Crystal Dynamics should take a page from Miasmata

I have not completed Tomb Raider. Seven hours into the game and it hasn’t compelled me to play more than an hour a night. Originally I thought this had to do with poor writing from Susan O’Connor & Vicky Arnold but it’s more complicated. Their writing may be poor it may not, what I do believe is that the overall theme of the game doesn’t match the gameplay or design. When you’re trying to break your protagonist both physically & emotionally ala Robinson Crusoe, it’s probably not wise to include this theme around a third person shooter. Lara’s never in any real danger. Games need a fail state that do justice to the theme.

Now that I’ve beaten up on the game, where does the theme match the design? That would be in the exploration if anywhere. This element of the game receives unanimous praise from everyone I talked to. Now let’s dissect why this works. Is it the incentives? Well no, the incentives for the rewards for exploration are quite bad. You don’t particularly need the salvage or XP, and the loot with historical significance are not all that interesting. What’s interesting that I’ve found is the overall act of going through the island matched the theme of ‘Robison Crusoe-ing’ Lara up. Crystal Dynamics accomplished this by creating interesting environments and allowing you to traverse it at your own pace. This design is inherently more valuable in reinforcing the theme established by O’Connor with the story, and overcomes it’s poor incentives through it’s thematic consistency.

Now let’s get to Miasmata. What lessons should Crystal Dynamics take from Miasmata to better match their theme with Tomb Raider 2? Miasmata is a game that has the most well designed exploration I’ve seen in a game yet. From it’s cartography mechanic, and through having a landscape worth exploring it gives the player a world worth exploring. That coupled with an acerbic set of incentives, some clear to the player early on and others that present themselves later as it’s being stalked by a monster. You might think that these are a lot of systems, and they are but that’s the entirety of them. When compared to Tomb Raider, in aggregate it’s a fraction of the size of Tomb Raider’s systems and world. Without talking to IonFX or Crystal Dynamics, it’s obvious that it took far less development time by the former than the latter to work on what I’ve talked about here.

Now, why does Miasmata’s mechanics suit the theme both these games share? To answer this question I think we need to contrast why Uncharted’s third person shooting works well for it’s story. For one it’s a much more authored & shorter experience. This plays well off of it’s Raider’s of the Lost Ark story. One of the largest complaints people have had with The Last of Us was this exact sentiment. It’s too long. It’s quite possible that third person shooters fall apart under the weight of the length of a seven plus hour game. Continued, the need for regenerating health, which is something you need in these sorts of games, hurts the thematic consistency of telling a story about struggle. In order to truly struggle you need a fail state that allows you to truly fail.

Two of my favourite adventure novels on surviving in a hostile environment that come to mind are River of Doubt by Candice Millard and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Both stories are unsurprisingly similar, and drive home how important failure is to this sort of theme. In River of Doubt, you’re following a biographical portrait of Teddy Roosevelt's quest to map the Amazon river. Many events happen along the way to lead Roosevelt to contemplate suicide at one point. The novel climaxes when he fails to reach his desired goal and succumbs to malaria. That scene in River of Doubt very similar to this scene in Into the Wild. Christopher McCandless fails to store moose meat for winter. All the while, he’s contrasting these happenings to failures previous in his life just like Roosevelt.

Miasmata doesn’t use failure in quite this way but it does use failure effectively. If you’re running too fast down a hill for instance you fall and injure yourself. This leads me to a train of thought that games generally should take more inspiration from books than film if they're going to be the longer more personal experiences. Games also require interaction much like a novel does but not film. Another way to put Miasmata's success is that it's quite economical with it's mechanics. Much like a good novel with it's prose. By stripping away what doesn’t work and highlighting what does work it leads to more desired outcomes.

@granderojo

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