TR5: The Objectification of the Heroine

I remember when it was at least a little bit ambiguous. I remember seeing an article (probably in a print magazine — this was the 90s) with a title like “Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” And really, there has always been a good argument for the former, if you look at just the story. Lara is highly capable, self-sufficient, and confident enough to simply go for whatever she personally wants, no matter how well-guarded. The only man in her life is a doddering butler, seen in the Croft Manor tutorial levels in the second and third games. And by all reports, the developers weren’t even really going for sexy at first. They simply had the idea “Hey, what if we made the hero a woman? That would really help the game stand out, wouldn’t it?” and then made a character model that would make her gender obvious even under a severely restricted polygon count.

But the public reaction was what it was, particularly among gamerdom’s sexist lout contingent. Looking at old Usenet discussions can give the impression that Lara’s sex appeal was the game’s only notable feature, despite its innovations as a game, and the limitations of the graphics. The first “nude patch” that I was aware of was for Tomb Raider — for all I know, it may well have been the first ever. As I mentioned in my last post, the control that the game gives the player over Lara’s body seems to encourage objectification (although I can’t quite pinpoint why this effect doesn’t seem as strong in other games that offer a similar degree of control).

If sex appeal was what got people’s attention, the designers were quite willing to pander to it: the second game teased the player with a shower scene, and its ad campaign pitched it as “where the boys are”. No one asked “Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” any more. The answer was clear. It wasn’t as dire as certain other games I could mention, but it was setting the precedent for them. We’re too early for “jiggle physics”, but Lara’s breasts were the main beneficiaries of increases in polygon count over the series. By Chronicles, they’re more detailed than most characters’ faces.

The fourth game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, featured a playable flashback sequence to Lara’s youth as a pigtailed teenager. I remember hearing about this and naively thinking “Huh, they’re showing her as a kid? Maybe they’re trying to make her less of a sex object and more of a human being.” But in fact teen Lara is buxom beyond her years, and still objectified — she’s merely young enough for the objectification to be a measure or two creepier than usual. The game actually takes some advantage of this: when Lara’s older male mentor Von Croy takes her to the ruins alone, the implied skeeziness does a lot to prepare the player for his transformation into a bad guy. In effect, Von Croy is used as a vessel for the player’s impure thoughts.

Teen Lara shows up again in the third chapter of Chronicles, where, driven by curiosity, she sneaks onto a boat to a demon-haunted isle. Von Croy isn’t around, and her relation to the priest investigating the site seems a lot more savory, because he didn’t bring her there on purpose and, unlike Von Croy, is at least somewhat concerned for her safety. And yet the game first takes care to almost show young Lara taking her shirt off, and I’m honestly a little disappointed in it for that. We had been doing so well at not being overtly creepy up to that point. I’m really going to have to take a look at Rhianna Pratchett’s take on the character after we’re done here, to get the taste out of my mouth.

TR5: Controls and Verbs

Much has been written about Lara Croft as a character, but when you’re playing her games, you relate to her more as a vehicle. You become intimately familiar with how she handles, what her turning radius is and so forth. She doesn’t exercise judgment of her own, or make much effort at interpreting your commands in reasonable ways according to context, like a more complex and modern videogame hero would. She just responds to the controls in a rather complicated but consistent way, even if that means running into walls or off cliffs. I speculate that this is part of what made her so popular as a sex symbol: the absolute control that the player has over her body.

Let’s take a moment to describe those controls.

First and most obviously, you’ve got the arrow keys or D-pad for moving around, tank-wise: up to run forward, down to hop back, left and right to turn. If Lara is climbing a wall, all four directions move instead of turning. If she’s swimming underwater, all four directions turn instead of moving. Holding down the shift key or R1 button turns the running into walking, and the turning into a shuffling side-step. I remember thinking, back in the day, that the use of a walk button was a minor stroke of genius. At the time, most games that featured both walking and running would make walking the default and give you a run button, but the makers of Tomb Raider understood that the player would want to run most of the time, and only shift down to a walk when care or precision was required. Nowadays, of course, you’d get the same effect by controlling movement with an analog joystick: the player will move the joystick all the way to the edge unless there’s some reason not to. But the target platforms for the first Tomb Raider were the original Playstation and MS-DOS, neither of which had analog joysticks out of the box.

