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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Hello Internet,

Today I’ll be combining two of my favourite things – the art of storytelling and Tomb Raider – by discussing Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix’s Rise of The Tomb Raider. This will hopefully be the first in a whole series of story discussions spanning the Tomb Raider franchise.

This being a writing blog, this discussion will be split into two parts that focus upon story and characterisation. I’ll barely, if at all, mention graphics or performance; there are plenty of skilled reviewers out there who can and do dissect these mechanics with far more expertise than I. Seek them out and pay due homage to their greatness.

This discussion, naturally, will involve my own personal opinions about what worked and what didn’t. For everything that I praise or dislike, I’ll make sure to explain my reasoning; this is meant to be a rational discussion, not a platform for trolling. Oh, and I won’t be including any DLC content, including Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch (for the simple reason that I haven’t got round to playing it yet).

So, let’s get started. Needless to say…

Spoiler warning banner

Part 1: Story

If you have watched the first three Indiana Jones movies, in particular The Last Crusade, then barring names and terminology, you already know the plot of Rise of The Tomb Raider. No really, I’m serious; this isn’t being catty towards the writers or exaggerating. Before I fully illustrate how these stories are virtually identical, let’s take a brief look at the plot overview.

Plot overview

Note that this overview follows the chronological, rather than gameplay, order of events.

After the trauma of Yamatai, Lara has spent a year buried in her father’s, Lord Richard Croft’s, research into ‘The Divine Source’ – a mystical artefact said to grant the power of immortality. She has become obsessed by the supernatural events she witnessed on Yamatai, especially the Sun Queen’s aborted soul-transfer ritual, and is determined to make sense of what she saw by any means necessary. Lara is convinced that by pursuing her father’s quest for the Divine Source she will understand the nature of the soul. She also hopes that her expedition will simultaneously vindicate her father’s theories, thus restoring his professional reputation, and that the Divine Source, if it exists, will help to eradicate death, suffering, and grief from the world – forever.

Lara and Jonah 01

“No pressure then, Lara…”

Lara’s research leads her to Syria, in search of The Prophet’s Tomb and more information on the whereabouts of the Divine Source. The Prophet was said to be an immortal being who lived in the Middle East during the time of the Byzantine Empire. However, the tomb turns out to be empty. Not only that, a rival group of mysterious soldiers from the organisation known only as Trinity turns up. After a brief confrontation with the soldiers’ leader, Lara manages to escape both Trinity’s agents and the collapsing tomb. Upon leaving, her attention is drawn to a symbol carved into the rock at her feet (don’t you just love life’s little coincidences?). She recognises the symbol from her father’s research, and returns to the Croft family manor to investigate the matter further.

At the manor, Jonah arrives to find Lara increasingly excited by the symbol she discovered in Syria. She shows him the same symbol in an old book about the legend of Kitezh (pronounced kit-tesh), a city said to have vanished under a lake in Siberia many hundreds of years ago. Jonah is sceptical and worried that she is falling into the same obsessive trap that claimed her father. However, Lara is attacked by a lone gunman, who steals the book and flees the manor grounds. With proof that Trinity is willing to kill for the knowledge contained in the book, Jonah agrees that Lara must be on to something, and agrees to go with her.

Lara and Jonah travel to the remote mountains of Siberia, where they become separated by an avalanche. Lara encounters the local wildlife and more of Trinity’s agents in the vicinity of an old Soviet gulag and mining facility. Lara is also confronted by a woman dressed in archaic armour – one of the valley’s natives – who demands that she leave the valley at once. Lara is eventually captured and taken prisoner by Konstantin, the leader of the Trinity incursion and the man she oh-so nearly buried under rubble in The Prophet’s Tomb. Ana, the woman who was in a relationship with Richard Croft after his wife (Lara’s mother), died, is also apparently a prisoner in the gulag. When Konstantin threatens her as a means of extracting information from Lara, Ana is revealed as a traitor working for Trinity. It is also shown that Ana is Konstantin’s sister. It transpires that Ana is dying of a wasting but unnamed disease, and Konstantin is desperate to locate the Divine Source – both to heal Ana, and to gain god-like powers with which to conquer the world. Well, there’s no faulting his ambition…

Lara manages to escape the gulag with the help of a mysterious prisoner – one of the natives of the valley, named Jacob. After making their way through the Soviets’ abandoned mine workings, they emerge into a green valley where the natives – the Remnant – make their home. The Remnant live a simple life amid the ruins that lie on the outskirts of the once-great city of Kitezh. The woman who threatened Lara earlier turns out to be called Sofia, and is Jacob’s daughter. She leads the villagers’ preparations for Trinity’s inevitable assault, and Lara does her best to assist them in the hope that, by gaining the villagers’ trust, they will tell her more about the lost city of Kitezh and the Divine Source.

Lara proves her mettle in battle when Trinity’s troops assault the village, and Jacob tells her the Divine Source, inside Kitezh, can only be found by following a map called the Atlas. The Atlas is protected and hidden deep beneath the ruined cathedral, within the Acropolis near the village where the Remnant are now taking shelter. Lara retrieves the Atlas, despite Trinity’s attempts to intervene, and she takes it up to Jacob and Jonah who are waiting in the ruined Observatory, at the top of the valley overlooking the village.

Lara deciphers the Atlas’ directions and learns that Kitezh, instead of sinking beneath the nearby lake, was actually buried beneath the glacier on the opposite side of the valley. Just then, Trinity’s troops attack the Observatory in a helicopter. They badly injure Jacob and take Jonah – carrying the Atlas – as prisoner.

Lara manages to rescue a badly-injured Jonah, but is too late to prevent Konstantin and Ana from also deciphering the Atlas. Lara returns to Jacob to discover that he has miraculously healed from his injuries. Even as she watches, Jacob heals Jonah’s wounds, saving his life. She correctly surmises that Jacob is the Immortal Prophet. Jacob tells her that he has tried to protect his loyal followers for years by keeping them ignorant of his identity, and by making sure that they all guard the secret of the Divine Source against outsiders. Jacob confesses that he used the Divine Source – a powerful but not actually divine artefact – to make his army invincible, but that the power corrupted them and slowly turned them into inhuman monsters. When the Mongol hordes attacked Kitezh, hoping to seize the Divine Source’s power, these Deathless Ones, as they became known, deliberately brought the glacier down upon the city, killing thousands of invaders and innocents alike.

Lara convinces him to show her the path into Kitezh by pointing out that Trinity will not stop until it has the Divine Source. She descends into the lost city, battling her way through the ranks of Deathless Ones, until she reaches the Chamber of Souls. Konstantin and his troops attack, but Lara overcomes them and leaves Konstantin for dead. Lara finds Ana inside, clutching the Divine Source as the Deathless Ones advance upon her. Lara has realised the awesome power of the Divine Source is too great and dangerous for anyone to possess, and tries to talk Ana into leaving with her. Jacob appears, echoing Lara’s warning. However, Ana shoots Jacob and the Deathless Ones until she runs out of ammunition. Desperate, Ana uncovers the Divine Source from its wrappings and absorbs its power. Overcome, she falls and Lara smashes the artefact. The Deathless Ones disintegrate, and a grateful Jacob crumbles into dust.

Back out on the glacier, Lara turns on Ana and demands to know what she meant at the end when she said, ‘another Croft doesn’t have to die for this’. Ana pleads hat she loved Richard Croft, and didn’t kill him despite Trinity ordering his execution. However, before Lara can learn more, a hidden sniper kills Ana but mysteriously leaves Lara unharmed.

Back at Croft manor, Lara muses that Trinity is still out there, and still trying to uncover ancient sources of power. She decides to move on from trying to vindicate her father’s theories and reputation. Instead, she will make discoveries and seek out hidden secrets – for herself.

Rise unpredictable

Rise of The Last Crusade?

Okay, so that’s the basic plot out of the way. Let’s just compare some of the individual story elements with Indiana Jones to demonstrate the similarities:

  • Mysterious, quasi-religious organisation manipulating things behind the scenes, and which is capable of providing seemingly endless soldiers and resources to send against the protagonist?
    – Nazis (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Last Crusade), Thuggee cult (Temple of Doom)
    – Trinity
  • MacGuffin that grants eternal life?
    – Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
    – Divine Source
  • Protagonist is only after the MacGuffin in the first place because of their father’s own previous research/obsession with it?
    – Indiana Jones / Dr. Jones Sr. / the Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
    – Lara Croft / Lord Richard Croft / the Divine Source
  • Ancient people sworn to defend the MacGuffin from outsiders?
    – Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword (Last Crusade)
    – The Remnant
  • Blond antagonist starts out friendly, turns out to be a traitor, and also attempts to reconcile with the protagonist at the last minute?
    – Elsa Schneider (Last Crusade)
    – Ana
  • Blond antagonist was in a relationship with the protagonist’s father, but only to further the search for the MacGuffin?
    – Elsa Schneider (Last Crusade)
    – Ana
  • MacGuffin ends up destroyed or lost due to protagonist’s own choices?
    – Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
    – Divine Source
  • An assistant to the protagonist turns out to be an immortal?
    – Grail Knight (Last Crusade)
    – Jacob/The Immortal Prophet
  • Friend to the protagonist is captured and has important information stolen from them, only to be later rescued by the protagonist?
    – Dr. Marcus with the journal (Last Crusade)
    – Jonah with the Atlas
  • Friend of the protagonist is mortally wounded, but is later healed by a supernatural power?
    – Dr. Jones Sr. (Last Crusade)
    – Jonah
  • At the climax, the protagonist must look away from the revealed artefact in order to remain safe from its power?
    – Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
    – Divine Source

And these were just the plot points and tropes it borrowed from Indiana Jones.

Now let me be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Indiana Jones movies (except for the last one, which we will pretend never happened). However, the parallels between these stories (especially The Last Crusade) and Rise are too many to be mere coincidence. Yes, Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones are both action-adventures featuring intrepid archaeologists. If you’re a fan of one franchise, then chances are you’ll also enjoy the other. But it is perfectly possible to write a story that does not reuse so many recognisable elements from its sibling  franchise. If there are one or two elements in common, then fair enough – it’s possible to do this entirely by accident when you’re dealing with the same genre. But we’re talking practically the entire plot. Rise of the Tomb Raider felt like a wasted opportunity, full of writing that never strayed far from very well-established clichés. It was this recycling of existing story elements that gave me a deep sense of disappointment when I got to the end, because there was nothing to the plot that I hadn’t seen coming from a mile away.

