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Game of Thrones S08E07 - My ridiculous series finale


rat2th

 

Game of Thrones spoilers ahead, and without giving the joke away…. spoilers for something else. Let’s just say don’t read on unless you are up to date all major recent fandom events, specifically the MCU.

This is my take on a series finale, one taking place after the events of the actual finale. It is in no way meant to be serious.




 

Five… … … Years later

 

Danaerys, the Mad Queen was killed and the fighting stopped, but the damage was already done. Bran the Broken was crowned king of a broken Westeros. Though the rebuilding slowly took place, hearts take longer to mend. With so much of the population devastated, After five years, there is hardly a person alive without painful memories of loved ones lost in the War for the Seven Kingdoms.

 

Jon Snow trots his horse through the gates of Kings Landing. The horse snorts with laboured breaths after the long journey south. Even now, the city is a mess of scaffolding and cacophonous with the sounds of construction. Outside the walls, a new city of tents and caravans has taken root.

 

Jon makes his way to the Red Keep and is led into the small council chambers by a gold cloak. King Bran the Broken sits in his chair, watching out the window.

“Bran.” Says Jon.The king does not respond. Jon exchanges confused looks with the rest of the council. Ser Bronn tilts his head and shrugs. “You summoned me all this way….”

“I did Jon. Thank you for coming.”

The council wait in silence before Ser Davos speaks up.

“Begging your pardon Your Grace. But perhaps you could explain the reason for this meeting? We are all wondering what is so important that you would force Jon to interrupt his watch.”

“I summoned Jon, because Sam is about to walk through that door and announce he has found something unbelievable. Jon needs to hear it.”

A moment later the door to the chambers is clumsily swung open and Meister Tully entered holding a stack of books and papers which he dumps on the table.

“I found something unbelieve...” Sam cuts himself off when he spots his old friend. “Jon? What are you doing here?”

“Waiting to hear your findings.” Says Jon

“I err…. Bran?” Asks Sam

“Bran.” Confirms Jon.

“I had better get on with it then.” Sam looks around the room for confirmation before taking the withering looks as a hint and beginning anyway. “Right. Well. We all lost a whole lot in the war. I have been doing a lot of reading and found something that might restore some of what was lost. The old Meisters collectively knew more than we can imagine. I mean, perhaps not all of it is true. But I found references to a Meister Pymm who did amazing research into dragons and all other mentions of him from the time lead me to believe his claims were genuine. You see the thing is...”

“The point? Sam?” says King Bran,

“Ah. Yes. There is a way, to reach into the past, to mould our present. The innocents that died in the great war, there is a way that they could return. Live out the lives that the old kings and queens took from them. Only problem is. We need something I am not sure even exists. We need an ascended dragon.”

Bronn chuckles. “Very nice. Shall we get back on with our lives then?”

“I wouldn’t dismiss this so quickly Bronn.” Says the King. “After all. My brother has already encountered one.”

“Me?” Asks Jon looking confused. King Bran makes a slow nod. “Only Drogon is left, He was one of three much the same as each other. Nothing special as far as dragons go.”

“But you’ve seen him. Since the war.” Say Brann

“I have. He found me, north of the wall, years ago. I thought perhaps he would kill me but, it was more like he came to see an old friend. He seemed....”

“Different?” Says Brann.

“Aye.”

Sam shuffles excitedly “How different?”

“I don’t know. Just different. He was bigger.”

“Yeah. To be expected...” says Sam, making gestures with his hands, pleading for more.

“His scales were different, they had a gleam to them, like steel.”

“Good. Good. What else.”

“He seemed more intelligent. Like there was understanding, like he might almost speak.”

“Hoh boy. Your Grace. I believe Drogon may have been ascending. There are few accounts of ascended dragons, and they all contradict, but they all mention greater intelligence.”

“Very well.” Says Bran. He turns to his kingsguard. “Ser Poderick. Have word sent to Ser Nick to activate the beacon.”

Podersick bows and leaves the room. The room again goes quiet and looks to their king for an explanation. Bran seems lost in thought. Ser Davos again breaks the silence.

“Beacon? Your grace.”

“Something the Targaryens built, long forgotten. It was in disrepair and further damaged in Danaerys’ attack. I had been having it repaired for some time. It’s made from the skull of a mother dragon and mimics the call that brings home her offspring. They would use it to summon their dragons home in the days when they were still allowed to fly free.”

