Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a large, mostly secret government facility that houses all the fantastic stuff that they’ve collected over the years and don’t want you to know about, including the Dead Sea Paper Footballs, Einstein’s loaded d20 and d100, and the original, uncut, undoctored Dirk Benedict. The main building covers about a million acres and can be seen from low Earth orbit with the naked eye, if you know where to look and the stars are properly aligned (with the Big Dipper in Uranus) and all that.
Not far from there is an even larger facility that stores only two things: a complete yet growing catalog of everything in the whole world that bugs the ever-loving llama shit out of me, and Wilford Brimley. (Wilford is not part of said catalog; he’s merely there to grunt disapprovingly at everything and occasionally maintain an ominous silence. He does a fine job, as one might expect.) If you stroll down aisle 1138, jink left at Jar Jar Binks, gingerly step over the rampant misuse of the apostrophe in initialisms, acronyms, and pronouns, duck under every instance of someone parking on the white lines instead of between them, and pointedly ignore everyone who thinks these fucking things are appropriate attire anywhere but home or here, you’ll find item number 10086A on the top shelf behind the untouched shaving cream.
It’s the Pictures That Got Small
Square Enix recently announced that they’re working on a version of this year’s Tomb Raider rehash for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, complete with “enhanced visual storytelling.” The following quote is from Crystal Dynamics executive producer Scot Amos:
“The new hardware let us finally express the original vision in all of its glory. This was a continued labor of love. We pulled the game apart and rebuilt it with painstaking detail to add enhanced visual storytelling but without changing the award-winning tale. The end result is a cinematic living world.”
Along with all of the new Tomb Raider’s DLC and the tie-in comic by Dark Horse, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition will sport better graphics, thanks to improved texture resolutions, better lighting, and AMD’s TressFX technology, which makes hair and grass look, oddly enough, more like hair and grass. Before we get all aggressively tumescent and start combing the internet alleys of ill repute for some next-gen funware, let’s take a look at the above quote line-by-line.
“The new hardware let us finally express the original vision in all of its glory.” Please read this as “All of you shmuckbags who spent varying amounts of $, €, £, or ¥ on the original new Tomb Raider can suck it; this is the game we wanted to make all along. It’s got wavy hair and pretty plants!” The original vision of what, exactly? The original-original 1996 Tomb Raider? The 2006 reboot Tomb Raider Legend? Or the 2007 reboot of the rebooted reboot Tomb Raider Anniversary? This series has had more reboots than a Windows 95 floppy disc installation, and now it’s getting a refresh of the latest reboot. Also, glory = wavy hair. Who knew?
“This was a continued labor of love.” (“We love having jobs, and Square Enix told us to labor on this instead of on something new.”) No problem there; I understand jobs. Jobs are good. Let’s not make it sound like everyone at Crystal Dynamics lined up outside Square’s offices with picket signs demanding to be allowed to resize the textures for Tomb Raider, though; the bosses said “FROG!” and you said “boing!” It happens.
“We pulled the game apart and rebuilt it with painstaking detail…” Uh-oh! Bullshit alert! Pulled the game apart? The whole thing? And rebuilt it in painstaking detail? In less than a year? (And hey, what the hell did you use to build the game the first time around? Broad-stroked generalities and a fat-fingered Crayola?) Say, isn’t it about time that Angel of Darkness got six or seven reboots and some painstaking detail of its own?
“…to add enhanced visual storytelling…” I have news for Mr. Amos; wavy hair and pretty plants don’t add up to “storytelling,” visual or otherwise. They’ve improved the graphics, that’s it — this kind of corporate mindfuck upspeak isn’t going to help sell anyone on a new expression of the original vision of a rebooted old version of Tomb Raider. In fact, that kind of condescending palaver will probably inhibit sales; their market is smarter than they think it is, and can (in general) smell a bucket full of birdshit a mile away. (Is this a bad time to point out that Scot Amos used to work at EA?)
“…but without changing the award-winning tale.” This means that everything you might have hated about the old expression of the original vision of the rebooted version of Tomb Raider is still there, and will still piss you off. So yeah, you’ll still have to press X or A 23 times to open a chest, and you’ll still have control of Lara Croft wrested away from you at any time that the developer deemed appropriate to cram some cutscenes into your mindhole, but at least you’ll be able to enjoy the enhanced visual storytelling while you do it. Or in the case of the cutscenes, while you don’t do anything.
“The end result is a cinematic living world.” Ah, here it is. This is the bastard in aisle 1138, item number 10086A: a confession of inferiority that holds the essential attributes of another medium (film) as gaming’s de facto highest standard; it is a cinematic living world that is their original vision and not, as one might expect, a great video game.
The notion that gaming is a visual medium does not confer upon it the fundamental, defining attributes of all other visual media; you don’t hear the works of Jan van Eyck or Ansel Adams described as “cinematic,” yet for some reason gaming cannot shake this subservient and at least partially self-imposed designation — some of its most egregious offenders are people within the industry, namely those who set out not to make a great game, but to reproduce a “cinematic experience” or an “interactive film whatever.” No other art form so thoroughly subjugates itself to another, with many of its so-called artists seeking the validation of what they presumably consider to be a more sophisticated, more respectable medium. And this is sad.
Regardless of their overall quality, games that are intended by their developers to deliver a cinematic presentation ultimately leave me unsatisfied; even Mass Effect 3, with its unparalleled production values and vaster than vast narrative, made me feel as though I was just a witness to someone else’s story. It kept me at arm’s length by consistently pulling me out of my own experience in order to show me Something Else, More Important, which is an essential characteristic of traditional literature; it must, by definition, tell someone else’s story.
And that’s fine; that’s why I read novels. That’s why I watch TV. That’s why I go to movies: to see and experience someone else’s story. It’s not why I play games.
Trying to Be Twenty-Five
Gaming doesn’t have to be taken seriously by anyone else in order for me to enjoy it; with respect, late Chicago film critics and Miami lawyers can think and say whatever they want, and it’s not going to stop me from adoring BioShock or Terraria or even the tawdry portions of Saints Row 3. It baffles me, though, why so many developers — talented developers, at that — fail to exploit their own medium’s inherent and unmatched strengths, chief among which is the ability to permit players to tell their own extrinsic stories, through their persistent, uninterrupted interactions with the game world. This is not possible in games like Mass Effect 3 and Tomb Raider, both of which consistently sever the player-developer collaborative bond with long periods of passive, cinematic inactivity.
Using your strengths is always good advice, but denying a portion of those same strengths in order to pander to the unattainable standard of an inferior medium is unforgivably callow. If you want to make movies, then make them; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — but if you want to make video games, then by golly-gum-wow make games, not starry-eyed love notes to an industry that can’t decide whether you’re a threat, a joke, a marketing vehicle, or an amusing anecdote.
Gaming must learn to speak with its own authority and in its own voice, but it will never do that as long as the word “cinematic” is still part of its vocabulary.