And that was the theme I picked up all of the way through. There was no real sense of excitement or anticipation to the story because none of the plot ‘twists’ came as any surprise whatsoever. For example, the way we were introduced to Jacob, the mysterious prisoner, Chekhov’s Rifle-style, and his ‘miraculous’ escape from the Soviet mines, was just too obvious. We knew that he was an extremely important figure amongst the Remnant, and he demonstrated above-average resilience that was, at times, downright superhuman (plus, from the moment we saw that The Prophet’s Tomb was empty, we knew the guy was bound to turn up sooner or later). Similarly, Ana’s treacherous nature was evident from the moment we first met her, when she tried to dissuade Lara from heading to Syria and used her love for Richard Croft to justify her feelings. Real friends – or villains who are better at acting – would have shown support and sympathy, rather than try to dissuade the hero from their course. It’s also a Tomb Raider cliché for blond characters to always turn out to be bad guys – just ask Sophia Leigh, Karel, Mad Tony, Natla and Amanda to name but a few.

KonstantinAnaAtlas

Blond villains – causing mayhem for Tomb Raiders since 1996 AD

 

Trinity – so secret even their clothes don’t have name tags

The main plot of Rise of the Tomb Raider was nothing we haven’t seen before, but there were a few moments when the game hinted at other story directions that could have provided more fruitful, unpredictable routes. A lot of these moments were located on the fringes of the main plot, and revolved around the organisation known only as Trinity. For example, we kept finding personal journals, addressed to an unnamed somebody, from a mysterious operative who was having second thoughts about his role in the organisation. He had apparently decided that he had enlisted with a bunch of frothing lunatics (duh…), and wanted to escape, despite his paranoia that Trinity was playing an elaborate and sadistic game merely to test his loyalty. That was intriguing. I wanted to know who he was, why he enlisted, and what happened to him. In a classic ‘what if…?’ scenario, it would have been a far more interesting twist if the prisoner whom Lara helped to escape from the gulag turned out to be this operative (possibly awaiting execution for his defection?), and the Immortal Prophet was, instead, actually working undercover within Trinity to bring it down from the inside. Heck, Trinity’s elite soldiers’ penchant for balaclavas and face-shields would have made it easy for Jacob to wander around unnoticed!

Trinity may, in time, turn out to be a very fertile device for future stories. But I can’t help feel, again, that this is recycling a very well-established trope rather than breaking new and unpredictable ground. James Bond has Spectre. Indiana Jones has the Nazis. Inspector Gadget had M.A.D. Lara Croft has Trinity (and, in the movies, the Illuminati). Never let it be said that secret organisations aren’t dedicated in their quest to save pop culture heroes from boredom.

As an aside, did anyone else think that the mysterious ‘voice of Trinity’ that was heard giving orders to Konstantin, and later over the sniper’s radio, sounded a lot like Supreme Leader Snoke from Star Wars: The Force Awakens? This character certainly fulfils exactly the same mysterious-unseen-villain-pulling-strings-behind-the-scenes cliché as the deformed holographic figure from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Even their voices are similar. Is it the ultimate aim to have a Tomb Raider-Star Wars crossover? The mind boggles…

 

Prophet motives and optional tombs

There are a number of plot points that bothered me about Rise of the Tomb Raider. The most glaring example is a three-step process revolving around Jacob “The Immortal” Prophet, and goes something like this: If I had been in Jacob’s position and wanted to keep the Divine Source a secret, I would have:

1) not created an Atlas showing its location,

2) not hidden the Atlas in the same damn valley as the Divine Source,

3) destroyed the Atlas, if it existed, and the Divine Source myself – a long, long time ago (hey, I’m immortal – I can take on the Deathless Ones without breaking a sweat).

However, if we follow these three points to their logical conclusion, then Lara would not have had a great deal to do in Rise of the Tomb Raider apart from admire the scenery and hunt some deer.

Another niggling disappointment in Rise of the Tomb Raider was that all of the tombs bar one were still optional. Yeah, yeah, I know; the tombs were bigger, better, and more beautiful than last time.  They were still too easy, but were an undeniable joy to behold in terms of sheer visual appeal (and this is pretty much my opinion of the whole game). However, apart from The Prophet’s Tomb in Syria (which we couldn’t go back to if we missed anything, dammit), none of the tombs formed an integral, narrative-driven part of the story. It would make the game a little less interesting and a little more challenging if we missed them out, but we could choose to skip them and still get to the end of the game.

