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Enjoy the Silence

October 26, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

With the Chronological Challenge wrapped up for 1996 (reviews coming this week!), two games stood out above any others for the year – Resident Evil and Tomb Raider. These two games are classics that gripped many people back upon their release. But they both share something that’s steadily been lost in gaming over the years – a sense of tense slowness that modern AAA titles seem unwilling to embrace.

The contrast can be seen within the two series’ latest instalments. While Resident Evil morphed into a dramatic third-person shooter which threw more and more zombies at you, Tomb Raider has become a blockbuster where Lara Croft is pushed to the limits and beaten up in as many ways as humanly possible.

Compare them to their original incarnations – slow, tense adventure games that put emphasis on puzzle-solving while combat acted as an occasional challenge to surprise the player. And in all honesty both felt a lot more memorable and enjoyable for it.

Now, I don’t want to risk this turning into an old man yelling about how things were better back in my day. Both these old games are showing their age. Resident Evil’s tank control scheme did sometimes become a pain in the arse, and Tomb Raider suffered from slow movement and weird texture glitches that confused things frequently. But something has been lost in the transition to the modern day, and it’d be nice to see this come back.

Modern gaming often calls for things to be AWESOME all the time. AWESOME setpieces. AWESOME action. AWESOME trailers full of AWESOME things. The games industry treats modern players like children on a sugar high, constantly distracting them with shiny things and explosions, and dammit, we’ve made a physics engine so we’re gonna make sure things are flying everywhere.

The Tomb Raider reboot is an obvious example of this. Lara is shipwrecked and immediately gains a horrific injury in a dramatic escape. She then climbs across the remains of a downed plane before it dramatically collapses down a ravine. Then she slips and slides through caves and almost falls to her death. Later parts of the game see you rushing around burning buildings that collapse around you or shooting down a whole army of people in a series of waves. It’s full of awesome setpieces and dramatic moments that constantly want to grab your attention.

Of course, it takes a lot of this from Uncharted, which is just as guilty of relying on AWESOME. As a perfect example, the cruise ship in Uncharted 3 was a huge overblown setpiece designed specifically to be a huge overblown setpiece, and no sensible place was found for it to make sense narratively.

DrakeShip

But the weird thing is, I barely remember much of the Tomb Raider reboot, despite enjoying it. The original game, however, has been engraved in my mind over the years. You’d think the game constantly trying to grab my attention would be easier to remember than the slow trek through some caves. But this isn’t the case.

The original TR does have some AWESOME moments, like the infamous T-Rex, or the awe-inspiring sphinx towering above Lara. But what makes these moments more effective than the reboot’s endless barrage of explosions and excitement lies in the pacing.

The reboot never really lets you stop and breathe. Every moment has a sense of urgency. “I have to find Sam!” “I have to help Roth!” “I have to save Sam!” “I have to escape!” are all present in your mind at every point in the game. The game’s HUD pops up frequently to remind you that you have objectives to complete. The game doesn’t even really want you to linger on its few puzzles, as they introduced Eagle Vision Survival Instincts to instantly highlight the solutions so you can rush to the next set piece.

The original game? You’re frequently allowed to take a breather. There are setpieces and enemies, but ultimately the objective is exploration. You’re not given objectives beyond “complete this level”, and you don’t get intrusive HUD messages reminding you of what you have to do next. There are moments of quiet contemplation. Hell, while the reboot opens on Lara involved in a huge shipwreck, the original opens on Lara chatting casually in a hotel lobby and sarcastically stating that “I only play for sport”.

The slower pace of the levels is what makes the AWESOME moments so much more awesome. The first level is a super-easy stroll through a network of uneventful caves, but the second you step into the City of Vilcabamba, you’re attacked by a pack of wolves. It’s unexpected because you’ve just spent ten minutes in a quiet area mostly filled with bats who die in one hit. And when it’s over, you’re back to slow exploration and discovery (unless you find the bear, of course). The T-Rex in the following level is so effective because everything is so quiet right up until the point the ground thuds and suddenly you’re staring down a creature about 3x the size of our heroine.

I remember the moment I first encountered the T-Rex almost 20 years ago, but for the life of me I don’t remember much of my experience playing the reboot only two years ago. Actually, no, I remember accidentally getting the secret crab trophy, and this, I feel, is a perfect illustration of my point. I remember shooting a lowly crab on the beach, but I don’t remember what happened in the radio tower.

It comes down to what I’m calling Awesome Exhaustion. Of course we need big dramatic moments of excitement, and of course we want some explosions and action, but if you’re constantly being bombarded with these things, they become banal and expected. You become numb to them. Perhaps this is why I remember the opening so well but barely remember much of the middle. You’ve seen one exploding cliff, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Resident Evil has the same thing. You’re dropped into Spencer Mansion and told nothing. You discover the world through exploration, and while there are dramatic moments, these come after spending ages in quiet, tense confusion. A giant snake crawling out of the wall is so much more powerful an image when it’s preceded by several rooms of tense nothingness.

Of course, it works the other way too. Too many rooms of spooky nothingness and the audience gets bored. If every Tomb Raider level was like Caves, I doubt it would have had the same impact on me as it did. If Resident Evil had no zombies or giant plant creatures or whatever that final boss was it would have just been “Walking Around the House: The Video Game”. The quiet and the AWESOME are the yin and yang of pacing. They need each other. They want to smooch each other. They want to make beautiful babies together.

This is where modern gaming could stand to include a little more intimacy, a little more tension, a little more introspection. Stopping to solve a weird puzzle does more to connect the player with the world than killing off a barely-developed character. Forcing the player to get lost and figure their way around the world does more for these games than simply dropping in an objective marker that never goes away. And by stopping to breathe, it makes the AWESOME moments stand out so much more than if they’re thrown into your face rapid-fire.

While I certainly love the advancements in gaming over the years, the constant need for AWESOME does the medium a huge disservice. We need to allow the player to explore, to contemplate what they’re doing. Silence is golden. And makes that lumbering, unexpected T-Rex stand out even more.

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  1. JTinRealLife
    October 26, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Basically the world needs more Dark Souls… maybe not the art style or difficulty, but the design. It’s exploration and trudge through deadly ambushing enemies may be a little more daunting than a good puzzle or ammo depleting random zombie encounters, but it creates the slow tension you’re talking about, and then you kill a giant reanimated rotten dragon corpse and it’s AWESOME.

    I feel that we have such a wish for that slower pace that many gamers are perfectly willing to play fairly bad games for it, and we’re getting a bombardment of bad open-world games with no interaction between objectives that basically just use the world to slow you down before getting to the next area (not to say this is always bad, something like Just Cause is more fun when you’re just pratting around, and LEGO City uses that time to throw charm and toy nostalgia at you, but most are just a pointless treck), and they’re treated as major titles too. I feel the reason AssCred still gets sales despite iteration after iteration of glitchy mess is because of this pacing, as it asks you to walk slowly through crowded streets and climb about the place to get to your awesome moments. It’s a poor replacement for a well crafted level (though one that’s a lot more expensive), but it’s easier to show in the trailers and it’s kinda all we have…

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