Tag Archives: Tomb Raider

Best Games of 2014

It’s that time of year when everyone writes about the best games of the year, and thought I’d add my 2 cents. This list feels a bit disingenuous since I currently own or want a number of 2014 releases that I just haven’t had time to get to yet, but I can only play so many games in a single year!

I think 2014 has gotten a lot of flack, as many consider it a weak year for gaming. I disagree. The beginning of the year was a bit weak – the PS4 and XBox One had just come out, and there are always growing pains and a lack of games to play on brand new systems. Also, a number of games that came out this year were remasters of games that had come out over the last couple years as well. But as we got closer to the middle and end of the year, a number of real heavy hitters started getting released, and I think the year ended on a good note.

So here are my top 6 games released in 2014.

Tomb Raider

I struggled with giving a best of 2014 award to a game that actually came out in 2013 and only got a remaster in 2014, but Tomb Raider was so much fun that I just can’t resist. Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider franchise with aplomb. We got a Lara Croft origin story that was thrilling and Lara herself got her best makeover ever. I’ve written about all the things I felt Tomb Raider did right from a feminist perspective but, when it comes down to it, Tomb Raider takes one of the top spots because it was just so much fun to play. Set pieces and quick time events sent my heart racing. I flinched each time Lara took a blow. Gameplay was fast and smooth with super slick controls. Taking out enemies with my bow, traversing rock faces, swinging down ziplines, all felt so natural. The controls  were so impeccable they actually ruined a number of other PS4 action-adventure games for me. I just couldn’t get into AC: Black Flag and Infamous: Second Son – where the characters moved oddly in comparison. I had to fight the controls to get Edward or Delsin to do what I wanted, whereas Tomb Raider made Lara feel like an extension of myself.

Valiant Hearts: the Great War

2014 was not a great year for Ubisoft’s big releases. However, in June Ubisoft Mountpellier put out a lovely puzzle adventure about love, survival, and sacrifice during World War One. The game puts you in the shoes of four different characters whose lives have been intertwined in strange and sometimes heartbreaking ways by the war. Though the game contains no dialogue, I always knew what each character was feeling, in part due to the excellent animation and music. Games often put us into the role of soldiers, but not many do it like this. Valiant Hearts is not a power fantasy, but a history lesson and an experience that makes us question war from an emotional and philosophical standpoint. It was really refreshing to see war from from a non-American view, as the whole game takes place in the period before America joined the war effort. It did make me tear up a few times, most notably during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Valiant Hearts - The Great WarMechanically the game is very enjoyable as well. Gameplay is quite varied, yet still manages to fit into the context of the story. It covers everything from operating machinery to turn off chlorine gas pipes, timing-based movement to sneak between enemy patrols, rhythm based medical procedures, and car chases set to amazing orchestral music. A number of the puzzles involve Walt, a casualty dog, who can help to fetch items from tight places and find injured soldiers. And who doesn’t love games with dogs?

Valiant Hearts is one of those rare games that combine both fun gameplay and a meaningful story to give a great gaming experience.

The Last of Us: Left Behind

Left Behind is not really a game on its own, but DLC for The Last of Us. Regardless of this, it’s an amazing experience that deserves a place on game of the year lists. It was great to step into Ellie’s shoes and see her past, as well as expand upon the Winter chapter of The Last of Us. Left Behind is a perfect 2-hour gaming experience that did everything the main game did, but did it better. The pacing is perfect, the dialogue is endearing and on point. It’s not as action-heavy, but it wastes no time – every scene matters. My emotions ran the gamut while playing this, from pure joy to absolute heartache.

PT

I don’t play a lot of horror games, but PT showed me how great they can be. Though it’s really just a playable demo for the new Silent Hills game, it was one of my best gaming experiences of the year. PT created a taut, terrifying experience that delivered not just jump scares, but a truly unsettling environment and disturbing audio and visuals and wormed their way into my psyche. Perhaps it was partly the context of playing the game (I was with great company and a couple bottles of bubbly), but PT managed to keep me so engrossed and curious for more that I played it 3 times in a row. The fact that each playthrough was subtly different was just the icing on the horribly creepy cake.

PT hallwayI think PT was more successful as its own game than it was as a trailer. While PT was exceptional, I don’t have a lot of faith that a horror game can be 12 hours long with more involved gameplay and still be as compelling as this was.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

This was one of the few games whose development I followed closely before it was released, and I’m glad to say it did not disappoint. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand, and is a refreshing take on the weird horror genre. It’s also one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, with photorealistic environments that put many AAA games to shame, and a gorgeous and moody soundtrack. Ethan Carter is a murder mystery that hints towards a greater darkness. It lets you explore the beautiful world and solve puzzles at your own pace, while still managing to maintain tension throughout its whole 4-5 hour playtime.

