Posts Tagged ‘Tomb Raider’

Lara CroftFor a few years now, I’ve been raving about Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of Tomb Raider and their reimagining of its protagonist, Lara Croft, from a scantily clad, hypersexualized, adolescent male fantasy to a more realistic, appropriately dressed and anatomically restrained, tough, gritty survivor (see my earlier post here). I applauded their depiction of her as an imperfect woman forced by circumstance to make difficult choices and carry out some fairly gruesome acts in order to stay alive and save her friends. Lara’s not proud of what she does, nor does she take pleasure in it. She does it because she has to, because her only other option is to give up.

That both gamers and critics praised Tomb Raider came as no surprise. At long last, the franchise had a game that looked stunning, played beautifully, and featured a tough, intelligent heroine that both men and women cared about and could believe in. Here, at last, was the Lara Croft we’d all been waiting for.

And now, Crystal Dynamics has done it again. At Microsoft’s E3 press conference this past Monday, they revealed a teaser trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, slated for a late 2015 release. The trailer features all the energy and excitement of the first game, including a few very tense moments of Lara in peril—no surprise there. But it features something else, something unprecedented in the history of gaming.

Rise of the Tomb RaiderThe video begins, not with Lara escaping death or brutally overcoming an attacker, but with her in therapy. You read that right: therapy. We see her on the edge of a chair, cloaked in a hoodie, head downcast. As the therapist talks, Lara digs her fingers into the upholstery, clenches her fist, bounces her leg. She can’t sit still. She’s clearly anxious and uncomfortable. This is not the bulletproof heroine we’ve come to expect, casually shaking off the death she’s dealt. Lara has experienced horrors the likes of which most of us can’t imagine, and she’s been deeply affected by them. But neither is she a broken woman. Battered and scarred yet alive, she’s found away to exist in between. Her therapist continues:

For many people, these traumas become a mental trap. They get stuck, like a ship frozen in ice.”

Lara HoodiePTSD. That’s what he’s talking about. This is classic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Lara is suffering from something that affects nearly eight million American adults, that’s all too common among veterans of war and survivors of abuse, that can strike at any age, and that can tear families and communities apart. She has PTSD, and she’s dealing with it. That a video game is so directly dealing with this is extraordinary. And that Lara is working through and recovering from the trauma of her ordeal may provide hope to those facing traumas of their own. I’ll leave you with the experience of a young woman suffering from PTSD who, while playing Tomb Raider, discovered just that:

It didn’t hold any punches, but it didn’t need to… it affected me in a way years of therapy never did. It healed me in a way that no one’s physical comfort, words, and condolences could ever do. It made me realize that, much like Lara Croft, I survived as well—and that I had my own path to walk. That my experiences were real and tangible and yes, they defined me, but that I’d have it no other way. I am a survivor and I am alive.”

After years of buried trauma and hidden pain, this young woman had found solace and salvation by her own hand, through Lara Croft and the game. By reimagining Lara, Crystal Dynamics has done the impossible: from a game heroine, they’ve created a human being.

Halo 4Are video games art? It’s a question that’s been posed many times, particularly over the last decade as the power and speed of graphics processors and gaming machines (exemplified by the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U) have reached the point where digital artists have virtually unlimited ability to give their imaginations free rein, allowing them to create and deliver visual landscapes of stunning beauty, richness, and depth. Many of these worlds are so engrossing that gamers regularly find themselves captivated, forgetting, for a moment, to play and pausing to admire the view—to, in essence, stop and smell the virtual roses.

Okay, fine. Video games are visually spellbinding. But, again, are they art? The late Roger Ebert, film critic and bearer of the almighty thumb, famously said “no” and paid the price for it, as outraged game aficionados called him to the mat for failing to recognize the virtues of their favorite medium. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts declared, in 2011, that video games are art, and for the first time in history opened up the possibility of federal funding to assist digital artists in the development of video games. Of course, neither of these points of view answers the question, but both clearly indicate the range of opinion on the subject.

La NoireI suspect that no matter who you ask, you’ll hear a variety of responses, and most won’t be a simple yes or no—and the debate will probably never be settled (at least not to anyone’s satisfaction). Nevertheless, museums around the country are throwing their hats in the ring through a traveling exhibit entitled, appropriately, The Art of Video Games. And though it doesn’t claim to be the final word on the subject, it aims to at least push the conversation forward. The exhibit kicked off in March of 2012, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (as good an institutional judge of art as any, I suspect) and is now on a ten-city tour—including a stop a stone’s throw from my hometown at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY.

Which is where I’m writing this, books in hand and ready to extoll the social, cultural, and, yes, artistic value of video games. It’s not that I feel any particular need to validate them to professional critics or anyone else who staunchly refuses to see any merit in the form (though I do have game developer friends, and I’d like to see their work taken seriously and truly appreciated). It’s just that I truly believe that they are art—and further, that when you really spend time with games and explore what goes into creating them, the issues developers are attacking, and the messages they’re trying to communicate, that conclusion becomes inescapable. Take Jonathan Blow’s Braid, for example, which deals with forgiveness and desire; Ryan Green’s That Dragon, Cancer, an attempt to cope with his own son’s terminal illness; or Flower, by Jenova Chen, which explores our relationship to nature. As you progress through each of these games—as well as a host of others for which there isn’t the time or space to do them justice here (Bioshock, Super Meat Boy, and Deus Ex, just to name three)—the story gradually falls into place, and you gain insight into the developer’s world view. Even the infamous and, I would argue, mostly misunderstood Grand Theft Auto series reveals some scathing social commentary for those who care to look just a bit below the surface. Some games, like Fez, are boundlessly joyful and beautifully presented, and some, like Myst, Riven, the Halo series, the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, Uncharted 2, and the unfortunately canceled Star Wars 1313 are simply gorgeous to behold, their worlds rendered in artistic splendor, filled with music befitting a symphony hall. By any definition you care to apply, these games—and many others—are, quite simply, art.

Tomb Raider

The biggest criticism of video games seems to be that their very nature—their interactivity and reliance on a player—invalidates their inclusion in the list of artistic media. This stems from a quaint and woefully mistaken concept of art as a unidirectional exchange: the artist presents us with a vision or an idea, and we passively receive and, at most, react to it—as if viewing it through a one-way mirror. But true art is a conversation. We take it in, react to it, and seek to understand the artist’s frame of reference and what s/he’s trying to tell us about a particular time or place. We examine our reaction—how do we feel? Why? How does our frame of reference affect our response, and what does that say about us? How does approaching a work of art from our reference point and our experiences change the original work? And ultimately, what is the artist trying to communicate about humanity at large, about our perception of and place in the world? Certainly, not all video games achieve this—but then neither do all works of more popularly accepted forms of art. However, when they do, their interactivity gives video games an immediacy and impact that can far exceed traditional artistic works.

Like painting, sculpture, writing, photography, and music, video games range from simple to complex, derivative to revolutionary, and profane to sublime. They can elicit feelings of hope and fear; longing and despair; grief, loss, joy, and love. They can heal our bodies and open our minds. And if we let them, they can teach us about the world, about each other, and about ourselves. In the final analysis, that is the mark of true art.

But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself. For those in the Westchester County region, the exhibit’s at the Hudson River Museum until May 18. For more information, check out the museum’s website. You can also find out the next stops for The Art of Video Games on the Smithsonian’s website here.

One of the biggest issues with Roger Ebert’s criticism of video games was that he’d never played them—and refused to do so, ever. Since that time, people with actual video game experience have weighed in on the question. You can read some of their answers here.

There’s also an in-depth look at the artistic aspirations of one particular game, Journey—developed by Jenova Chen’s studio Thatgamecompany (of Flower fame)—in The New Yorker.

Keith Stuart, games blogger for The Guardian, has an excellent piece on the issue here.

You can also find information here about a new journal, The Arcade Review, and its mission to, as the author says “push the dialog of video games and art.”

And finally, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has been acquiring video games as part of its Applied Design exhibit. You can find a list of some of the games here.

It’s Monday. I’m a little tired and not feeling too deep, so I thought I’d share one of my favorite recent videogame discoveries with you: the trailer for the upcoming re-launch of Tomb Raider.

The First Lara

Lara Croft c.1997

Many of you may know Tomb Raider’s anatomically-exaggerated heroine, Lara Croft, from earlier games in the series, or from the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. For those of you who don’t, she’s roughly a tougher, grittier, female Indiana Jones. She’s widely recognized as one of videogaming’s first strong female leads, but her skimpy outfits and enhanced “assets” drew a fair bit of criticism from those who questioned why a strong female character had to look like a stereotypical teenage male fantasy in order to appeal to serious gamers. And it’s hard not to agree with them. I’ve been a gamer most of my life, and was once a teenage male, and I can tell you two things: First, I care more about gameplay than the main character’s appearance, and second, I always preferred my fantasies to be more realistically-proportioned.

More to the point, though, as a male I don’t have a problem playing through a good game as a female character—and she doesn’t have to defy gravity to keep my interest. Gameplay comes first; character gender isn’t all that important—and I suspect most gamers would agree with me.

The new Lara

Lara Croft, 2011

Which is why I’m so excited about the new Lara. Yes, she’s designed to be attractive, but not unrealistically so. She’s a gritty, determined survivor—everything she was supposed to be initially. This time around, though, she has a wider emotional range and is far more vulnerable—and not in a stereotypically weak female way. She’s a young woman reacting realistically to an unfamiliar and dangerous situation, relying on strength, intelligence and self-reliance to survive.

But I digress. I said I wasn’t going to get too deep, and didn’t want to delve into gender stereotypes or the perception of women in media. Here’s the point: Videogames are big business. 2010 domestic videogame sales alone rang in at $18.58 billion—nearly twice Hollywood’s $10.5 billion box office gross. And the best games now attract A-list talent, from voice actors and musicians to writers, directors and composers.

Videogames have come a long way since the ‘80s. Story, character, plot, visuals, audio, gameplay—all are more sophisticated and engaging than ever. Budgets for games rival those for Hollywood movies, and game releases are now high-profile events, involving massive press coverage and trailers that look as good as, if not better than, anything Hollywood puts out.

Don’t take my word for it, check out the new Tomb Raider trailer here.

If you’re as amazed as I was (remember, this is for a videogame), you can see how it was done here.

And if you’re really interested, you can surf over to the official Tomb Raider website here.

Pay attention, Hollywood, ‘cause you just got schooled.