Sunday, September 25, 2016

Moments of Catalysis

I remember when parkour wasn't called 'parkour' but 'mucking about', or 'aggravated trespass'.

I remember the late nineties, spending night after night locked in battle with the Maria Doria level of Tomb Raider II, once reaching the ledge at the top of a climb and quite by accident performing a slow and graceful handstand, full of envy for Lara Croft's ability to traverse. It was something lost in the later games, that spatial puzzling, replaced by combat and QTEs and prequelific angst - the lonely joy of getting from one place to another with just the limited toolset of climbs, grabs and jumps, and nobody to rescue you or find your body, was what defined Tomb Raider, and it was perhaps inevitable after the movie came out that this simple joy would be smothered by developers' desperate need to Hollywoodise their games.

Croft was a cipher, and rightly too. The player had to inhabit this avatar, after all: backstory and motivation are a distraction from what every game should be about - the moment. The solving of the puzzle. Hitman went the same way (although may be pulling back again with the recent switch to episodic), GTA did too - games aren't movies, and they don't have to be in order to be respectable.

I wonder what the Assassin's Creed movie is going to be like. I like Fassbender - he can bring gravitas to a papier mache head or a purple-clad mutant, so I doubt he'll come up short - and the sheer weight of lore behind the franchise already rather prevents the movie taking over, but then AC is already halfway between a movie and a soap opera as it is. I haven't played an AC game since Unity, which I sank less than an hour into before I got bored with being tugged along by scripted events, just wanting to start the game already. I hear Syndicate was better, and will try it soon enough.

I remember Mirror's Edge, the flawed but wonderfully brave attempt to bring parkour to the gamer in a way that felt truly immersive, to take that same spatial puzzling that made TR so great and, er, go faster. It was brilliant, but hamstrung by unnecessary combat and unnecessary plot. I didn't get halfway through it, but I enjoyed the moment-by-moment sensation of it enough only to stop when a compulsory fight made it too much hassle.

I was surprised they made another. The moment is so rarely enough to bring a publisher back to put right past mistakes: more usually they think a narrative or a world is compelling and have to fix a flawed implementation (AC1 springs to mind), not the other way round. Mirror's Edge: Catalyst was an anomaly, and while I sincerely doubt they'll make a third I really hope they do.

I picked up ME:C, tried it, hated it and traded it in. Compulsory combat sections, too much plot - it was all the same mistakes all over again. But something made me buy it again a week later and persevere. Once the game stopped dragging me through other people's plots (which even the character of Faith, or at least her voice actor, seemed to resent) and gave me an open world to play with, I found that I could have as many moments as I wished.

It was that same feeling of traversal, the negotiation of space with tools. Run, jump, grab, vault, climb, drop, roll. The same feeling Tomb Raider used to give, the same moment.

Quite against my will, the stringing together of moments became an engagement with the main questline and a week ago I finished it. I'm still mopping up the last couple of sidequests but mostly I'm just enjoying the freedom. The plotline is pretty inoffensive, with good actors making the best of a hackneyed story and thinly-sketched characters. If, as is rumoured, a Mirror's Edge TV series comes to be I shall be very intrigued to see it.

I remember envying Lara, but I never envied Faith her physical abilities: they're more practical than graceful, and something about the first-person perspective makes them seem that bit more achievable. I took up parkour in real life about halfway through the game, and I'm slowly getting the hang of it: mostly it's bruises and blisters and humiliating failure but every now and then you get something right and there's that moment again.

Lara was a cipher, as any good videogame character should be, in order that we may inhabit her without having to be somebody else. With Faith the door swung both ways. Games are not movies and should not try to be, but if the measure of a fictional character is their absorbability, their propensity to cross the membrane of their medium and infiltrate us, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is up there with some of the greatest novels I have read. I've always felt that games are art, when done right: perhaps this is a new measurement of that.

No comments: