Ask Zompist: The frivoility economy and employment

In your recent post, you noted that the (first) world is moving to a frivolity/art economy. What will that mean for employment? After all, robots are making our cars and, increasingly, our burgers— and, like it or not, those are jobs that in the past were filled by regular people whose natural talents were in menial work. Not everybody has the talent or desire to spend their time writing novels or direct avant-garde movies…and that’s OK; people shouldn’t be cut out of an economy because of their natural skill set. What will that mean for employment or the economy? It seems unrealistic to give everybody a $30k/year minimum income, for example, as I’ve seen suggested; that seems fiscally undoable.


There’s a grim meathook future answer and a nice answer, depending on whether we follow our current plutocratic path or not.

But first I’d just note that your question seems rather regressive.  It’s like Aldous Huxley assuming that the future must include a huge population of subhuman menials.  Dumb repetitive work is what machines do very well; those jobs just disappear.

The grim meathook answer is what’s happening today: lots of low-paid service work— call center employees, Wal-Mart greeters, nannies, waiters, nursing home attendants, home sales party presenters, bodyguards, flight attendants, SEO farm writers.  What humans do better than robots, for the indefinite future, is deal with other humans.  We need and value human contact, and anyway most of these jobs, even if they’re not exciting, require a generalist.  Humans deal well with the moderately unexpected.

Or to put it another way, automation targets expensive, repetitive jobs.  When you get rid of the $40/hour factory jobs, you have a large population that is forced to take $10/hour service jobs.  Even for Mr. Scrooge it’s not worth bothering to replace those jobs.

In the more optimistic future, we use the increased productivity that automation brings to improve everyone‘s life.  That’s what even the curmudgeonly old USA did in the liberal era, so it’s not unthinkable.  Poverty used to be universal; in mid-century America the vast majority were middle class; an even richer society could, if it chose, eliminate poverty entirely.  (That “we’ll always have poverty” is a myth to comfort the 1%.  We could end absolute poverty globally for a surprisingly small sum.)

I don’t think anyone has ambitions limited to factory work or bagging groceries.  Everyone has some dream that they’d love to be paid to do. In our economic system, maybe it’s too silly or specialized to pay well, but a world where the robots do all the heavy lifting is one where everyone can be a specialist or a frivolist.

But even in the more ideal world, it remains true that humans are better at making other humans happy.  When you’re 94, you probably don’t want to be surrounded only by robots.  So ‘elder care’ is still a human niche, but it’s seen as valuable rather than degrading and paid enough to make it attractive.

The SEO writer may not exist in the happier future, but only because he’ll be doing something far weirder.  In the Incatena, rather than a thousand different jobs with a million people in each— a situation that may be automatable— there’s a million different jobs with a a thousand people in each.

The frivolity economy

In general we’ve moved from an agricultural economy to manufacturing, then to a services industry.  What’s next?  Probably a frivolity economy.


I think this bothers some people.  A standard complaint about capitalism is that it devotes enormous energy to producing things we don’t need and shouldn’t want.  Many thinkers, left and right, seem to think we should just produce the bare necessities– or at least, avoid obvious excesses, like plastic surgery and bondage gear.

My contention is that what capitalism is good at is producing things people want, whether or not either anarchist professors or austerian central bankers approve of them– and that it should produce those things.  In fact, if it didn’t, the economy would collapse.  In the far future, I expect human activity to be little but frivolity.

Continued on Research Access

Rapture of the Nerds

This looked really great: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross collaborate on a story that celebrates and/or parodies the Singularity.

It might well be to your taste.  Here, have a sample:

[Huw] mutters transhuman curses in groaning harmony at the battered teapot– no longer hosting the avatar of a particularly annoying iffrit, but evidently hacked by Ade and his international cadre of merry pranksters.  “Why South Carolina? G’wan, you. Why there, of all places?”