“Wait.” Says Tyrion. “What is the dragon likely to do once it gets here.”

“That,” Says Brann “Is up to the last Targaryen.”

 

Ser Nick, panting as he climbs the steps of a newly built tower, makes his way to the beacon. Dark skinned and a patch over the eye he lost in the war. This is a moment he had hoped would not come. Drogon burned his city, killed his family, and now, he was inviting the beast back to the site of the massacre. But he had faith in his king, and would do his duty. He just hoped the Broken King was right.

He reached the contraption. A mess of tubes and leather grafted to the skull of a monster from another time. He climbs to a small ledge, takes the handle of the enormous bellow and begins to pump. Air begins to whoosh into the contraption, building up momentum and volume until finally it erupts with sound. A shrill hiss on the edge of hearing that makes him feel queasy. He pumps it for a while, like he has been shown and once he has counted to one hundred, stops. For a moment he thinks his ears are ringing, or that his head is still imagining the sound, until he realises, it is coming from all around. Faded, but still strong, the sky seems to sing the shriek back at him. It echoes for the longest time, fading until gone.Then he starts again.

 

“We may face dangers if we do this”  Says Brann. “We will be returning those that still see themselves at war, there could be conflict.”

“This is getting worse by the minute.” Says Bronn. “Look. We survived they didn’t. Fuck ‘em.”

“Fuck them?” Responds Tyrion. “We already did that. All of us who held power before the war, those alive today and those dead. Our squabbling, our lust for power, our intolerance and distrust of each other. It bubbled and boiled until a king was done in by a boar and we wiped out half of Westeros deciding who should take his place. The people, living simple lives, who just wanted to take a spouse and raise some children and not starve to death. We fucked them alright. Fucked them like a half price whore on a festival day. Now is our chance to unfuck them.”

“We’ll need fighters then.” Says Jon.

“There is the standing army here. We can petition the King to call his banners.” Says Brienne before Bran interrupts

“My banners are already on route.”

“In that case.” Says Brienne. “Jon, do you think your sister would send the men north?”

“Probably not.”

“And Arya, do you think you could find her at short notice?”

“Probably not.”

“Would she fight if you could?”

“Probably not.”

“Erm. I thought she was exploring. Seeing what is west of Westeros.” saya Sam

“She did that.” Says Jon. “All she found was  sea before looping round the other side. She is in Westeros somewhere. Killing People that need killing, as she puts it. ”

“Oh”

Bronn leans back. “It’s not looking like much of a mighty force so far. Ser Brienne. What of your suitor? Isn’t he living in the south now.”

“He is nothing of the sort.” She says reddening. “After I… rebuffed him. He fell into a dark place. He would not be of much use to us now.”

“Looks like it is just us then.” Says Bronn. “Or should I say, just you. Last I checked, Master of Coin was not a martial position.”


 

Middle of the night, and a roar cuts through the stillness over King’s Landing. Panic spreading quickly, starting with the brothels, bars and docks open at this hour, soon the screams bleed into every home, people start to run wildly in any direction. The deafening roar and percussive wing beats, last time the city heard this sound, more than half its inhabitants died.

Jon wakes with the sound, and soon a gale is blowing through the windows of his lodgings. He pushes against the force to meet a pair of red eyeballs peering in at him.

“This is bad.” Thinks Jon aloud. “It’ll start a riot.”

Then a thought enters his mind that he is not sure is his own. I should meet him outside the city, in the place where dragons once fought. Then the face of the dragon banks and pulls away, flying north to the old amphitheatre.

 

Jon rides out to meet Drogon with Brienne, Sam, Davos and Tyrion in tow. As they approach Drogon in the arena, he rears up and beats his wings sending a gale towards the envoy. Jon tries to lead his horse onwards towards the beast but it refuses and he is forced to dismount and approach on foot. Drogon is larger than before, and his sharp scales gleam with a metallic finish.

“Thank you for coming.” Says Jon not quite sure if it will understand, but a lowering of Drogon’s head as if in bow suggests he does. “We think you can bring back people that died in the war, the people Daenerys had you kill, and many more. Will you help us? Can you open a way to the past to bring them back?”

