Crying in Tombs

OK, so there have been some outstanding games of late. Similar to the twilight years of the last generation, almost every game released now is, one way or another, superb. The developers have had so much time and practice with the machines that they can squeeze every last flop from their now-dated hardware. A generation of refinement has advised the control schemes of every game and there seems to be less rush to publish than to there is impetus to try to do it right.

That’ll all change again when the next round of hardware comes out, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I wish to contrast two superb titles.

Late last year we were treated to Far Cry 3, a beautiful, expansive, open world and free tactics shooter. There was a whole load of content to ruin through in as stealthy or incendiary manner as you might desire.

Then this year presented us with Tomb Raider, a reboot of the seminal classic. Gone were the crazy acrobatics and the pneumatic bra (although, to be fair, New Lara is still a very…idealised figure) and in came dirt and grime and a character arc from archaeology student to high-stakes combat-trapeze-artist.

Both games have a lot in common: Both take place on a remote, largely isolated, tropical island. Both focus on an every-day ‘Murcan teen, thrown into brutal, tribal violence and forced to survive. Both have back-story delivered by collectible snippet and a wealth of other bits and pieces to collect as you traverse their world. Both have an elegant combat system that allows for a stealthy or overt approach at the decision of the player (although in Tomb Raider, there is a definite tendency for it to…suggest…one method over another for any given encounter).

Vitally, also, both are really, really good. Really. Perhaps they’re not art, like Journey, or Unfinished Swan, but they are engrossing, occasionally brutal, thrill rides. Tomb Raider is a more focussed, driven experience, but when Far Cry 3 decides to grab you by the throat, it does so with assurance and aplomb. If you’ve played neither, then I recommend both.

But there’s one vital difference that came to light just recently. I decided to put Far Cry 3 back into my Xbox not long after playing through Tomb Raider and I realised that for all their similarities, I was having, I think, a more sustainably enjoyable time with FC3 than I had staring at Lara’s pert posterior. The reason for this is that, although the antagonists of both games are masculine cults of madmen (that’s a slight simplification, but it will suffice for illustration), the cast of FC3 have a sense of humour about it. The game is couched in quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass and they are utterly appropriate. Every character you meet seems to have lost their mind to the brutal insanity of their island life and the lack of external contact has let their madness fester. They joke and they laugh and they enjoy their own little fantasy perspective on whatever seems to be happening to them that day. By contrast, the cast of Tomb Raider are dour and gloomy.

I’m not sure if it’s a British thing or not, but I find it much easier to believe in people with a sense of humour. It’s a natural human defence mechanism to make jokes, precisely because it makes things easier to bear. In the same way, you can slip into the madness of FC3 with a sort of glee, a relish for the insanity and its attendant freedom. Tomb Raider pits you against the madness and challenges you to survive it, rather than to succumb to it. Don’t get me wrong, Tomb Raider is excellent, engrossing, fun and all that…I just wish there’d been a comedy German, or a bad-guy with the spark and swagger of FC3’s Vaas.

Is it just me? Am I alone in finding that unrelenting dourness actually detracts from the believability and engagement of a story?

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