Tomb Raider has been criticized for being exploitative in its depiction of violence towards Lara. It’s a valid criticism, but whenever it’s made, there are two death scenes in particular that are always used as examples: The scene when Lara is impaled through the chest by a tree branch while parachuting and the one when she is impaled through the neck by a metal spike while being carried along on a river. There are other horrible ways to die, but those are rarely discussed: She’s also crushed by a boulder, mauled by wolves, shot through the neck with an arrow, or perhaps the worst one, she falls into the ocean and hits her head on a rock and drowns while unconscious. With all the horrible ways to die, why are the impalings singled out as gratuitous or exploitative? I think that it has less to do with their content and more to do with their context.
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A couple weeks ago I wrote about how breakable weapons in Silent Hill: Downpour allowed players to feel vulnerable without making them weak, but the game evokes horror in other ways as well. In particular, through its smart level design (“The Combative Horror of Silent Hill: Downpour”, PopMatters, 7 June 2013).
As I wrote in my post about Journey, I love the contradictory nature of video games, their use of cold hard programming logic to create an emotional reaction that’s not logical at all. It’s a wonderful contradiction, and I’m always amazed when a game gets it right. As such, I love breaking games down into their mechanics. I love tinkering with their systems in order to better understand how this process works.
I couldn’t do this with Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I’ve tried playing the game again. I’ve tried breaking it down to its core components. I’ve tried to analyze it from a distance to figure out how it’s able to so effectively hook my emotions, but I can’t break it. Every time I try to replay an episode, I am drawn to the same choices that I made before. They felt so right, both morally and logically, that to make another choice was to betray myself.
There’s a pervading school of thought in gaming that says good combat is an anathema to good horror. In other words, having a character that’s capable with a weapon automatically makes a game less scary. After all, horror is about being vulnerable, and we can’t feel vulnerable if we can slice our enemies into pieces. But I think games often mistake vulnerability for weakness, that a character must be physically weak for us to feel in danger. Weakness does result in vulnerability, but feeling vulnerable doesn’t have to stem from physical weakness. There’s a way to make combat fun while still making it tense and terrifying. Silent Hill: Downpour finds a solution that seems so obvious in retrospect I’m shocked no one has done it before: breakable weapons.
Monaco is a great cooperative game and a great single-player game. That combination is sadly rare, but Monaco balances both playstyles with ease. It’s all thanks to the exceptional level design and how the game presents the player with obstacles.