In its second year, the TriBeCa Games Festival—tacked on to the end of the TriBeCa Film Festival—featured a night of panel discussions with digital storytellers, which featured Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s development team from Eidos Montréal and its motion-capture actor Camilla Luddington, followed by God of War‘s creator and actors from the 2018 edition of the game. Both of these games have archaeology in them and visit locations new to each franchise, so I went with the hope that the panels would at least mention the reasons behind the new settings and perhaps dive a little into archaeology and cultural heritage, things that play strongly in both franchises.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
200 ticket-holders lined up in the mist outside the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Performing Arts Center without a single cosplayer, which surprised me. We were about to be treated to the world premiere of 20 minutes of gameplay from the new Tomb Raider game, and as such had to lock up our phones. There are no video clips or photos to share. The 45-minute event began with the new Shadow of the Tomb Raider trailer, which dropped on April 2017. You can read about it over at The Archaeology of Tomb Raider. This is the end of Lara Croft’s origin story begun with the reboot of the series in 2013. In the trailer, Croft asks herself, “what will I become?”
Daniel Chayer-Bisson, senior game director, provided some opening remarks, stating that while this was the end of the origin story, this is not the end of the franchise. After Shadow, Croft will be where she was back in 1996’s original game. Chayer-Bisson explained the arc of Croft through Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider as watching her come into her own, moving from vulnerability to confidence. In the first game she had to learn how to survive. In the second, she needed to “raid some tombs,” ready to go into the unknown to learn about her father. In Shadow, Croft needs to make a terrible choice, one that sends her into the heart of the story of the forecast Maya apocalypse and how she precipitates it. She faces the consequences of her actions and becomes an anti-hero because of it. The game turns Croft into a more complex character, one who makes mistakes because of her ambition and her family history. The game’s nemesis, Dr. Dominguez, is a Latin American archaeologist working for the evil Trinity group, but his character, like Croft’s, is also gray and complicated.
The 20 minutes of gameplay edited together roughly the first hour of the game, placing Croft and her colleague Jonah in Cozumel, Mexico, during the Day of the Dead Festival. Dr. Dominguez makes his appearance with Trinity’s thugs, and Jonah states that he is an expert on pre-Colonial ruins. In a display of Mayan site-reading, Croft interprets glyphs in photographs that she has collected (while explaining how she arrived at these linguistic conclusions), and determines that Trinty are digging in the wrong place (which sounds like a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark). Croft will send the game to Peru, but not before stopping off in Brazil. In Mexico, Trinity are looking for a key and a box, artifacts with information on where to go next, allowing access to what they find.
Croft, driven by her need to stop Trinity at all costs (if you played Rise you know why…), pushes her way through families communing with the dead, ultimately ending up at the Trinity dig site, finding her way by reading Mayan glyphs as she travels. Her goals include stopping the excavation and exploring the ruins of a Maya underground temple. Here Croft can finally swim underwater, and now has a rapelling mechanic to and some complexity to her ropework.
In this extended preview, Croft speaks archaeologically, finds her way to some ruins, solves a jumping/climbing puzzle to enter them, and manages to kill at least 10 Trinity soldiers without a second thought, saving Dominguez in the process. The game is gorgeously produced, and amplifies everything about the earlier TR games for better or for worse. Croft has become hardened both physically and emotionally, and is at the top of her academic game. She’s unstoppable, and that inertia is what drives her to the breaking point teetering on the edge of obsession.
Following the preview, Chayer-Bisson was joined by Luddington, Jill Murray (lead writer), and Rich Briggs (senior brand director), moderated by Geoff Keighley. Luddington stated that Shadow is her favorite TR game of the three that she has done, both in the story content as well as in the emotional and physical demands of the role. Briggs noted that in Shadow, the story arc is a dark one, always descending. “We’re going into a culture that worshipped fear,” he said, referring to the team’s interpretation of Maya myth, legend, and lore. Croft follows the classic hero’s journey, which includes surviving a trip to the underworld.