Drogon appears to think about it, then turns away. Jon’s shoulders sag with disappointment, until Drogon rears up, a dazzling light welling up from within that permeates his scales and skin. With a sound like thunder, Drogon shoots a blast of white hot flame. It seems to connect with nothing, crashing against empty air as though an invisible wall were present. Slowly the space around the flame begins to warp, then sag, as the fabric of reality melted away. Abruptly Drogon stops and the fire dissipates. What is left is a hole, impossibly floating in the air just off the ground, through it can be seen the same scene, only the sun is brighter, it is late summer, before the long winter. Suddenly a torrent of smoke and blood and filth, the sound of a thousand screams filling their ears. Then as soon as it started, it stops.

“Is it done?” Asks Tyrion.

Jon looks at the Drogon, hearing its thoughts. “Aye. It’s done.” Drogon looks deeply at Jon. “But he is not done.”

Drogon faces the portal and takes a breath, he roars, a shrill shriek like the beacon before. “We had better move. Gather our forces. This… This might have been a mistake.”

Drogon breathes white fire again, and when it stops. The scene in the portal has shifted, a strange city can be seen, blazing sun and people in strange robes, in the distance, a giant pyramid. Drogon shrieks again. The group ride off. Jon steals a glance behind him, unsullied soldiers spill out of the portal, and behind it emerges the head of a dragon.

 

Back at the city, the streets are in chaos, filled with more people than there should be. People reuniting in the streets, hugging, crying with joy and celebrating. Jon and his companions have to push past to get where they need to go. People that were dead meeting those that survived them. As they reach the small council chambers, the other members and the king are already there.

“You wish to ready the troops Jon?” Says King Bran. Jon is stopped in his tracks for a moment. “I understand your confusion. Yes I knew this would happen. But there was no other way. My banners will arrive shortly, but this battle hinges on stark shoulders, we need you Jon, to find your potential. Now go, all of you, prepare for war. I must have solitude.”

With that Poderick pushed Bran out of the room with an apologetic look.

“So what now?” Asks Jon

“As the King said Jon.” reponds Tyrion. “Reach your potential, whatever that means. But I suggest you armor up.”

 

Outside of King’s Landing, the forces of a past queen are assembled. Neat rows of unsullied in dull grey, and a dust cloud full of unsettled dothraki. In the open ground ahead of the armies, a lone figure in white approaches the city, flanked by four dragons. Jon looks nervous as he rides to meet them with Brienne and Bronn close behind. There is a cold silence between them that Daenerys is first to break.

“So this is what my great work comes to. A solitary dragon without a mother, a burned city without a queen. It appears I failed, but fate has handed me a second chance to take what is mine.”

“This time is not yours Dany. Go back, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Who are you to address me so formally? And why do you look so guilty?”

“I am Jon Snow. Ned Stark’s bastard. But really, I am the son of Rhaegar. We were close, but I killed you to protect the people of this world from you. Don’t make me do it again.”

Daenerys laughs. “So you have these people believing that story, that you are the Targaryen heir so that you can rule them with a lie.”

“It is no lie, and I am no king.”

Her mood darkens. “This future is absurd. I will burn it out of existence. You can tell your people and your King, they can stand aside and be part of my empire, or they can join the ashes of the old. But you Jon Snow, will burn for your treachery.” The largest of the four dragons approaches, raising its head. “Jon Snow, I sentence you to die.”

Bronn spurs his horse and casually trotts away, Brienne to her credit waits, but is waved off by Jon. He steps off his mount, and sends it galloping away.

Daenerys shows no emotion as she speaks. “Dracarys.”

 

As the ascended Drogon rears up, the air around them seems to go silent. Then with a bellow as loud as a thousand wildfire explosions, the dragon loets loose and dazzling white sphere at Jon Snow. It bowls past him at speed, flying through a rank of soldier and impacts the outer wall of King's Landing with a plume of fire and smoke, sending rubble flying all around.

Daenerys climbs atop the ascended Drogon and with a beating of its wings, carries her back to her army with the other dragons. Immediately the unsullied begin advancing. Brienne returns to the defending forces, looking weary. Their odds of successful seem distant. Then a row of soldier go rigid, their eyes turning grey. They speak in chorus.

“Fear not Lady Brienne. Help is here. Look to the north. Give the order to attack.”

The men stumble and are themselves once more. Brienne looks to the north. A new force arrives over the crest of a hill, she sees banners from all over Westeros, including Stark, Baratheon and Tyrell. The new force charges and Brienne does the same, followed by her men.