He isn’t expecting a reply, but the teapot crackles for a moment; then a translucent holo of Ade appears in the air above it, wearing a belly dancer’s outfit and a sheepish expression.  “Yer wot? Ah, sorry mate.  Feckin’ trade union iffrit’s trying to make an alpha buffer attack on my sprites.” The image flickers then solidifies, this time wearing a bush jacket again. “Like, why South Carolina? To break the embargo, Huw. Ever since the snake-handlers crawled outta the swamps and figured the Rapture had been and gone and left ’em behind, they’ve been waiting for a chance at salvation, so I figured I’d give them you.” Ade’s likeness grins wickedly as red horns sprout from his forehead. “You and the back channel to the ambassador from the cloud.  They want to meet God so bad, I figured you’d maybe like to help the natives along.”

I don’t know which of them to blame, but basically every sentence is trying terribly hard to be clever, cool, and faintly outrageous.  It’s tiring, and I was only able to make it about a third of the way through.

The book seems to take the same strategy as the weakest issues of Transmetropolitan: try to communicate that The Future will be 100% wacky 100% of the time.  So, let’s see, there’s the friend of Huw’s who rearranges her sentient house at a whim, the huge anarchist ant colony that’s taken over the eastern US, the zeppelins, the backwards Islamic socialists of New Libya, the genetically engineered oil-creating trees that are useless because people don’t use oil anymore, the rednecks in South Carolina who worship God and Ayn Rand… who actually shows up in the last pages of the book… and that’s to say nothing of the singularity itself, which has turned the solar system into computronium as in Accelerando— all the other oddities, as in that book, are just tales of the insufficiently evolved.

I feel like I dodged a bullet, because I was thinking of doing the same sort of thing in a new Incatena novel.  Instead of telling stories about the frontier, I was going to show up some of the high weirdness on one of the more advanced planets, like Mars or Sihor itself.  Oh, the satirical hijinx that would ensue!

The thing is, it’s a cheat.  The culture you grow up in doesn’t feel alien to you.

It can feel rushed, dangerous, like everything’s changing too fast, sure.  That’s what people have felt for the last hundred years.  I can definitely see the people of 2493 complaining that man, things are hectic these days, why can’t we have the calm of the 2460s back.  But people adapt.  We don’t react to the novelties of 2013 as if we were born in 1827.  We’re not continually freaking out.  When we do freak out, it’s not usually because of the rapidity of cultural change.  Usually it’s our old primate nature: family drama, can’t find the good bananas, mating is hard, the alpha males are assholes.

Stross has already written a satirical book about the Singularity, Accelerando, so I’m not sure what he felt he was adding here.  One thing at least has been subtracted: a plot.  Stuff happens to Huw, it keeps happening, but a third of the way through there is no predicament he has to solve.  He gets into situations, they’re solved by a deus ex machina (of the ancientest type: an actual machine), he gets into another one, and I couldn’t even tell you if there’s an overall villain in the book.  Could be anyone he’s met, I guess, because, you know, 100% wacky 100% of the time.

This sort of thing can be done; the best examples are mostly by Alfred Bester.  The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man are convincing portraits of a world that’s even more whirlwind than ours.  But Bester knew how to keep the wackiness valve throttled.  Douglas Adams was also a master at this– he could pitchfork in the wackiness, and yet you always had the impression that a sufficient sense of irony– like Ford Prefect’s– could take it in stride.  Or there’s Snow Crash, which hits just the sweet spot between this world is neat and this world is appalling.

Plus, Stross on his own is much better at thinking through all the details.  That ant colony, for instance.  The book treats it like a ’50s horror movie– it just eats through everything.  First, what the fuck does this have to do with the Singularity?  Second, what happened to predators?  Third, how does the colony stay alive in any region once it’s consumed all the biomass?

Oh, and Huw is chosen by the AI cloud as an interpreter because his larynx is particularly developed… because he speaks Welsh.  Good godda fuck.

There’s also a weird xenophobia to the book.  There’s an orientalist twinge to New Libya, a feeling that there’s just something too funny about hackers and high tech appearing in the sand dunes.  And the fundies in South Carolina make no more sense than the ant colony.  They mix Baptists, charismatics, and Catholics, they talk funny, they’re somehow simultaneously backwoodsmen and Randites.  This isn’t even satire, it’s just a huge lazy self-indulgent wink at the reader.

And then we meet the Bishop of the First Church of the Teledildonic, which believes in nudity and free love… srsly Cory and Charlie?  From fundie jokes to laughing at the pervs?  I guess I kind of expected what sounded like a satire of the Singularity to be, well, a satire of the Singularity, not a chance to unload on right-wingers, Arabs, and nudists.

