Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I'm stuck in "Bullet Hell"



I don't like to write about games before I've finished them unless something really strikes me and I feel like it won't be changed by anything that could happen in the ending. So unless Tomb Raider (2013) ends with some kind of like survivalist brawl where I am foraging for food I think I'll be okay.

Maybe it started with the first Tomb Raider back in 1996 but there is a major problem of scarcity in videogames. I don't mean that games are scare, they just have a problem with the scarity of perhaps one of the most important resources in videogames, bullets. There are too many bullets in too many games. There's just too much ammo in general in too many games. Scarcity is definitely a problem but it's an interesting problem that puts players in interesting situations.



The idea behind the reboot is that this is Lara Croft's first "life threatening" adventure. I say it like that because I can kind of parse that there have been other adventures but not of the life and limb variety. Okay, I can get behind that. Now I'm here in this jungle and I'm supposed to have to survive in this jungle island and find my friends and leave. Okay, got it.

I especially "get it" when the game has me hunt down a deer to eat it because this island is obviously fairly hostile and I was just in a major shipwreck and then impaled. Survival is looking like it's going to be pretty rough. Lara is pretty banged up and I barely have any weapons.

Wait, no, survival only means killing my enemies and a few island creatures and not falling off of anything too high. That's not survival, that's Uncharted.

It's not particularly hard to "survive" by those standards. I've been conditioned on how to do that, taught by countless other games where "survive" doesn't mean anything other that kill the other guys till you get to the checkpoint. I've been here before, it's never been as pretty and rarely is this interesting but I've been in similar places before and I have a sense that I know what to do.

And what I do is headshots, I do them well and I do them often which has lead to the core of what I've been trying to get at, I rarely, if ever, have a "low ammo" situation unless the game scripts it. This is a fairly large and widespread problem throughout videogames and not just Tomb Raider. Suddenly, instead of "surviving" I am shooting every single one of my enemies in the head like an assassin. The game even enables and encourages me to do that by giving me a "headshot reticle" perk and bonus experience points when I do get headshots.

This creates a feedback loop, one system fuels another. The headshots conserve my ammo and allow me to buy upgrades that increase my accuracy and ammo reserves, further conserving my ammo. Even when I'm out numbered I never find the need to use my more ammo heavy weapons like the assault rifle. Or if I just want to speed things up I'll just use my most devastating weapons with little concern that I might need that ammo another time.

Obviously I could turn up the difficulty or play in a different manner. To a certain extent this me wanting the game to suit my needs. However, the game has set me up to believe that my resources will be limited. Even without the reticle assist perk I was a killing machine, often only using one or two of the provided weapons.

It's not a good idea to make players feel helpless, it is a great idea to make them feel desperate, though. Putting them in tough situations with limited resources can reap huge benefits. There is currently no penalty for initiating a huge firefight like there is in other games. By throwing around buzzwords like "survival" I enter in with a different set of expectations. This doesn't mean I don't like the game, I actually REALLY like it, it's just that I want a slightly different experience.

Image the Lara Croft game where you have to manage your non replenishing health by using jungle plants and scavenged supplies. Enemies actively hunt you down and their weapons, while obtainable are in poor condition and prone to breakage and jamming, best to stick with the bow and pistol entrusted to you. Lara is still a skilled explorer but filled with uncertainty and taking a human life takes a toll on her, a statistic hidden in the game that makes her aim shaky or imperfect as she continues to kill and does not replenish until she can return to a camp and rest. Maybe I'll end up theorizing this one later on but for that I would like to finish it.

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