Over this New Year’s period I played two games, unintentionally experiencing two very connected experiences. With Square Enix revealing a third instalment in the Tomb Raider reboot series during the holidays, and Camp Santo similarly announcing their new game In The Valley Of The Gods, I was playing both of their first entries in this field, Tomb Raider (2013) and Firewatch (2016). Though I had just been looking for some adventure to get me through a lonely New Year’s, when I looked closer at both I saw more than a few things drawing the titles together, not least their shared obsession with fire.
For a game called Firewatch, the amount of time spent watching fires is surprisingly minimal, and is about relative to how long you spend raiding tombs in Tomb Raider. However, while Firewatch has you avoiding and preventing the flames, Tomb Raider centres around a story and environment which actively encourage pyromania, as you burn a path across a mysterious Pacific island. These divergent attitudes are tied to the main difference I found between the two – the way a connection is forged between player, story and avatar.
Games of Discovery
Discussing differences would be nothing without establishing the similarities that make the games worthy of comparison in the first place. Both will have you exploring dense forests and caves, walkie-talkie and rope to hand, as you uncover documents and items pointing to a deep, dangerous mystery hidden somewhere close by. As you uncover more and more, your safety and the safety of those you know is threatened, but like anyone caught in a web of mystery, you have to keep digging before finally making that final daring escape.
Aside from the set-up of a hidden mystery in a constrained outdoor area, the key similarity in both is their discovery mechanic, allowing objects and texts to carry the backstory.
Both games try to be as much stories about their characters as they are about the exploration and mystery of a location. For Tomb Raider this move seems to be all about re-inventing and shifting perceptions about Lara Croft. Understandably, and rightfully, in this game Lara Croft is given more of a believable personality and background than ever before, making her original breast oriented incarnations look like badly written fan fiction. But the game is also layered with a deep history, relating to the island of Yamatai, home of the legendary Himiko, Sun Goddess, that has you and the rest of a documentary crew shipwrecked on the island in the first place. Through the stories of the people who have been trapped on this island and the objects they left behind, from ancient times, through WWII, up to today, you learn the truth about the storms that are preventing your escape. These are told through sets of collectables, journal entries, artefacts, even the diaries of your crewmates, as well as a video camera with footage from before your stranding, giving a deeper insight into the personalities tied up in the island’s mystery. It’s a design move that makes collection of hidden artefacts more than just about percentage completion, though treasure maps and percentages are still there as a halfway house.
Firewatch does away with such allowances, and has you tied to a journey that gives you the opportunity to discover its secrets without making an explicit in-game completion task of it. The personality of Firewatch and its story revolving around a lookout in Shoshone National park and missing persons in the area, which conjured up thoughts of the X-Files as I played, is in the way its documents and objects are, at least in the first two thirds of the game much more down to earth than Tomb Raider’s ephemera. For instance, notes between two park rangers, an old sweatshirt and cap, kiddish drawings all hold meaning, one that is not so obvious as the idea that the legends of Himiko are actually true. Firewatch contains the red herrings and misdirection that Tomb Raider misses out on because of the franchise’s essential elements.
But, both make use of this collection system to give us non-playable characters who are more than just sketched outlines, but have themselves left traces in the environment.
Another personalising touch I found especially effective was the way Tomb Raider gives individual enemy groupings personality by scripting dialogues for the guards to have as they search the island for you. This little touch gave the inevitable shootouts a bit more weight than enemy passages in similar games, rival extreme archaeology series Uncharted for instance
Games of Differing Perspectives
Though both games take steps to make their characters into believable participants in the journey towards the end, the key difference comes in our point of view as players. There is a reason that in Firewatch even a thin smoke trail can make you jumpy, while Tomb Raider has you leaping around lighting people on fire with napalm tipped arrows. While Lara Croft is an avatar viewed in third person, Firewatch tells the entire story through first person perspective. In neither game can you switch between camera angles and get a different POV – you are made to see Lara Croft as puppet in a very dangerous play, while Henry becomes your lens for the world. Unsurprisingly this means that for Henry fire is never the game mechanic that it becomes in Lara’s world, since that stuff burns.
Despite more freedom in the pyromancy and weapons department, there’s no deciding Lara’s backstory and ultimately no deciding her fate. Although you can choose to find out more or less about the others, their reactions are also no different for any player of the game. This means that in every instance you are given the same image of pain as the ultimate enforcer of development in a person.
Since Lara’s journey is one of a true hero, fittingly there is little reserve to the kinds of torment that the third-person ragdoll can endure on this journey towards becoming the eponymous Tomb Raider.
In an adventure strung together with set pieces reminiscent of all the best in the previously mentioned Uncharted series, Tomb Raider manages to inflict a great deal of physical and emotional pain on Lara Croft. Unlike Nathan Drake’s lovable rogue character though, it doesn’t take another person to make this born hero realise that the people getting hurt around her are not expendable assets (providing they’re one of the good guys of course). So, though there is some emotional leverage placed on Lara by her crew, several times it is made clear that the things happening are soul and gut wrenchingly painful to Lara in herself. Cue scenes of intense shivering, self-sterilising wounds and being strung up more than once in a room full of butchered bodies.
This is also elucidated through the many brutal death scenes that play when you muck up one of the unfortunately frequent quicktime events in the game. Lara will be viscerally crushed, impaled and mauled as she makes her way valiantly to the true end state of the game. I can’t tell whether this was another attempt at the authenticity layered throughout, trying to make out Lara’s strength, or if it is perhaps a cruel, subconscious way of making a character designed as a sexual fantasy work through a torture porn theme-park for their ‘real’ hero status.
For a discussion of the flipside of this, when water is not dangerous enough, see ‘Submerged, and the fear of death’.
Firewatch’s Henry also faces pain, but it’s of a type more relatable to the average player than being crushed by an ageless Japanese warrior guard. From the start you are in charge of Henry’s choices, moulding his life pre-1989, a personality building profile of scenarios similar to the one at the beginning of the recently discussed Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. However, in this case the choices have a long-lasting effect on what Henry confesses about it all through the walkie-talkie to Delilah, chief watchtower lookout, who you only ever meet over the airwaves. Despite this distance, some honest and inspired dialogue endears Delilah to you as the key voice in your guard duty of the trees of the National Park. The walkie-talkie, aside from in essential scenes, is optional, and you can choose to report on what you find to Delilah, getting as much or little detail on elements of the main story as you want. Each of your responses has a timer, giving you seconds to decide how to react to Delilah’s questions, and this makes the interaction between the player and Delilah a personalised storytelling conduit based not on tactics but on instinct. This mechanic is, I feel, the reason that Firewatch tells a much more moving reflection on loss and survival than Tomb Raider, since the story told is defined by the person you are, not who Henry or Delilah is, but who the player is.
While Tomb Raider did give me a few moments of Hollywood-style shock and awe and a new-found respect for Lara Croft, we all know that this was the height of the emotional reaction intended by the game, and it does a good enough job of making something new out of a badass inspirational character previously hampered by her origins. For the real display of character development, Firewatch’s honest, nuanced writing, which gets the player involved in the moral and instinctive choices that make up Henry and Delilah’s relationship, is the more captivating. An exciting, suspense filled first person mystery is a lot to ask of even the most respected in the ‘walking simulator’ genre, but Firewatch provides that, alongside a story that by the end of the game had me in tears. It will be first up in the sequel to Games that made me cry 2017 at the end of the year.
So, with my interest peaked in both, here’s to Shadow of the Tomb Raider and In The Valley Of The Gods!