There are two other buttons that I think of as the main controls: the jump button and the action button. The jump button jumps, obviously, but there are a few non-obvious ways to apply it, like leaping sideways or doing backflips by pressing jump in combination with the direction keys. The action button does various contextual actions like opening doors, pulling levers, inserting a gem from Lara’s inventory into a similarly-shaped socket, and pushing enormous stone blocks, but its single most frequent use is as the grab-onto-ledge button. The specific combination move of doing a running jump across a gap and then pressing the action button in midair to grab onto the ledge on the other side is basically the definitive Tomb Raider action and crucial to the feel of the game, even if it did basically steal it from Prince of Persia.

There is no shoot button. Instead, there’s a button that draws or holsters Lara’s guns, and while they’re drawn, the action button fires them — indeed, holding it down fires them repeatedly. Thus, having guns in her hands prevents her from pulling levers or grabbing onto ledges, although she can still run around and jump while firing. (Jumping around a lot while firing is often the best way to avoid being hit.) Gunplay is one of the few occasions where Lara actually displays a little ability to act without the player’s input: when there’s an enemy in sight, she’ll automatically extend her arms to point her weapons at it. Sometimes this is the first indication the player sees that there’s an enemy around. (Usually there’s a music cue as well, though.)

There’s a button that does a quick forward dive and roll that makes Lara face the opposite way. Chronicles doesn’t really seem to want you to use it, but inherited it from previous games. I personally like being able to turn around quickly, so I’ve bound it to a more convenient key than the default. It can also be executed by pressing the up and down keys simultaneously, which must not have been possible on the Playstation controller. There are buttons specifically for side-stepping, but I’ve always done that via walk mode. And there’s a look button, which you hold down to use the sole directional controls to move the camera instead of Lara. This comes in handy fairly frequently, but it’s another thing that would be handled differently on a modern two-stick controller. And that’s basically it for the controls inherited from the original Tomb Raider.

But each sequel has added its own complications. Tomb Raider 2 added a key just for lighting and dropping flares, and that’s still around, although I have yet to use it deliberately. TR2 also added climbable walls/ladders to the world model. Climbing is accomplished by holding down the action button while in front of a climbable wall — just like drawing your guns, it’s something that occupies Lara’s hands. Climbing also adds some new combo moves, like jump+roll+action to jump backwards off the ladder you’re on, flip in midair, and grab onto another ladder that was behind you. I haven’t yet seen opportunities for such trickery in Chronicles, but TR2 did it a lot.

Tomb Raider 3 added the ability to “monkey-swing” on overhead bars, which works basically like climbing but on the underside. It also introduced two completely new movement modes, crawling and sprinting, each with its own modifier button that you had to hold down. Sprinting is faster than running, but only in shortish bursts, and prevents Lara from jumping — pressing the jump button while sprinting makes her do a forward roll instead. Crawling has been a lot more useful than sprinting so far in Chronicles, probably because, as I’ve noted, the emphasis is more on exploration than action.

The fourth game didn’t add any more buttons — good thing, too, as things were starting to get unwieldy. The new actions it added used the established controls in ways you can probably predict. Those actions: climbing poles, swinging on ropes, and tightrope walking. The only one of these things I’ve seen used in Chronicles is the tightrope walking, which is just about the least interesting thing you can do. It basically turns traversing a gap into a slow QTE sequence where you have to periodically press a button to make Lara regain her balance. And remember, there’s no analog controls here, so it’s not a matter of faltering because you pushed the stick a little too far to the left or right.

What does Chronicles add? Surprisingly, it looks like it doesn’t add anything, at least as far as controlling Lara goes. The only new thing you can do is combining items in the inventory menu, and even that’s been severely limited in its use. I suppose it’s another sign that the devs had lost interest, but it’s probably just as well. The game isn’t even taking full advantage of the verbs it’s got. The whole system is due for a reboot at this point.

TR5: Crane Guy

My last session was pretty insubstantial; all I did was wander around the Russian naval base level, which I had already completed, looking for secrets. I’ve been sort of half-cheating on this, using an online guide — specifically, the venerable Sinjin Solves guide — to find the approximate place to start looking for a secret, but not reading the details. Sinjin’s high-quality walkthroughs are practically an essential part of the Tomb Raider experience as far as I’m concerned, and I’m pleased as punch to discover that they’re still online.

In the process, I found a lovely little bug. In the center of the level is a warehouse-like room with piles of crates. While you’re in this room, a ceiling-mounted crane slowly chases after you with murderous intent, controlled by a guy who you can see through a large bulletproof window, in a control room that you can only reach via a jumping puzzle. (Because you don’t have the keys. The guy in the room presumably didn’t need to do a jumping puzzle to get there.) When you burst in, you get rid of him in a non-interactive cutscene. I honestly don’t remember if Lara shoots him or if he runs away, because that’s how little life means in this game, but either way, the crane pursues you no more.

Anyway, when I started a new session and loaded my save and went back there to look for secrets, I found that crane guy was standing there in the control room again. The crane wasn’t active. Just the guy. Because, of course, the graphical mesh of a man in the control room was never actually controlling the crane. The guy and the crane are just two player-visible manifestations of the same bit of game logic. Except apparently not, because the guy can appear independently of the crane, which reveals a little something about the implementation.

It’s the sort of thing that I wouldn’t normally expect to pass QA in a game of this relatively small scale, and it leaves me wondering: Is this because standards have risen in the last nineteen years? Or did it just slip through because this was the studio’s Contractual Obligation Game and their hearts weren’t in it?

TR5: Lara Kills

The second chapter of Tomb Raider: Chronicles sends you after the Spear of Destiny, an artifact I know mainly from videogames — most notably Wolfenstein, which I hold responsible for popularizing the “Spear of Destiny” name, but I’m sure I’ve seen it referenced in a couple of others game as well, even though I can’t think of their names just now. At any rate, the writers here certainly seem to have Wolfenstein in mind, because they put Nazis into its backstory. As the result of a failed retrieval attempt during the war, the spear is apparently now lying at the bottom of the ocean in the wreck of a U-boat. The Russian navy is launching an expedition to find it, and Lara managed to sneak aboard.

Or perhaps “sneak” is the wrong word, given the body count. Lara Croft is a one-woman diplomatic disaster here. Back in the Rome chapter, she did murder a couple of people (not counting the anachronistic gladiators, which I think were more like ghosts or zombies or something), but they were rival treasure-hunters who were trying to jack her claim, so it came off as kind of fair. Here, she’s just charging into a foreign military base and slaughtering everyone she comes across. Given that the chapter can’t be occurring very many years before the game’s present (if only because of Lara’s apparent age), this presumably isn’t even cold-war era. Maybe this is why they spend so much of the level’s cutscenes establishing that the expedition is backed by the Mafia. Just to make them unambiguously bad.

Tangentially: I refer to Lara as a “treasure-hunter”, because that’s what she is. The game’s introductory cutscene has someone call her an “archeologist”, but that’s always seemed inaccurate to me. We’ve seen how Lara behaves. She never lays out a site grid. She picks things up without recording the location they were found. She’s a little too cavalier about discharging firearms in the vicinity of ancient pottery. A lot of these accusations can be leveled at Indiana Jones too, but he’s got tenure and can do what he wants.

At any rate, regardless of whether you call her an archeologist or a treasure-hunter, she’s also a mass murderer. I recall this only really becoming the case in the second Tomb Raider game; in the first, the enemies were mainly animals or monsters, and the few humans you fought were clear cases of self-defense, people who tricked you and trapped you with intent to kill, and gave you no choice but to fight back. Here in Chronicles, Lara is clearly electing to go all Rambo III.

It’s still mostly exploration and jumping puzzles, though.

TR5: Out of Rome

Well, I’m out of the first chapter. Lara has retrieved the Philosopher’s Stone from its hidey-hole near the Colosseum. Which turned out to be the regular above-ground Colosseum (minus the tourists), not a second underground one as I had speculated. It just had to be approached from underground for some reason, and seemed to be on the same level as a large cave I had seen earlier, or even somewhat below. I’m going to assume that the mystical power of the Stone warps space or something, Silent Hill-style. I think of that vein of surrealist horror as specializing in phantasmagorical dreamworlds that don’t make rational sense, but that’s the sort of world Lara Croft lives in too.

It turns out there wasn’t a whole lot of fighting even in the Colosseum level. There’s a few anachronistic lions and gladiators and some kind of animated statue, but on the whole I think the monsters in the previous level were tougher. Probably this is mainly because of Lara’s improved firepower: on this level, you can find an uzi just lying discarded on the ground at one point, and, since it turns out that your inventory is in fact wiped at the end of the chapter, you have no reason to refrain from using it up. Regardless, the toughest thing on this level, the one thing that caused me to take a break in frustration, was a jumping puzzle with a time limit. In one cave, you pull a rope that makes a key item rise out of the ground on a plinth on a platform, and it after while, it sinks down again, usually just before you can reach it. The winning approach is fairly clear, but you don’t have time to line up your jumps the normal walk-up-to-the-edge-then-hop-back way, and getting a feel for how to execute it without that crutch takes a lot of attempts.

My one big complaint about this level is that the stone texures are just way too homogenously brown. It’s that beigey Doom brown that so dominated game palettes in the 90s, but this game was released in 2000. And this uniformity makes the irregular shape of the cavern walls hard to make out at times; at one point, I experienced something similar to the Dragon illusion, convex and concave inverting in my mind. Of course, I’m playing at a much higher resolution than the designers intended, so that may have something to do with it. It’s also probably making the seams between textures easier to notice, too — floor tiles in this game frequently just don’t match up at their edges at all. But really, 3D rending hardware was pretty common in gaming PCs by this point, so it’s not like people were playing at 640×480. Unless they were playing the Playstation version, which may have been the primary target platform.

TR5: Fighting

I’m partway into the third level of Tomb Raider: Chronicles now. The setting is still Rome, but this section of Rome is underground, and oddly volcanically active — finally, the sort of environment where Lara is most comfortable. The level is titled “Colosseum”. A secret underground colosseum? Makes more sense than the one in the middle of Dracula’s castle, I suppose.

I expect that being in a colosseum means there will be some fighting. I’ve already been through a few boss fights back in level 2, shooting up the weird guardians built into the city’s ancient statuary. They haven’t been that big a part of the experience, though, which is okay, because they’re not really very interesting. Mostly they’re just frustrating, with no real tactics beyond persistence: keep shooting at it long enough, and eventually it will fall down. I’ve seen one significant exception so far in this game, a floating statue head that shot lightning bolts out of its crystal eyes. Destroying it required shooting out the eyes specifically, using a weapon with a laser sight that let you aim precisely.

But for the bulk of the game, your only enemy is the architecture. I spent a long time trapped in a small courtyard looking for a way out until I noticed that one of the pillars had rungs on one side. That led to an area where I could trigger a mechanism that rolled aside a large gear that served as a door, but the door wasn’t an exit; it just led to another small, enclosed chamber, so I again spent a long time looking for a way out before I thought to check the space to the side that the gear had vacated.

I remember commercials for the early Tomb Raiders that completely misrepresented them, made it look like they were all about nonstop action and excitement, showing a montage of Lara machine-gunning monsters and outrunning fireballs and the like, set to crunchy electric guitar. I guess it’s an easier sell than the actual experience, of being lost and confused most of the time, with a score led by oboe. Some of us like that experience better, though, and I can only think that the continuing popularity of the franchise despite this almost fraudulent misrepresentation meant that our numbers were underestimated.