Ahead of the stark banners, Ned and Rob Stark charge their horses towards the battle. The direwolf, Grey Wind by their side. They crash into a flank of Dothraki and begin cutting through them. Ned swings his claymore with ease felling any in his way. Rob darts through them, his wolf by his side. He downs a rider from his mount and Grey Wind descends on his neck to finish the job.

Stanis leads a force, with swords held high, they at once ignite into flame. The Tyrell forces ride into the unsullied, Ser Loras at their head, gracefully dancing around spears with blade in hand

 

Daenerys fumes at her command point, Jorah, Barristan and Daario stand by her side. She sends them away to join her forces, leaving her with an honor guard of unsullied. Daenerys turns and strolls towards her dragon, time to send them into the fray. But Rhaegal seem odd, he is shaking his head like there is a pest in his ear he cannot dislodge. . As she gets closer, his eyes turn grey. Without warning, Rhaegal turns on his brother VIserion. He goes straight for the throat and tears it away. Viserion fights it for a moment, then slumps to the ground with liquid flame oozing from his wound. Young Drogon charges into Rhaegal and they fight, clawing at each other, twisting and leaning to get a good bite of the other. Together they take off upwards.

“No Drogon. Do not kill your brother.” Shouts the Queen. “It is a trick.”

Furious, she turns to the Ascended Drogon. “Wipe out all who oppose me.” Drogon bows and take off.

As she returns to her honor guard, one of them takes a step back then thrusts a spear into one of his companions. Twirling the spear, the traitor quickly dispatches the others. Then dashes towards Daenerys, knocking her to the ground. The unsullied stands over her with his weapon to her neck. Then, he reaches for his face, and pulls it way. Now Arya stands over her.

“I am glad you came back.” Says Arya. “Five years ago I added a name to my list. Today I can cross it off.”

Before she can thrust her spear, she is knocked over by a charging body. She skids across the grass, makes a deft flip and finds her feet in time to be surrounded by unsullied. Jorah lifts his queen from the ground.

“You were told lead the attack. You disobeyed me.”

“And you live because of it. I would disobey you again. Only you matter Khalesi.”

Jorah places an arm around her and leads her to safety as Arya fights of the soldiers.

 

Fighting continues across the plains by the capital. Oberyn wields a spear, making his way through the crowds with ease, the weapon whistling through the air as a blur. Finally it stops against a shield, Grey Worm peers over the rim of the shield then pushes Oberyn back. They exchange a brief nod, then re-engage with furious swipes and jabs.

Across the field of battle, the strong find each other to test each other's mettle. Jamie Lannister, with sword in his right hand clashes steel with Daario. The Hound and the Mountain find each other.

“I have a memory of killing you brother.” Says Sandor

“And I recall I was already dead,” Says Gregor

“Shall we call it even and just kill these arseholes?”

Gregor smiles. The two wade into a group of Dothraki, sending the broken bodies of horses and riders scattering. Once the group is dispatched, the brothers stand side by side, out of breath. The Mountain, without looks, punches the Hound, sending him flying to the side.

A troop of Night’s Watch arrive. Theon and Eddison at their head. At their rear, wildlings led by Mance Rayder, several giants stomp behind them. They run over a flank of unsullied.

Brienne struggles against a group of spearmen, before the axe of Tormund comes swinging at them. Tormund gives her a smile, he looks down at his much expanded gut which his shirt can barely conceal, then tries to suck it in. Brienne looks away in disgust, but cannot stop a hint of a smile forming.

The defending forces seem to be on the ascent, until a roar from the clouds gives each of them pause. The ascended dragon glides down from the sky, it breathes white flames, scouring a line across the defending troops. Men scatter in all directions.

 

At the wall of the city, the remnants of the great fireball still glow hot, the sandstone walls in parts, melted to glass. There is a stirring beneath the rubble and a lone figure stands, blacked with soot, Jon Snow finds his feet. He looks at his hands, surprised to be in one piece. A strange sensation buzzes through his limbs. He doesn’t feel pain, or tired, he feels… ready. Seeing the fight in the distance he draws his sword. He pauses, confused for a moment at the sight of it, the blade glows hot as though it had come from the smiths forge moments ago. Jon shrugs then takes off towards the fight. Words spin through his mind. I am the shield guarding the realms of men.

