Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Look! A Podcast!

Hey all!

If you're interested in hearing me blabber on more about Tomb Raider, give a listen to my recent guest appearance on the Analog Hole Gaming podcast with Thay!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

I'm Not Going Home

Ms Lara Croft and I have always had a complex relationship. 

On the one hand she’s adventurous, strong, intelligent, and independent; Lara finances her own adventures and does all the exploring herself. There are no major relationships with men, no drama over boyfriends. 

On the other hand, she’s a big titted gymnast. Although Lara’s avatar has changed greatly since the series was first introduced in 1996, she still possess a perfectly voluptuous and curvy body which barely breaks a sweat as she hilariously does handstands up and over the tops of cliffs in tiny shorts and a tank top. 

Still, I’ve always had an affinity for the Tomb Raider series. It may seem like a small thing to some of you but for me, the chance to play a female avatar makes me eager to overlook her faults. Gaming is an escape, a recess from your day to day routine; it’s a chance to break away, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When 98% of the games you play have you controlling male characters, it makes immersion that harder.  

Lara Croft through the years

When the reboot of Tomb Raider was announced, a prequel showcasing a younger and more realistic looking Lara (with pants!), I was thrilled. The trailer seemed to suggest that a more realistic approach would be taken, showing how Lara became the adventurer we’re all familiar with. 

With bated breath I waited to see if it would live up to my expectations and now, having completed the campaign, I can say that it honestly has. From the moment I guided Lara out of a sinister looking cave into an open island full of exploration and adversaries (both environmental and human) I was in love. While the first 30 minutes or so of the game are very “hand holdy”, it’s not long before you’re leaping across chasms, scaling up cliff sides, falling into roaring rivers, and crawling through caverns all in an attempt to find your lost shipmates and make your way off the island. 

And this isn’t a friendly tropical paradise. Lara soon finds herself face to face with human enemies. Lots of them. While in earlier releases, Lara would take out any creature or human standing in her way without bating a perfectly elongated eyelash, she now finds herself unsure and hesitant. It isn’t until she’s directly threatened with violence that she grabs a gun and shoots her assailant in the head, watching slowly as the life drains from his eyes. It’s a profound moment for her. It’s the beginning of her transformation 

And yeah, guys, we are going to talk about that scene. We’re going to talk about it because it’s not just violence that Lara is threatened with, it’s sexual violence. The aforementioned doomed man ties her hands, backs her up against a wall, leans his face to her neck, and runs his hands down the side of her body. This upset a lot of people, myself very much included, despite the scene only being a few seconds long and not graphic. 

So why all the uproar? 

For me it goes back to why I play games: immersion. Here I finally have not only a female character, but a realistic looking one in an adventure game. I finally can really lose myself and experience what male gamers must when they play Uncharted or Far Cry or Dishonored or any one of the thousands of action/adventure games featuring male characters. 

Only, wait, women still get raped. 

I know what you may be thinking. They’re trying to make it more realistic and, sadly, rape often used as method of terror against women.


But until I can get shot numerous times, hide behind a barrel, and after a few moments emerge back into fray at full health, video games will not be reality and while Tomb Raider is more realistic is it not realism. Still, the developers felt in necessary to include this scene. Why couldn’t the man have simply threatened to kill her? Pull a knife to her neck? Put a gun to her head? Why did he have to objectify and sexualize her? Bring to life a very real fear for millions of women all over the world? 

I’m not saying that the scene is explicit, or even that it’s bad. It was just totally unneeded and counterproductive to the game’s overall idea behind this new Lara. 

Lara’s being female never comes into play outside of this one instance. She’s an adventurer, a survivor, a force to be reckoned with. She is also, apparently, still rapeable. If you think I’m being a little too sensitive about this, I’ll ask you to picture one of the games I mentioned above - Uncharted, Far Cry, or Dishonored - and image one of those male leads being threatened with rape. Seems silly and out of place, doesn’t it?

