October 21, 2011

Turning Points

The following originally appeared as part of InRaiderSpect, a special podcast series produced by the crew of InRetroSpect Podcast. I especially enjoyed this segment, Part III, titled "Turning Points." Its creator, Strider, has kindly allowed me to publish a print version here. I highly recommend listening to the original audio, as well as the other four parts in the series. It's wonderfully entertaining, informative and well produced.

InRaiderSpect Part III: Turning Points

So I was playing Tomb Raider II. In Venice. Bartoli's Hideout. I think I was about half-way through the level. And I remember entering one of the buildings they've got there, and I remember walking through, and on my right I could hear this repetitive mechanical sound. And I looked around and there was no indication of what was making this sound, but it seemed so familiar. And then I remembered that actually what it was, was a trap that I had previously sort of survived what seemed to be miles back in the level, and it was just the other side of this wall. And suddenly I had to re-orientate myself because it seemed so far away, it didn't seem like it was this close to me. And then I realised that this Tomb Raider level and indeed the Tomb Raider levels were just this complex back and forth sort of spiral I suppose, kind of like a maze or a labyrinth. Often at times you can either see or hear echoes or images of places you have been or have got to get to, and that something so close was actually in reality so far away.

A famous explorer once said that
"The extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are."

Hello there, my name is Strider and this is Digital Wanderlust, a show from InRetroSpect Podcast that seeks to shift our understanding of the gaming landscape through psycho­geography. This is the third episode of our InRaiderSpect special in which I will be examining an aspect of the Tomb Raider series that I feel warrants more of a detailed exploration.

I like many was blown away by the E3 trailer for Tomb Raider, the next chapter in the series, to be released in 2012. What particularly interested me though was the trailer's title: Turning Point. Now this suggests many things for me that go beyond that of the aforementioned game. For a turning point is defined as:

A time at which a decisive change in a situation occurs. Especially one with beneficial results.

It asks one question: to carry on or turn back?

For a young Lara in the trailer, her turning point is what sets her on her path to self-discovery, yet a turning point does not necessarily have to be something so epic.

In this show I want to illustrate how this simple question takes on many forms in the Tomb Raider series, and indeed life itself. For I wish to argue that turning back is not a bad thing, and indeed is paramount to Tomb Raider's continued success.

Still from the Tomb Raider 'Turning Point' trailer

The "famous explorer" Lara mentions at the beginning of the trailer was Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest in the Himalayas, in 1953. For Tomb Raider fans will know that in the original series it was a plane crash in the Himalayas that was Lara's original 'turning point', which is now being rewritten for this next chapter in the series as a shipwreck. Hillary's expedition relates well to this notion of a turning point. Because for those who are familiar with mountain climbing of extreme altitudes, there is a need to repeatedly turn round and retrace your steps, in order to press on. This is so that the body itself can continually acclimatise to the changes in air pressure. This means that in effect you are walking a much longer distance than it would appear. It's two steps forward and one step back, but by doing this you stay alive.

I'd finally set out to make my mark, to find adventure.
But instead, adventure found me.

In the Tomb Raider series, we often have to turn back to go on. This may be as complicated as retracing our steps significantly to flick a switch, or it may be as simple as creating enough space to take a run up to jump farther. In the original games of course (all the way up to Angel of Darkness) there was a handy feature to aid this, in which a press of a button would allow Lara to roll and turn 180 degrees. This allowed for some speedy changes of direction when under a time limit, allowing you to make your mark quickly.

Turning point can also refer to the climax of a narrative in which events come to a head. The word 'climax' comes from ancient Greek for staircase or ladder—a physical manifestation of an upward change in direction of a story. At this moment everything is unveiled, the hero faces the villain or has an epiphany. This is where they make their 'mark'. In a Tomb Raider level each rung on a ladder takes you closer and closer to the climax—which may only be the opening of a door—which some may view as an anti-climax. As for the games as a whole it is often a final confrontation with a boss. In the first episode of InRaiderSpect we discussed the moment towards the end of Tomb Raider Anniversary when Lara kills a man in cold blood. This is an example of such a turning point and having done this, she can never go back. Yet I have never really cared for such turning points, as for me Tomb Raider isn't about boss battles or explosions. I don't really have an impetus to find out about Ms. Croft—perhaps with the exception of this latest trailer. The turning points I care about are in the levels themselves—in their very construction.