Dragon Age: INQUISITION

Four of the previous games on this list are there at least in part due to their short playtimes, which created a tight and well-paced experience. Dragon Age: Inquisition is the complete opposite of those. To be honest, the pacing of the game’s first 10-20 hours was complete shit. However, the game more than makes up for it with its huge, deep, engaging story, wonderfully written dialogue, and sheer enormity of the world. While the size of the game can be a bit overwhelming, this installment of Dragon Age had a sense of place and a real, living world like no other. Once I hit a certain part in the story (which I could have reached way earlier if I had just left the fracking Hinterlands), I was completely enthralled and immersed in the world. The characters, from those in my party, to my advisers, to the people hanging around Skyhold all felt like real people, who I wanted to talk to and learn about. The addition of the War Table made me feel like I was the actual head of an army, who had to make decisions and delegate, rather than a lone adventurer who needed to personally slay every demon and settle every petty dispute myself. I sunk a good 200 hours into this game, and besides those initial 10 or so, I loved every minute of it.


 

Those are my games of the year, what are yours?

 

Violence Against Video Game Characters

With the news that GTA V has been pulled from Target and Walmart in Australia because of how violence against female sex workers is portrayed, I’ve been hearing a very familiar cry on Twitter and in comment sections. “What about men?!” “Why is it okay to kill hundreds of men but as soon as you add a woman it’s a problem?”

First of all, people have complained about violence in video games in general. Many, many, many, times. Protests have been launched, petitions have been written. While Canada doesn’t tend to ban games, a number of games have been banned or refused classification in Australia because of violence. The majority of those were banned for general graphic violence, not specifically violence against women (50 Cent Bulletproof, Dark Sector, The Getaway, Manhunt, Postal 1/2, Reservoir Dogs, Soldier of Fortune). Australia has also banned games due to sexual content or depictions of drug use.

But let’s ignore the above and pretend that only games with violence against women are subject to criticism and bans. Why would this be?

In the latest Call of Duty, you’re at war and you mow down hundreds of enemy forces. It’s hard to tell for sure with full body armor on, but they’re most likely all men.

Tomb Raider - Lara killing a man who is on fire

In the reboot of the Tomb Raider series, Lara goes around an island killing hundreds of men. Only men. There are no women. If you paid attention to the game you’d know that there are no women on the island because they’ve all already been killed (by the men). But again, ignore that, not relevant to how terribly video games treat dudes.

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (excuse the somewhat dated reference, but it’s the only GTA I’ve played all the way through), Tommy murders hundreds, maybe thousands of people, mostly men, in his quest to become the crime boss of the city. Running over pedestrians (of either sex) and beating up hookers (always female) is not a requirement to taking over the city, but sometimes he enjoys doing it in his free time.

These poor men have it tough in video games. They’re always getting tortured, shot, run over, killed. Why is this okay, but as soon as you murder a woman in a video game, people start crying foul?

Take your average military shooter. You’re likely playing as a male, and you’re most likely shooting other men. If you’re not also shooting women, it’s because there aren’t any in the game. This makes me question why there aren’t any women. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d have no problem with seeing women on the battlefield (maybe I could even play as one in the campaign sometimes?) and having to mow them down along with the men. Equal opportunity senseless killing, that’s all I ask.

In Tomb Raider, the reason Lara kills hundreds of men is because they’re trying to kill her. They’ve kidnapped her friends and if Lara doesn’t kill them, her and her friends will all die. This is how action games work – the player kills aggressors who are trying to kill them.

In GTA and other open world games, you can generally kill anyone you want. However the aggressors in the game, the ones you have to kill, do tend to be males. Would people be upset if the aggressors were females instead? I certainly wouldn’t. I was pleasantly surprised when I played Saint’s Row: The Third and found that the members of my rival gangs were made of both men and women. Women can be bad guys too. It’s okay. Even better, female antagonists can be created that are actual characters with motivations beyond ‘shoot the player’. Rival gang leaders, mercenaries, corrupt law enforcement officers – put a female in one of these roles and I have no problem with having to kill them to progress in the game. The joy I get from having women in these games outside of strip clubs and street corners greatly outweighs any other issues I’d have.

GTA V - sex workers on the corner

The problem with the portrayal of violence against women, and sex workers in particular, in video games is that these characters, scratch that they aren’t characters and that’s part of the problem. These women are not your enemy. They don’t stand in your way to progress, they are no threat to you. They exist, wear skimpy clothing, and flirt to stimulate the player. That’s their purpose. They don’t impact the story. The player has the option to use them and then kill them. They aren’t necessarily rewarded for this behavior, but they probably aren’t punished either. If in Tomb Raider Lara stumbled upon a man on the beach who was offering pony rides and shot him in the face then I’d have a problem. I’d question why the developers put this scenario in the game. Likewise, I’d have an issue if the next GTA portrayed male sex workers who were completely unrelated to the story that a player could use and then kill.

