In the Shadow of Shadow of the Tomb Raider: When Did Games Stop Being Fun?
I’ve spent a hell of a lot of hours with Lara Croft this last month. What started in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as a cool action-adventure has turned into an endurance test: a tomb challenge of monotony. Throwing her off cliffs repeatedly only relieves the annoyance so much. When, oh when, did games like this stop being fun and start just being really big?
Ah, I remember the heady moment I decided to platinum Shadow. I was younger then, more naive. Looking at the trophy list, nothing was out of the ordinary. Collectables, difficulty trophies, shoot a turkey with a flare gun – your usual platinum.
Little did I know that the sprawling vista of Patiti would melt my mind. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has converted me – knock down the rainforest. Any amount of jungle is categorically too much jungle. And don’t even get me started on eels. Skin the lot of them.
What went wrong? What damaged my love affair with Lara?
It’s a long, long story.
Brain damage, the tomb raider and me
The journey started way back in 2013. The new Lara Croft was new and exciting. She was younger, less pointed and a whole lot more interesting as a character. She wasn’t the Lara I’d grown up on, but neither did she need to be. The online multiplayer stopped me from pursuing the platinum, but the collectibles weren’t a problem. I got 100 per cent quickly, easily and with a whole lot of enjoyment.
Then the sequel came. Pressures of it leaving Gamepass meant I was late to the party and collectibles weren’t attractive, but I’d have probably gone for it if not for the time trials. I can see why the pressure would have interested some people, but it wasn’t for me.
And so Shadow was my chance to plat a game in a series I’ve been enjoying most of my life. I set out wide-eyed, excited for a challenge.
What a beautiful looking game. Shadow is proof that generations are pretty much meaningless. Next gen, as far as visuals, is already here, and I don’t care what anybody says. I never say this, because it always proves laughable ten years down the line, but here is a game that looks almost as real as real.
There were some complaints about the story, but for the most part it was more hit than miss. We see Lara Croft develop as a character. She is cocky and arrogant, obsessed and reckless. She cares about history and archeology, but is relatively happy to destroy priceless buildings in her pursuit of revenge.
By the time I’d finished the story, I was very happy. Then I fast travelled back to the beginning and started my collections run. This was where it all went wrong.
The meaning of fun
If I’d have stopped there – as I’m sure most people would – I’d have had nothing to complain about. But I didn’t. I decided I wanted to be a completionist.
There is just an unbelieveable amount of stuff in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Documents and artifacts are easily found and there are challenges to complete. There are buried caches which shine when you see them. The controller vibrates when you’re near them, but they’re easy to miss. There are side missions, too, although these generally equate to running from one place to another.
Tombs and crypts are in Shadow, just in case one wasn’t enough.
All of this is optional. There is an argument that these were placed there for the mega-fans. These are here to extend the experience for players that loved the story.
But then why punish them, because that’s exactly what happens here. There are nearly 400 collectibles in the game according to Power Pyx. In comparison, there were about 170 in the original 2013 title. Some are vital to the worldbuilding, most aren’t. Some are easy to find, just hidden off the path. Others seem impossible, glinting in the distance.
At collectible 1, you feel like it’s very much doable. By collectible 370, you’re about ready to knock your own teeth out, just to feel something.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an incredible game. Our very own Adam Roffell said as much when he reviewed it at launch.
But it actively hurts itself by trading in fun for “big.”
The generation of big
Getting all the collectibles is not fun. It stops being fun by about the 50 per cent mark. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about 100 feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2. If you ever said “nah, too much” to that, this is a little less than four times bigger.
This one hour forty video, which has cuts, is for just one location.
So why not stop? I asked myself that a number of times and the answer is simple: because you’ve started. Because when you’ve put 10 hours into something, it becomes really hard not to justify another 10. The only answer was to just not start, but what sort of horrible twist of fate is that?
Look, I get it, developing games is hard. Developing games that are as good as Shadow of the Tomb Raider is really hard. Making them look pretty and last more than 20 minutes is really really hard.
Developers like collectibles, because they’re not as hard to make as tombs or other involved things, and they’re utterly meaningless if you want them to be. You don’t have to 100 per cent any Tomb Raider game to feel like you’ve finished it.
A story playthrough can be done in 10 hours. A full completionist run will take between 50 and 60 hours if you’re not in a hurry. That’s a potential 50 hours of optional filler. 50 hours of little story, no development, no real advantage. Just a platinum.
And buckle in buckaroos, because it’s going to get worse.
Begging for mercy
I’ve been covering this industry for a really long time now – about the same time as an average Shadow of the Tomb Raider platinum run. I kid – I’ve been writing about games for my whole working life, and in all that time developers have been saying AAA games aren’t sustainable. The things we took for granted back when N64 games could be held together with tape and glue have fallen by the wayside.
Especially in games like Tomb Raider – where a short, sharp story is better than 100 hours of “General, another settlement needs our help – collectibles expand the experience without breaking the bank. And they’re not inherently bad. I had no problem with Assassin’s Creed 2 – I’ve platted it twice.
But going forward, the balance is really going to tip. Side quests will disappear entirely in some games, or will become so small that even calling them “side” is stretching the definition completely. Tomb Raider is made worse for its endlessness, but it turns a $60 game from a 10 hour experience into a 60 hour one. On paper that looks great. I’m sure the marketing team went wild with the claim.
But nobody benefits from too much to do, especially if it isn’t focussed and fun. It damages the game for those interested enough to put the time in.