but as long as she puts forth the effort, she's allowed. In this game, Lara and the tomb are always opposed to one another, as rivals, but never enemies: It's not a battle, but a dialogue with the past, between this one mysterious woman and an even more mysterious place. In short, no matter how hard she fights, Lara is never trying to conquer the tomb; she's trying to prove her worth. She's trying to prove that she's strong enough to be allowed inside. It's not a battle, it's courtship. Yes, there is a sexual reading there if you go in for that sort of thing, but honestly, that's not what it's really about.

CoVwaterpath

Where the magic happens.

And all of this is put across in about five seconds of gameplay: Lara ascends, the music plays, Lara falls, the water catches Lara and immediately, tirelessly, she begins to ascend again. Sometimes people say that Tomb Raider has a feminist message because Lara is a tough chick who carries guns, and I think that's pretty much nonsense: if there is a hidden social message in TR, it's a humanist one. Lara is the one we admire, as opposed to Larson or Pierre, not because she's female, but because she's the one who strives to understand. She's the one who's learned to read the hieroglyphics, she's the one who won't tolerate ruins being littered. If you come with arrogance and violence, you truly are a "raider"; Lara is a raider in name only. She's not entirely there of her own free will: She can never resist exploring, because if she doesn't, she may never find the source of that voice that's singing her name.

CoVswimming

You know, Sirens were supposed to be mermaids....

Completely aside from all of this, this part of the game has a personal resonance to me. When I was young, and TR was the first game I ever played in it's entirety-- I'd played Mario at friends' houses, but this was the first game I ever played at home, on my own console--I spent a long time on this level. I was still clumsy with the controller, I fell into the water a lot, and I got very frustrated. But I kept at it, because games were still exciting to me, every game was like new uncharted territory in a wonderful fantasyland, and I couldn't wait to see the next level. Now when I play, I know the level like the back of my hand and I don't fall at all, but I don't feel that excitement anymore, because I know what's ahead, and no game will ever excite me in the same way. I don't fall in the water and I complete the level, but I can never go back to that time.

This entry is probably too close to literary analysis for a lot of people, and if you've been completely soured on the whole subject by pompous, overblown academic writing, I can't really blame you. I'm attempting to describe what that tiny lump in my throat is when I play this part of the level. I don't think about any of this consciously while I play, but this is what happens when I try to articulate that feeling. I pass this part of the level, I collect my thoughts, I pull a few switches, and I celebrate the beauty of discovery, the unknown. I plunder the last of the secret rooms, and I take a final swim. On some level, I mourn the loss of my childhood.

And then there's another fucking bear.

CoVBear2

He thinks he's so tough. Watch this, I've got the drop on this bastard.

CoVBear3

BWAH HAHAH! Lara 3, Bears 0.

Best: Need I say it? The suspended pathway in the temple. Additionally, the fact that there's a whole underwater labyrinth that's completely optional to the main course of the level is pretty awesome. I like levels that give you places to explore that are off the beaten path.

Worst: FUCKING BEARS.

Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5: Still simple compared to the later levels, but it's a beautiful simplicity.

CoVstats

I was so busy being moved in my soul by this level, that I think I forgot the shotgun. I hate it when that happens.

Next Time: The Lost Valley: In which instead of a religious experience we have a MADE OF AWESOME experience. Totally not a spoiler: Next one is also a 5 uzi-clipper.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Insanity: The Tomb Raider Project Begins

TR_CAVES

When I first started playing Tomb Raider in high school, I was briefly obsessed with the game and commented to a classmate that I would love to be a professional tomb raider when I grew up. It seemed so perfect: I had long brown hair, I was kind of a stuck-up bitch, I liked nature hikes and firearms and shiny things, so I was halfway to being Lara already.

Then this dude reminded me that another term for tomb raiding is grave robbing, and that kind of took all the fun out of that idea. It's kind of like how Pirates of the Caribbean, (or any of the dozens of Japanese RPGs that romanticize pirating), can get you really psyched up about the idea of being a pirate, until you remember that regardless of whether or not they're charming rogues, pirates are thieves. And additionally, they might even rape and pillage. It's not a pretty picture.

