Brief: Mechanical Identity

Hey gang, Gary here.

Whenever a game crystalizes something that's been on the tip of my brain for a while, it's probably worth talking about, at least a little. Just minutes ago, I finished the 2013 Tomb Raider and it got me thinking about mechanical identity. I don't know that this is an accepted term, and I don't pretend that I came up with it, but it's worth explaining what this is because I expect it's going to enter my vocabulary in a big bad way.

What I mean by mechanical identity is the way a game can express its vision mechanically in a unique way. What makes this game this game and not a skeleton for whatever skin you wanted.

For example: Mega Man is Mega Man, because you go through stages themed around gimmick bosses and then take that bosses power, creating a huge, complicated game of paper, rock, scissors, stapler, paperweight, inbox, etc, etc. You could take the Mega Man engine and make a Full House game (please do this) but it'd require ridiculous stretches to narratively justify.

Despite a lot of Isaac-likes, The Binding of Isaac is the Binding of Isaac because of the way that each run creates a new verb set and avatar for the player, in nearly endless permutations. There are other games that do similar things, but not quite like this.

I guess a good way to explain this is: what makes this game unique other than its narrative/theming/aesthetics?

The answer for TR2013 is absolutely nothing. The answer for a lot of modern games is nothing, actually. What am I describing:

Over the shoulder action game where gameplay segments are broken up into pathfinding/exploration, light stealth, combat and narrative. These four elements very rarely intersect. Your character gains experience and collects doodads throughout their quest to upgrade themselves and their equipment.

The Last of Us? Tomb Raider? Far Cry? Resident Evil 4? Uncharted? Watch Dogs? (fuck me if I'm putting that underscore in there).

My point isn't that these games are exactly the same but that they don't have as strong a sense of mechanical identity as games with a unique hook or unique core mechanic. There are little differences (hacking in Watch Dogs, inventory in RE4) but by and large, they're almost variations of Video Game the Video Game.

It actually reminds me a lot of the Pathfinder Monstrous Manual system, where they give you a baseline orc and you applies modifyers to it. Run Uncharted through the Combat Emphasis modifyer to get Tomb Raider. Run it through the Sadness Modifyer to get The Last of Us.

A poor sense of mechanical identity doesn't mean a game is bad. RE4 is one of my favorite games of all time and I loved The Last of Us. But it does mean that those other elements, aesthetics, narrative, theming, had better be rock fucking solid. This is where TR2013 falls down into a chasm into a loading screen.

It's shooting fish in a barrel to make fun of TR2013's characters or story because both are absolute nonsense. The game is constantly trying to get us to care about Lara's gang of dipshits like she does, despite the fact that only four of them are remotely sketched out. They exist to be in peril and the player can pick up on that instinctively.

The narrative is also one of the worst I've played through. The tale of an evil island, a goofy cult, and ancient japanese golem monsters is laughable. You could have a campy romp with those elements but TR2013 doesn't want to be campy. It wants to be a serious story. It doesn't work at all.

The place where TR2013 actually tries (and fails) is in theming. The game is meant to be about survival, about overcoming adversity. Lara starts out as an everywoman and ends as an invincible killing machine. The island is hostile and she is fragile. This doesn't work for two reasons:

First, the player never experiences what Lara does. It's never mechanically different, despite what's happening on screen. Am I doing amazing rock climbing and fighting super Oni? Well, that's just a few timed button presses. Am I nearly dead, climbing up a helicopter, praying for there to be a first aid kit? That's just a few timed button presses too. Your play is never impacted by the narrative. Like, ever.

The other way this falls is in terms of extremes. The amount of abuse Lara takes is absolutely silly and superhuman. The degree to which she becomes a terminator is silly and superhuman. You can't have a game about fragility where your character shrugs off getting impaled with rebars, falling down a dozen cliffs, getting shot hundreds of times (if not thousands). You can't have a game about humanity in the face of adversity when your character can mow down hundreds of men and monsters without blinking an eye. The ridiculous punishment, power, and ultimately, the ridiculous bodycount, undermine everything this game is trying to do. The one thing this game wants to be about (the villain screams it at the end), isn't supported by any other part of this game.

This isn't to discount the myriad other flaws. I particularly hate the way the game is very cleanly divided into "stealth now" sections and "fight now" sections. There is no bleed between any of its gameplay modes and that's really transparent. "Oh, I'm in a tomb. Lara has put away her bow and looked a pully. Must be time for an environmental puzzle."

But the noteworthy thing is how the game doesn't support itself. Very little mechanical identity to be found here. It's the Hans Zimmer singularity for games and it fucking sucks. When people ask why I'm unplugged from AAA gaming, this is why.