Tearaway and Tomb Raider.
I don’t really like either game. Of course, I like Tearaway a lot more than Tomb Raider, for the same reason I like my third grade teacher a lot more than than the kid who used to threaten to beat me up. One has a beautiful personality, and one has an ugly one.
Why do I bring them up as a pair? In terms of execution, they’re not that far removed. Neither do I think either is either much fun or very interesting to play. In fact, I’d say that as a game qua games, Tomb Raider is the better of the two (though that’s hardly fair, as it had undoubtedly way more budget and time and staff.)
Here’s the thing, though: At the same time I think that, I also feel that any metric you can use that says that Tomb Raider is a better game than Tearaway is obviously flawed. Of course it isn’t. The very idea is offensive.
That’s what I want to talk about.
If Tomb Raider were a human being, it’d be the kind of person I walk to the other end of the BART car to avoid sitting down next to. It is visibly disturbed.
I have come to realize that is why I dislike the game so very intensely, and have continued to dislike it so much ever since I played it. Its obsession with gore in detail and in quantity, its cavalier and unpleasantly violent attitude toward its protagonist… they bother me. There’s also this feeling throughout the game that the developers tried to clean it up, post-rape controversy, but its real personality hangs in the air like the stench of a wicked shit after somebody hosed down the bathroom with Glade. This clean-up job is no more convincing of innocence than a house hastily tidied for the return of a teenager’s parents from a weekend trip.
On the other hand, I don’t have to spill ink to explain that Tearaway has a lovely personality, because that’s been said repeatedly and in fact, as best as I can tell, is the only credible argument for liking it, so let’s take that as told.
That’s what makes them different. So what’s similar about them?
It’s a long linear march down a path from point A to point Z. This is a pernicious type of triple-A game design that infected the industry actuely this generation. You just hold forward until you get to the end. It’s game as art asset catalogue.
It’s coupled, generally, with a really generous checkpoint system which means you never lose progress and rarely have to actually learn to play the game, and more insidiously, that means the game designers don’t worry much about making challenges that are balanced or interesting because they know you can just brute force your way through anything. There is generally nothing to discover or figure out, because the designers know you have other places to be — they made the game that way.
It’s underdeveloped despite having really great underpinnings. Tomb Raider's developers put a tremendous amount of effort into making Lara athletic and then did next to nothing with it; on the critical path, it's just a shooter. The optional “tombs” are infrequent and basic to the point of insult. They also made big 3D explorable environments and then desultorily sprinkled collectible trinkets into them to retroactively justify having done so.
Tearaway is the same exact way, but with its creativity mechanics. The game asks you to do basically the same thing almost every time (the three or so ideas are really, at their core, the same idea, just expressed differently: customize an existing object). It’s a flimsy veneer of creative participation in the game world, and quite far from the promise the game makes. And they did the collectible sprinkle thing, too, of course, like you do.
The storytelling is extremely gussied up but lacks substance. Of course, stylistically, Tomb Raider is action movie and Tearaway is a British comedy fairytale, but neither can even begin to compare either stylistically or in terms of execution to what they ape.
Tearaway is Neil Gaiman via The Mighty Boosh, but rather than Vince Noir’s Anansi Boys, it’s a teenager’s creative writing assignment — but not the earnest kind of assignment, sadly, because that would be endearing. No, it’s the kind of writing that’s clever enough to get a good grade, but that the writer will realize wasn’t really all that great after a couple years of working on the craft in college. Hiring great voice actors does not cover this up.
Tomb Raider, on the other hand, is DuckTales via Vin Diesel, with a cartoonishly simplistic plot with inane digressions, a paper-flat antagonist, an insultingly poorly developed main character, and a lot of hastily mumbled mumbo-jumbo to try and add voodoo spice. I love Jem and the Holograms, but as adults we cut Christy Marx slack on the writing not just because it was for children, but because children’s animation production was a creative sweatshop in the ’80s. We do not cut that kind of writing slack in entertainment that takes years of production and costs tens of millions. This was a reboot that chose Casino Royale and Batman Begins as its role models, for fuck’s sake.