TR5: The Frame

I remember, long before there were any Tomb Raider movies, idly musing about how I would approach such an adaptation. (I have no training in film, but why would that stop my musing?) I really liked the idea of framing the story as a tall tale that Lara Croft tells about her own exploits, thus excusing the more fantastic elements, like evil meteors and Atlantean demon-aliens and hidden dinosaur habitats. (It’s sadly been forgotten by this point, but early Tomb Raider seemed to have a rule that every game had to have at least one tyrannosaur fight, if only in a secret area or bonus level. I saw no reason why this rule would not apply to movies as well.) I imagined Princess Bride-like interruptions where skeptical party guests object, and an ending that revealed that not only was everything Lara said true, but there were even crazier things that she left out. What can I say, I was really into unreliable narration at the time.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles reminds me of that a little because it, too, puts a narrative frame around the action. The writers had decided to kill off Lara Croft at the end of the previous game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, and Chronicles is a collection of stories shared by the people attending her memorial service. I’m still in early stages, so the game still might surprise me, but I don’t think it’s taking advantage of the frame in the same way as my hypothetical movie treatment. Mainly it just serves as a way to present several completely unrelated stories, and even that just draws attention to how loosely linked the scenarios in the previous games were. If the writers had wanted to, they could have cooked up a macguffin to link up this game that’s no less arbitrary than the motivations for gallivanting about the globe in the previous ones, but I suppose the way they did it is more honest.

I remember thinking that Lara’s death in The Last Revelation was unconvincing, clearly just a cliffhanger setting up her inevitable return, like the death of Superman. But apparently it was more like the death of Sherlock Holmes: the team at Core Design was tired of Lara and wanted to kill her off for real, but there was too much public demand for the decision to stick. Chronicles is thus Lara Croft’s Hound of the Baskervilles, published out of chronological order after the character’s death, reminding everyone that this is how stories work and that we might as well unkill the character because it’s not like their death accomplishes anything.

One thing I’m not clear on yet: How does the framing affect the gameplay? Will I carry my inventory from story to story, because that’s how the game works, or will it get wiped, because that’s what makes sense narratively? I’m actually kind of hoping for the latter, just because that specific kind of ludonarrative dissonace interests me. I guess it’s my new unreliable narration.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles

Some recent discussion made me reflect that it had been a very long time since I last played a Tomb Raider game — not since before this blog started, in fact. The last one I started was the fifth in the series, Tomb Raider: Chronicles, released in 2000. I never got past the first level, due to my stubborn insistence on finding all the Secrets.

(How essential I consider Secrets to be to the experience of a game varies from title to title. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t bother with this sort of completeness in the previous title, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, where Secrets seemed just sort of haphazardly assigned to arbitrary hidey-holes. But in some of the others, if you didn’t hunt for Secrets, you missed out on some of the game’s best puzzles and most impressive sights. And this episode has a very completist-welcoming approach to Secrets, putting exactly three in each level.)

I’m now once more struggling my way through that very large first level, a maze of Roman alleyways that double back on themselves confusingly, full of levers that open remote gates and walls that have to be mantled up and passageways with no clear purpose. In short, the main challenge is getting lost. Despite the texturing, it manages to make what’s ostensibly a living city feel like one of Lara’s tombs. Well, the series had never been very realistic in its environments — heck, sometimes it barely even qualifies as representational.

Rather than even attempt to get the original CD-ROM version working, I’m playing from Steam. Even that required some special effort to get it working properly under Windows 10: acting on advice online, I downloaded some old Voodoo 3D drivers and installed them to the game directory. I recall that the original Tomb Raider was among the first games to support 3D accelerator cards on PC, although you had to set it up specially, so this feels somehow appropriate.

Another thing I remember from the Tomb Raiders of old: the controls. I remember people complaining about how awkward they were, which surprised me, because back in 1996 I didn’t think they were all that bad. Perhaps (I thought) they were complaining specifically about the Playstation version? I played on PC, with a keyboard, which had an ingenious system that let you execute nearly all of the game’s multifarious movements from the numeric keypad, plus modifier keys on the other hand. But this idea got broken as they added more special actions in the sequels, such as sprinting and lighting flares, and by Chronicles, the numeric keypad is all but abandoned. I’ll have to see if I can set up better controls than the defaults, because with the default setup it’s way too easy to waste a flare when you’re trying to press the crouch button.

Regardless of the controls, though, you wind up doing a lot of awkward shuffling around. That’s just built into the world model. It’s a grid-based world where the size of the tiles is directly linked to Lara Croft’s gait and how far she can jump. If you see a ledge on the opposite side of a three-tile gap, you know that you can make it across if and only if you carefully line it up by walking right up to the edge (using the walk button, which prevents you from falling off), then taking a single jump back for your run-up. This is fundamentally a game about being painstakingly careful, with occasional enemies attacking you to make this more difficult to do. (Wherever possible, these enemies should be picked off from high ground rather than engaged on their own turf.)