But as I said, I couldn’t finish it, so maybe they finally get around to their ostensible topic later on.  I expect that tolerance for 100% wackiness varies by person and by previous reading, so you might do better with the book than I did.

Why women are the best video game characters

The game industry has been slow to make use of women as protagonists in video games, sometimes due to the idea that the dudebros only want to play as males.  Didn’t Tomb Raider in all its guises sell more than 35 million copies?  But anyway, my point isn’t that female protagonists are more inclusive or less sexist; it’s that they make the games better.


Um... a kimono with ripped off sleeves?  Really, Sam?
Um… a kimono with ripped off sleeves? Really, Sam?

1. They can emote.

This struck me when playing Tomb Raider.  There,

  • Lara expresses terror, pain, horror, and occasionally despair
  • She cries big snotty tears when her mentor dies
  • When she rescues her friend, she gives her a big hug
  • She can express self-doubt (and still kick ass)
  • If you do nothing, she’ll sometimes hold herself as if she’s feeling cold (as she probably is, getting rained on in that tank top)

Besides the new Lara, the best example is Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade.  Although she wields a mean dai-jo, she also takes care of children, is attached to her uncle, and relies as much on her camera as on her martial arts skills to foil the enemy.

The way our brains are set up, if we see an emotion expressed, we feel it to some extent.  This is an essential tool for the storyteller.  To put it another way, it’s hard to care for a character when they don’t themselves express any involvement in their situation.  That’s one reason why Black Mesa, though gorgeous, is emotionally lifeless.

Of course, this power can be abused, producing sentimentality, but the challenge for video games is to show emotion at all, not to mop up excesses of it.  Likewise, there are many emotive male actors, but they’re rarely video game protagonists.  Whether it’s Master Chief or Gordon Freeman, the norm is steely stoicism.

The effect in Tomb Raider is not to make Lara look weak, but to make her human and real.  (The second half of the game doesn’t have as much of this, and I think it suffers because of it.  The climax, for instance, is by any objective standard a hellish experience, and its only effect on Lara seems to be to make her a little moody.)

The idea here isn’t that women are “more emotional”.  The idea is that people have emotions, but that our current social expectations allow women to show them more openly– which makes for more relatable characters.

The Big Games these days are generally about big emotionless male bruisers who go on (carefully justified) killing sprees.  People often lament the sameness of the games, but usually suggest that they need better stories.  I’m suggesting that they need better characters… less John Wayne and more Humphrey Bogart.

2. They subvert the genre.

One way to make a story deeper and/or more fun is to subvert the genre.  There’s some attempt at this in (say) Bioshock Infinite: the main character is a killing machine, and the game suggests (after letting the player shoot people for twelve hours) that that’s kinda bad.  But ultraviolence with a smidgen of doubt is not much of a real questioning of the genre.  (I found that Far Cry 2 successfully depicted the amorality of mercenaries shooting up the Third World… so much so that I lost interest in continuing to play it.)

Subverting gender roles is inherently interesting.  Tough guys who have to do something female-associated can be used for extra comedy or drama (Lone Wolf and Cub, Kindergarten Cop, Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire).  Badass women are more interesting than badass men– they’re less expected, so there must be some backstory on why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Not as angsty as Niko, but way prettier
What do you do when you’re a hot girl with bluish skin?  Take over Steelport.

I tried Saints Row 3 with both a male and female protagonist.  Even with all the silly elements, playing as a male made the game seem more crass and cliched.  Playing as a female, it becomes pure absurdist fun (especially with Rebecca Sanabria’s voice acting– she can be tough as nails when needed, but most of the time she communicates that the Saints boss is just having a hell of a great time).

The best reason to play Mass Effect as a female is Jennifer Hale’s awesome voice acting.  But her gender helps too.  MaleShep is another dull, stoic space marine; FemShep is intriguing.  Little is made of her gender, but based on our own society and even the sex ratio we see in ME’s human worlds, we can guess that this is a person who has had to be twice as calm, twice as authoritative, twice as tough as any man, to get where she is.