 

Ascended Drogon continues his assault. Brienne tries desperately to direct her troops as the dragon makes another sweep. Men scream and flail briefly in the white hot flame, but soon crumble to dust. Arya rides past on a horse that she found for no reason. In a corner of the battle, a group huddle together in fear; Littlefinger, Geoffrey, Ramsey, Uron, Cersei, Olly and that bitch from the faceless assassins. Above them, the possessed Rhaegal fights Viserion. They both find the other’s neck and plummet in a death spiral until they crash in a heap of fire and broken dragon on the cowering group.

 

Daenerys calls to the ascended Drogon, her last remaining dragon. He lands behind her, stands over her in protection.

“They must all die for their defiance. Burn them.” Says Daenerys. Drogon is about to comply when the crowd before them parts. A lone man walks through the sea of soldiers. Despite their training as unsullied, some appear scared. Jon Snow walks forward, corpses littered behind him. Daenerys stares at him, furious.

“Kill him. And make sure he dies this time.” Says the Mother of Dragons. Drogon steps over the queen. Jon stares defiantly at the dragon. Drogon takes in a giant breath, a white glow forming in his mouth. He steps right up to Jon. Jon braces, taking a strong stance, his sword gripped tight over his shoulder, tip pointed at Drogon. With a boom heard across the land the dragon breathes a torrent of white flame, engulfing Jon Snow. The blast seems to last an eternity. The Dragon’s spines seem to bristle and glow a deep red. His back arches and with judder, he breathes harder, the flames becoming a cylinder of pure light that cuts across the plain, carving a path through distant hills.

In the flame, Jon strains to keep his feet. He hears the words in his head again. You are the shield guarding the realms of men. He feels a surge of energy, he places a hand before him and a shield of ice in the image of a wolf appears in the air before him. The fires part around it, releasing the pressure on Jon and he is able to walk forwards. Step by step her approaches the Dragon’s maw, finally with his ice shield in its jaws, he reaches forwards and drives his sword deep into the roof of Drogon’s mouth. The fires continue to billow, but now they are drawn inexplicably into the sword and into jon. Finally the fires peeter out and Drogon backs away, a withered husk of his former majesty, his spines receded, his limbs thin and weak. Drogon backs off, tries to summon another flame but cannot. He only wheezes and whines. Jon stands ahead of him, eyes glowing white and skin swimming in an aura of fire and ice. Jon makes a dismissing gesture and Drogon turns and flies away.

The fighting has stopped, all eyes turn to Jon

 

Daenerys falls to her knees.

“How?” She asks.

The spectre of King Bran appears next to her.

“Jon is a bridge. He is the Dragon and the Wolf. Ice and fire. He is Jon Snow of Winterfell and Aegon, heir of house Targaryen. He is balance, in a world in dire need of it.” Says Bran.

“He cannot rule. The throne is mine.”

“There is no throne. And he will not rule, he doesn’t want it.”

Arya walks up, draws her sword. “You are nothing now.” Says Arya. “Not even worth killing.” She strikes Daenerys with the butt of her sword, knocking her out.

 

Jon is still glowing. He looks up to the cold grey clouds and opens his mouth. White light streaks out, piercing the sky. From that point, blue sky seeps out across the sky, letting warm sun flow into the battlefield.

 

The wildlings approach. Mance walks up to Jon smiling. “Are you ready to live you life now son?” Mance asks. Jon just smiles and shakes his hand. Out of the crowd walks Ygritte with a grin on her face. Jon makes a path straight for her, a moment later they are running and they crash into each other’s arms.

“I’m ready.” Says Jon. He plants his sword into the ground, then he extends a hand, from it a gentle light grows, glittering snow falling from it. When he closes his hand, another portal hangs in the air. Through it, the interior of a cave can be seen, a pool of water lies beyond, the pristine water still, with faint steam rising off the surface. Jon and Ygritte walk through holding hands. The portal closes, the sword in the ground the only sign of their passing.

 

Across Westeros. Clouds part and sun washes down, and snow begins to thaw.

 

Weeks later Tyrion climbs narrow steps in the Red Keep. He approaches a heavy iron door. Without a word, the guard stationed there unlocks the door and allows him inside. The interior is comfortable though sparse. Daenerys sits on the edge of a bed, looking out of a barred window. She is dressed in humble clothes, her hair brushed straight and simple. Tyrion pulls up a chair across from her.

