The Real Problem with the New Tomb Raider’s Trailer

Uhhh, aaahhh, oooh, *gasp*, uhhhh. Ooh, er.

There’s all manner of indignation ricocheting from about the internet about the new Tomb Raider reboot.

Depending on who you ask, this turns the strong and self-sufficient millionaire adventurer Lara Croft into a victimized young girl whom male gamers are supposed to feel ‘protective’ over, layered with audio and visual overtones of hypersexualized torture porn (tied up, impaled, almost raped…)

…while other folks are decrying the unoriginal trope of rape being the automatic heinous thing you do in female characters’ backstories to *ahem* ‘make them stronger’ for having survived it. (I’d have snuck in a TV Tropes link, but apparently they have collided with the rape content police recently.)

One person quotes another. A paraphrase here and there. Something else taken out of context. And lo and behold, the feminists are up in arms… again.

It’s kinda ironic considering that

a) The new Lara Croft is considerably less sexualized visually in her character design. She looks to have human proportions. For once. She’s not just “oh, boobies!”

b) The intent is to give Lara Croft an origin story. Show her progress from someone ordinary to the extraordinary larger-than-life game superhero we’re familiar with.

c) The real point of the attempted rape scene is to depict a decision point, a crisis moment in Lara’s life, where she actually takes a human being’s life for the first time.

To depict what might conceivably force an ordinary human being to kill another, while still yielding some measure of sympathy for the killer, because she’s the protagonist after all.

Considering how murder is frowned upon in general society, self-defence vs assaulting rapist seems an easily understandable way out. Admittedly, it’s a bit lazy storytelling, but could you do any better?

Give me an “original” scenario where one character is forced to take another person’s life – not in a soldier/sanctioned by war sense, thanks.

(The best one I can come up with so far is that she has to kill someone in order to protect another person. It’s not that big a crisis point considering gamers are used to being the hero and killing rampantly, ostensibly for the sake of protecting another.

David Cage managed it in Heavy Rain where Ethan Mars had to strongly consider the possibility of murder in order to get a clue to save his son (and there were self-defence and various kinds of excuses there too. I’m sure some -still- criticize it for being contrived.))

It all sort of reminds me of the time I spent on a school project ripping apart an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess for being sexist and demeaning to women in its costuming and tasteless ‘damsels-in-distress’ plotting. Our team was on a roll, showing how the camera angles always fall to the level of the female’s busts (ahem, chest) but rise to the male’s heads, making fun of Xena’s characteristic ‘ki-yi-yi-yi’ screaming, deriding the stereotypical fantasy tropes, etc. and our teacher smiled and nodded…

…Some time after which, I discovered that an entire Xena online subculture had actually appropriated the broad tropes and practically idolize the Xena and Gabrielle pair for being depicted as strong women independent of any man, analyze episodes for clever double entrendre ‘lesbian’ subtext, and create reams of the strongest not-completely-teenage-angsty-fantasy fanfiction to grace the interwebs.

Foot, meet mouth. Suddenly, my arguments seemed hopelessly childish and surface-oriented only. I couldn’t see past the bare midriffs to the strong character personalities portrayed beneath.

How can the same thing be two completely opposite things all at once?

From our frames of reference. Perspective. Good to change it now and then to see if there’s any truth to the other guy’s POV. There usually are a few grains.

If you’ve spent any time on this blog at all, you’ve no doubt had a taste of my philosophy, which runs towards a sort of secular Zen/Taoist ‘balance’ spectrum of greys and I’m fond of espousing the Babylon 5 Kosh saying, “Understanding is a three-edged sword.”

There’s -always- multiple sides to every issue. And I find it fun to dig them up and lay them on the table, rather than see people go back and forth at each other hugging their precious one side to their chests and not listening to each other.

In Tomb Raider’s case, I think I’ve figured it out. The real problem, if you check the E3 gameplay trailer for yourself, is in the voice acting.

Not the plot, not the trigger word of rape, not the unoriginality (so many video games are derivative anyway, didn’t we just play fantasy Vikings with Dragons just a while ago?), not whatever horrible attack on feminism is supposed to have occurred.