Most of the 15-minute discussion focused on gameplay mechanics. Croft uses stealth much more than in previous games, and taking a page from Assassin’s Creed, players are encouraged to use the environment as an offensive weapon. Shadow also follows the current trend of putting Croft in a somewhat open world to encourage non-linear exploration, yet focuses on various set pieces throughout the game.
I found it interesting that archaeology was not discussed at all (or even mentioned), nor was looting/raiding other than there are tombs to be raided and collectibles to be found. No mention was made of the Maya themselves, their art and culture, and their cultural appropriation at the hands of Eidos. I was curious to learn why the writers decided to turn to Mexico and South America for this story, and to revisit the tropes of object-oriented magic and the end-of-the-world. Archaeology is present, but again only as a reason for the characters to inhabit the game and to propel the narrative. As an archaeologist, I’d love to be able to follow clues to some kind of ultimate destination, and to find magical artifacts. But that’s not what archaeology is or how it works, and the game seems to appropriate the trappings of archaeology just as it selectively chooses to extract and amplify human sacrifice at the expense of the rest of Maya history. At least that’s the impression I got from what I saw. The game (and series) is about Croft’s character, and in the final installment of the origin trilogy, her character is measured. I’m curious to see what her ethical conflicts will be.
God of War
Following immediately after the Tomb Raider panel came “Re-Imagining God of War: The Inside Story.” Moderated by Chelsea Stark (Managing Editor at Polygon), guests included the writer/director Cory Barlog along with actors Christopher Judge (Kratos), Jeremy Davies (Baldur), and Daniell Bisutti (Freya). After the game’s trailer, Barlog talked about returning to God of War after taking time off from the series. He’d become a father himself and now had a story to tell in resurrecting the character and the franchise. Universally hailed as a masterpiece in modern game-making and storytelling God of War brings humanity into the story adding depth and complexity to Kratos and his own young son. “Games are made by human beings,” Barlog said, and that human touch is very much present in the game. Speaking as a creator, Barlog said “I make games for other people to enjoy.” He doesn’t make the games for himself, but to share. This meshes with my idea that video games are archaeological sites, made by people for other people to inhabit.
Most of the panel discussion was confined to understanding the acting process, and talking about performance and working together as a cast directed by Barlog. As with the Tomb Raider panel, no archaeology or cultural heritage was discussed within the game, but the discussion inadvertantly turned archaeological when discussing preparation for the 5-year odyssey that the new God of War development cycle would become. Although Judge did not preview older God of War titles prior to auditioning for the role of Kratos, he did return to earlier editions of the game to learn more about the character and the world. Bisutti drew upon her love of Labyrinth and Clash of the Titans and modern fantasies including Game of Thrones (which she thought she was reading for during the casting process). Media culture and touchstones informed the acting as a kind of supporting material culture, adding vocabulary to the project at hand.
Speaking of material culture, part of the archaeology of a game is not what is contained within it, but rather the external machinery used to make the games habitable. In this case we see mo-cap suits and cameras, computers, the “volume” (the room in which mo-cap acting is filmed). These are the tools of engineering the story, the removable framework placed when building a house. We see how these materials and tools are used in construction, yet are wholly absent from the player who operates from inside the digital construct.
Judge took a reflexive moment towards the end of the session, noting that even though the game is set in antiquity, it is pertinent to what is happening right now in much of the world. “The old shit, it’s not working anymore,” he said. “We have to teach our sons better.” The crowd, about 90% male (compared to the 50/50 gender split in the Tomb Raider session), greeted Judge’s imperative with a loud round of applause.
God of War was released on April 20, 2018, and I look forward to playing it, too, especially having played Skyrim VR in its Viking-like realm, and having visited York’s Jorvik Viking Centre. How is Viking culture received in the new game? How does it advance the narrative, and how do players engage with this kind of heritage both digital and real?
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming