Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Dangers of Dumbing-Down

Greetings Internet,

Today’s discussion might be confused for a good old-fashioned rant, but bear with me. It does connect back to writing – honestly.

A few days ago, two of my cats needed to go to the vet. Nothing serious – just a routine checkup and vaccination booster. But while I was there, something odd struck me about the waiting room. There was the usual crop of posters, advertisements, and newspaper clippings. Then I noticed a large colourful display that kept drawing my eye. There were cartoon drawings of slugs in bowler hats, shifty-looking snails with cigars clamped in their dentures, and fleas drawn in the style of Tim Burton directs The Thing. However, it took a while for me to work out what the advertisement was actually trying to achieve – namely, to alert pet owners to the various parasites and parasite-borne diseases that require veterinary attention.

By the time our kitties were back in their boxes, I had decided why the poster wasn’t doing its job very well:

1) the purpose and message behind the display kept getting lost in the swirl of bright shapes and colours.

2) there were no photographic references of the parasites in question – it was all stylised cartoons who looked like escapees from Monsters Inc.

This got me thinking back to last summer, when I attended an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Biology and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). As part of the day’s activities, we were treated to a talk by author and wildlife campaigner Dr Chris Du Feu, entitled “Little People in the Wildlife Classroom”. Dr Feu’s message was very clear: we need to stop dumbing-down to  people, especially children, if we are to raise a new generation of informed and curious minds. His words echoed clearly in my head as I walked past that poster at the vets, and kept me thinking all the way back to my keyboard.

So what is dumbing-down, and why is it a problem?

Let’s just analyse for a second what made the parasite poster condescending rather than informative. The poster, like all advertisements, had to make a few assumptions about its audience. In this case, it’s likely that the audience will be semi-responsible pet owners aged over eighteen, and capable of at least part-funding the vet bills. However, in my opinion the style chosen to convey that message was not appropriate to this audience.

There’s an old phrase: when you assume something, you make an ass out of u and me. In this case, the underlying assumption was that the adult audience either could not cope with or would be nonplussed by actual photographs of the parasites and insects that might harm their pets. I don’t know about you, but I’d personally prefer a photograph of what flea eggs actually look like for those times my cat gets itchy, than the poster’s idea that I should be on the alert for tiny bowler hats and cigar ash. The poster is dumbing-down, or condescending to, its intended audience by treating them as younger and/or dumber than the message it is trying to convey.

Curious not inferior

Dr Feu discussed this problem in his talk “Little People in the Wildlife Classroom”. He had noticed a tendency for kid-friendly outdoor- and wildlife-related activity sessions to be condescending, inaccurate, or both. His discussion wasn’t a firebrand counter-attack on a deliberately malicious practise, but an eloquent observation that, even in the most well-meaning situations, kids are often treated differently – i.e. less capable of understanding – than adults, particularly when it comes to nature and science.

The most common example cited by Dr Feu was the ‘mini-beast hunt’. Look through any local council’s spring-summer-autumn activity programme and you’ll almost certainly find nature walks designed for kids. Such walks are usually led by a local specialist teacher at a nature reserve or parkland. The aim is to turn over stones and rummage through leaf litter to find invertebrates – worms, slugs, snails, arachnids, insects. Sometimes the kids tally up their findings. Other times they just get treated to details about the creatures’ lives and habits. Most kids get a real kick out of what they learn, and many will experience a deep thrill at this hands-on approach to understanding nature.

So why, Dr Feu argued, are these really excellent activities almost always called ‘mini-beast hunts’ instead of ‘invertebrate hunts’? The assumptions are that kids will struggle with long words like ‘invertebrate’, that they won’t be interested that it means ‘without a backbone’, or that the term ‘mini-beast’ is cuter and thus more appealing to a kid’s imagination.

In my opinion, these assumptions don’t hold any water. The organisers of such events might do well to consider that these same kids often have no difficulty in recalling, word-perfectly, the names and abilities of more than two-hundred Pokemon characters, many of whom spend a lot of their time tearing their opponents to char-grilled shreds. Somehow, I don’t think telling children that a diamond-backed spider’s Latin name is Araneus diadematus would tax those kids’ minds even for a second.