Is there any way to tackle this double problem – i.e. Jacob’s odd reluctance to personally destroy the Divine Source AND the lack of integral tombs – apart from having the whole game set in interconnecting crypts? Here’s one ‘what if…?’ that might have worked:

Let’s take Jacob’s Atlas-Divine Source dilemma and say that the Atlas was split up, with each piece being buried with a trusted follower of the Immortal Prophet. This would have made it more difficult for outsiders to find the Atlas, and given the Remnant time to detect the intruders and mount a proper defence. The game already named several people who played major roles in Kitezh’s history (e.g. Aurora the Physician); on a side note, I found it annoying and tedious for the game to flash up ‘there’s a hidden tomb nearby!’ while I was casually wandering around, so removing that prompt would be a great improvement. It would have been much more interesting to make hunting for these tombs an integral part of the story; we even encounter a member of the Remnant who is willing to trade us gold coins for secret knowledge from inside these tombs! It’s a mechanic and storytelling device that almost works, but could still use some tweaking in order to really exploit the raiding aspect of Tomb Raider. The split-up Atlas idea, although it’s yet another cliché in itself, would have been a valid way to blend an integral purpose to the game’s tombs, and fix a flawed point of logic to the Atlas’ very existence.

 

Mind your language, Lara!

On a different note, it also bugged me – a lot – that the Remnant all spoke perfect English (or whatever language version of the game you happened to buy). We’re talking about people in a lost Siberian valley, whose most recent connection to the outside world came in the 1970s with the Soviet invasion. Until then, they probably spoke Greek, or Russian, or Mongolian – heck, maybe a unique variant incorporating all three! – but certainly not English. It really threw me when Sofia showed up and threatened, in flawless English, to shoot Lara if she ever saw her again. Until that moment, the landscape, level design, and collectibles had all done a great job of fixing my location firmly in the wilderness. As soon as Sofia started talking, the illusion was shattered. Colour me pedantic, but details like this really do make a difference to immersion.

However, there is an obvious and interesting ‘what if…?’ opportunity here to solve this problem, and this would have been to expand Lara’s new language-acquisition skills to the spoken word, not just the written one. How cool would it have been to enter the valley with only a shaky grasp of the Remnant’s language? Lara would have initially only been able to speak to a select few people, and/or in a limited fashion, until her language skills improved with practise. This could have functioned exactly the same way as we had been using on monoliths and carvings up to that point. The more people Lara spoke to, the more quests and missions she could accomplish, the better her understanding would become and the more quests and missions would be made available. That extra layer of realism would have given the Remnant a greater sense of identity, and the sense that we were actually exploring and getting to know a unique culture. As it stands, the Remnant in Rise look and sound more like live-action role-players acting their parts than a distinct people, and that’s a great shame.

Also, I had to check that I had actually loaded the correct game when Lara entered the lost city of Kitezh. The point where she sneaks in past the Deathless Ones is identical – right down to the scary metallic bellowing and bells tolling – to the scene where Lara sneaks past the Stormguards in the monastery in Tomb Raider 2013. I’m not just saying the scene is reminiscent – it’s a direct copy – and I’m not the only one to have spotted this comparison. This was yet another opportunity for tension and inventiveness that ended up sacrificed in favour of the easier ‘well, it worked last time’ option.

 

Part 2: Characterisation

Lara Croft

Lara herself has grown up quite a bit since Yamatai. Her earlier reluctance to enter the fray has all but burned away but, to be fair, her moral qualms about inflicting mayhem and death had already evaporated within about five seconds of her very first kill in Tomb Raider 2013. I’m not the only one to wonder about Lara’s astonishingly rapid acceptance of murder back on Yamatai, in which she essentially makes the transition from ethical devastation to ‘Yes! Run, you bastards!’ within a single encounter. Er, you go, girl…?

Lara certainly feels more comfortable and competent within the wild and dangerous environments of Rise. She has made the transition from dangerous prey to deadly predator quite well. Almost too well, it seems. For example, we get to see how deeply she is obsessed about her goals when both Ana and Jonah, respectively, try to dissuade her from embarking on adventures to Syria and Siberia. But is this single obsession, on its own, sufficient to explain her cool, casual approach to gunning down Trinity’s agents whenever they get in her way? Perhaps another ‘what if…?’ moment would have been for her to learn early-on that Trinity had played a key part in her father’s ‘suicide’. It was a powerful moment in Rise when we learned that Richard Croft had apparently taken his own life, consumed by the pressure of humiliation and professional disgrace. However, I think Lara would have had a much stronger basis for taking up his mantle if she had suspected foul play from the start. If she had had any doubts about her father’s death, if there was even a hint that he had actually been murdered because of his research, then Lara’s obsessive drive for answers would carry a lot more weight and believability. This would have given her the extra impetus of revenge, or the need to seek the truth about her father’s death, to fuel her tornado-like approach to Trinity’s soldiers that we witnessed in Rise.

Here’s why I think this is important. In Tomb Raider 2013, Lara tells us that she didn’t believe her father’s theories – that she in fact shared the popular belief that he was a little crazy. Why, then, did she become so proficient in archaeology, or go to such lengths to prove the existence of Yamatai? If she had really held a mental picture of her father as an unstable, obsessive eccentric, then it follows that she would have tried to distance herself from archaeology, rather than delve further into it. She wouldn’t have joined the Endurance crew as a junior archaeologist, and certainly wouldn’t have fought to change the ship’s course in order to prove her theory.

Another side to Lara that didn’t appear in the game was her potential PTSD from the events on Yamatai. This was strongly hinted at in the game’s announcement trailer, and my initial thoughts upon seeing this were, ‘oh great, they’re going to have Lara battling her inner demons at the same time she’s battling the elements and bad guys!’ There was a potential goldmine of emotional, moralistic, and intellectual storytelling to be mined from this. For example, we see Lara’s reaction when she suspects that somebody has been in her apartment and going through her research – and the paranoid way she almost swings an ice-axe into Ana’s head. However, in the next few moments, all of that tension evaporates, never to be seen again, in the wake of Lara’s preoccupation with Syria. She is once again consumed by the need to visit a certain place in order to vindicate her father’s theories; let potential Trinity cat-burglars be damned. The paranoia and other PTSD side-effects are forgotten for the rest of the game.

The Dark Horse comics may have explored the topic of Lara’s PTSD (I haven’t read them), but it seemed criminal to not even hint about the topic in Rise. In fact, it’s almost as though Yamatai never happened. Even the supposedly crippling loss of her father-figure replacement, Roth, never gets a mention – not even indirectly, for example with a brief shot of his photograph on her desk. This felt like yet another wasted opportunity to give the characters more believable emotional depth and motivation. Simply obsessing about a single goal does not make for a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, and Rise Lara – despite being an improvement over Lara from Yamatai – was still thinking and acting in two dimensions about just two subjects: Namely, vindicate father’s theories, and stop Trinity. She went from ‘the Divine Source will eradicate death and suffering’ in Croft manor to ‘humans need death and suffering to be human’ in the Chamber of Souls without any solid epiphany moments to explain when and why she changed her mind. This realisation probably hit home when she encountered the Deathless Ones in Kitezh, and saw that Jacob’s warning about the corrupting power of the Divine Source was true, but she must have made that critical realisation in total silence. This is doubly odd when we tally up the number of times the game decided to have her state the blindingly obvious instead (see my earlier blog entry “We need to talk about Lara…”).

 

Ana and Konstantin

Let’s consider these characters as two sides of the same antagonist coin. In my opinion, not enough attention was paid to the relationship between Ana and Konstantin. Yes, they had numerous cutscenes together, and we found several personal journals scattered all over the place, but these always boiled down to the same basic exchange (i.e. ‘Trinity can’t be trusted’, ‘just have faith’, ‘I’m dying’, and ‘this is our destiny’). At one point we learned that Ana faked Konstantin’s stigmata (and HOW exactly did she get away with this??), but if you happened to have missed picking up that particular journal, it made absolutely no sense when Lara yelled the truth at Konstantin in their final encounter. We were left wondering why did Ana do this? The implication is that she wanted her brother to believe he had a higher purpose, and this is all fine and dandy. It’s also entirely probable that the two of them were either born into or indoctrinated into Trinity at a young age, and that’s cool from the cultish angle we have been getting from Trinity. However, neither of these things explain how or why giving Konstantin stigmata would help turn him into the eyeball-popping villain we encountered in Rise.

Ana vs Lara

Another weak point to Ana’s character is that there was no genuine emotional connection between Lara and Ana prior to their crucial interrogation cutscene. It’s a cardinal rule that if you’re going to have a character turn traitor towards another later on, you need to really shine a spotlight on the closeness between them so that the betrayal has sufficient emotional impact. In the apartment cutscene, Lara treated Ana more like a casual schoolfriend than the mother-substitute she was supposed to be, and conversely, Ana never really showed any affection towards Lara. Ana’s deception would have had far more of a kick to it if, for example, the two had embraced in the apartment, or if Ana had shown concern and sympathy towards Lara’s emotional need for answers, rather than just tell her that going to Syria was madness. The moment Ana tried to talk Lara out of going to Syria, rather than reluctantly agree that she needed to find closure, was the moment I knew Ana was a bad guy – and it completely killed the suspense and emotional connection.

Taken together, Ana and Konstantin felt full of unused potential. Ana’s manipulative side could have taken on a much more sinister aspect if her acting skills had convinced us that she and Lara really cared about each other. Konstantin, in contrast, was a thug: a devout, resourceful, dangerous, and powerful thug, but still a thug. He was a weapon to be aimed at Trinity’s enemies or goals; any internal turmoil he might have suffered was held in check by straightforward, blind faith. It was for this reason that I really liked the moments when he showed his concern for Ana; they gave a hint that, underneath all that bravado and conviction, he was vulnerable and conflicted. I’d have liked to have seen more of Ana and Konstantin as children, to see the aftermath of Konstantin waking with blood pouring from his hands, and get a taste of the Trinity-led environment these two grew up in. It could be rightly argued that these kinds of details can be awkward to implement in-game, but it’s not impossible. After all, we were treated to multiple moments from Lara’s past via the magic of the ‘blow-to-the-head’ flashback trope. Showing us in this way would have, in my opinion, been far more enlightening than having multiple journal entries lying around to simply tell us.

 

Jonah

Don’t get me wrong: I think Jonah is a lovely character. He was my favourite from 2013 Tomb Raider because he was tough, competent, and had an inkling that the island wasn’t natural even when the others were boisterously denying everything. You’ve also got to hand it to someone who can make sure the hero is properly fed in the midst of a crisis.