If all the audio is off, the action generally looks quite good. Some of the face animation is a little stiff, but well, not everyone has mo-cap faces as a budget priority. Insert your own grunts and sound effects where appropriate according to your imagination.

Turn the audio on, and oh my god, it’s like Lord of the Rings Online female bandits all over again. You know, the ones you keep fighting in Archet and Combe while trying to keep the audio as low as possible in order to avoid awkward questions from any other person in the house about why you’re watching hardcore porn. *gasp* *heeve* *grunt* *uhhhhhh* *aaaaahhh*

Try it when your main character is also female. Oh dear. Anyone like orgies?

(I hear they’ve reworked those voices now. Phew.)

/Someone/ decided to give Lara Croft a voice that is a hair too feminine for the face and body, if you ask my opinion.

And then made it much much worse by making her act like a stereotypical girl, screaming and squealing at every turn of events. I’m not saying she has to be a stoic silent male stereotype either, but does she have to be that most annoying example of femaledom – the one that screeches at everything?

This is supposed to make me, the player, feel ‘protective’ of her?

Apparently I’m not the target audience the designer is envisioning. I’d probably just want to drown her somewhere to shut her up. (That was a figure-of-speech, please don’t kill me, any feminists in the audience!)

Do you hear Skyrim’s Lydia squealing like a girl every time some rocks fall? (Especially since she normally sets off the traps in the first place…)

Zoey is just an ordinary young woman in Left 4 Dead, and sure, she’s going to scream sometimes when confronted by zombies, but it’s not every damn time nor does it sound so… exploitative.

Clumsy characterization is the issue in the trailer. I dunno if it’ll be any better in the longer format game, but her voice is off, and doesn’t gel with the animations. If you want her screaming because she’s wounded, then her avatar has to look like she’s wounded and stagger properly, and the voice has to come with appropriate timing – not just play on as a softcore porn soundtrack with random exhalations just because.

It’s an audio uncanny valley. It doesn’t convey the intent of the storytelling and just makes it comical at best, and disrespectful to the character if you view Lara Croft as serious business.

A little bit of silence would go a long way.

Music in MMOs – Potential for More

If only Tolkien knew what comes to Amon Sul each June...

Finished Heavy Rain yesterday. While watching the bonus content on Making Of Heavy Rain: Music, something David Cage mentioned struck me. He described the important role music played in a game like Heavy Rain, then added, “Actually, we believe that music is probably 50%, if not more, of the impact of the images.”

And I got to thinking about the impact of music in MMOs, and its uses and functions.

Fair warning: I am no musician. I can’t discuss anything technical, but I wanted to think a little deeper beyond simply listing all the awesome and brilliant music in MMOs. Others have done that years ago even.

Suffice to say, the general consensus is that Jeremy Soule turns anything aural he touches to gold (Guild Wars, Elder Scrolls, etc.), Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online are often highlighted as memorable, and then the other MMOs seem to follow at random depending on preference, nostalgia or people just reminding each other that these tunes are pretty good if you paid some attention to them.

Music is a funny beast. Sure, it’s subjective, different people react differently to various pieces, but there’s also a fair amount of agreement in how humans as a whole react emotionally to music – else there wouldn’t be any purpose to making all those movie soundtracks. Movies use music to support the moving pictures, to stir emotion, to create iconic themes and aid the telling of the story.

Presumably, MMOs, given enough budget, strive to do the same thing with music.

Zones and Iconic Theme Music

One of the things I most commonly observe in MMOs is the use of iconic musical themes, tied to various zones. As the scenery and terrain features change from zone to zone, so does the music. It sets the mood of the zone, hints at the culture of any inhabitants, and creates a brand identity for the zone. Players seem to respond fairly well to this, and often can remember with nostalgia memories of specific zones upon hearing the music again.