It especially seems like a shame because, otherwise, the developers have clearly gone out of their way to not sexualize her. Throughout her adventures, Lara’s clothes never get skimpier (they do rip and tear but not in a titillating manner) and she never shows an unnecessary skin. In fact, there’s a scene where Lara cauterizes a wound on her lower torso and the camera pans away before she pulls her shirt up. 

That scene in particular really stuck with me. As the camera pulls away, we hear the screams as Lara presses the hot arrow into her flesh, and I actually felt my eyes water just a bit; I was hurting with her. I wanted her pain to cease and I can honestly say I’ve never felt that kind of connection with a video game character before. I have encountered plenty of better written characters working their way through better stories but I’ve never had that type of emotional response before. I wanted Lara to get out, I wanted her to push on and survive. 

While we’re on the subject of surviving and . . . being a woman, allow me to take you a small tangent: Tomb Raider was obviously inspired by the horror film The Descent. There were a couple of scenes that seem to have been taken shot for shot from the 2005 film, this one being the most apparent: 

Sarah from The Descent 

Lara in Tomb Raider

On top of that there is a line from the movie where a character, upon seeing the cave she and her friends are about to go spelunking into, says, “Oh, you’re having a laugh. I’m an english teacher not fucking Tomb Raider.”. I’ve been searching for some direct connection between the two of them since I finished the game. No luck yet. But that movie is awesome and absolutely should not be missed if you’re a horror fan. 

Anyway, Tomb Raider is truly not to be missed. It’s an action game full of beautiful scenery, puzzles, and hours of exploration. While it’s not perfect (there surprisingly is a lack of actual tomb raiding) it is a masterful reboot of a series that I hope will now start to get the attention it deserves. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Brother Moons and Love Triangles

Since I last updated this blog I’ve played quite a few new games: Silent Hill: Downpour, the Silent Hill HD collection, Assassin’s Creed 3, and Resident Evil 6. Oh, and I bought a new laptop, promptly rejoined the World of Warcraft and after a few nostalgic months quit that cold turkey. 

And yet, I felt no real desire to share my thoughts on any of these games. 

Downpour I enjoyed much more than I was expecting but still didn’t find it really remarkable. The Silent Hill HD collection is convenient to own if only to have a copy of Silent Hill 2 and 3 readily available but so much was altered and removed from the source that if you played the original games it’s quite disheartening. Assassin’s Creed 3 just failed to pull me into its world despite living in the city it takes place in and Resident Evil 6? Boring. Great G-Virus Gods, was it boring. I was about a 1/4th of the way into Chris’ campaign when I called it quits. 

I was starting to wonder if maybe my expectations had gotten too high or perhaps I’d started to loose interest in gaming all together. It can’t be the latter because my heart still races when I catch glimpse of games I’m anticipating and it also can’t be the former because, well, your standards should be high when you’re dedicating the little free time you have to one particular hobby, shouldn’t they? Well, no matter. Dead Space 3 is here! I adored the original Dead Space and its sequel was even better - a game I actually called a “masterpiece” in my review of it

The series can only continue to go up right? 

Let’s just say I had my doubts when the game first started and I was shooting my way through human enemies in my derelict space apartment complex. Shooting humans. With the plasma cutter no less. One of the things I really enjoyed about the first two games was that all of Isaac’s weapons for the most part were engineering tools. In the original Dead Space you were sent to the USG Ishimura to repair the ship and ended up making makeshift weapons from your tools. In Dead Space 2 that made a little less sense but you were still fighting necromorphs and the precision of the line gun and whatnot made them very effective. Here, you’re fighting people. Has Isaac really not thought to acquire a gun to keep in his home? Whatever. It’s too early in this review to get distracted by these things. Let’s instead move on from when my doubts started to when my heart actually broke.

Ellie Langford. 

