Waking up feeling very low and somewhat rough, I decided to polish off a couple of chores and a pile of marking… and then I switched on my Xbox One for the first time in more than a year. After getting the “black screen of doom” and finding no fixes that worked, I opted to restore the whole system to factory settings. It was mildly cathartic, actually.
Let’s be clear: I am not a big fan of computer gaming, and console gaming is pretty usual for me. I played perhaps two days last year – pandemic, lockdowns, and all – and perhaps a similar amount the year before. My usual pattern is turning on the Xbox, running updates for an hour or more, finally getting to play… and getting bored about two hours later. Today it took two hours to get up and running but I did choose something that I played for two more hours.
I was a fan of Tomb Raider back in the day, playing on my first PC not too long after graduating university – yes, Tomb Raider was 1996 and I feel old now I realise that fact. But my wife and I really enjoyed the classic game and the franchise stuck with me, as we collected and played all the games. Until the “Survivor” trilogy arrived…
Having bought and begun to play the first game in the sequence, I had by this point become quite frustrated by the incessant cut-scenes to reinforce the “storytelling” and the need to forage for bits to make kit. I still enjoyed the odd scene where you got to do what made the original game so compelling – namely exploring tombs and solving physical puzzles – but these seemed few and far between.
Still, today I downloaded and installed the Rise of the Tomb Raider and ran around for a bit, sitting patiently through interminable cut-scenes telling me the story and then getting to do fun stuff for a little while in-between. What struck me was the incredible linearity in these kinds of games – the single tunnels linking each scene, the inevitability of key events added to make the game feel more like a movie, and the repeated cycle of dying and coming back to try again – and how this feels so very gamey (yes, I know… it IS a game).
Reflecting, as I am wont to do, I recognised the huge appeal of roleplaying games in the original tabletop format. Certainly the oft-repeated freedom to try anything is a big difference… but I wonder how often we truly take advantage of that fact. Do we opt for tried-and-true set-ups like, “oh, look a bunch of monsters to kill” or, “hey, let’s follow this tunnel to the next room”? Or do we push players through connected cut-scenes designed to deliver them to the next point in the adventure?
I don’t mind clicking my way around a maze and having my reactions tested every time the console tells me to press “X” really quickly… because that’s a pretty mentally unchallenging task, really. It can be relaxing because there are no real stakes: Lara won’t die forever because the console will reload to the last save point. It might get frustrating after the sixth or seventh attempt, but hey… nothing is on the line except the cost of the game. Finishing is optional.
But in roleplaying, I want it to mean more. I can choose to build my own character and I can choose to approach each situation in whichever way seems most reasonable or productive. I am required to think and problem-solve, cooperate with the group, and overcome the challenges all in the face of the possibility of actual death… for my character. There are (generally) no respawns or do-overs in the tabletop arena of roleplaying – you either succeed at your self-determined goals, or your character dies trying. It’s that which draws me back, over and over.
I love to explore. I enjoy delving interesting ancient tombs and seeing what treasures lie within. But I especially enjoy the type of play where, if I fail, there are real consequences for my character. I want to discover the layers of intrigue and history in a place. I am seeking those hidden caches of lore and wonder… and I am grateful that there is no handy button which illuminates the sites of all the cool stuff in the scene. In short, I realist I enjoy my adventure analogue.