I’m not a proponent of censorship. While Australia banning video games constitutes actual censorship, retail chains in Australia choosing to pull GTAV off their shelves is not. They can choose to sell or not sell whatever they like. What I am an advocate of is developers and consumers being critical of the media they produce and consume. When female sex workers are added to a game to be ogled, groped, or fucked then thrown away, what is it adding to the game? Is it taking away more than it adds? Is it more trouble than it’s worth just to make your game seem gritty?

Many video games are violent, and that’s not ever going to change. While the gender of the people you shoot or fight in games shouldn’t be an issue, it is because males tend to be the aggressors where it’s a matter of kill or be killed, while females are generally not a threat to the player. They get killed to move the story or a quest forward, give a male character a reason to seek revenge, or just because the player feels like killing them. While a couple of the examples aren’t perfect, if you haven’t watched them yet I’d recommend Anita Sarkeesian’s videos on Women as Background directions (part 1, part 2), as they really show how prevalent this issue is in games, especially in AAA titles.

Feelings

Video games that can make me really feel things are a rare and wonderful thing. When I play games, I’m mostly just looking to be entertained and have fun. But some games go beyond that. Here are a few of them.

I’m trying to be as unspoilery as possible here, but that’s hard in some instances – so read at your own risk.

The Dig

The Dig

Wonder.

I’ve been fascinated by space since I was a kid. The Dig came out when I was 12 and put me in the shoes of an astronaut who got to explore an entire alien world. Every step of the way was filled with wonder and curiosity as I tackled puzzles and discovered gorgeous new vistas.

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

Awe. Sorrow.

The first time I spotted a colossus in this game, there was a sense of wonder. It was so gigantic, so impenetrable. The thought of fighting it was thrilling. Then, as the game went on, excitement started turning into sadness. These were not natural enemies – if anything, they seemed to be protecting something. I was an outsider, invading their lands and destroying them. Each kill felt more difficult and painful.

 Dragon Age Origins

Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins

Delight.

This one’s a bit embarrassing, but I found the whole courtship with Alistair completely delightful. I was like a blushing schoolgirl, endeared by his nervous stammering. That whole scene with the rose made me giddy. I may have immediately replayed it when it was over.

The Walking Dead: Season 1

Lee and Clem - The Walking Dead season 1

Grief.

Not many video games have made me cry. This one made me sob. I cried for Lee, for Clementine, for myself. I knew what was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier.

Stanley Parable

Stanley Parable corridor

Panic.

I started the game sitting in an office, at a desk, in front of a computer. I ran through the corridors, made different decisions each time. But in the end (or the beginning) I always ended up back in that same office. The first time it happened didn’t affect me too much. But the 2nd, the 5th? I began to feel trapped. Helpless. My choices were futile.

Every day I go to an office, sit in front of a computer. Is this a game, or is this my life? Panic. Let’s turn it off now.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider on the tower

Exhilaration.

The opening scenes made my heart thump in a way that doesn’t happen often. I could feel every injury with the vibration of the controller, the sounds, and the blurring and colour draining from the screen. I held my breath every time I had to push the right button or die.

I’ve spun out my car and ended up facing the wrong way on the highway and had steadier hands afterwards than I did during the first playable parts of Tomb Raider .

The Last of Us: Left Behind

Joy.

Ellie and Riley, two girls living in a world that had become violent and terrible, sneak away and just have fun.

This scene was absolutely brilliant, a reminder of the amazing powers of imagination and friendship. The game goes on to another scene which gave even more feelings of being carefree and joyous.

And then it ripped my heart out.


Feel free to share your gaming feels with me.

Doing it Right: Tomb Raider (2013)

Doing it Right is a new, hopefully regular, feature I’ll be writing that looks at games that I think are making positive strides in regard to females and representation in games. While it’s important to call out games when they are sexist and reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the games that are succeeding at elevating themselves away from that. 

I played through the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 for the first time not too long ago. From a gameplay perspective, I thought it was amazing. It looked and sounded great, and the controls were smooth as silk. It was one of the most engaging and entertaining games I’ve played in a while. But how does it hold up when I look deeper? Through her history Lara Croft has been interpreted in many ways, from strong female role model to virtual blow-up doll. Have Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics re-invented Lara in a positive way or have they fallen back on lazy and sexist video game tropes?