Despite the built-in awkwardness, it’s a comfort how familiar the feel of the controls is, even after all these years. I may be using different fingers than in the numeric-keypad days, but the necessary timing is the same. I can still execute all of Lara’s moves, even the secret handstand. I just need to get my bearings and I’ll be out of Rome in no time.

The Rodinia Project

So, let’s kick off the new year with another writeup or two of things I played last year but didn’t get around to writing about even though I have a thing or two to say about them.

The Rodinia Project is a Portal-like, with most of the standard accoutrements of the genre, like large floor buttons that you can keep pressed by dropping boxes on them, force fields that you can pass through but the boxes can’t, beams that activate devices when not blocked, and so forth. But it’s strikingly minimalistic, even for a genre known for its minimalism. Portal itself had a minimalist laboratory aesthetic based on on antiseptic-looking white paneling. Rodinia is also built out of white panels, but with gold-painted highlights, a surprisingly ritzy touch given the setting.

That setting: a series of platforms in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes there are puddles to remind you of this, and to give some sense that these pristine constructions, with their almost cathedral-like atmosphere (enhanced by ambient angelic-chorus music), are still subject to the depredations of the elements. This is furthered by the gradual appearance, somewhat into the game, of slimy black tentacles, reaching out of the waters and wrapping around the support pillars or just lying loose on the floor. They’re a clear sign of an indefinite Something Wrong, probably related to the reason you’re going around solving room puzzles on ocean platforms in the first place.

But that vague sensation of wrongness is just about all the lore you get. Some levels have fragments of backstory you can find, in the form of little collectibles in hard-to-reach places, but it’s very difficult to get them all, and even then, all they have is pictures, subject to interpretation. I emphasize this point because of what the game leaves out: a voice. There’s no one talking to you over a ubiquitous PA system, no GLaDOS obliquely filling you in on the details of the world through her taunts. I would have thought this one of the essentials of the Portal-like formula, but Rodinia does without it.

I guess it’s not the only one, though. I don’t think the original Q.U.B.E. had a voice, although its “Director’s Cut” remake did. Antichamber didn’t have one either, although it may be more accurate to say that it didn’t have a spoken voice; the signs all over the place served the same function, of communicating with the player and giving the gameworld a personality. There’s just a sense that these games should talk to you, and if they don’t, it’s because they don’t have the budget. But I can’t imagine adding voice acting to Rodinia without ruining the austere and solitary atmosphere.

You know what else the game does without? Walls! That is, there are walls, but only when they’re absolutely necessary to make a puzzle work. It’s just about the only open-air Portal-like I’ve seen. I guess there’s The Talos Principle too, but Talos is kind of on the fringe of the genre, and anyway it’s different here. Talos still put its puzzles in spaces enclosed by walls, even if the sky was visible. Rodinia‘s platforms are simply open to the sea, which forms as effective a barrier as any.

But the biggest gesture of minimalism, the single most important element that Rodinia does without, is the gun. The portal gun is the single thing that defines Portal, and its various substitutes in other games — Antichamber‘s block gun, Magnetic‘s magnet gun, and so forth — are the things that most clearly identify them as games in the same genre. But Rodinia basically says “What if you didn’t have a gun for interacting with your environment in novel ways but you had everything else? Could you still make interesting rule-based environmental puzzles that way?” And it turns out you can. And that’s what I found so fascinating about it, particularly that it could get away with this and still be clearly in Portal‘s genre.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Yesterday, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive movie, was released on Netflix, and my entire Twitter feed immediately became very annoyed. Apparently it was accompanied by a suite of breathless articles about how daringly innovative it is, a claim that ignored decades of prior experimentation, including four earlier interactive releases by Netflix itself. Oh, but those were aimed at children! Black Mirror is serious grown-up drama, and high-profile at that.