3. People like underdogs.

If you’re going to go up against the bandits, zombies, draugr, crazed criminal overlords, mad cultists, or whatever, you’re going to need some skills, and a reservoir of strength and endurance.  To do it all with a smaller body is all the more impressive (which is why it takes more skill to dominate a TF2 game as a Scout than as a Heavy).

In Oblivion, the initial skill values depend (slightly) on your sex.  They removed this in Skyrim, which is more inclusive but seems a little defiant of realism.

It does worry me a bit when Catwoman swipes at a thug with her clawed gloves… that would cause pain, but it’s not going to knock him out.  It’s a lot more convincing when she’s faster and more athletic than Batman, and uses her legs or her whole body to slam into a thug.  120 pounds of fast-moving superfreak to the face– that would hurt.

Surrounded by so much ugly
Catwoman demonstrating that momentum is mass times velocity

Mirror’s Edge never explains the gender dynamics of running, but being smaller could be an advantage in scrambling over the rooftops and fitting into tight spaces.

4. Gender and sex offer narrative possibilities.

Sex is fascinating, and that’s without getting into the biological mechanics.  I always wonder what it’s like for Zoey, the only female in a group of four zombie-apocalypse survivors.  Is there a lot of pressure on her to hook up?  Or would it be so uncomfortable if she did that the three guys kind of agree to not bring it up?

Your party must approach Andraste in their underwear.  I am not making this up.
Dragon Age Origins actually makes your party dress in medieval bikinis at one point.

FemShep probably makes it a point of principle to never use her gender for anything, but others are not so pure.  Your character in Fallout 3 and even more so Fallout New Vegas can occasionally use gender or sex to their advantage.  Perhaps the best example is Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, where you can solve or alter some situations by seduction.  (And why not?  If you’re a vampire you’re already pretty much a lost soul; no need to act all chaste.)

Games take a wide, wide detour around sexual threat– the only game I can think of that mentions it is Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and that’s with NPCs.  That’s probably just as well.  Still, replacing it with cannibalism is kind of silly, and we’d might as well acknowledge that there’s an underlying danger to (say) Catwoman that Batman doesn’t really face, and that makes her insouciance all the more interesting.  In Tomb Raider, it should add a certain chill to that scene where the cultist grabs her before trying to strangle her– and it probably would if it weren’t so frustrating figuring out the damn game mechanic at that point.


Now, you may well respond that the ultimate goal should be gender neutrality– that we should able to be a badass male or a badass female, a caring male or a caring female.  That’s fine, and sometimes it’d be a great advance simply to have more female characters– I wish TF2 would implement Chemical Alia’s female characters.  But for now, the best corrective to all the boring badass males is a little femininity.


Tomb, or something, raided

I finished Tomb Raider.  I thought you’d want to know.  (Early thoughts here.)

How'd they freight all this iron to an island no one can leave?
How’d they freight all this iron to an island no one can leave?

Overall impression: it’s a great game.  It took about 18 hours, which curiously is how long TR Underworld took too.  I expect it’s more replayable though… at least, I have a hankering to play through it again, perhaps doing more to find all the hidden tombs and other goodies.

The final boss fight is pretty annoying, but I got through it.  The dodge mechanic seems really wonky… the general idea is to hit Shift, but this doesn’t really help as you need to get behind the dude.  So I was mashing some combination of Shift + Left + Space, which sometimes worked, and then I’d generally miss his unprotected back, and… it’s not a fun fight.

The game is most fun when you can explore an area and figure out the tricks to move forward; I also liked when there was an opportunity for stealth.  The greater number of enemies is good overall, but some of the fights were more grueling than fun.

The overall was to move from scared, fragile Lara to badass avenging angel.  It works, but I think the timing is off.  She’s basically finished the transition halfway through… what does that leave for the next game?  I liked the more human Lara, and didn’t want to see her disappear entirely.  By the end of the game, when her shipmates talk to her, she’s got to Batman levels of coldness.

Some review suggested that her shipmates didn’t add much and could easily have been disposed of.  I tend to agree, mostly because they’re almost always shallow and useless.  The game has to keep coming up with dumb reasons why only Lara can go off for the next McGuffin… why not take a hint from Arkham City (or Max Payne 2) and occasionally let us control one of the other characters?  The snotty betraying guy is also a minus; neither his motivations nor his eventual comeuppance are convincing.