Suffice to say, tomb raiding is one of those pursuits best left exclusively to the world of video games. One of my ideas for this blog before I started it was to play through all of the TR games, in order, and write about them like some sort of adventure game anthropologist. Keep in mind that while this entry marks the beginning of that project, I fully expect to die somewhere in the middle of The TR4: Last Revelation-- if I'm lucky.

There are several possible interpretations of that statement, all of them macabre.

Lara's Home Lara's Home is a little mini level where Lara teaches you her moveset. We also learn how marvelously British and patrician she is. Most people do not have a "Music Room" with a baby grand piano. Also, I never noticed this until taking screens for this blog, but I think the paintings on the wall are very pixelated versions of famous paintings. The one in this picture looks like a Jacques Louis-David to me.

Before delving into the original Tomb Raider as a game, I want to address the subject of Ms. Croft herself. She's been so incredibly over-exposed as a character that it may seem like there's nothing left to say about her, but it's important to note that Lara as she appears in classic Tomb Raider is essentially a different character from the incarnation in the later games and the movies. Original Lara was a woman of few words, classy as she was concise, and only carried weapons because large jungle cats tended to try to kill her if she wasn't careful. She was primarily an archeologist and a writer with a passion for exploring, and if she was also an action hero, she performed that role as a means to an end. Basically, original Lara was far more likeable and alluring because you were given very little information about her, she handled herself very capably, and the game really wasn't trying to hit you over the head with how awesome she was. After the huge success of the first TR, from the sequel onwards Lara evolved into one of those obnoxiously self-aware movie badasses, who possesses a huge wardrobe of sexy adventuring gear and doesn't need much provocation to shoot someone in the head. I wouldn't dismiss the later games and movies, since there's a lot more to TR than just Lara, but I think you have to have a sense of this evolution of her portrayal in order to understand my tremendous affection for the original character of Lara-- When I say Lara, unless you played this game when it came out, chances are you are not associating the same character with the name.

Another thing to keep in mind about her is her age; It's very telling that Lara was conceived of as a character who was around 30 years of age, if not older. By any reasonable standard that's still pretty young, but when you sit back and think about it, it's astonishing how rare that is in video games. The last thing I ever want to do is go on some sort of indignant feminist rant (seriously, if I ever start doing that, just shoot me. Like an injured race horse), BUT, the fact remains that women tend to stop appearing in games after they hit the ripe old age of 18, or early 20s at the latest. It's getting a bit better now- in Metal Gear Solid 4 for example, both Meryl and Naomi are supposed to be post-30 and still babes, if professional ones--but in 1995, usually the only females above a certain age were the apron-adorned mothers who stayed in the house in Japanese RPGs, and sometimes doled out fruit and/or free healing. In the case of Lara, the developers were forced to make her a little older because the character type they were going for was so experienced and erudite that making her too young would have rang false. That presumed experience and intelligence is very appealing in a character, at least if you're like me and are tired of playing as either plucky ten year old boys, or virile special forces types who wouldn't know a book if it bit them on their well-muscled gluteus maximus.

Journey The journey of a thousand miles and a dozen video games begins with a single step.

Like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider is a game that you can't really give it's proper due without taking into account the zeitgeist of the time. Many of the features that were so innovative at the time have become bread-and-butter features in games with any sort of adventure component, and the things that made us miss sleep to play it in the mid-90s are hard to even imagine now. I remember being motivated to beat the next set of levels as soon as a I could so I could see the next FMV of Lara in action, because you only got one cinematic for hours upon hours of gameplay, and as a result, every single one was critically important to the plot. Today, the overabundance of video game cinematics has become such an epidemic that we rate scenes on a kind of Kafkaesque "Sandwich scale", or how many sandwiches you could make and consume while the characters on your screen model and emote like first year drama majors and generally refuse to SHUT THE HELL UP.

The sparse use of music in TR caused you to have strong emotional connections to individual music cues, whereas now games have full Hans Zimmer scores and hearing a full orchestral track in the background of the most mundane parts of a game is completely normal. The graphics had just reached the level where you could believe you were in an immersive world if you engaged your imagination and pretended that ammunition totally would be at the bottom of a pristine mountain lake and the whole world is made up of squares-- nowadays, if you have to use your imagination at all, the graphics have failed. The world of TR was like an impressionist painting, the graphics we see now are a hyper-real simulation. It's a very different aesthetic.