On Friday, Tevis Thompson tweeted out his list of five worst and 10 best games of 2013. Provocatively, he put Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on his five worst (and Tomb Raider, too, so that’s okay) along with Tearaway on his 10 best.
I like A Link Between Worlds a lot.
@ferricide I don’t think they share a similar game style. The individual mechanics of Tearaway are shallow, but the experience is not.— Tevis Thompson (@tevisthompson)January 31, 2014
Twitter sucks for discussions, but we did have this quick back-and-forth, after which I decided to write something (which is why we’re where we are just now.)
From this exchange, I could go in a lot of different directions, but what interests me most (and which lets me sidestep accidentally creating a straw man argument) is discussing games as experiences of their core mechanics.
I talked above about how Tearaway is a dull walk down a corridor and how it’s also not up to the potential of its creative mechanics: both true. But let’s just talk about its running/jumping/manipulating the world stuff, because ostensibly the game is about that, right?
First up, to get it out of the way, the paper engine they created is AMAZING. I wanted to see Tearaway nominated for tech at the Game Developers Choice Awards because it’s the only game in 2013 whose tech I can remember being lastingly impressed by. It’s just that good. It’s also tech as an expression of creativity, not for its own sake.
How it’s used for design purposes is utterly dull, though. It’s telling, I think, that despite the fact that its engine perfectly simulates paper, the much less technically sophisticated Paper Mario games have done a lot more with the idea from a game design perspective, and I think this contrast is emblematic of Nintendo and Media Molecule’s game development cultures.
Once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all, because Tearaway never figures out what to do with any of its ideas. Poking your fingers through the world gets old fast, and unfolding things to make bridges, well, yeah. Got it the first time. There’s no challenge, nothing to figure out, and nothing to learn or master. No lightbulbs will ever go off. You just do what the game asks of you whenever it asks you to do, and otherwise mosey onward, occasionally talking to regularly placed fauna.
It’s ironic that Tearaway is a game of paper, because it’s a lot like filling out forms. Do it till you’re done. Games can be so clerical these days.
Zelda, on the other hand, is, well… Zelda. You have to figure out what’s going on. Each palace has its own gimmick, of course, and each item in Link’s arsenal has its uses which you must consider and then deploy. Master using it and you can have this, as the old man says.
I always wanted to know what was around every bend and always happily moved on to the next palace because I enjoyed figuring all of it out. It was jam-packed with clever challenges. The thing I enjoy about Nintendo’s best games is that they seem to be made with the same spirit of fun they’re played in, and that’s what is great about A Link Between Worlds.
Its fans may have oversold the excitement its nonlinearity brings — it’s a seed, not a full-grown tree — but you can’t dismiss the level of game making craft on display here. Or so I think, anyway. Its detractors far overcook the nostalgia criticism, which seems mostly to be deployed when people who don’t like it but aren’t sure why have run out of ideas.
Before you get mad at me for picking on the lovable but kinda dopey kid in the class, the point of this piece is not to take a dump on Tearaway, because there are things I rather like about it and there is much about its spirit and ethos I would like to see move forward.
I love its creative use of tech, its visual aesthetic, and at times its personality. I was even affected by the moment where it asked me to take a picture of someone important to me (I chose my then-fiance, now-husband, because I am serious cat) and plastered it on a book of my journey, and I did like the ending, for as much as it was worth.
What I like most about Media Molecule, I think, is that they explore sound and visual palettes that aren’t usually used in mainstream video games with honest enthusiasm, and bring those influences into an industry that usually seems so ignorant of so much culture. Tearaway certainly did that well.
But what I don’t want to see people continue to do is: Excuse bad writing or boring game design because of style and personality. And the reason I felt the need to contrast Tearaway against Tomb Raider is because I wanted to show you that if you take away the two games’ flavorful sauces — one rotten ribcage ragout, the other dandelion broth — you end up with basically the same plate of overcooked pasta.