That said, the story did not require him, especially from the avalanche in Siberia onwards. For example, when Trinity’s soldiers attacked the Observatory to get the Atlas, and ergo claim the location of the Divine Source, there was no need to capture Jonah; he had no information that the Atlas itself could not provide. Might, then, Konstantin have intended to draw Lara into a trap and interrogate her for information? This theory doesn’t hold water because he had already done that in the interrogation-reveal scene with Ana, when it was proved that Lara did not know anything of further value. There was ergo no reason whatsoever for Jonah to be captured. Jonah did not provide Lara with any new information about the Divine Source, Kitezh, the Atlas, or Trinity’s ground troops, therefore he brought nothing important plot-wise to the story by reappearing in the Remnant’s valley when he did. There was nothing unique about Jonah’s character that meant he had to be the person who was mortally wounded by Konstantin, only to be miraculously saved by Jacob. Heck, if it comes to that, Sofia, or any of the Remnant – even Lara herself! – could have been the one who was wounded and then saved, and Lara’s revelation/realisation about Jacob’s true identity would have followed exactly the same course.

It was good to have Jonah appear in Croft manor to provide the voice of reason to Lara’s obsession. A good person would point out when their friend starts to stray into dangerous territory, physically or mentally, even if it was just to warn them and show concern for their wellbeing. I’ll even buy that Jonah’s change of mind was justified, and that having him accompany Lara to Siberia was justified. However, there are two problems with having him accompany Lara to Siberia; the first is that Jonah has essentially exhausted any useful purpose by the time the avalanche occurs, and second, Lara herself says that ‘she needs to do this alone’ when they get separated. If this was Lara’s thought process, then surely she would have set out alone from the very start!

Without a valid reason to advance the plot, Jonah had no place in the story and should have been left out. Sorry, Jonah.

Jonah and Lara Croft manor

“What do you mean ‘I hate grilled fish’?!”

However, let’s have another ‘what if…?’ moment and consider how much more poignant and valid it would have been for Lara to reunite with Jonah, not in the Remnant valley, but after she had escaped Kitezh. Lara would be practically bursting with secrets and knowledge, but she would have to have known that to open up to Jonah would expose him to Trinity’s attention (not to mention the sticky subject of Ana’s murdered body out on the glacier). These situations would have created delicious internal and external character conflicts between (and within) Lara and Jonah – and conflict is what drives stories onwards. This would have crafted a more reserved, more reclusive Lara Croft who plays things closer to the chest and who assumes an air of mystery and terrible knowledge. It would also have turned Jonah into a suspicious, deeply concerned character who would either distance himself from Lara and warn others to stay out of her way, or stubbornly stick with her until she finally explained herself. Thanks, Jonah – we knew you would come in useful!

 

Summary

For me, Rise of the Tomb Raider was a definite improvement over the previous game, certainly in terms of refined gameplay and gorgeous visuals. There were plenty of ‘oh, my…’ moments when we entered a new area for the first time. Lara herself has gained an edge that was missing in the previous game, and is the better for it. The mythology and the gradual way the story unfolds through journals and locations is well realised and makes for a very entertaining experience. However, I felt that the plot and dialogue persistently chose cliché over innovation, and ignored many opportunities to strengthen or explain characters’ motives more clearly. I’m relieved that truly annoying and/or superfluous characters like Sam were ditched, but was disappointed that new characters like Ana and Konstantin were too transparent to be really compelling. For the franchise to really blossom in future incarnations, Lara needs to connect with what made her character so attractive in her earliest years. She already has the necessary field skills (and then some), but to really be worthy of the title ‘Tomb Raider’, she will also need to rediscover her dry wit, guile, and a passion for what her great-uncle, Indiana Jones, dubbed ‘fortune and glory’. A return of the twin pistols and more challenging puzzles would also be very welcome.

 

Image credits:

Lara and Jonah in Siberia: http://tombraider.wikia.com/wiki/Jonah_Maiava

Ana and Konstantin: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Ana_%28Rise_of_the_Tomb_Raider%29

Jonah and Lara at Croft manor: http://gamesided.com/2015/11/16/exclusive-interview-earl-baylon-jonah-maiava-rise-of-the-tomb-raider/2/

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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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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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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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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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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!)

In this final tutorial of this series, we’ll be taking a brief look at some essential habits and advice that underpins all good fiction writing – whether it involves a certain death-defying archaeologist-adventuress or not.

