Whenever I hear someone talking about the great old days of games, back when the designers would just chuck you right into the middle of it all ("Getting stuck on a puzzle?" I once heard Tim Schafer say, "We used to call that content"), I think of one game that did just this, and very literally. About a third of the way into Tomb Raider 2, Lara Croft goes for a short ride on a submarine. The ride is short because the submarine crashes or explodes or something wretched and annoying like that. Anyway, the cutscene ends ambiguously and then the next level begins and...well, total darkness. Or just about. You're floating at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by shadows and water and not much else. There is, initially at least, very little suggestion of where to go. My sense, upon first encountering this level, was that the game had broken itself in a very unusual way: it had broken itself in that the setting had survived but the game had somehow run out of narrative to fill it with. It was like the designers had downed tools and backed away.
I died and died and died at the bottom of the ocean. But then I started to experiment. Eventually I found a series of oil drums or whatnot on the seafloor - a guide of sorts. I followed the trail and - after dying and repeating a few more times - I was inside a sunken ship, enjoying a handy pocket of air. This sequence sounds awful, probably, but it was brilliant. Weirdly, it is probably my favourite moment of all Tomb Raider moments.
The idea that games used to be better when they were harder and more obscure is one of the more annoying conversational gambits out there. The terms are vague - there are so many ways for a game to be hard, not all of them intentional or laudable - and I don't think I agree with the premise in the first place. But there is one series where I think it's absolutely true, for me at least. I really miss getting incredibly stuck in Tomb Raider.
I've been playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider these last few days and it's a fascinating, sometimes frustrating experience. I love the fact that the designers are trying to confront the varied sins of the series' past, even if there's a certain clumsiness to the ways this is done. I love the fact that there is an attempt to offer different playstyles, even if the crafting and particularly the stealth are hobbled by inconsequence and heavy scripting. Most of all, though, I'm coming up against the problem that this is a game set in an incredibly beautiful series of maps, and yet they never feel like a place. They feel like stage sets, and stage sets that you move through rather quickly, hitting your marks and saying your lines, shivving here, shooting there, engaging with a gentle physics puzzle, but never really feeling like you're in the moment, or that you're actually in this world in any meaningful way. Everything is undermined by the button that shows you where to go next. Even if I don't use this button, I know it's there, and just knowing it's there robs the world of its immediacy. (Also, because it's there, the art direction isn't doing enough to lead the eye anymore.)
This didn't used to be the case with Tomb Raider. To return to Tomb Raider 2 - that game had such a sense of place that playing it felt like I was crawling into the game itself and pulling the lid closed overhead. I remember coming out of a play session feeling like I had emerged from somewhere. And it wasn't just the choice of locations, I think, or the fact that I was younger and had nothing more pressing to do so I could play for hours and hours and house at a time. The game's visual design wasn't more artful or more characterful - there are vistas in Shadow of the Tomb Raider that are as beautiful and evocative as anything I've seen in a game. I think it's simply that I spent a lot more time there. And crucially I spent a certain kind of time there too, going back and forth, moving between one promising nook and the next, with the whole place empty because I had already long since killed everyone. I hollowed these worlds out in an attempt to understand how they worked, because the world was often a big puzzle and - more importantly - because I was absolutely stuck.
This is how I used to play Tomb Raider, anyway. I would inch through these games, making incremental bursts of progress. It was like drilling through a thick and uneven old wall at times: you'd hit a cavity and make a load of progress, but then you'd hit some kind of reinforced material and you'd be basically immobile again. I often find myself thinking back to the Opera House in Tomb Raider 2 and not just because it's a banger of a level. I think back to it because I was in there for months. Seasons changed while I noodled about. I should have being paying rent, frankly. I would pace back and forth, trying things out, checking for any change nearby following the toggling of a switch or the collapse of a bit of scenery, thinking about the relationship between one room and another - might I be meant to get into a place by dropping down into it rather than finding a way in at ground level - and inevitably thinking that the game must be broken. I had no internet at the time - I was in that awful year after you leave university and, if you're me, hit the ground in a sort of puddle with no plan as to what you might do next - and so I couldn't hunt for tips online.
But also I didn't want to spoil anything for myself. As frustrating as it was to be stuck, it was also kind of brilliant. The game would churn and churn in my mind. I would play Tomb Raider walking down the street, thinking about the tanker level with that boiler puzzle. I would wake up in the night with an idea for a fresh approach. I would ponder the more obscure reaches of the Tomb Raider moveset - there was a special kind of thing you could do in mid-air that would carry you a little further than a normal jump - and eventually I would just pace through the game, staring at every mottled surface for anything I had missed. These places were architecturally real, in that their spaces were generally uninterrupted by cutscenes, while the separate rooms felt like they had a coherent and un-fudged relationship with each other. And they were texturally real, too: I grew to know each type of fabric, each repeating pattern of stone or rust.
I question sometimes whether this was good design. In the later Core games, it almost certainly wasn't: the spatial design in Chronicles in particular seemed deeply arbitrary, and progress was often reliant on finding tiny gaps in places that you would never normally look, or tricking an NPC into doing something that didn't make much obvious sense. But one of the weird things about non-good design is that it can sometimes, very occasionally, give a game character. When I think back to those early Tomb Raiders, in fact, I often think of them in terms of character: they were grumpy and secretive and precise. They were prickly and pedantic, and they built their worlds accordingly.
I kept at it for two reasons, I think. One is because of Lara Croft. You don't really play Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, I think - you play as someone around her in some strange way - close and in control but also separate and bearing witness. And in those early games I felt a genuine sense of wanting to live up to the person she was in the cutscenes. She was decisive and acrobatic and cruel. I, meanwhile, was largely shuffling and lost and stupid in Tomb Raider. I wanted to close the gap between our ways of thinking and acting.
And the gap was pretty wide a lot of the time. I remember one moment in one of the later games when I was literally wandering back and forth looking at the carpet for a key that I had reasoned must be there somewhere. It was just like being a kid and having lost the crucial tiny component of a toy which meant that I couldn't enjoy myself playing without it. Plastic armageddon would be on hold until I found it again.
And then there was the beauty of the itinerary. This is particularly true of Tomb Raider 2, I think, which gave you ancient monuments, but also modern industrial wastelands. That ship at the bottom of the ocean! That oil rig, rusting and thrumming with buried energy and as lonely and numinous, in its own way, as any dormant temple.
Several years ago - I think I have witnessed almost the entire movement, over the last decade - there was a decision that friction in games was always a bad thing. And it was, a lot of the time! Many games have benefited from Detective Mode, from waypoints that pop up. I finish a lot more games now, and I see a lot more of what games have to offer. I remember being lost in an early Halo, for example, and thinking, well, this is just the shittest thing in the world, isn't it? By the time Halo 3 came around - maybe it was earlier in fact - a little waypoint would appear if I wandered in completely the wrong direction for too long, and I thanked that waypoint every time I proved stupid enough to need it.
But Halo isn't really about exploration, I guess. And it isn't really about puzzle-solving. At the core of Tomb Raider, beneath the problematic globe-trotting and the dual pistols and the spike pits, it is about both. Tomb Raider, you could argue, is about engaging with the friction. Now that friction is gone, I miss it.
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