Lara Croft

Classic Lara Croft

When I think of classic Lara Croft, the above image is what comes to mind. On the bright side, she looks fierce and determined. But she has completely unrealistic body proportions. Besides the huge breasts, which she was always known for, she also had small hips and a teeny, tiny waist. She has an unnaturally wide stance. She was always an ass kicker, but she was also eye candy, with her physical assets at the forefront.

Lara Croft reimangined

This is the new Lara. She looks just as determined, though maybe a little less fierce (this is an origin story, after all). Her body proportions are much more realistic. She looks like someone who is strong, who can climb up cliff faces and use a bow with a heavy enough draw weight to take down an enemy. Her outfit is a reasonable outfit for raiding tombs. I do have to suspend disbelief a little bit that those skinny tank top straps or her bra straps never slide off her shoulders, but I can get past that. The new Lara makes me believe that her designers thought about function just as much as form.

You can also choose to put Lara in different outfits, which I believe were DLC originally, but were included in the PS4 definitive edition. In most games I find games that the ‘bonus’ outfits for female characters tend to be much more revealing than their original costumes (see games ranging from Metroid to Cool Boarders 2 to Bayonetta). In Tomb Raider, it’s very refreshing to see that this isn’t the case.

Tomb Raider skins

The extra skins actually put more clothes on Lara. Her starting tank top is as revealing as it gets. Again, function is just as important as form. She gets the Sure Shot outfit, which puts her in archery gear. She gets the Hunter outfit, which adds camouflage to her normal attire. Three of the six bonus outfits have sleeves. Most of them cover her chest. Lara is still gorgeous, but not in a “we need to make her overtly sexy so men will want to play this game” way.

The new Lara is also smart. Not that the old Lara wasn’t, but here it’s made very clear that she’s an academic. She knows a lot about other cultures, she has good instincts, and is continuously puzzling things out throughout the game. She figures things out when other people can’t. When she finds an artifact in the game she shows reverence towards it. The term “tomb raider” doesn’t really fit Lara, as she’s not going to exotic locales to pillage another culture’s historical artifacts. She yearns for discovery and knowledge. Through journal entries found throughout the game, we see that Lara’s brains and bravery also inspires adoration from the rest of the Endurance crew.

There was a lot of controversy about the Tomb Raider reboot and how Lara is portrayed, and most of that was due to some incredibly dumb things said by the executive producer before the game was released. Things like “we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again” and suggesting that “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character… They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.'” I can tell you that’s not the Tomb Raider I played. People will interpret things in different ways, but to me, Lara was never broken. Lots of bad things happened, but she overcame them all. The game occasionally showed that she was scared or in pain or doubting, but she kept going. I can’t fault a game for trying to make the protagonist more emotionally realistic. Most people can’t be in mortal danger, drop hundreds of bodies, or have their friends die without being a little shaken up.

Damsel in Distress

Tomb Raider does use one of the oldest tropes in the book, the damsel in distress. Early in the game, Lara’s friend Sam gets kidnapped. Sam is a descendant of the Sun Queen Himiko, so Lara literally needs to save the princess. However, a couple of things set this scenario apart from the usually problematic cliche.

Lara and Sam

First, none of the women need to be saved by a man. Lara is the one who does all the rescuing. She saves a number of the men in her crew as well.

Second, Sam is never portrayed as an object or a prize, as the damsel in distress so often is. We learn about her through her interactions with Lara and the rest of the crew, as well as through journal entries. She’s not just a plot device, she’s a real character. The relationship between her and Lara is established.

Diversity

Women play most of the important roles within the game, from the hero, to the skeptic, to the one who needs rescuing, to the big bad.

The crew of the Endurance is fairly sexually and ethnically diverse. There are 4 men and 3 women. Four characters are white, one is black, one is Japanese, and one is Polynesian.

The nameless bad guys who Lara has to fight are also very diverse. In many games where the protagonist racks up a big kill count the antagonists are the “savage” natives, or just some kind of non-white/non-Western group. As you learn through journal entries found on the island, the Solarii Brotherhood is made up of the people who have crashed on the island, who come from all over the world.

It’s not stated anywhere in the game but if you wanted to, you could absolutely interpret the relationship between Lara and Sam as a romantic one.

 Overall

In addition to being a whole lot of fun, I found Tomb Raider to be a very positive experience from a feminist perspective. Lara was presented as a strong woman, who only got stronger throughout the game. That’s not to say that it’s completely without problems but, as I mentioned, I wanted to focus on the good things. If you want to hear some more opinions about the game, and hear some discussion of the more problematic things, go listen the episode of Justice Points I was a guest on. I tried not to overlap the article with the podcast too much.