Sometimes it’s not an entire zone, but just a small sub-area or local space with a special musical theme. Two notable spots in the MMOs I’ve played come to mind – the interior of Tom Bombadil’s house in the Old Forest in LOTRO, and the transition to St. Martial’s main street that is dotted with casinos in City of Heroes. One of my favorite places in a singleplayer game is Erana’s Peace in Quest For Glory (piano version) – a quiet grove of peace dedicated to a dead lady whom you never actually see in the first game, but is given so much character simply by the music that haunts her haven.

I don’t think it’s used as well as it could be in MMOs, as such music could actually serve to encourage a player to remain a while in a certain locale. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in Erana’s Peace not playing the actual game. And I’ve often just stopped in Tom Bombadil’s house just to listen to the music, but I don’t have anything else to do there but stare at the small cylindrical space and watch Bombadil skip around.

Maybe good music in taverns and inns where you’d conceivably want players to congregate might actually help, as well as add to the immersion of the world. Skyrim is a decent example of what I’m thinking of, though one would have to be very careful about repetition of a single piece.

Avoiding Repetition

Repetition seems to be the mind-killer, as far as music in games go. There are games, Final Fantasy being the most notable example, who have a special tune or two for battle music. You know, it works well at first. Combat starts, the battle theme plays, your blood stirs, and the whole thing feels good… until the umpteenth time some random encounter pops up and you hastily mute the music before you’re conditioned to throw something at your speakers when these specific notes start playing.

I’m not precisely sure if there are any good solutions for avoiding repetition. Variety naturally helps. I’m not sure how many variations one can justify on an MMO budget though, which brings to mind the next idea of supplemental music through microtransactions. Cash shops are already selling vanity costumes, animations and decorations for players to customize their experience of a game. I don’t know if music would sell in general.

If you’re Jeremy Soule, it definitely can, of course. I’ll confess to buying all of his DirectSong music tracks for all of the Guild Wars chapters. Never regretted it, because it turns roaming Guild Wars into an astounding auditory experience, and reduces that horrible spectre of repetitive music. Many times I’d hear something amazing, and have to stop and check the interface to see if the DirectSong icon is on, indicating that it’s playing the extra music – it often is.

Then there’s Left 4 Dead’s music Director, that actually customizes a personal soundtrack for each player and strives to avoid repetition. The game is also notable for musical cues that indicate special Infected or a zombie horde onrush. Translating that to MMOs, musical cues for dynamic events? No doubt a music Director is a lot easier to do for 4 players as opposed to 2000+ players a server, but who knows, we can dream. Technology and progress marches on.

Emotional Arcs in Cutscenes

Music is often used in cutscenes to suggest the emotional arc the characters are (and thusly, what the viewers should be) going through. This is the 50%+ of Heavy Rain for sure, the whole cinematic experience, soundtrack and all. I believe it’s done to varying degrees of success depending on the specific MMO game. I haven’t played SWTOR, but from what I see of the cutscenes on Youtube, it does seem like they did pay attention to that for the purposes of storytelling.

It makes me wonder if more innovation is possible on this front. Do MMO developer tools allow quest/storyline writers to customize the music, as well as the animation in the cutscenes? I wouldn’t know. Then there’s user-created content and creation tools for players to tell each other stories or create adventures for each other – should options for music be included in such designs?

Music Systems

MMOs are not just movies though. Striving for the perfect big budget orchestral themes to accompany high resolution cutscenes shouldn’t be the only approach to music in MMOs.

How else could we bring the ‘game’ or ‘interactivity’ component of an MMO in conjunction with music? What other innovative features might be possible, now and in the future?

Lord of the Rings Online must be mentioned here for its Player Music System – which is far and ahead the most innovative thing to date attempted for music in MMOs, imo. Self-expression and uniqueness (which players seem to love in MMOs, given the demand for customizable looks) in the form of playing musical notes that others can hear. Give players the tools and they will surprise you with their creativity. From the pleasure of additional ambient music while casually strolling past another player, to the incredible annual event of Weatherstock, the emergent content adds to both immersion in a virtual world and a sense of community.

