Whenever I hear someone talking about the great old days of games, back when the designers would just chuck you right into the middle of it all (“Getting stuck on a puzzle?” I once heard Tim Schafer say, “We used to call that content“), I think of one game that did just this, and very literally. About a third of the way into Tomb Raider 2, Lara Croft goes for a short ride on a submarine. The ride is short because the submarine crashes or explodes or something wretched and annoying like that. Anyway, the cutscene ends ambiguously and then the next level begins and…well, total darkness. Or just about. You’re floating at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by shadows and water and not much else. There is, initially at least, very little suggestion of where to go. My sense, upon first encountering this level, was that the game had broken itself in a very unusual way: it had broken itself in that the setting had survived but the game had somehow run out of narrative to fill it with. It was like the designers had downed tools and backed away.
I died and died and died at the bottom of the ocean. But then I started to experiment. Eventually I found a series of oil drums or whatnot on the seafloor – a guide of sorts. I followed the trail and – after dying and repeating a few more times – I was inside a sunken ship, enjoying a handy pocket of air. This sequence sounds awful, probably, but it was brilliant. Weirdly, it is probably my favourite moment of all Tomb Raider moments.
The idea that games used to be better when they were harder and more obscure is one of the more annoying conversational gambits out there. The terms are vague – there are so many ways for a game to be hard, not all of them intentional or laudable – and I don’t think I agree with the premise in the first place. But there is one series where I think it’s absolutely true, for me at least. I really miss getting incredibly stuck in Tomb Raider.
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