As for skill trees, it turns out not to matter much.  I ended up with almost all of the skills and gear upgrades, and with a little more collectible hunting I’m sure I could get them all.  This seems like a bit of a lost opportunity to enable different styles of playthrough.

Another reason the rich love austerity

From Ha-Joon Chang:

If even the IMF doesn’t approve, why is the UK government persisting with a policy that is clearly not working? Or, for that matter, why is the same policy pushed through across Europe? A certain dead economist would have said it is because the government is “in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor“. Dead right.

The dead economist is Adam Smith, and as Chang points out, there was no mystery about it in Smith’s day: only the wealthy could vote, and they ran the government for their own benefit.

When universal suffrage came, they were terrified of redistribution– or even a more equitable distribution of newly generated wealth.  They can’t directly attack democracy in the First World, so they attack “politics” instead.  When they can, they insulate wealth from politics entirely– not hard to do when ordinary voters don’t understand the stakes.  Thus we get reasonable-sounding independent central banks, balanced budget rules, IMF oversight, attacks on inflation that doesn’t exist, and ‘technocratic’ governments imposed on Italy and Greece– that is, governments that will do what the European wealthy think is best for Germany.

The irony at the moment is that there’s been a change of heart over at the IMF.  They’ve withdrawn support for austerity, and are suggesting to Britain that maybe sending the country back into recession isn’t that great an idea.  The Treasury promises to fight back.

Why do the Very Serious People love austerity?  After all, they’d themselves be richer if the economy was back on track.  I don’t think this a great mystery either.  Ideologically, it’s congenial to them– it sounds like the tough stuff leaders are supposed to say.  But best of all, the toughness is all faced by other people.  Austerity is an opportunity to beat back the claims of the middle class and the poor: cut social programs, fight attempts to reduce the dominance of  the 1%, and divert attention from how the financial industry caused the recession in the first place.

If you read Smith, it’s striking how the same preference existed two hundred years ago.  The conservatives preferred “cheap years”… i.e. recessions, when labor was pleasantly low-priced.  They’re going to do fine in bad times, and they sense that there will be less pressure on them if everyone else is feeling pinched.  As has long been noted, a system is in the most danger of revolution not when things are getting worse but when living standards are improving.

While I’m touting economics links, here’s an interesting essay from Brad DeLong on why corporations work at all.  As he points out, their structure is Soviet: they’re autocratic, huge-scale, centrally directed enterprises.  The USSR stagnated, so why don’t they?

He offers several possible reasons:

  • Soviet industries could be propped up indefinitely; unprofitable corporations do slowly decline, go bankrupt, or get taken over.  So there is a mechanism for replacement, however slow.
  • Huge enterprises may simply be the best organization for producing certain goods– planes, for instance: there’s a high cost if, say, you have the engine ready but not the wings.
  • Stockholders will discipline an incompetent CEO.  Pause for laughter.  OK, DeLong quickly admits that the theoretical oversight is mostly a failure, but he suggests that the punishment mechanism isn’t so much the stockholders as the stock market.  A crashing stock price talks very loudly, and creates a mechanism for a hostile takeover.
  • Finally, corporations are intensely useful to government, and thus are favored by taxation and economic policy.  Corporations do most of the work of tax collection (income and sales), and they’re encouraged to provide a good deal of health insurance.

(I’d also add that beating the Soviets is a pretty low bar.  They were more concerned with destroying opposition than in improving their methods.)

Undoubtedly there’s something to all of these ideas.  But I think DeLong misses some more Marxian possibilities:

  • Inertia.  We now think monarchy was a terrible system, but it persisted for a thousand years.  Even if the Next Big Thing was here, competition between entire systems can go on a long, long time.  (A Martian observer might have concluded from the history of the 18th century that UK was onto something, but it would take nearly two centuries before the majority of countries adopted democracy and capitalism.)
  • A better way of organizing production would be unlikely to benefit those currently in charge… who will therefore resist it tooth and claw.  Suppose the Next Big Thing is something as simple as Valve’s no-manager, vote-with-your-desk system.  Is EA going to adopt it?  Obviously not; the people who run EA would lose power and probably money, even if the employees of EA on the whole benefited.  And it’s the people who run EA who get to decide.  It’s the same problem Chang is pointing out: the entrenched interests are happy with things as they are.