Write with authority, not condescension

The point I am rambling around to making is that, as writers, we can never allow ourselves to assume too much or too little about our audience. This is especially true when we are writing about a fairly obscure topic that we know inside-out, but that our readers might have never encountered before. We might come across as smug and superior when we assume that everyone can follow along. However, the pendulum can swing the other way, and we can risk sounding like an adult baby-talking about apps and iPhones to a room full of jaded teenagers.

The middle ground is to write with authority, not condescension. For example, a character in your fiction might know a lot about outdoor survival. You can convey this expertise by the way they behave and what they do, without having them talk through each and every step to the reader, e.g. ‘She made sure the wood was dry before she struck her first match, otherwise it would have been impossible to get the fire going’ is dumbing-down to practically everybody. A better approach would be, ‘She stacked plenty of dry wood and the fire caught with the very first match – a good omen!

If your writing is compelling enough and generally well-written, then it’s a good bet that a reader who experiences a jolt over an unfamiliar word or situation will trust you to unfold the meaning in due course. However, even if you don’t spell things out to the last detail, your readers should feel empowered and compelled to find out more by themselves. Some of my favourite authors are the ones that have me reaching for a dictionary every few chapters; they are the ones who challenge me to expand my knowledge by making me feel curious, not inferior.

You should never feel the need to substitute or over-simplify a concept – to dumb-down – when your audience expects to be treated with a modicum of intelligence. Unless you are writing a picture book for toddlers, don’t be afraid to challenge your readers with new or esoteric ideas. As long as you also treat them with respect, you’ll both be in for an interesting journey.

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The Dangers of Dumbing-Down by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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Science fiction vs. fantasy

Hello Internet,

Today I’m going to talk briefly about the key differences between science fiction and fantasy – two of the mainstays of speculative fiction. Although these two genres are often found together in bookstores, libraries, and online stores, there are several crucial rules that separate and define them. If you are thinking of writing in either genre, it is important to decide early on whether your story is sci-fi OR fantasy, and convey this to your readers right from the start.

But first, the thorny question: what is science fiction, and what is fantasy?

What is science fiction?

At the most basic level, science fiction stories contain – or centre around – a known or proposed scientific concept. There are several sub-flavours of science fiction, including ‘hard sci-fi’, in which the science takes centre stage and is rigorously researched to be as close to reality as possible (sometimes at the expense of a good story), and the kind of sci-fi you find in genre favourites like Star Trek and Doctor Who (where the hard science is often ‘smudged’ in favour of telling a cracking yarn).

Readers who pick up a book labelled as ‘science fiction’ will expect things like faster-than-light (FTL) space travel, alien species, strange new worlds and civilisations, and stories that hinge on a scientifically-driven concept like robotics (and A.I.), genetic engineering, and the colonisation of new planets, to name but a few examples. A good science fiction writer will have done their homework and made sure that the science aspects are properly researched, but will not be afraid to ask the eternal question: ‘what if…?’ So, your story might involve your main characters dealing with the hazards of interplanetary travel, but won’t shy away from asking questions like ‘what if… the ‘singularity’ in a black hole was actually a new inhabitable dimension?’

When you embark upon world-building in a science fiction genre, it is important to always check that everything can be accounted for, if not by proven scientific theory (and remember that ‘theory’ is not a guess, it is a repeatable experimentally-proven model to explain known observations), then at least a concept that is being discussed by scientists with a modicum of seriousness.

What is fantasy?

Fantasy stories, like their sci-fi cousins, come in many flavours. There is ‘high fantasy’, which follows the classic, Tolkien-inspired tropes of elves, dwarves, dragons, and magic, usually in a medieval-like setting. There is ‘urban fantasy’, which puts a modern twist on traditional fantasy tropes by putting those wizards, vampires, and dragons in a city or urbanised setting.

There is even what I sometimes think of as ‘mythic fantasy’. Mythic fantasy stories can adapt to practically any setting and trope without any trouble. Star Wars is an excellent example of ‘mythic fantasy’, because exactly the same story can be told if we swap lightsabers for swords, Jedi for wizards, and Death Stars for Fortresses of Doom. Don’t let the spaceships and blasters fool you – Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction.

It is very important to note that fantasy stories don’t give you a license to run amok. If you have magic in your fantasy world, then it becomes insufferably boring if that magic and the people who can use it is completely unlimited (i.e. they can do what they like, when they like). It’s practically impossible to create a story with conflict and characterisation if your characters are all omnipotent!

The best fantasy stories and worlds are those which create very strict rules to govern the fantastical elements. To take the above example, your magic-user(s) may well be able to call down lightning from the skies… but under what circumstances is this possible? What is the price they must pay in return for all that power? Who pays it? As soon as you begin putting limitations on your characters and fantastical elements, you’ll find that stories start blossoming all over the place instead of drying up as you might expect.

Fantasy 01

Why is it important to distinguish between the two?

To paraphrase Orson Scott Card, science fiction is what could be but isn’t, whereas fantasy is what could never be. In other words, it is entirely possible – according to our understanding of genetic engineering – that we might be able, in theory, to one day modify the human genome to breed water-breathing men and women in order to colonise an oceanic planet. However, it is not possible that these colonists would then be able to worship a giant octopus-like creature dwelling on that planet and gain the power of prophecy.

Of course, I might have to eat my words in four thousand years’ time, but the point is that writers of science fiction and fantasy must be able to make these distinctions based upon what is and isn’t possible right now. When Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, it seemed laughable that men would travel by rockets to our nearest celestial neighbour. But the crucial factor that made Verne’s stories science fiction and not fantasy were that they were extrapolated from known scientific ideas. It was a meticulously researched explosive cannon, not pixie dust, that powered Verne’s Moon-bound capsule.

Of course, this blog isn’t large enough to fully explore all of the wonderful sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy, or delve deeply into the quirky examples that seem to be a mixture of the two. However, for one colourful example, look no further than the works of China Miéville set in the world of Bas Lag (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council). Here we can find many plausible scientific concepts such as artificial intelligence, steam-powered machines, and beautifully-realised ‘alien’ races. Any one of these could translate into a ‘hard sci-fi’ story. But Bas Lag is pure fantasy, because none of these things could actually exist in the forms and scenarios that Miéville proposes for them. It’s his inventive exploitation of quasi-science fiction that gives his worlds a grimy, familiar sense of our own reality.

And this is the key point behind all good stories – whether they are the most hard-boiled science fiction or flyaway fantasies. Giving all of your imagined worlds a solid sense of reality is what will elevate them from simple dream worlds into immersive places that we feel we could actually visit. If you can completely take your readers out of their everyday worlds, even for a short while, then you have achieved one of the the greatest accomplishments of any writer.

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Science fiction vs. fantasy by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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The power of stories

In today’s blog, I’d like to take a moment to share some thoughts about why stories matter so much to us as human beings. After all, my bookshelves are groaning with accumulated evidence and there seems to be no cure…

The divine spark

Scholars have been pondering the origin of language for many centuries, and have still not arrived at a comfortable consensus of exactly when, where, and how we began creating abstract fantasies (partly because of a lack of direct evidence, and partly because pondering is part of the scholarly job description). However, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that stories originated in oral form, and only later progressed to pictographic and phonetic representational language. This supposition – that stories predate even the written word – speaks volumes (no pun intended) about stories’ power over our species. Some scholars, such as Brian Boyd in his On the Origin of Stories, even go as far to say that stories have helped shape our evolution, and I can’t help but think he has a point.

Most cultures include creation myths that make direct or indirect reference to an ‘enlightenment’ when humans acquired the use of language, art, and above all intelligence and tool-making. From Prometheus taking pity on cold, vulnerable humanity, to Adam and Eve eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, to Maui tricking Mahuika out of the secret of fire – everyone seems to be in on the idea that intelligence/sentience (and the control that comes with it) is a divine gift that puts us on a par with the gods themselves. Our earliest ancestors clearly believed that stories – and the sentience required to produce them – were important and not a frivolous waste of time. This is pretty profound stuff when we consider just how much time and energy was devoted to simply surviving thousands of years ago!

