A Gaming Education: Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Come close, let me tell you a secret. No, not the one about what I did with the carrot and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the toothbrush and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the fully-poseable Incredible Hulk action-figure and the hand cream. How do you know so much about my undergraduate Chemistry thesis exploring the effects of hand cream on household objects anyway?

This secret is darker, more shameful, than such nonsense. Before last week, I had never played a Tomb Raider game. GASP and/or SHOCK, with appropriate measures of HORROR. I know.

Actually, there’s two caveats to this: in 1996 I did watch my neighbour play the first game for half an hour or so — hazy memories of underground pits and Lara Croft being eaten by wolves; then a few years ago I beat a boss-fight my friend was stuck on in a Tomb Raider she had for her Wii. Apart from those toe-dips though, nothing.

I should have dived in earlier. If Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a Crystal-Dynamics-developed reimagining of the original adventure, is anything to go by, tomb raiding is a blast. Slow, thoughtful puzzling is the order of the day here, with that ungainly “combat” malarkey relegated to brief staccatos of action that enliven play without *cough Uncharted* bogging down the *cough Uncharted* flow. See how I bogged down the flow of that sentence by referencing a game whose primary failing was its reliance on repetitive combat that bogged down its flow? That’s what they pay me the big bucks for.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary, then, mostly has the self-assurance to present you with its buried temples and lost cities, then sit back and let you scuttle all over them at your leisure. If Uncharted is the young seductress, sleek and sexy and eager to please, Tomb Raider is the middle-aged divorcee down the street, well aware of her talents, lying there patiently as you build the confidence to … ransack her catacombs. Then, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you have to fight a T-Rex. Ain’t that always the way?

The drawback to this veteran’s approach, however, is a move-set that feels clunky and counter-intuitive when contrasted with the context-sensitive fluidity of today’s videogame sirens. We’ve moved away from games designed with pre-determined, inflexible animations that layer over level geometry; watching Lara have to jump to her full height, with arms outstretched, before she can grab the ledge just above her on her descent is antiquated and laughable.

Lara’s famous bouncy bazoombas look silly these days as well, though to be fair to the old gal there is something iconic about her appearance. She’s more archetype than stereotype, really, and she doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment as so many female games protagonists do. Perhaps because she stays mercifully silent during much of the game. (Oh Christ. Not that I’m implying my idea of a good woman is one who shuts the hell up. No. She should also be good at cooking, and … like … tapestry, and … long multiplication, and getting DVDs off those central rings in their cases, and stuff. Banter LOL.)

I like Tomb Raider: Anniversary. I like how lonely and even wistful it often is. Put it down to the age of the underlying template, but it reminds me of the emptiness videogames embodied when they first made the transition to three dimensions. There were no crowd scenes back then, no waves of voice-acted enemies or chatty cohorts. Your experience came down to wandering wondrous yet abandoned worlds, solving puzzles left by — whom? –, marvelling at the bittersweet, yugen-like emotions these solitary adventures conjured within you.

Yes, Indiana Jones rip-off starring big-titted bimbo as Zen satori instigator. I really can do that with anything. It’s a talent.

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