Secret Room This little secret room tucked into the first level is a good example of the secrets in the game-- the items you got were unimportant, it was finding a hidden realm within a hidden realm that was satisfying. Also, you can see some of the Incan style on the giant idol.

At the time, TR opened the door for the future of gaming, while thematically being based on nostalgia for the past. You were using the newest technology of the time to explore the ruins of human civilization, and there was a certain reverence there for the past that was moving in a way that I've never encountered in another game. The TR franchise, and others as well, have explored environments drawn from lost cultures since, but never with the same perfect meeting of the future and the past. Current game environments tell us with authority what they think the past was like; the blocky, pointellistic environments of Tomb Raider were not a statement, but a suggestion:

Wouldn't it be nice if it had been like this.

Level 1: Caves

stairs_flipping In this area some wolves rush at you and you hear the rousing action music for the first time. It's pretty surprising the first time you play because the dead world of Caves has lulled you into a false sense of security by this point. Unfortunately, the wolves are not in this screen because I killed them already. Whoops.

If I were to go into great depth about every individual level, this TR project would be about 50,000 pages, so I'm going to give most levels a cursory inspection and only spend time on the ones that strike me as something special. I will also give all levels a rating out of five (medipacks? Uzi clips?), and do a best/worst section. In the event that I have nothing much to say about a level, I'll just do the rating and the best/worst. Also, I'm not including the bonus levels that were added in the later PC versions because I have the PS originals. If I can find a version of TR Gold that works on my computer, I'll play the bonus levels.

Caves doesn't appear to have much going for it; graphically it's the blandest level ever. Since it's the first level, there isn't much difficulty, and Lara is still on the outskirts of the ancient city, so there's a lot of stone and grass and only small touches of Incan artwork. However, what it does do marvelously well is establish a mood that will persist throughout the entire game. Lara is alone, in a cave, exploring areas that haven't been seen by human eyes in decades, if not longer. The architecture, what's left of it, is grown over, if still majestic at times. Except for occasional whispers of sound, it is silent. Lara is a breath of life in a dead world. Even the presence of animal life doesn't add any warmth; starvation has driven the wolves hostile. Anything that survives here, does so just barely.

Switch This image demonstrates a big problem with TR: Since side-stepping was not introduced until TR2, it was very easy to walk up to a switch, be out of position to pull it, and have to hop back a few steps in order to position Lara properly. It's infuriating. Out of all the tweaks that were made to the controls in subsequent games, the addition of the sidestep was the only one that was absolutely necessary.

They also introduce all of the most significant exploration features: Lara turns her head to look at a significant area (from the very beginning she always mysteriously knows things that you do not), music is rare and only appears when something important is about to happen and you need to step up your game, and if you're thorough, you can hear that deeply satisfying "ta-dah!" sound that heralds a secret multiple times. We also get the first Bear of the game, who functions as a kind of hidden mini-boss (it's not necessary to kill him, but you get access to another medipack if you do), showing that Tomb Raider was taking the fight to the bears ten years before Stephen Colbert made it cool. Should you make the mistake of fighting the bear up close and personal instead of plinking away at it from a safe perch, you will learn very swiftly that the only good bear in Tomb Raider is a dead bear. The same applies to T-Rexes, but that's later.

Bears! BEARS! I didn't have to go out of my way to kill this guy, but I did out of a sense of duty. I watch the Colbert Report.

Best: Backflipping up the marble stairs away from the wolves while the TR action theme plays. Still exhilarating after all these years.

Worst: The timed switch puzzle. In some respects it's good because it forces you to get a little tighter with the controls if you've just been winging it up to now, but the controls in TR aren't well suited for this sort of puzzle. Fortunately the grand majority of the puzzles in the game are not timed.

Overall Ranking: 2 Uzi Clips out of 5. It's simple, but it has to score higher than 1 because a)It's good enough to lure you into playing the rest of the game b) the simplicity is intentional and c)the occasional musical cues add a lot of atmosphere.

Cavesstats I'm going to try to get all the secrets, but I make no promises. Also, keep in mind that my times on these statistics screens are misleading because I'm constantly setting up and editing screen shots. I could blow through this level in a few minutes, but where's the fun in that?

Next Time: City of Vilacamba. I warn you: There is another bear. Prepare yourself.