“I know you think I betrayed you. But in truth, you betrayed me, betrayed all of us.” Daenerys does not respond, she only stares out at the city that could have been hers. “Do you know why they let you live, and why they gave you such a view of the kingdom. It is so you can see what you always promised to achieve but were unable to deliver. King Bran is a wise, compassionate and just ruler. All of the things I thought you could be.” Daenerys turns away from the window. “Instead you became a tyrant, at least in my timeline. But I suspect that was always to be your fate, I see you were always cruel and bent on revenge. Your betrayal hurts, not for the lives you took, but for the lives you failed. You could have been our greatest ruler, so many had placed their hopes in you. King Bran understands that his duty is to the people. Your whole journey all this time, was only to serve yourself. When you showed your true colours, it was above all else, a disappointment.”

Daenerys silently looks to the floor. With sadness in his eyes, Tyrion leaves.

 

Across Westeros, the land is filled with life, summer had returned, and so will winter, only now, with regularity, no longer with winter be a long night filled with death. In the north, a boy plays with water from a river, running his fingers across the surface, making fractals of ice form. Elsewhere a girl learns she can enter the minds of animals, she enters a soaring creature, a young thing with scaled wings, it flies with brothers and sisters. Magic is abundant once more.Somewhere Bran sits beneath a tree, his eyes grey as he watches his kingdom, a slight smile on his face as his father places a hand on his shoulder.



 

So what was all that about?

Again Spoler Warning - Game of Thrones and Avengers Endgame

This began as an idea I had, that the GoT finale felt like Endgame if they had ended it right after Thor beheads Thanos at the start of the movie. it amused me and I had to write it out. I think this short story best describes why I felt disappointed at the GoT finale. I wanted a big epic showdown, a big bang of a finish. My wife and I played a game after episode five. We took down the name of every surviving major character, then went through trying to predict who would die before the end of the final episode, we’d then count how many each of us got right. After the final episode finished, we didn’t bother counting. The big showdown, fire vs ice, the battle to end all battles that we anticipated, didn’t happen. The last aggressor left in the show was stabbed and everyone had no compulsion to go on fighting. The titular game of thrones was won by default when no players were left.

I think the show was right to end on a sad and sombre tone, Game of Thrones has always been a tragedy. It’s not the show’s fault that I wanted something different.

 

I filled the story with a lot of fanservice. The fans of the show have been very vocal, but pandering to them is never a good idea. Most often, giving them exactly what they want can make a story boring and predictable. The writers were right to stick to their vision, but the best writing gives us something we didn’t know we wanted, which they failed to do.

 

Then there is my little paragraph on the state of the world after the ending. My little rebellion against the “Magic leaving the world” ending seen often in fantasy writing, starting with Lord of the Rings. It was clever at first. “All the magic is gone and only humans are left. Middleearth could be our Earth long in the past.” But now, I just don’t care for it. I read that George RR Martin cited the Tolkien ending as an influence in his ending, and you can see the influence, the giants die out, only one warg remains, white walkers are wiped out and the last remaining dragon just goes away. It’s fine, I’m just not a fan, it’s good for putting a final full stop on a fantasy setting. My magical returning to the world ending might just feel like a tease for a spin off.

 

Finally, if you hadn’t figured it out. Tyrion’s admonishment at the end is him speaking for the audience. I won’t say much, but I will say this, A lot of people had hopes for Daenerys.

What I Learned from Shadow of the Tomb Raider


rat2th

 

In this series I go in depth into what I observed about the game design of titles I have played and what I learned from them. I will talk in depth about the whole game so expect spoilers.

 

For me, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is such a two sided game. There are so many aspects of this game where, I can see what they were trying to do, but it doesn’t quite come off. When this game comes across as bad, it is frustrating because it clearly trying. Often the goals it aspires to are it’s own worst enemy, in that attempted design decisions hold it back, or have the wrong outcomes.

 

SotTR is a modern breed of game, one that tries to do everything. It is a game of stealth, action, exploration, crafting, platforming and puzzle solving and more. As well as having a story and cinematic presentation. There is a lot to be said for knowing what the appeal of your game is and delivering on that as best you can. In this regard, SofTR fails, the good parts are spread thin and diluted by too much other stuff that needn’t be there, but is there because there is a kind of belief in AAA games that these things have to be included.