But also, it’s Black Mirror, which means the whole thing was constructed around the constraint of making CYOA dismal. It does this by going meta. Most of the meta is is reasonably restrained, almost even subtle, but a couple of branches take a dive into the crassly meta. The story is of a game developer named Stefan Butler in 1980s Britain — a distinct branch and era of gaming history, presented here condescendingly but, based on what I’ve read about that scene over at The Digital Antiquarian, fairly accurately — descending into madness as he works on a game with CYOA-style branching narrative, based on a CYOA-style book whose author also went mad in a similar way. Part of his madness is a sense that he has no free will, that someone else is controlling his actions. There’s a sense that he’s coming to be aware of the metafictional truth because he has some memory of the failed branches you’ve put him through; in some cases, he “wakes up” from a branch as if it’s a dream, and one early choice seems to change how multiple characters behave in its replay (something that I find myself thinking of as an “Undertale choice”).

It’s all very thematically tight on paper, but it all hinges on the idea that Stefan lacks agency because he’s under the viewer’s control, and it undercuts this idea by not giving the player a whole lot of agency either. It feels like most of the off-trunk choices just result in immediate failure and rewind, or maybe one other choice before failure and rewind. Some of the choices even deny player agency by using a choice to assert authorial control. At one point, you’re given the choice of “shout at dad” or “pour tea over computer”. The story needed Stefan to behave irrationally as a result of his lack of control, so it put the irrational behavior into viewer choice. But neither of the choices reflected my desires, so I was just as powerless as Stefan. The writer either expected an audience of sadists, who would relish such a choice, or wasn’t thinking about the the experience of the interactivity at all there. At another point, the player is given a meaningless choice between two ways for Stefan to fidget just so he can be shown successfully resisting your command. Well, good for you, kid. You sure showed me. How about we stop fighting and team up against the writer?

A lot of this is the result of treating the format as a gimmick rather than a medium, but some of it, particularly the shallow structure and inconsequential choices, can be blamed on technical limitations. The fact is, streaming video makes it hard to do the sort of narrative interactivity we’re used to seeing in games, as I learned while working on the Netflix adaptation of Minecraft: Story Mode. 1My involvement was slight, but it mostly involved removing things: pruning branches, getting rid of conditional logic, simplifying it into a form that Netflix could handle. And the result was still far and away the biggest, most complicated interactive video they’ve got. People who say that Telltale games are just barely-interactive movies have no idea what they’re talking about. Throwaway callbacks are suddenly expensive, because they require an entirely separate video stream. Choices have to be spaced out — you have to give about two minutes between choices because it has to buffer both branches in advance to keep playing smoothly. This also means that the video clip that plays in the background of a choice has to complete playing in full, which I found particularly irksome. You could make your choice in the first second, but Stefan would just sit there indecisively while his dad repeats “Well? Which do you want?” and similar filler. Streaming video just isn’t the ideal medium for this sort of thing.

But it may be the most accessible. If this is what it takes to get interactive narrative deeper into the mainstream than it already is, should I really complain? And, as gimmicky as it seems to those of us steeped in the stuff, it probably at the very least serves as a good showcase of the platform’s capabilities. One of the first choices you get, of which of two music tapes to listen to, has a very obvious callback after the story has trunked, as if just to tell us that it’s capable of keeping state. (This isn’t the only piece of state-tracking, but it’s the only really obvious one.) At another point, there’s something that’s almost a puzzle: you use a special UI to enter a telephone number that was clued in a subtle and cryptic way earlier. The solution is thrown in your face while the UI is up, so it isn’t actually relying on the viewer to solve anything. Maybe it did in an earlier draft. Regardless, what it’s communicating is “We could have made this a puzzle if we wanted to. That’s something we can do.”

Ultimately, it’s a first-released work of IF by a new writer — not new to writing, but new to IF specifically. It may have a larger budget than your typical Comp entry, but it’s about the same length. It should be welcomed as such, but also criticized as such.

   [ + ]

1. My involvement was slight, but it mostly involved removing things: pruning branches, getting rid of conditional logic, simplifying it into a form that Netflix could handle. And the result was still far and away the biggest, most complicated interactive video they’ve got. People who say that Telltale games are just barely-interactive movies have no idea what they’re talking about.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »