The original Tomb Raider is a classic game. It is one of my all time favourites. And apparently not just mine. Eidos has released its second attempt at recapturing the greatness of the original. But as my ongoing side-by-side comparison shows, they have failed once again. I’m still trying to discover exactly what it is that makes the original Tomb Raider so great, but it’s fairly easy to find out why the new one is not.
In 1996, games were about having fun. More than that, thanks to technological advances, games could tell stories, present situations and allow us to play as interesting characters. Somewhere between then and now, the designers seem to have forgotten all about this. They discovered the Ancient Roots Of Game Design and decided that it was “all about the gameplay”. So while the publisher was pumping all this money into creating believable worlds and realistic characters, the designers were more or less sabotaging the effort by reducing the interactions in games to very abstract and systematic gameplay. Where in the past, games were about experiencing adventures and having an exciting story to tell afterwards, over time, games became about overcoming challenges and achieving goals. Not narrrative challenges or emotional goals, mind you. No: just simplistic mechanical stupid things like pressing the right combinations of buttons on time. And making that really hard to do.
Where older games gave you an environment and the means to interract with it, the new games feel more like arm wrestling with the game designer, once in a while poking a fork in his hand to force him to tell you what to do next because the virtual situation was too obscure or overwrought. The experience shifted from the wonder about a virtual world filled with magical creatures to a mundane bar brawl with some overweight nerd in a black hard rock T-shirt.
Whatever happened to Ernest Adams’ design philosophy?
“The fundamental goal of a game is to take you away to a wonderful place, and there let you do an amazing thing.”
We seem to have lost the wonder, the amazement. And I blame games! At some point in the 1990s, we were well en route to developing a Great New Medium (Tomb Raider, Myst, Ceremony of Innocence, Doom) and somewhere along the line, we lost it. We could have overtaken cinema and pushed away television. But we didn’t. And from what I can see, we lost it because we started navel-gazing and obsessing over game rules and spreadsheets, over mechanical interactions and completely abstract structures. We disconnected the player from the adventure. Overcoming the obstacles became the goal, rather than a means to an end. The end of letting our audience do an amazing thing in a wonderful place.
I think the industry is rapidly becoming aware of, if not the missed opportunity, then at least the missed potential. Nintendo is paving the way for a return to fun with the DS and the Wii and broadening the audience immensely while doing so. They’re even inspiring core gamer central Microsoft to say things like
If we don’t make that move, make it early and expand our demographic, we will wind up in the same place as with Xbox 1, a solid business with 25 million people. What I need is a solid business with 90 million people.
If Nintendo has its way, young males will no longer be the dominant segment of the console audience–and this transition appears to be happening faster than I expected.
The massive production costs of contemporary games will require a bigger market. And the core gamer market is completely saturated. Diversification is a necessity. In many different directions. One of those directions, inevitably, will be back towards the ambitious path that was set out in the nineties by games like Tomb Raider: to become the entertainment medium of the new millenium.