Granted, it has its flaws. Not a few people feel left out or unable to appreciate the system because it rather hinges on a real life skill of musicianship. It can also promptly jar you out of immersion and into real life  if someone is playing something thematically inappropriate for the setting. User-created content is like that. The potential for beautiful pearls, but also a lot of neutral sand to sift through, plus the disgusting tires and the random half-full condom, if we stretch the beach metaphor.

Another interesting music system can be found in Runescape. You get to unlock music tracks and collect them all. Sound achievement familiar? Well, why not? Isn’t that one of the core features of the MMO genre? Why not make music a minigame?

Some games, like Runescape and Eve Online, feature an in-game music player for their own soundtracks, which is probably a neat option for player customization. I’m not sure how many people make use of the feature though. How much further can we take this idea?

Jukeboxes in MMOs? In other words, player-controlled, possibly cost a fee, used in order to send music to a local area. Has been done, but mostly in more obscure Asian titles like Granado Espada, according to my Google-fu. No one seems to have much to say about the subject. The browser MMO Glitch has music boxes, which send short-lived spurts of tunes out, which are more fun-like toy objects for the individual, rather than having any kind of social use. SWTOR is the new kid on the block with them, apparently. I can’t say much more than that because I have no personal experience with those MMOs (besides Glitch.)  I wonder if they are seeing any significant use?

City of Heroes has a notable history of having out-of-game radio stations, hosted by DJs, who hang around in-game to play music for those who care to look up the radio and participate in the social events and contests they also organize. Would it help to have in-game support for such things, and foster a greater sense of community that way? Or does the radio concept only work because of the modern superhero setting?

I don’t think we’ve yet hit any kind of limit on what roles and functions music can play in MMOs. I think the potential has barely been explored.

We just need to think further and deeper on this.

Music in MMOs: What does the future have in store for us?

Heavy Rain: Scenes of Emotional Resonance

Have you seen this dog?

I’m currently in the middle of my second playthrough of Heavy Rain.

This game was the driving force behind my decision to get a PS3, ever since the day they announced it was going to be a PS3 exclusive only.

(Annoyingly, Sony tends to stick to its guns about exclusivity. The console comes in handy for playing other PS3 exclusive games, though I’m primarily a PC game player.)

Spoilers follow, so look away if you don’t want to be spoiled at all.

Why the insane fanaticism? Mainly because the game’s developer David Cage is aiming his company Quantic Dream at a path very few other game companies bother to walk. His games aim to explore more mature adult themes (no, not THAT kind of adult) and evoke some sort of emotional reaction.

I have to plug his latest tech video Kara here, because of its sheer awesome. The Casting is the older tech demo for Heavy Rain, but still worth a watch if you haven’t seen it – more than a little uncanny valley on the model these days, but the emotion is still there.

Granted, he aims for ‘mature’ and he tends to miss, especially in terms of how sensible the plot of his games turn out, but nitpicking aside, at least he’s trying.

The precursor game to Heavy Rain was Indigo Prophecy or Fahrenheit, depending on which part of the world you come from. Steam had it on sale a while back, but for some reason, it’s mysteriously disappeared from the store and never returned. Thankfully, it’s still in my games list when I bought it at the time it’s available, or me and Steam Support would be having -words-.

Indigo Prophecy was generally roundly thrashed for the later half of its plotline, which devolves into wildly fantastical wishful thinking and Matrix-ripping off. It was panned in some quarters for not having much “gameplay” since it mostly consisted of button-pushing Quick Time Events (QTEs).

Despite the criticism, I would still recommend anyone to give it a try because its opening sequence and beginning scenes are some of the best emotionally riveting, atmospheric experiences to be found in any game. The soundtrack, the cinematic cuts, the split-screen dual perspectives that ratchet up the tension as the protagonist, ie. you, try to hide any evidence away and get out as quickly as you can, while subsequently playing another protagonist, also you, who revisits the same setting and tries to find any place where you screwed up previously in order to obtain clues.

Heavy Rain continues along in this vein, with slightly better plotting. Not completely good plotting, because I just paused the game in disgust to try and figure out how Madison Paige (the token girl protagonist) knew where Ethan Mars (the main protagonist) had run off for his third trial challenge. A wiki reference says it’s never explained. Gah. But enough nitpicking about the plot holes, plenty of other people have bitched about them already.