Ellie in Dead Space 2

Ellie stole my heart in Dead Space 2 - she was a fantastic example of what women in gaming should be; she was a survivor of the outbreak on The Sprawl and a heavy equipment pilot who when we first met her was effectively defending herself from a horde of necromorphs. She and Isaac developed a relationship that was built on survival, trust, and egalitarianism. Simply put, Ellie was a character first and a woman second. Her being female was never made mention of. She was never the subject of the male gaze nor was she doubted by Isaac in her abilities. Bitch got shit done:

I couldn't wait to see her again.You can imagine my disappointment when she showed up in Dead Space 3 with a much more noticeable bust line and in the middle of a love triangle between herself, Isaac and whatshisface. I don’t remember the other man’s name and frankly, I don’t care enough to look it up. And let’s talk about this love triangle for a moment shall we? It’s quite possibly the beginning of the end of the world, the violent undead are ravaging everything and everyone around our protagonists, and all Isaac and whatshisnuts seem to do is bitch and moan and carry on in an effort to win back or retain their female prize. 

Ellie's new look in Dead Space 3

Why couldn’t Ellie have been Isaac’s co-op partner? She had proven herself more than capable in the last game. Why was her character so drastically changed? Why is she now just the girlfriend? Ellie had so much going for her and it made me so sad to see the developers throw it away. Ellie’s alterations certainly wasn’t my only problem with Dead Space 3 however. 

Another fundamental change that was made was the atmosphere; this game is not scary. I would go so far as to say Dead Space 3 is tense but only because I was nervous about a necromorph (or should I say, 6 necromorphs) suddenly leaping out from beneath the snow to attack me. There were no moments of hearing a strange sound and wondering if it was just ambient noise or an enemy coming for you. It was always an enemy coming for you. There were no moments of walking in on an old friend mindlessly banging his head on the side of a wall. No eerie renditions of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star echoing off in the distance. 

It’s jump, aim, shoot, stomp, repeat. 

If I wanted a military space shooter, I’d play Alien Colonial Marines. 

Well, okay, maybe not, but you see my point. 

Dead Space 3 is so far removed from the atmospheric horror game that the first two games were. There is no variety, just waves and waves of enemies. This was a large issue that I had with the game that not too many people seem to share. I very frequently felt overwhelmed by the amount of necromorphs. I cannot recall a single time that I was attacked by 1 or even 2 - it was always at least 3 rushing you at the same time. It got to a point where 1 would appear, I would shoot at it, and then quickly rush into a corner because I knew an onslaught was coming. This is not horror. This is action. I was never scared because I knew there was no downtime. I never really explored or appreciated the environments because I was always just waiting for the next horde. 

As a side note, the regenerating necromorph was terrifying in the first game because you were faced with a single enemy that you could not extinguish. When another one showed up in the sequel I was confused (I had always thought him to be a unique specimen and not a prototype) but by the third game? Come on. 

I feel as though Dead Space 3 was intended to be played co-op and while I appreciate that the developers took the time to flesh Carver out so much for the co-op play, as someone who played it single player I felt punished. One of the most frustrating moments of the game for me came at the very end when the environment was collapsing around me forcing me to progress or else be torn apart, having necromorphs assault me (including one of new brute-like one) and having two tentacles block my only escape route. Two tentacles. Two. I just keep thinking about how much easier it would be if someone else was there with me. 

I know that certain aspects of the game are very different depending on if you go it solo or with a friend but from what I’ve seen you fight the same number of enemies regardless. I do partly blame myself for my frustration. The weapon crafting system that Visceral clearly put so much effort into completely bored me. I’ve never, ever enjoyed crafting in games. Give me simple upgrades - a bigger clip, more damage, faster reload - not customization to the point where my eyes glaze over and I just move on. As a result, I’m sure I went through the game with underpowered weapons and that that no doubt shaped my overall experience but twice during the game I knew that if I shut the console off without completing my current objective I would more than likely never pick the game up again. That’s not the feeling I was expecting from the third installment of an otherwise terrific series. 

Overall, Dead Space 3 left me with the same apathetic feeling that most games have felt me with lately. I think I only finished it out of hope that maybe a semblance of the previous two games would reveal themselves but at the end of the day, it was nothing but a space zombie shooter. A well made and pretty one, but uninspired. And now with Dead Space 3 come and gone, I’m just going to have wait and see if Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Infinite can remind me of what a great game is.