"We're teaching the player that cloth is flammable," says game developer Darrell Gallagher, as Lara Croft sets herself on fire, screaming in agony.
The new Tomb Raider game from Square Enix opens on a quite striking and rather unsettling scene: Our adventuring heroine wakes up in a dimly lit cave, suspended upside-down and wrapped in a cocoon of dingy white cloth. You can swing her back and forth, and the only way to get her down is to set her on fire so the cloth burns and she plummets to earth.
By the time I finally got to watch this E3 demo for the upcoming Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game at a press event last month, I'd already read two previews in print magazines describing the entire thing in vivid detail. So, I gather, had most of the other writers in the room. So we perhaps weren't as impressed as we might have been had we known nothing of the continuing adventures of Lara Croft, the former most interesting character in all of videogames. In her heyday, Douglas Copeland wrote a book about her; now she's something of a relic.
In what it calls a reboot of the series, developer Crystal Dynamics is turning the focus in on Lara's character, showing her in her pre-superstar days, as a girl in a tough situation just trying to survive.
So Lara's cringe-inducing travails, in which she also gets impaled by a spike and has to pull it out of her abdomen, didn't really surprise me. What did strike me about the Tomb Raider demo was the connection between the tomb and the raider. One of the things that videogames don't do especially well is interaction between characters and scenery. Collision detection is a real pain in the ass, a complex series of mathematical relationships that gets infinitely more tangled as graphics get more detailed.
What usually results is something like marionette theater; a superdetailed videogame character walks through a superdetailed level and bounces off the walls like everyone was made of wooden blocks.
So when Gallagher says that his studio, Crystal Dynamics, is trying to make you feel like Lara is "attached" to the enviroment, you can see what he means. As Lara stumbles through the cave, she might put her hand on the wall to steady herself. As she crouches down behind a few slats of wood, she curls her hand up and over them. These may all be carefully scripted and deliberately animated moments, but there's something organic about the way Lara navigates the terrain and interacts with the things around her.
Like you've never seen her before.The first bit of the demo consists of many quick time events, cinematic scenes where you have to press the button shown on the screen or die. Press X rapidly to extricate the foreign object from Lara's ribs! Tap the left stick now to avoid a falling boulder! In many of these scenes, the camera comes in very close on Lara, so you can really look at her facial expressions and identify with her predicament.
Things open up when Lara comes upon a puzzle. She must set some exploding barrels on fire to clear a path, but there's a waterfall blocking the way that douses any fire. So there's some complicated Rube Goldberg machine that she can use to send some barrels around the waterfall.
If this stumps you (and it really shouldn't), you can use Lara's "survival instincts." Very much like Detective Mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum, this setting highlights all the things around Lara that might somehow be useful. The puzzles, Gallagher says, will revolve around simple elements of physics: mass, fire, water and buoyancy.
The demo's second half takes place later in the game, once Lara has found another survivor. The world structure opens up at this point: Gallagher points out some mountains in the distance and says you'll be able to climb them with no interstitial loading times in between; everything, he says, will be streamed fluidly.