In our darkest moments…

Imagine a piece of string or thread. The start is where you begin the level, the end is where you finish it. If this was an actual path, it would be pretty simple, and if it was a narrative it would be pretty monotonous. To make a good story we'd have to put a few twists in it—some turning points, a few highs and lows, all building to a climax—making sure that it isn't too knotted. The shape we would be left with would be similar to a map of a good Tomb Raider level, in which highs and lows become platforms and pools, twists in a story would become actual physical twists and a climax would be the opening of a door or passage to the next level. I have never really needed a story to be imposed when playing these games, as the levels themselves tell me all I need to know.

Seven-ring classical labyrinth of unknown age in Rocky Valley near Tintagel, Cornwall, UK

There is an already existing architectural model that relates to such a design—that of the labyrinth. Now for the uninitiated there is a difference between a maze and a labyrinth. A maze has multiple ways in which to reach the centre, a labyrinth only one. According to an article from Skyler Miller at Gamespot, the first puzzle video game was that of Amazing Maze in 1976. As Miller says:

While this early arcade game from Midway looks like it has more in common with Pac-Man than it does with Tetris, it is notable because it is based on one of the oldest traditional puzzles: the maze. Without any enemies or weapons, your goal is to reach each maze's exit before your human or computer opponent does. That's it. There aren't any ghosts, aliens, or spaceships to stand in your way. It's just your brain against the maze.

Amazing Maze screenshot

One of the clever qualities of Tomb Raider lies in the fact that each level is a labyrinth masquerading as a maze. At times you think there is more than one way of reaching the end, yet in reality there is only one. Partly such a mechanic allows the game developers to cheat a bit as it is giving the player the illusion of going beyond the limitations of what the console or PC can allow. In the original Tomb Raider games at the end of each level it would notify you as to how many kilometres you had travelled, however this would mostly take place in a much smaller area of space in which you backtrack back and forth and up and down within a compressed area. Just look at the maps of the original game levels and you will see how tightly bound the gaming route is.

Tomb Raider II level stats screen

In later games they had the technology to make the gaming a lot more linear reducing the need for backtracking, and in the next instalment it has been stated that this will be reduced even more. This in my opinion although removing the sense of repetition, made the completion of such titles less rewarding. Remember Edmund Hillary and his backtracking up Everest. We need to toil away, to hit dead ends, so that we can turn around changed when we find the right path that takes us onwards.

…when life flashes before us…

Theseus and AriadneTheseus and AriadneTheseus and AriadneTheseus and AriadneIn Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a mythical creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Theseus was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a skein of thread to follow. The clumps of thread Theseus reached for were clews of thread—and this is where we get the term 'clue' or clues in mystery solving. In Tomb Raider, there is not a magical thread for Lara to follow, unless it is that of a walkthrough. Instead it is about navigating the labyrinth with brains and brawn. This is what keeps us going, the desire to unravel a mystery, whether it be knowing what is around the next corner or solving a puzzle.

…we find something,…

In his book The Puzzle Instinct, Marcel Danesi states that:

Throughout the ancient world, puzzles were associated with portentous challenges and events. This association was given physical expression in the form of buildings known as labyrinths, which were, in effect, architectural intelligence tests. Finding one's way through their intricate, intertwining passages was considered not only a test of astuteness, but also a way of metaphorically finding the path to enlightenment and true knowledge.

Minotaur in Labyrinth—a Roman mosaic at Conímbriga, Portugal.

The Greeks had labyrinths, so did the Romans, the Egyptians, the English and many other civilizations. It is not just a novel means of physically getting from A to B, but has strong psychological and indeed spiritual implications. It presents a desire to know something hidden, but feel worthy enough to find it. In some medieval churches labyrinths on the church floors were viewed by some such as walking historian Rebecca Solnit, as compressed pilgrimages in which one feels the weight of a long journey in a small space. It may be an illusion, but the labyrinth is the model that all explorers wish to follow—and in Tomb Raider this is no exception.

The Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

Yet the labyrinthine levels of Tomb Raider are not like the mazes at Hampton Court or indeed Croft Manor. They combine puzzles with perils, allowing for the labyrinth to constantly shift as you play. This is an intellectual and indeed physical test, explored in three dimensions, a rite of passage that takes you further than the previous explorers before you. For to solve a labyrinth is to find order within chaos, and we human beings find this pleasant as it creates harmony. This is why most of the Tomb Raider games involve the joining together of scattered artifacts from across the globe: The Scion of Atlantis, the four Meteorite stones, the pieces of Horus' armour, the five paintings, the sword fragments, Thor's gauntlet and hammer. It is not just about finding the correct route, it is also about procuring items on the way to take with you and prove that you did it. To take them onwards, to complete their journey as well as your own.