Stories without borders

There is no doubt that stories have a primal quality to them. They call to us across every social and racial boundary. For me, the most astonishing boundaries that have been crossed are time and space. Carl Sagan once commented that books are truly magical devices, and I’m inclined to agree: The years spent working on the Delorean, H. G. Wells’ time machine, and even constructing the Doctor’s TARDIS all seem like a monumental waste of effort when we can all travel in time and space merely by picking up a small object stitched together from wood pulp and neatly-arranged pigments. Granted, these fictional journeys all take place inside the confines of our own minds, but how does this differ from the way our brains perceive all of our experiences? I’m reminded of a quote from The Matrix:

Morpheus real quote
Even Roald Dahl’s titular heroine in Matilda, “travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” I would love to see all of the mental passport stamps I’ve collected over the years, purely from the act of reading!

That such a fragile object as a book can connect thoughts, emotions, and ideas across thousands of miles, millennia of time, and even between the living and the dead, is downright incredible. However, we’re so conditioned to treating books as ordinary objects that we tend to forget what *%$£ing amazing things they truly are. I cannot help but wonder what stories are still locked up in the cryptic, stunningly beautiful cave-art, everywhere from France to Australia, left by our Paleolithic ancestors.

So why do stories matter so much to us? Why are they such a significant part of our human identity? Here are some possibilities:

1) Abstract imagination can help shape our current and future realities

Being able to imagine possible outcomes from a given situation would have been an exceedingly valuable tool for our relatively feeble-bodied species in the millennia before we invented fast food and antibiotics. For us to develop sharp cutting tools from a pile of flint boulders, we had to first imagine what would happen if we banged them together in a particular way. To flush out and trap dangerous prey species, we needed to first understand how that particular animal had acted in the past, and then imagine what they would do if acted upon by certain stimuli in the future (e.g. ‘if Gary strips off and runs towards the river wailing his fool-head off, the mammoths will all run over there to get out of his way’).

Our imaginations are what allow us to draw upon past experiences and synthesise possible futures. But here’s the neat thing: those past experiences don’t necessarily have to be our own. By telling each other stories, whether they are ‘true’, a mixture of our own experiences and those of others, or purely made-up from our own imaginations, we can also teach and pass on our own wisdom to others.

However, stories don’t just give us a way of imagining the outcome of immediate, survival-related scenarios; they can also help us explore and shape our distant futures. For example, Jules Verne was imagining men on the Moon long before the first space rocket was invented, and George Orwell gave us a glimpse of what overarching surveillance could do to society many years before we had even heard of CCTV and the Internet. Stories, and especially the genre of science fiction, gives us a playground where we can enact possibilities and lay the imaginative groundwork for future generations to explore. This does not mean that all scientific discoveries and societal changes must first be predicted through fiction – indeed, many advances have happened due to fortuitous accidents! – but a great many intellectual pathways would remain unexplored if somebody had not first asked the fateful question, ‘what if…?’ through the medium of fiction.

2) Lessons and survival

Stories hold the power to help us feel better about our circumstances. They can also inspire us to endure hardships, or change our lives for the better. How? Through empathising with characters who are also undergoing hardship, or who must necessitate change to improve their lives or those of others. It doesn’t matter if the hero of the story is going up against mythical beasts to save a kingdom, or an angry neighbour who refuses to return the lawn mower – what matters is that the characters’ attitudes can inspire and empower us to take charge of our own lives.

A glance through the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales is enough to show us the power of stories in teaching younger generations important survival skills. Stay out of the dark woods – or the trolls will eat you! Keep away from that deep pond – or Jenny Greenteeth will get you! Beware of strangers. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t accept gifts from fairies. And on and on it goes. People have been using stories to teach moral or life-saving lessons since we first sat around a campfire and muttered, ‘I bleedin’ told him, “don’t go into that lion’s den!”, but would he bleedin’ listen?!’

These tales, whether based on real or imagined threats, could potentially save younger and/or less experienced individuals from painful or high-risk experiences, and thus improve their chances of survival. After all, it’s important to make sure even young children know not to mess about near deep, stagnant water, not to wander into places where they could get lost or hurt by wild animals, and to keep strangers at arm’s length. Stories therefore play a small, but important, role in ensuring those children grow up and eventually pass on those same lessons to their children. From an evolutionary point of view, telling stories is a pretty good way of ensuring future generations can recognise and stay out of trouble.

These are just a few reasons why I think stories matter so much to us. If you think I’ve left anything out, or disagree with the points I’ve made, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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The power of stories by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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To review or not to review?

Good morning Internet,

Today I’m asking for feedback on a potential addition to this blog. It is already dedicated to the craft and art of storytelling in all its meandering forms, so my question today is: would you like to see storytelling reviews – mainly of books but other media will be considered – pop up in future entries?

These reviews would be in addition to my usual crop of ramblings.

You can cast your vote in the poll, add your thoughts in the comments, or Tweet me @JRMilward!




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Creative ups and downs

Hello Internet,

Today I’m going to talk briefly about the daily struggle of writing – and creativity in general. Many of us will have made a New Year’s resolution to be more creative, and a large percentage will end up needlessly beating themselves up for not meeting that target. We know that art, writing, music, and other creative pursuits can bring us intense satisfaction and joy, but also angst and intolerable frustration. So what makes this nebulous thing called ‘creativity’ so special, and why must we fight to nurture and support it even when it seemingly dries up or lets us down?

I love to write. It gives my soul wings and connects me with people and ideas I would never otherwise encounter. The satisfaction of wrapping up a final draft is intense and addictive. But juggling this urge to explore, inform, and tell stories through words on top of everything else life throws at me sometimes makes me want to sit down in a corner and cry. There are occasions when all I want is to sit down and write, but trying to get the words to flow is like trying to squeeze water from a granite sponge. I also know for a fact that I’m not alone in feeling this disconsolation and urge to quit every now and then.

So how can we get through these down-times, and why – when we’re usually already our own worst critic – do we need to also be our own best friend? Whether you’re a cartoonist, sculptor, musician, or dancer, I hope you’ll find something here to encourage you back into doing what you love best.

One of those days

Life is wondrous. That we can even operate our bodies enough to breathe is a freaking miracle of biochemistry. Are you reading this right now? If so, congratulations! You are the product of uncounted billions of generations of successful predator evasions, chance fertilisations, and survival against the odds within an unbroken evolutionary chain that stretches back right to the very origin of life on planet Earth (I just know this is paraphrasing a famous figure, but I’ve no idea who – answers on a postcard, please). Give yourself a pat on the back, you wonderpuss, you.

However, life can also suck rancid moose wang (thank you, Jim Butcher). There are the tedious repetitions and annoyances that, like sand, can be easily brushed off if there’s only a little, but that can all too easily build up and scour your creativity away to the bone. Overdue bills. Eating plain noodles for the fourteenth time in a week because there’s nothing else left in the cupboard. Kids that need dropping off and picking up, then dropping off again. Endlessly applying for jobs that makes you feel like you’re throwing confetti into an endless, hungry abyss. Holding down three jobs just to afford travel to and from each one. Collapsing into bed at the end of each day, knowing that you need to get up in three hours’ time to catch a bus in time to start it all over again. Seeing a loved-one’s suffering get progressively worse as they wait for a consultation, then more tests, then further consultations, and still more tests, in a limbo-state that lasts for months, even years.

Then there are the random crises that everyone must deal with, sooner or later. A few words spoken over the phone at 3am can drop bombshells into lives and shatter them into sharp-edged rawness, bleeding all creativity dry in a moment as car keys are sought and hospital ward numbers are noted in shaky handwriting. Life is wondrous, but it can also be a fragile, terrifying mess where priorities can shift from ordering a takeaway to sitting outside an operating theatre in the space of a missed heartbeat.

From everyday frustrations to life-changing moments, creativity often seems like it’s at the bottom of our list of priorities. This can also become a negative feedback loop; the less time and energy we have to spend on creative pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to make the time and energy, and the harder it is to summon any motivation when we miraculously get the time and energy. So how do we combat this problem, and why is creativity so important?

The font of all creation

Creativity can be a fickle, unpredictable thing, but it is also one of our greatest assets as human beings. Author Julian May beautifully expressed its energy and mystery in her Galactic Milieu series in the context of psychic powers, but her observations are nevertheless applicable to ‘normal’ expressions of creativity such as art and music:

Diamond mask quote

May also notes that creative insights can strike seemingly at random – the ‘bolt from the blue’ that illuminates solutions – or can evolve over time if they are left undisturbed ‘to stew’. I agree with May in that there is a strong case for sometimes leaving creativity well alone in order to make it grow stronger; if your muse is running dry, it’s worth exercising other parts of the brain to let it recover. If your artistic side is flagging, read a book. If your writers’ block has grown too large, go for a walk or weed the garden. It’s almost as though our creativity is an engine that can run hot and blow a radiator if pushed too hard for too long. It’s good to jump out and walk every now and then, and come back when things have had a chance to cool down.

This is good practise for anyone who relies on a stable relationship with their muse, rather than just as a hobby. Writers, artists, animators, musicians – we all need to respect our creativity and treat it with the same care and attention that an Olympic athlete treats their body. I write, but I also take regular walks in the nature reserve at my local park, and practise Tai Chi Qigong. One of the stances in Tai Chi is called ‘Pearl in The Hand’, and invites us to reflect on and venerate our personal gifts (as part of a nice over-the-shoulder stretch). I think it’s too easy to dismiss the creative outlets we enjoy as ‘not a real job’ or not worthy of the same attention as doing the shopping or paying bills. But if you derive satisfaction from your creativity, and especially if you want to pursue one of its many expressions as a full-time career – if indeed, creativity is part of what defines you as a person – then we should be celebrating it as the very real, and very valuable, gift that it is.

The are many obstacles to gathering enough time and energy to devote to our creativity, but they are obstacles, not absolute barriers. Being as organised as possible with your materials and time is one of the ways we can start to take control. Having specific tasks and breaking them into manageable chunks, instead of having vague ambitions (e.g. ‘write more’), is another tried and tested method. It’s also important to learn to forgive and be kind to yourself; it’s never a good thing when your boss tries to ‘motivate’ you by making unreasonable demands or by bullying you with veiled threats and harassment, so avoid treating yourself like that. You and your creativity are important and worthy of respect, even if nobody else recognises that fact. Believe in yourself, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this just means wishing on a flaming ball of hydrogen gas thousands of light-years away is enough. You are your own motivational coach, who helps you learn from failure and mistakes, never belittles you, and celebrates every achievement.

So, if you’re having ‘one of those days’ and just want to quit, just remember this: your creativity is a precious part of who you are, but even this vital and powerful force needs a pep talk and ten minutes with its feet up now and then. Love yourself, respect your creativity, and don’t feel guilty about taking control of how you live with your muse.

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We need to talk about Lara…

Hello Internet, and a happy new year!

It may not have escaped the attention of my readers that I’m a tad keen on Tomb Raider.  However, I increasingly believe that the franchise has wandered so far away from its roots that it might as well have strayed into an alternate universe. In today’s ramble, I want to share a few reasons why I believe the rebooted Lara Croft, and especially the overuse of in-game dialogue, has harmed her credibility as a tough, intelligent character. This troublesome problem can be applied equally to any game franchise or title you care to name – I’m simply using Tomb Raider as an illustration because it’s closest to my gaming heart.

Before the comments section spontaneously combusts with angry Crystal Dynamics fans, I want to douse everything in dry ice and state that I did enjoy certain aspects of the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot (I have yet to play Rise of the Tomb Raider, and until it hits a Steam sale and my PC gets a pep talk, it’s unlikely I will be playing it). The gameplay mechanics and visuals of Yamatai were fun, challenging, and made for great escapism. Half the battle in designing a video game is in nailing the player-environment interaction, and creating a world that makes you eager to explore around the next corner. Tomb Raider 2013 did that very well, and the ever-versatile bow has even become my second-best favourite doodad/weapon in the entire franchise. Laser-sight crossbow, eat your heart out.

However, the other half of designing a video game – the most critical half that forms the foundations upon which the entire structure is built – is its story and characters. And that, dear friends, is where Tomb Raider 2013 left me colder than yeti-flavoured ice cream.

Lara Croft – the 90s icon

First, some shameless nostalgia. I was eleven when Lara Croft made her debut in 1996. At the time, I didn’t own or come into contact with a console (a situation that continues to this day); my only knowledge of Lara Croft came second-hand from the world of advertising. In the late 90s, it sometimes felt as though Lara, with her trademark aqua tank top and pistols, was literally EVERYWHERE, from hoardings and magazine covers, to posters and pop bottles.

The marketing campaign behind this intended for this perfect, pixelated female to move a lot of merchandise and simultaneously make the world fall in love with her. And it worked. Where else at the time, apart from the top shelf of seedy newsagents, could so many people have access to such a sexed-up character who was willing to blow them kisses or pose in provocative bikinis? Lara Croft the marketing icon was an unprecedented success.

However, the advertisement vision of Lara Croft at the centre of this media feeding frenzy left me utterly indifferent. To me, she came across as empty-headed and shallow. Cutesy and eager-to-please. Provocative. Over-sexualised. Tedious.

Then, almost by chance, I ended up with a copy of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. What an eye-opener.

Almost from the moment Peter Connelly’s melancholic yet triumphant theme music swept through my headphones, I realised that my initial impression of Lara Croft had been, quite simply, dead wrong. By the time young Lara was kneeling to decipher the Iris inscription, I had fallen under the game’s spell. Lara Croft, I learned, was no dim-witted bimbo. If asked to pucker-up for a cutesy photograph, she’d more than likely end up force-feeding you your camera rather than strike a pose. Her true hallmarks turned out to be, not a respectable pair of *ahem* pistols, but dry wit, striking intelligence, and a backbone of steel.

To this day, it is Lara’s character that draws me to Tomb Raider. The puzzles and gorgeous environments are still admirable, but over time even the most challenging brain-teasers grow stale with repetition. However, classic Core Design-era Lara herself never loses her appeal. For a character who barely utters a word during gameplay, this is quite an achievement. How did Core Design – and other games from other developers – pull it off?

Lara’s attraction

For me, Lara’s appeal is not solely rooted in her personality, but in her motivation and backstory. In Lara’s original Core Design biography, her character had an intense sense of rebelliousness and adventure, as evidenced by her willingness to drop everything to stow away to a mysterious haunted island (Tomb Raider: Chronicles), or travel across Asia with a comparative stranger to glimpse archaeological wonders (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation). The original Lord Henshingly Croft and his practically-invisible wife indulged their daughter’s ‘hobby’ of adventuring only for as long as it suited them; when she left a Swiss Finishing School at the age of 21, she was almost immediately engaged to a suitable future husband, with the consensus amongst her family that this was how she should live the rest of her life. However, we all know how well that turned out. There is something powerfully intriguing about a character who not only survived a Himalayan plane crash alone and unaided, but who then returned and rejected the plans laid out for her in favour of forging her own destiny. Lara Croft experienced an awakening within herself and calmly accepted that if she had to turn against society’s expectations in order to pursue her passion, then that’s exactly what she would do.

This feature of the classic Core Design-era Lara often seems to be drowned out by discussions about the T-Rex encounter and Atlantean mutants in business suits; i.e. that Lara Croft was, first and foremost, a lone rebel. This Lara chose her own path and stuck to it, to the point where her family disowned her for being too outgoing and wilful. This incarnation of Lara didn’t need to save anybody, follow in anyone else’s footsteps, or validate a deceased relative’s unorthodox theories in order to undergo her own journey of self-discovery. She understood betrayal, sacrifice, and triumph all on her own terms. To quote the Prima guide for Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, “Lara lives the same way she prefers to work – alone”.

This independent character perfectly suited the style of Tomb Raider gameplay pre-Crystal Dynamics. These titles – from Tomb Raider in 1996, to Tomb Raider: Chronicles in 2000 – had minimal side characters, and a distinct lack of dialogue during gameplay. We could explore tombs, ruins, and cities with a sense of near-perfect isolation. This was a perfect reflection of how Lara herself preferred to go about her business.

Lara talk through

When it’s good to talk…

It’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on the odd one out in the Core Design-era in terms of story and dialogue: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. This game made much more extensive use of cutscenes, dialogue, and character exploration than had been used in previous titles. However, I don’t believe that the execution of these elements diminished or dumbed-down Lara’s character in the same way that the Crystal Dynamics’-era titles did for two reasons:

1) For the first time, Lara was joined by equally independent and wilful characters who had their own reasons for being included in the plot. Take Lara Croft out of the game entirely, and you still have a perfectly credible story about Kurtis Trent’s quest for vengeance against Eckhardt. Both our and Lara’s exploration of this hidden Cabal / Lux Veritatis underworld went hand-in-hand, and provided a natural excuse for her solitary character to grow and gain allies. In this way, Lara’s ‘chance’ meeting with Kurtis did not feel like a convenient addition of a superfluous, stereotypical sidekick, but a logical alliance that remained faithful to the characters’ underlying motivations and personalities. Well-crafted character interaction (via cutscenes and semi-scripted exchanges) was, in this instance, both valid and necessary in order for Lara to make sense of this tangled, ancient conflict.

2) Practically all of Lara’s dialogue was still delivered during cutscenes, or after she (we) had actioned a particular set-piece. Apart from a talk-through tutorial and occasional comments about strength upgrades, Lara’s in-game dialogue was kept to a minimum.

I could ramble on about other story elements of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness for much longer than is healthy, so let’s save that for another day and return to the main argument.

…And when silence is golden

Why, then, is it so important not to overuse in-game dialogue? After all, who doesn’t like the main character to comment about things in real-time? To today’s triple-A, QTE-laden games, the comparative silence of the classic Core Design-era games might seem unnatural, even boring. But as one who was introduced to Tomb Raider in 1999, today’s games – up to and including the latest incarnation of the franchise – seem like an endless stream of stating-the-blindingly-obvious purely for the sake of giving the voice actor something to do.

A talk-through tutorial from the character to the player might be helpful, but it serves no positive purpose later on if the protagonist automatically mutters clues to puzzles we would much rather figure out for ourselves. For example, if there’s a climbable wall ahead of us, it seems reasonable to us players that we should climb it. If there are enemies about, we can probably guess that making a lot of noise is a bad idea. The character of Lara Croft loses any credibility that she is intelligent or skillful in these situations if the game insists on having her tell us these things. It also destroys the illusion of isolation if Lara constantly breaks the fourth wall – on purpose or not – to tell the player what she’s thinking or feeling. Part of the classic Core Design-era Lara’s appeal was that she – and the game – credited us with the intelligence to work things out for ourselves. And, nine times out of ten, we did – rewarding us with intense satisfaction.

The future

So where does this leave the franchise? The newer games may look stupendous, but changes in gameplay style means that Lara herself has, for me at least, lost those traits that made her such an engaging character to begin with. An extremely vocal crowd of friends and foes now surrounds Lara, when in previous titles she purposefully chose to go it alone and keep most of her thoughts to herself. The overuse of in-game dialogue, especially when Lara is breaking the fourth wall, dumbs down her character rather than provide us with an enlightening window into her thoughts and feelings. Much more could be achieved with a well-placed ‘hmm’, than yet anotherI can do this’ line.

In conclusion, it’s my belief that the character of Lara Croft was always at her best when she was following her passion for her own reasons, regardless of what others thought of her. Additionally, the old advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ should be enough to illuminate Lara’s inner thoughts without her ever having to say a single word, thus preserving the very traits that made me fall in love with that feisty teenage explorer in Cambodia so many years ago.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts on in-game dialogue, Lara’s character, or any other subject in the comments below! (trolls can stay under their bridges).

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We need to talk about Lara… by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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