1. Punctuation, spelling, and grammar matter.

Language is constantly evolving – it is not a static object with immutable rules. Everybody will have their own style of writing and communication, which is all to the good; language cannot evolve at all without diversity. But – and I cannot stress this enough – this is no excuse to be lazy or condescending to your readers. I’ve lost count of the stories which I started to read but gave up on because the writer was too bone-idle to use a dictionary (or even click that little button called ‘spell checker’). If they can’t be bothered to look after the fundamentals of writing, why should I get my hopes up about the rest of the story? Is this attitude snobbish? Perhaps it is, but I prefer to think of it as demanding a high standard of the crafts we practise and not simply settling for mediocrity. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar are the infrastructure of communication; they allow for wildly-different people to convey their thoughts to each other as smoothly and efficiently as possible. When mistakes occur, they will jolt your reader out of the narrative just as surely as if they’d been peacefully driving along a road and struck a pothole or blown a tyre. At best they will be able ignore it and continue with their journey, albeit in a state of heightened alertness that distracts them from enjoying the ride. At worst, they will decide not to risk further damage, turn around, and go home. You owe it to your readers to provide a comfortable journey. To ignore the basic rules of communication shows laziness, insults readers’ intelligence, and disrupts the flow of your story.

There are countless online resources available to help improve your communication skills – including dictionaries, thesauri, guides to grammar, and even proofreading and plagiarism-detection software. It is also worth your while to recruit a few trusted beta-readers who can go over your work with fresh eyes (be certain to thank them and proofread their works in return!). There really is no excuse not to get it right!

Sitting with book 01

2. Be an active, not passive, reader.

If there is one thing you can do to improve your own writing, it’s to read, read, and read some more. Try to sample every possible genre out there – science-fiction, romance, crime, thriller, horror, and fantasy to name but a few – because they all have something powerful to teach us as writers. This might mean that you end up with overflowing bookshelves and/or a season ticket at your local library, but these are really positive signs!

Literature enthusiasts love to take stories apart and analyse them from all angles. But you don’t have to have a degree in Shakespearian plays to recognise good writing from bad. Hopefully these tutorials will have given you a sense of how stories are put together; but even more importantly, they should have inspired you to always ask questions. That is the difference between active and passive reading. Passive readers enjoy being swept along by the narrative – they read purely for escapism. On the other hand, active readers will find themselves asking questions and analysing the text. It’s fine and dandy to pick up a new story and become totally immersed in the author’s creation, but if you are a writer you should also aim to be an active reader. Maybe read through the story several times – at first purely for curiosity and enjoyment, and then each time after that ask yourself how the author has tackled the same topics we have covered in these tutorials. For example, how did the author manage to hook the reader on the first page? Why was a certain character so engaging and vital to the story, even if they weren’t the main protagonist? How did the author tackle the balance between description and action? Was there anything that didn’t work – if so, why not?

If you can work out the answers to these questions, and expose yourself to as many styles of writing as possible, then you are equipping yourself with a vast toolkit and knowledge base upon which to build and improve your own storytelling skills.

For more discussion on this topic, see my previous blog entry: Reading for Writing.

3. Write drunk, edit sober.

This isn’t to be taken literally, but this quote (often misattributed to Earnest Hemingway) can be a useful guideline for how you approach your writing. If writing a story can be compared to making a pottery vase, then writing down your initial words is akin to gathering up lumps of clay and arranging them into the broad shape of the final vase. However, the real work comes afterwards in the editing process.

If you have a solid plan, then getting down your first draft should be a relatively easy process (emphasis on ‘relatively’!). Let your creativity flow. Don’t over-think or agonise too much about the quality of your prose at this stage. This is where ‘write drunk’ should more accurately be termed ‘write freely and without inhibitions’. You are piling on your clay – your raw material – in the approximate shape it needs to be to support itself.

Part 8 - spelling

When you are satisfied that your first draft has covered all of the bases it needs to, then you can begin to edit and refine it. This is the time to tune up and improve your dialogue; to trim away unnecessary waffle or fill in missing steps in your description; and to help breathe real life into your fictional world with specific, not vague, details.

It is entirely up to you how many revisions you make (though you do have to draw the line at some point, or you’ll never publish your work!) It’s good practise to leave your draft alone – at least for a couple of days – between revisions. This helps to clear your immediate memory of what you have written, which improves your sense of objectivity. ‘Edit sober’ could easily be switched to ‘edit without sentimentality or bias’. Never think that your words are set in stone; they are just as malleable as clay. If something doesn’t work, have no qualms about altering or removing it.

It’s also useful, if you have the facilities, to print out your draft on paper and go over it in another location. Take a red pen or highlighter so you can mark the bits that need alterations. It’s surprising how many more mistakes can be spotted on paper compared to on the computer monitor!

4. Find a time and a place to write – and WRITE!

You aren’t going to write a bestselling novel on the back of an envelope, in the kitchen during mealtimes, with young kids tugging at your elbow. Every writer needs to have some place, at some time, where they know they will be undisturbed. This can be insanely difficult, especially if you’re also juggling work, a social life, or other obligations. But if you don’t force yourself to sit down and write, all those stories that are locked up inside your imagination will stay that way forever!

If you live in a crowded house, try to make time for writing when everyone else has gone to bed, work, or school. Give yourself permission to metaphorically and literally close the door on the world, even if it’s only for half an hour every other day. Try to find one room, one corner, or one desk where you can keep your notes, computer, and other writing tools.

It should also be obvious that writers need the discipline to sit down and write regularly, otherwise their stories (or other works) will never see the light of day. Even if you only jot down your writing thoughts (e.g. observations and ideas) each day in your journal, make sure you set aside some time to your craft or it will wither and fade like any other skill. It doesn’t matter if what you write on that day is half a page of drivel. It’s still half a page that you can hold up as proof of your working attitude.