Besides, what would happen if a new style of governance became available?  DeLong (the piece was written in 1995) reviews one such case:

Fifteen years ago it was fashionable to hold up the Japanese corporation as an example, to say that its managers regarded shareholders as only one stakeholder interest among many, and to say that the Japanese corporation was a superior organization and the wave of the future. Now it is fashionable to praise the American form of organization, with an active market for corporate control and with strong pressure on managers to do whatever they can to boost stock prices now.

In other words, a new system becomes a new fad, and a lot of people get rich writing bestsellers about it.  But the magic of Japan Inc. wore off abruptly when Japan plunged into recession in the early ’90s.

On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned before, the fad for highly paid CEOs was entirely successful.  In the 1960s it was accepted that American CEOs should get about 50 times the pay of their base workers.  Now it’s 500 times.  Corporations aren’t better run or more productive or more stable or more competitive; the effect has simply been to shift wealth from the 99% to the 1%.  Why did this fad succeed when the fad for Japanese-style management didn’t?  Pretty obviously, because it doesn’t require much convincing to tell executives that they should help themselves to ten times the salary.  It’s not that it was a good idea; it’s that it appealed to the people who make the decisions.

When change happens, it’s likely to come from either a new region or a new industry, and be very ignorable for years or decades or centuries.

I have a suspicion that top-down command works better for creating  vast new project– whether it’s an oil refinement industry or a spaceship or a computer or an online mega-bookstore– than it does for running an ongoing business.  Capitalism recognizes this to some extent, in that older businesses have more and more dilute ownership.  But this also means that there’s a kind of ongoing bias in favor of autarchy.  New firms, like the big web firms of the ’90s, are likely to be started by visionary hotshots, and that reinforces the elite’s notion that all corporations should be run by autarchs– even if, as happened recently at JC Penney, the hotshots come in and ruin the company.

So a more democratic corporate structure might have to wait for the next big thing that doesn’t happen to be a megaproject.  I can see it happen, for instance, if we move from the service economy to an art economy, for instance.  (Which I don’t see as unlikely: creative work is very hard to delegate to robots.)

Raiding tombs

First, the new Tomb Raider is half off on Steam, right now.  Get it.  Are you getting it?  What is wrong with you?

What should we call this game?  TOMB RAIDED?  OK then!
What should we call this game? TOMB RAIDED? OK then!

I’ve played about six hours so far, which the game tells me is 23% complete.  The basics of the TR franchise are doing completely terrible archeology, in the form of jumping athletically around ancient ruins and destroying ancient mechanisms, with an occasional murder along the way.  Combat in Underworld was pretty unserious, as shown by the mechanic of Lara automatically targeting the nearest enemy.

In the reboot it’s very serious.  You have to aim… hell, you have to aim (RMB) then fire (LMB), which is tricky if an enemy is closing on you.  Enemies will jump out at you, or throw fire grenades, or have bulletproof shields, and you can get taken down quickly, so it can be intense.  (At the same time, they’re very supportive, in their own way.  They’ll shout out “She’s killing us all!” or “Watch out, she’s a good shot!”  Which is a nice change from “I never liked that Catwoman bitch.”)

The Big Thought behind the reboot is that Lara is no longer the frigid, double-pistol-wielding wiseass of the earlier games– she’s a young girl who’s hurt, terrified, and has never killed a human being before. Plus, they’ve taken the opportunity to redesign the character– even in Underworld she had this weird elongated face.  Now she’s rather cute:

There is no medicine mechanic, so I don't know how that wound healed up
There is no medicine mechanic, so I don’t know how that wound healed up

All this might be challenging to the Cheeto-fed machistas who seem to make up the most vocal fragment of the gaming market, but I think it’s refreshing.  It can be fun to play a superhero who makes everything look effortless, but I like the way the new Lara reminds you that what’s she’s doing is hard and scary and it hurts.  And how she has to talk herself into trying new things.  And how she says “I’m sorry” to the first deer she kills.