…something that keeps us going…

This desire to bring separated items together, also reverberates within the levels themselves through the use of puzzles. All the variety of puzzle types exist in Tomb Raider. The mechanical, the lateral, the mathematical, the dextrous. Dead ends become doorways, doorways become dead ends. It is not about plotting your route through an existing labyrinth but constantly recalibrating your mental mapping of a changing one. Each switch, lever and valve is a turning point, one which alters our path.

…something that pushes us.

For if we step back and look at the series as a whole, it is possible to see how the pervading question—to carry on or turn back?—has been answered by the developers. Sometimes there was a lot of backtracking into previous games for ideas that have been maintained in subsequent games. Tomb Raider II backtracked completely into the original, Tomb Raider III branched out into more vehicles and weapons giving you the opportunity to dictate the order of events, Tomb Raider IV took us back to Egypt and gave Lara a back story, Tomb Raider Chronicles was a eulogy—in which turning points of Lara's life are commemorated, Angel of Darkness tried to be more stealthy yet continued with Lara's own personal history, Tomb Raider Legend went back to the originals and made them arcadey with a new backstory, Anniversary backtracked completely but became more personal and Underworld went too far ahead. Where will the next Tomb Raider sit? Will it go back to the originals or will it find a new route through the labyrinth of video game creation?

For you see, the next Tomb Raider game is a turning point, but it is not the turning point. As I've illustrated here, a turning point is not just a new game, on a different console. It is merely the raising of one question: to turn back or carry on? To race to the top and run out of breath or take a step back and catch it?, to make a jump or to take a run up?, to enter the doorway or flick the switch first?, to run into the labyrinth or wait and look for clues?.

Tomb Raider II screenshot

Sometimes we haven't got time to think, because the Minotaur is gaining on us. Sometimes there isn't a choice. Yet some moments in life—big and small—that appear to only have one course of action, are turning points. The Tomb Raider series teaches us one important lesson that sometimes to continue we have to turn back and that sometimes the shortest distance requires the longest walk. For you see that if in the next game, Lara had not been shipwrecked, she would have missed out on all the pain of dislocating her arm, of being without food and drink. But she would also have missed out on discovering her very self—her own personal labyrinth. For we all know what is waiting for her at the centre.

When all seemed lost, I found a truth…

Her destiny. To be an explorer, an archaeologist, a solver of ancient mysteries.

…and I knew what I must become.

A Tomb Raider.

And then I realised that this Tomb Raider level and indeed the Tomb Raider levels were just this complex back and forth sort of spiral I suppose, kind of like a maze or a labyrinth. Often at times you can either see or hear echoes or images of places you have been or have got to get to, and that something so close was actually in reality so far away.

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Well that concludes this very special episode of Digital Wanderlust. Now we find ourselves at another turning point, for if you haven't heard the previous shows in this series, I suggest you back track and listen to them. If you have though, carry on to next week where you can hear another episode that looks at the Tomb Raider series differently. As a label, we're always happy to hear people's views on the shows and there are several ways in which you can do this. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@inretweetspect and @DigitalStrider), rate us on iTunes, or if you want you can leaves us a message on our site at inretrospectpodcast.com.

Anyways, I've been Strider and this has been Digital Wanderlust. Take care and happy tomb raiding.

Strider is the nom de net of Dr. Kris Darby. He produces a monthly podcast for InRetroSpect Podcast looking at the psychogeography of level design. He has been a Tomb Raider fan since the beginning.

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Image credits: InRaiderSpect header - InRetroSpect. Tomb Raider "Turning Point" and Tomb Raider II screenshots - Square Enix, Ltd. Amazing Maze screenshot - Midway Games via gamesdbase.com. Theseus and Ariadne - public domain. Classical labyrinth of unknown age in Rocky Valley near Tintagel, Cornwall, UK; Minotaur in labyrinth Roman mosaic at Conímbriga, Portugal; Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in Chartres, France - Wikipedia.


  1. I enjoyed reading this
    it was informative and intriguing

  2. very interesting. i like the whole different perspective thing going on here.

  3. What an amazing article! It's so great to see some intelligent video game coverage. Stella, thanks for posting this! And, Strider, you've totally sussed the appeal of the classic games. If only the developers of the new games put as much thought into the psychology of their level maps as they do into the graphics.... Anyway, I'm off to listen to the whole podcast series now. Cheers!

  4. Awesome :=) Can't wait