For more discussion on this topic, see my previous blog entry: A Writer’s Haven.

5. Observe everything – inspiration is everywhere!

Remember that description can be greatly enriched if you exploit strong sensory impressions – sensations, emotions, and situations we can all relate to. As writers, we should always walk with our minds and senses open to the world. Try to note down your observations and think about how you would convey them in your writing. This kind of constant mental practise will build muscles in your imagination and communication skills. Pretty soon, it will become difficult for you not to imagine how a conversation, a view, or an event would translate into the written word!

Inspiration is often labelled as flighty and random, but we all have certain things that are virtually guaranteed to help our imaginations take flight. Going for an early-morning walk, people-watching in a cafe or on public transport, and travelling to new places are all fuel for your muse. Many people – myself included – find that music and stimulating conversations are also potent sources of inspiration. Although we can find inspiration in strange and often random places, it’s always good to have a dependable muse that you can turn to again and again.

6. Tools for writers.

Writers are a diverse bunch, with many different ways of approaching their craft. Some prefer straightforward word processor software (e.g. Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer), while others stick to pencil and paper. The bottom line is to find what works for you. As a sample, here is what I consider my essential physical toolkit for writing:

  • Notepads and pens: spiral-bound, hardback pads (size A5 or A4), plus soft-grip pens work best for me.
  • Scapple: mind-mapping software from Literature and Latte. I’m a great fan of mind-maps (or spider diagrams, as they’re sometimes known). The trouble is, I often run out of space on my notepad and get frustrated with crossings-out and other editing mess. Scapple is a very simple but highly-intuitive mind-map creation program that never runs out of space and allows for infinite formatting and editing. Perfect!
  • Scrivener: there are word processors, and then there are document or project processors. Scrivener (also by Literature and Latte) makes writing and organising stories a doddle. Normally you’d have to scroll through endless pages (or manually create bookmarks) to get to particular scenes or chapters, and make liberal and clumsy use of copy&paste to organise a story – particularly novel-sized ones. Scrivener, however, is more like an infinite binder and index cards system and is astonishingly straightforward to use. You can write and  format as you would in a word processor, but you can also split your writing up into scenes, chapters, parts, or whatever strikes your fancy – and organise those components as easily as dragging and dropping. Another thing I really love about Scrivener is the ability to include other files – pictures, .pdfs, character or location guides, you name it – into your ‘research’ folder. Now you can have just one program open for all your research and reference material instead of five separate programs and multiple tabs. Bliss!
  • Online and hard-copies of a dictionary and thesaurus: simple but indispensable.
  • Coffee: this should go without saying!

7. Remember to have fun and learn from your own experiences

If writing just isn’t clicking with you, or causes you more angst than pleasure, then perhaps you could try a new writing style or an entirely different kind of creative outlet. There cannot be any illusions: writing is tough. There will be days when nothing seems to be working, and when you just want to throw your notes out of the window and quit. If that happens, turn off your word processor and go somewhere else or do something to recharge your batteries. Even the most disciplined writers will sometimes run out of juice for a while. That’s fine. But if your muse is repeatedly going off in a huff when you sit down to write, then perhaps it’s time to change your tactics or try something new. Why not try poetry, or script-writing for TV, film, or radio-plays?

Above all, it’s important to remember that nothing beats experience. There is no right or wrong way to write. Despite the advice in these tutorials, remember that it is only advice (except the bit about spelling and punctuation – Lara will kick your ass if you skip those). It may turn out to be completely wrong for you and what you want to write. The same goes for all guides on writing that have ever been published. But that’s okay. Do your research, absorb as much information and guidance from as many different sources as possible, but then go and find out how that applies to you and your work style. You’re in charge of your own writing, so find a method that works for you.

8. Live well, write well

Finally, just like Lara stuck in a remote and dangerous environment, you need to look after yourself properly in order to get the job done. Writing is great fun – and highly-addictive when the muse is in full-flow – but sitting still and typing in front of a computer monitor for hours on end isn’t going to be good for your health. You deserve and need to take care of your physical self. These habits apply to just about everyone who works at a computer, and include:

  • Eat well – keep healthy snacks around so your energy levels stay nice and stable. Concentrating uses up more energy than you think!
  • Stay hydrated with plenty to drink.
  • Get up and move your body at least once every hour.
  • Make sure your chair, desk, and computer are arranged so that your posture is upright but relaxed.
  • Invest in a wrist support or cushion for your mouse mat and keyboard (or use a rolled-up towel).
  • Remember the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes, look away from the screen at something else twenty feet away, for twenty seconds – this helps to avoid eye strain.
  • Get plenty of good-quality sleep.
  • Stay in regular touch with friends and give yourself some time off to recharge your spirit (a visit to my local country park works wonders for me).
  • Try to keep your notes and workspace organised so you don’t waste time and generate stress hunting high and low for the equipment or information you need.

Now, Miss Croft. Grab your passport and twin pistols, lace up your boots and strap on your gloves. We can’t wait to come along on your next adventure!

Bike 03

Image credits:

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Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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