Plus, you know, heroism is about what you do, not what you feel.  As it happens, I’m reaidng a book about war and battles right now and you know, outside of glorifying propaganda, soldiers are scared.  They learn to function with the constant and well-justified fear, but it doesn’t go away.  Lara’s fear means she’s a human being.

There was some controversy before release because one developer talked loosely about an attempted rape scene.  Perhaps they changed it, because there’s nothing like that.  There’s a point where Lara is trying to sneak past a bunch of insane cultists who seem to be massacring an entire village.  One of them captures her and touches her; if you do nothing, however, he kills her.  So it’s an attempted death scene.

And it pissed me off, because it was a complete mystery how to get past it.  The screen tells you to press F– I pressed the hell out of F and watched Lara getting strangled about a dozen times.  She also moved on to the next bit of fight a couple times, seemingly randomly.  I could not figure out what the damn game wanted me to do.

Finally I did, with the help of some Internet comments.  Feel free to print this out and paste it near your screen:

  • Some concentric white circles appear on the screen.  The outer circle is shrinking.  When it reaches the inner circle, that’s when you mash F a few times.  A red icon appears, but if you press F then, it’s too late.
  • This happens at least one more time.

There are a couple more bits to the fight, which are a little unclear in my memory, but also easier to figure out.

It’s a really annoying mechanism, which they use in a few other places.  Developers, please don’t do this “press a key at the exact right moment in a cutscene” thing… or if you do, at least give accurate instructions.  There’s a couple other baffling minigames… e.g. at one point Lara has to tune a radio, and there is just no feedback on what to do.  (For reference: hold down right arrow till something happens.)  The best I can say about these sequences is that they’re pretty rare.

The game often takes control of the camera… on the whole this is probably OK, as it makes the experience more cinematic and can show off some of the game’s lovely views:

Build a little enclosure around the ladder?  Why?  What could go wrong?
Build a little enclosure around the ladder? Why? What could go wrong?

But also, frequently, the gameplay merges seamlessly into cutscenes, and this can be confusing.  Many games distinguish the cutscenes visually (e.g. by adding black bars above and below the scene), which at least tells you that you can’t walk around or shoot anything.  Half-Life 2 is famous for having scenes play out while you retain full control, though admittedly this works better with a protagonist who never talks.

Ah, while I’m thinking about weird things… there’s a scene where Lara makes a big show of using her last match… to build up an already roaring fire.  This is one of several elements that sometimes make it seem that the developers were trying too many things and couldn’t keep it all together.  That early deer kill, for instance, is preceded by Lara saying she’s hungry and making it a whole objective to Find Food.  She was shipwrecked less than a day ago, so it really shouldn’t be that much of a crisis, but fine, it looks like the game will make hunting food a gameplay thing.  Only it doesn’t– after the deer scene, it doesn’t come up again.

The game does keep throwing new things at you; mostly this works and adds variety.  You play for something like an hour before getting any weapon, for instance– which is actually pretty neat.  Several hours in, they give you a “rope arrow”… I’m not quite sure how an arrow with a rope tied to it can tie a knot, but it does, and it gives you a new mechanism for extending your parkour, so that’s all good.

Also neat: you often have a choice in how to approach enemies (or in how to climb up somewhere).  It’s not exactly a stealth game, in that you still kill them; but you can snipe from afar with arrows, or sneak up behind someone and do them in, and this approach has advantages over going in guns blazing– such as not alerting all of their buddies.

I also appreciate how there’s cover, but no cover mechanic.  If you approach a low wall or crates, Lara will crouch down automatically.  It makes complicated cover mechanics as in Deus Ex look awkward.

There is an XP mechanic, so that you can upgrade Lara’s skills and weapons.  You can theoretically specialize as Hunter, Survivor, or Brawler, but some skills only unlock slowly, with the effect that you pretty much have to spread out your skills.  So I don’t know how customizable the game experience is; maybe it’ll be clearer later in the game.

Bottom line, it’s really well done.  I’ve only played one previous TR game, Underworld, and I liked it but it was definitely a toy– a very artificial world with predicaments and characters at a James Bond level of camp.  Sometimes a move into more irony (as in Saints Row) works; but sometimes making it more real, more gritty, more intense is the right thing to do.  It was hard to put down and I’ve got work to do right now, but I’m anxious to get that done so I can go back to being Lara.