Good, likeable video game characters. They’re harder to write than you might think, especially within an action game. Writers have to balance the “good guy” part with the amount of combat, (AKA killing “bad guys”). This can be tricky as half of your fans are more interested in gameplay than story, so they’d prefer to have more “shooty” action sequences, where the other fans would prefer to see their likeable character stay likeable, instead of mowing down hoards of enemies.
This is one of the problems Tomb Raider has suffered, much like its brethren, Uncharted. TR’s writer, Rhianna Pratchett, has spoken to KillScreen about how difficult it was to find that balance. She says Lara’s kill count in the game “was at least halved”, and that they also made sure that Lara had a “knowing-ness” about her actions. But Pratchett admitted that one thing has to win out, and it seems gameplay often wins over story, and she would have preferred if the “ramp up” had been a bit slower.
Pratchett makes several good points in this interview – most importantly, she says that “not every kill can be the first kill” and, she’s right. Lara’s first kill in Tomb Raider was heavily focused on – she feels awful, sick but she knows she had to do it, she had no choice. Although, after that first kill Lara kills many, many more men and some have argued that this is simply not realistic. Too quickly does she go from “What have I done?” to, “Bring it on you b*stards!” Prachett is right in saying that the ramp up in enemy kills could have been a little slower to make the narrative better, but she also makes the point that once you give the player a gun, they immediately want to use it.
Personally, when it comes to Uncharted I have never had a problem with Nathan Drake killing a small army’s worth of enemies, because the game feels like an Indiana Jones film, and you don’t really get a chance to stop and think about the consequences (or lack thereof). Maybe it’s because video games have treated murder like a normal everyday activity for so long, that only now are players starting to think – hang on, this isn’t right.
Things are different with Tomb Raider though, it’s an origins story and it is where Lara commits her first kill so it’s important they get the emotions right. Overall, I think they do a good job of this. Yes as the game progresses Lara gets more confident and badass, perhaps a little too quickly, but they’ve tried to put some emotion in the combat sequences. For example, the noises Lara makes whilst dodging enemy bullets and fighting back, are ones which make her sound quite scared still. I also noticed in one particular part of the game, quite late on, when I blew up a group of enemies using an explosive – a piece of music played. It was dark and ominous and it immediately made me feel bad about what I’d done. These moments are subtle though, and you might not pick up on them when you’re in the heat of the battle.
Pratchett also says they were “brave” for waiting so long to actually give the player a gun, as, in most games, you have a gun straight away or acquire one pretty quickly. This truth makes me think, do all games really need combat sequences? Wouldn’t a Tomb Raider with just the survival aspect be enough? It’s certainly true that not all games need combat to be good, Journey is a fantastic example of that but Journey is also not a full retail game. Journey is a couple of hours long, not eight, so they have a lot more flexibility when it comes to the style of gameplay.
However, it is a risk more games developers should be willing to take. Games are often criticised for being too violent and violence does sell. A few games have succeeded from not focusing on killing or fighting things and they’re always refreshing to see, but Tomb Raider is not one of those franchises and personally, I don’t think it should be. I do agree that it would have been nice to see a slower pace in Tomb Raider and a lot of people I know would prefer more puzzles over enemies any day. Perhaps that’s what we’ll get from the sequel, which is sure to happen. Sadly though, the masses are pleased by violence so developers will continue to treat combat more importantly than narrative.