Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Tank Gymnastique

[Revised 21.05.11: wasn't quite convinced by my original argument, so I've rewritten most of the latter half.]

'Welcome back to my humble abode,' Lara Croft greets you in the tutorial level of Tomb Raider 3. 'Feel free to take a look around.'

You start in her bedroom. Why not? If you want you can nip into her en-suite bathroom and splash around fully clothed in her oversized bath, or you can run into her fireplace and set her on fire.

Lara standing in her mansion bedroom

Alternatively, you can go and explore, as suggested, the rest of her luxurious mansion. It's one of the finest tutorial levels you will encounter in a videogame, complete with swimming pool, gymnasium, assault course, shooting range, quadbike racetrack, secret trophy room and aquarium. And, of course, a butler who follows you around like a flatulent ghoul until you lock him up in the freezer.

But let's pause a moment and get metaphysical, because... well, it's a way to make the time go by. What exactly is going on here when Lara invites you to look around?

When people talk about the relationship between a player and the character they play as in a game, there's a tendency to talk a lot in terms of the player being that character. It's assumed that when a player plays as a character, they are simply assuming a role. But this kind of language conflates a lot of things, and put like that, the idea has never quite gelled with my own experience of being sat in front of a screen with a controller in my hands, pushing buttons to make stuff happen.

Lara performing a swan dive in the hallway

In a first-person shooter, I've never felt like I'm really that soldier in that world holding a real gun. In an RPG where my character is a tailor-made silent type with as much room made for projection as possible, I've never felt like I've become that character... as if I'm standing there in his boots doing the things he can do. And when I play as Lara Croft, a character with a distinct personality of her own, I don't feel like I'm actually Lara Croft. Surely I'm always at some kind of remove from the events happening, and the events that I make happen, on the screen. The videogame reality on the screen is not metaphysically comparable to the one we're sat in at home.

So what's our relationship with Lara? In the mansion, when Lara invites you to look around, it's not something you can do without her. In fact, you have to do it through her. You need her legs to run from one place to another; you need all of her limbs to climb things, swim around or otherwise traverse the gameworld. You're given a third-person perspective, but the camera is always glued to her and goes only where she goes (and things get pretty intimate if there isn't enough space for both).

Lara swimming

Importantly, though, you're in control of her. The main purpose of the mansion, as well as providing a taster of the puzzle solving, exploration and secrets to come, is to familiarise the player with Lara's controls. You press buttons on your control pad or keyboard and she does stuff. In this sense, she's kind of like a remote-controlled vehicle, one designed specifically for traversing this particular blocky landscape. She can run, duck, roll, jump, climb ledges, shimmy sideways, and perform all manner of athletic tricks that will get you where you need to go.

There's a real sense that you have to manoeuvre her into action, lining her up for jumps, spinning her around, steering her like a ship—sometimes backing up after she's run into a wall because she can be a bit sluggish to respond. This is not normally how we operate ourselves, but it's an integral, inescapable part of the game. The focus of the game in terms of platforming is, in fact, specifically mastering this form of control.

To use yet another analogy, it's almost like pressing the right buttons to fly a complex kite, one subject to the particular physics of its environment, only the kite is a lithe human figure and she's more naturally inclined to work with gravity. Whether she's a kite or a remote-controlled three-wheeled trolley, though, at least some of the Tomb Raider experience must come from understanding Lara Croft as an externally manipulated object.

Lara performing a handstand on the edge of a ledge

But wait! 'I don't actually run everywhere,' Lara tells us, when she enters the gymnasium. 'When I want to be careful, I walk.' While this may be true for many people, it's kind of a weird thing to point out. It's followed by her giving instructions on how to achieve this using the controls.

We accept this because we know it's just a game and that we control her, but the comment is odd to think about because we don't necessarily view her as a vehicle, spouting useful instructions on how to be operated. Despite the fact that we're always conscious of controlling her, we still recognise her as a person. She's a human representation and in the context of the gameworld she does human things.

Additionally, she is brought to the game with her own personality, closely related to her athletic in-game physicality but largely constructed through her speech and through scripted behaviour in cutscenes. During her silent hours of exploration, personality is either implied by her actions or we are left with room enough to infer it.

Lara walking around in her gymnasium

So how does this work? How do we accept her as a human, with her own personality and agency, when we're aware of her as an object to be manipulated? Well, the key is in a phrase I just used: 'in the context of the gameworld'. This is where the narrative of Tomb Raider takes place. It's also a context in which the player doesn't in fact exist. The remote-controlled analogy actually doesn't work, because Lara's not merely separate from us distance-wise, but exists on a whole different plane of reality.

The logic prevails in this reality, this narrative, that Lara's actions are her own and that she is capable of such actions for being an athletic, daring, resourceful person. In a sense, we're simply enabling a narrative, getting it to play out in a particular way within the boundaries put in place by the developers. We can accept the gameworld on this level while still being aware of ourselves playing the game via external controls, just like we can sit and watch a movie still vaguely aware of the hand stuffing popcorn in our mouth.

But it'd be wrong to write off the most obvious feature of gaming: that, within the boundaries of the game, the experience is driven by our own actions and their consequences. In that sense, we are Lara—her every move in the gameworld is ours. She jumps when we make her jump, we succeed when she succeeds, we fail when she fails. And even though you're probably not physically making a jump yourself, certain aspects of that jump are affectively conveyed: the difficulty, the sense of risk, the sense of accomplishment (or dismay).

Lara performing a forward roll in her courtyard

Of course, the stakes are supposed to be a little higher for Lara than they are for us. If a massive boulder is triggered and starts rolling after Lara, you can imagine it'd be a much more intense experience for the character than it would ever be for a videogame player. And in more tangible gameplay terms, it's probably fatal if Lara misses a jump, whereas for us it's just a quick reload before we can try again. It's still just a game, after all—there's that obvious metaphysical remove. But we do relate affectively to Lara's experiences to at least some extent, beyond the way we would relate to narratives that we're only passively involved with.

Still, though, there's something to be said for the ways in which we're externalised from Lara, even when relating to her on this level. It's worth noting again how much of the Tomb Raider experience is defined by the appeal of viewing Lara Croft from the outside—not only for the pervy boobs reason, but because this way we get to see her gymnastics in action, and to see the character interacting with her environment. Similarly, those of a more sadistic bent, or those who are simply curious, may choose for Lara to take a plunge from a great height just to see what happens to her. Or to take out your frustration on her when she doesn't seem to be doing what you want. It's her fault, not yours, see?

What's important about a game is exactly how we plug into it, and the ways in which we aren't Lara Croft are just as important as the ways in which we are. Thus it would be wrong to view games simply as a poor man's virtual reality, limited only because they lack the technology to give us that complete existentially displaced experience.

Lara crawling, the camera shoved up against her backside

It's worth considering again movies, and all the different sorts of affective or intellectual experiences we get from them that probably wouldn't benefit in any way from taking the virtual reality route either (and I'd say the recent 3D craze is about as representative of the inevitable direction of movies as Kinect, Move and other motion-controlled experiences are for gaming—which is to say that they're not, as fun as they might be in their own right).

Mirror's Edge is another 'realistic' platforming game, with the difference that it's a first person game, not third. Would that benefit from being a complete VR? More than Tomb Raider, perhaps, but not necessarily, because again, it forms its own experience. The character Faith, like Lara, remains an entity in her own right, despite the first-person perspective. That perspective is primarily so that we can experience more immediately the sensation of dizzying heights, and in that sense, the player's experience is physically aligned with the character's to a greater degree (or at least this is the intended impression). But again, it's only about being her, or her being us, in a qualified, selective sense.

In terms of the Mirror's Edge narrative, when we hear Faith breathing with exertion and see her arms reaching out for the next ledge, we've got just as much of a sense of her as the protagonist performing all these parkour tricks as we have of us performing them. Maybe the developers would have gone the VR route had that been available to them, but the fact is, they didn't—and the end result is a very different sort of experience.

Lara in a crumpled heap on the floor, observed by her butler

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