I recently finished playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, an incredible game that fixed what few problems its predecessor had then expanded on the formula of this new incarnation of the franchise. Lara Croft is better than ever, through a combination of the incredible voice acting of Camilla Luddington and the stellar character animation created by Crystal Dynamics. Considering all that great stuff, what stuck me more than the game itself, is a piece of downloadable content (DLC) called “Blood Ties,” which takes a vastly different tone and gameplay style from the base game, a risky proposition the AAA industry could learn from.
Typically, DLC contributes to the base game with new playable characters, levels, equipment, and/or storylines. These content packs usually add to the game without making fundamental changes to the way the game functions. Occasionally, game developers will create stand-alone DLC, usually a spinoff story that is informed by the main game, but can be played separately from it (sometimes the stand-alone content gains enough popularity that it is sold separately). Though separate, the spin off stories are normally built on the same base as the main game and they fit in the same gameplay format. Some examples of this kind of content are “Far Cry: Blood Dragon,” a short game that takes the gameplay of Far Cry 3 and applies a neon 80s look and feel to it, and “The Last of Us: Left Behind,” which explores the backstory of the central character (though not the protagonist), Ellie. “Blood Ties” is in this latter DLC category, and though it is still built on the same base as Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s a different gameplay genre.
Play of the Tomb Raider
The reason changing gameplay genre is significant is that gameplay dictates the narrative experience. Typically you aren’t going to have a slowburn, thoughtful character study in a first-person shooter. In the same manner, turn-based strategy does not lend itself well to running/gunning action. In games, the style of gameplay determines in many ways what kind of story the developers can tell. Therefore, taking a character out of their typical gameplay style is a significant change. One that I think “Blood Ties” handles admirably.
Where Rise of the Tomb Raider is a third person action game, focused on fast paced combat and exploration, “Blood Ties” doubles down on the exploration, slows to a more thoughtful pace, and removes the combat entirely. This DLC places Lara in her dilapidated family mansion as she searches for information to prove her mother died, so she will inherit the house. Otherwise, her uncle will claim the property. The gameplay is the player walking Lara around the Croft estate examining various relics and documents that inform and explain anecdotes from her childhood and family history. This serves two functions. The player is learning about Lara and her parents, while Lara is reconnecting with her past and learning things about her parents. Along, the way Lara has to solve some puzzles and find tools, like a flashlight and crowbar, to help her and the player find the information she’s hunting. This is a fascinating move, as combat is a significant aspect of the series from the original game from 1996, and this 2 hour expansion has none.
Dare and Trust
As far as game genres are concerned, “Blood Ties” is basically a walking simulator or interactive drama, if you prefer (I sure do). This is a game genre usually focused on a low interaction/ high atmosphere ratio. Good examples create interesting character dramas and engaging stories, and bad examples are lifeless simulations of characters walking around, hence the term “walking simulator.” Using this format to make a story attached to a Tomb Raider game was a risky proposition, even as a DLC expansion. The Croft mansion isn’t in the main game, so it’s a setting, as well as the documents, that had to be created just for “Blood Ties.” That’s time and resources devoted to a Lara Croft title without one of the core gameplay features of a Tomb Raider game. The games industry has proven time and again that they are terrified of risk. Making this bit of DLC a risk, one I’m thrilled that Crystal Dynamics took because they seem to trust the character of Lara.
Crystal Dynamics could have easily made “Blood Ties” a story about Lara being attacked in the mansion. Dodging bullets and enemy thugs while learning about her parents. But the developers decided to go for a different tone. They took a character known for action/ adventure and put her in a character study. I wish more game publishers and developers would show that kind of faith in their characters.
Variety is the Spice
The games industry, naturally, won’t encourage experiments like “Blood Ties” for full games because they’re averse to risk taking, as such I think more game developers should experiment with their DLC. Don’t just give us more of the same game. Test the limits of your creativity and your creations. Take our actions characters like Lara Croft, Samus Aran, and Master Chief and show us what they do when they aren’t on the clock. A subplot in a story is a way to add a wrinkle to the story while showing a side of your characters that the main story doesn’t reveal. DLC expansions that switch up the gameplay can do that for games. They can show us a side of the characters that we won’t see in the main game, while letting the developers experiment with a different gameplay genre and type of story for the characters.
I can’t say enough how much I adore “Blood Ties” and Rise of the Tomb Raider. The experience of Lara exploring her family home and learning about her family is as engaging that the tense combat encounters of the main game. Lara Croft has been one of my heroes since the first game. I am definitely looking forward to see where the next game takes her (which will be a remake of Tomb Raider 2 if the hints dropped in the mansion are any indication), and I am excited by the precedent set by “Blood Ties.”