I’m bringing up Heavy Rain to point out its strengths. The individual scenes. (Don’t try too hard to figure out how all the scenes stick together, it’s like David Cage came up with a big list of scenarios and conflict situations he wanted to put into this game to make a point, and then tried to conjure up a story to fit it all in.) But the scenes themselves, wow.

Holly Lisle said it best. Scenes, individual story units, are about change. Something moves. Something happens. Something goes from point A to point B.

Heavy Rain’s better scenes are full of this emotional movement. The very first scene in the game is a prolonged mundane day-in-the-life-of-a-family-man that takes an ominous turn when the kid’s bird dies. (Little nitpick: Don’t ask why the bird just upped and died then though. It would have been stronger if the kid or Ethan had inadvertently killed the bird in some fashion.)

The next is the one that transitions Ethan from bright ordinary life to grey depression when a tragic accident shatters his idyll.

Other memorable scenes? Scott Shelby’s confrontation with a store robber. Norman Jayden’s encounter with Nathaniel – to shoot or not to shoot. Ethan Mar’s third trial – can he sacrifice a part of himself to save his son? (fairly high squick factor the first time I encountered it). Ethan Mar’s fourth trial – can he kill another human being to save his son?

The really good scenes like above have no “right” answers. It’s hard emotional choices made within short spans of time. They define the character’s personality as you play through them, and also subtly reflect back what you value (if you aren’t roleplaying and react instead from gut instinct.)

(Of course, some of the effect is lost when one realizes that the eventual final storyline may still be the same regardless of what you did, but the game does have enough ‘critical’ points of no return, where you’re never really sure if this QTE is the one that’ll send the story somewhere you didn’t really intend.)

So what does Heavy Rain have to do with MMOs?

On the surface of it, not much. Cutscene-like QTEs are always better off as single player games. I don’t want to watch someone else talk for me in a cutscene, I want the story to centre around me and my choices, thank you, other people would just get in the way and knock me right out of the suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, we have a City of Heroes forum thread right here that discusses plot vs storytelling.

Heavy Rain, like some of City of Heroes’ Signature Story Arcs, occasionally suffer from a surfeit of too much ham-fisted plotting. Someone has a PLAN that requires such-and-such characters to be here and there at these places at these times. Now think up some ways to get them there, I don’t care how awkward you have to twist their personalities or their arms, kthxbai. The characters become little cardboard props to be moved around as required for the grand plan to function. They’re interchangeable.

Then there’s times where you get stories (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) – meaningful scenes that have a firm foundation because a Character anchors them. Capitalization intended.

O Wretched Man – one of the generally acclaimed story arcs in City of Heroes – is firmly anchored by Ghost Widow, Wretch, Pia Marino and their backstories. The arc would not exist without the characters, and their motivations, for doing what they do because they’re them. There is emotional resonance every time the arc shifts.

All of Ethan Mars’ scenes in Heavy Rain are rooted by his feelings for his son(s). Emotional resonance again.

These stories stick with me, even when I’m done playing the game. But I can barely remember the plots of most MMO quests. Mostly I just remember how irritating the grind was.

In contrast, I can remember Guild Wars: Nightfall’s storyline, thanks to the heroes and certain NPCs who give it some character (pun intended.) I can absolutely remember Vekk and his relationship with Gadd through GW:EN, and of course, there is no way to forget the eponymous Gwen.

So after all that meandering, what’s the common thread in making game stories memorable? For me, it appears to be character.

It’s probably asking too much to expect every quest to hit it out of the park like Wretched Man did, but it would help to have, not plots that are a lame excuse for me to kill ten wilderness critters, but stories, anchored by unique characters, motivated by some kind of need for changes to happen.

(There’s one more topic with which I can link Heavy Rain and MMOs together, and that’s choices and consequences. We’ll save that for another post. Maybe when I get over my plot hole allergic reaction and finish my second playthrough.)