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Tomb Raider’s Killing Curve

Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider, the reboot to the storied classic franchise of yore, is less than a week out, but reviews are already running and they’re looking pretty good. I personally haven’t finished it yet but so far, the reviews match up: this is a fantastic game. The opening is a bit too Uncharted-y for its own good, but a stride is found, hit, and stridened soon after. There’s even a bit of Sleeping Dogs in there where it has a very realistic veneer but most of the internal workings are a bit goofier and more cartoonish than you’d expect (which I feel works is this case).

However, there’s one part that kind of sticks out at me and based on conversations I’ve had with other people that have played Tomb Raider, mine isn’t the only craw it’s found its way into. For all the drama that surrounded the marketing of this game from the seemingly unintentional but still sexist comments from executive producer Ron Rosenberg to the sexual assault scene, the fact that they decided to bring Lara Croft back to human roots of being vulnerable and new to the world of being a tomb raider/killer was a good decision in my eyes. The part that isn’t so good is how they did it.

Which is to say that they kind of didn’t do it. Lara does indeed start out inexperienced in the matters of taking lives and general survival, but she quickly steps up her game to Master Chief-level stuff. Her first kill definitely does what the designers and developers intended, which is to shock and disturb you as a player. It’s supposed to be a striking contrast, crossing that line from thinking to doing without any of the former, and you’re supposed to be shaken up—I know I was. It is almost the complete opposite of Hotline Miami where you start out numb to the macabre acts played out at your hands (only to get number).

But not five minutes later, Lara has killed many more times. The act of killing a man with her bare hands apparently no longer fazes her. I understand (the implicit notion) that Lara is one of those sorts of people emerge as an unwittingly cool customer under pressure where if it’s him or her, it will always be her that comes out on top, but there is no transition. There is no curve. According to Tomb Raider, the learning curve for killing is less of a continual slope and more of a sharp drop into easy sailing. Granted, that initial plunge is a huge hurdle, but after that, taking lives is as easy as breathing.

This rang a familiar bell to me and probably did for a lot of other people, too: Far Cry 3. The protagonist Jason Brody is stuck on a pirate-infest island where mercenaries and tigers basically set the rules and he must rescue his friends from some largely unseen evil clutches. He goes almost immediately from dudebro that has never killed or even thought about killing a man since that would take away precious mental processes from thinking about skydiving and saying things like “let’s crush it” and “get your pump on” to a well-oiled death machine.

There’s similar drama, too, surrounding Jason’s first kill (as well as the rest of the game). It’s definitely not has heavy-handed nor as impactful as with Lara, but the intent is the same; we’re supposed to see that murder changes a person and it isn’t to be taken lightly regardless of reason. The messages are ultimately different (or from what I’ve heard as I have yet to finish Tomb Raider), but the point is made.

The point, however, is kind of dulled due to the bludgeoning rock that is the broken killing curve. Yes, this is a video game, and yes, these games are better served to play the way they do earlier rather than later, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some game out there that could cultivate this notion into its own experience rather than having it play into some overarching design that can barely accommodate it.

It seems that the designers were aware of this, too. Concessions are made throughout both games that seem to acknowledge how they skimp on this established but underutilized inner conflict. For example, both games feature hunting. In Red Dead Redemption fashion, there are animals wandering around the game world that you can kill and skin for either materials (Far Cry 3) or sustenance (Tomb Raider). Without any preface, both Jason and Lara can clean and cut a felled beast with ease, and only later is it revealed through optional or easily missed dialogue that both used to hunt with their families in their younger years. They are both so throwaway that it seems like afterthoughts shoehorned into the game because that was all they could do to justify some of the hyper accelerated capabilities of both protagonists.

Of course, as with the killing and whatnot, this all better serves the game, but is there not a way for this to be incorporated from the get-go? Or maybe somehow used as a narrative mechanic? Here’s a thought: the first skinning of an animal takes time. Like, way more time than a player would be comfortable sitting through. A full minute of watching the character struggle with how to rip the hide off a buffalo, saying something like “I wish I’d gone hunting more with my dad” or “that documentary made this seem so easy.” You know what? Make it a mini game. Make it arduous or difficult but make it mirror the difficulties of the character.

But the next time they skin something, it takes less time. The button inputs or the dexterity requirements of the mini game are lessened. Over time, the mechanic of skinning an animal becomes easier and quicker for you because it would obviously become easier and quicker for the character. They learn, and it comes through in this narrative mechanic. Muscle memory and simplified or streamlined motions kick in and eventually you only have to initiate the process and you’re done. It communicates to you that the character has grown without a single line of dialogue or text and it rewards the player for playing. It’s a win-win.

That is, of course, something that has to be deliberately designed and integrated into a game. Plugging that into Far Cry 3 or Tomb Raider will probably serve only to worsen the experience for players, but what I’m saying is that it’s not impossible to have a game with this gradation of murder instead of a jump and a swim in Death Lake. It’s not impossible to ride the killing curve. It’s just that Tomb Raider doesn’t have one.

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