 

So let’s talk about something it does well first. The puzzles and exploration. My earliest memories of Tomb Raider was the original Playstation game. Lara didn’t talk and didn’t really have a story, it was a 3D, platforming, exploration, puzzle. That DNA still exists. It is just let down by a slightly linea feel to it. As much as I enjoyed the climbing sections, you start to deconstruct the gameplay into what is basically pressing a button when prompted. There is usually only one route through any climb and obstacles present themselves one by one to be overcome with one specific action. The challenge in a way becomes recognising the language the climbs are presented in and understanding what the game wants you to do; A speckled bit of wall, this must be a press x to attach with your hooks bit. White scuffs on a wall, press jump twice to scramble up, It then becomes frustrating when the solution is not that clear and you find yourself dying for and not understanding why. Doesn’t sound that fun when I put it that way but there was a certain challenge and satisfaction to completing them.

 

Exploration is there a plenty. Many open sections allow you to wonder around, take in the scenery and talk to locals, and following the paths here and there is always rewarded in a bit of treasure or some new challenge to take on.

 

As for the puzzles, yes they are mostly linea and require you to find one specific solution, but again that is not such a bad thing. The puzzles usually consist of several moving parts and require experimentation and observation to assess how the elements work together, then building a model of the interactions in your mind to plan a configuration that will help you to your goal before executing said plan. Some things suffer a bit from video game logic (like the ropes that somehow are able to push on attached objects) but once you grok the mechanics, it is great to work through and find the solution.

 

A theme in common with all the above is one of those “I see what you were trying for” moments. You see, the game appears to me, that it was designed to not look to game-like, and to look more cinematic. The HUD is stripped down as much as possible in most case and care is taken to try and have you control Lara with only characters and scenery on display, no health bars, way pointers or other video game clutter. Except so much of the gameplay requires you to be able to recognise what is a gameplay element, and what is functionless scenery or an invisible wall.

Great in theory, but in reality it runs into a little trouble. A vital tool in completing this game was Lara’s survival instinct vision. With a button press, so long as she kept still, you could see the world in a view that highlights important objects. In puzzles, this was key in identifying the components of said puzzle. You might mistake a carving for a bit of set decorations, but seeing it in instinct mode it might glow orange, cluing you in to the fact that it might be an important tool in finding the puzzle’s solution. Then in climbing the distinction from what is a climbable object or not is trained into you. Rather than have glowing highlights for handholds, SotTR teaches you its language. Non Climbable ledges are off putting, overgrown with plants or broken and dilapidated structures, where as climbable handholds are usually denoted by a white marking on their edges.

Sometimes the lushness of the graphics does gameplay a disservice, blurring the lines between scenery and gameplay elements, other times, it does lend a cinematic edge. One could be mistaken for thinking it was non interactive footage as Lara climbs around, precariously hanging from ledges and scrambling to keep hold as the structures invariably break and crumble under her weight. But as a player, you need the information of what is the game and what is scenery, this is where the frustration lies, because in the hundreds of small moments of navigating the world, the game sometimes cannot communicate well enough with its players given its self imposed restriction on game elements that would traditionally help you along.

 

Another drawback of removing video game clutter from the screen is that much of the burden of information giving is loaded onto the writing. Lara has a lot of unnatural sounding dialogue as she pumps out voice lines meant to speak directly to the player. Rather than a quest indicator directing the player, Lara will make little soliloquies to herself but for our benefit. She is constantly telling the player “I have to” do this or “I need to find” that. It beats the usual gameplay trap of “follow the icon and do the thing.” but can get grating after a while. And the game is not great at picking up the difference between using survival instinct vision to get a clue, and using it simply to get a better view of your surroundings.

 

Next, let’s look at - what for me - was the game’s biggest stumbling block, that of the stealth and combat and the sometimes blurred lines between. In short, both thematically as a character, and mechanically, Lara Croft is not built for combat. Which makes sense. She is a normal person in extraordinary circumstances. Lara has as much chance of walking away from a bullet wound as I or you do. She isn’t trained in combat, she hasn’t any ballistic armour, to have her shrug off bullets like a character in a military shooter would be absurd.

It makes sense, throughout the whole game, tension is built around the idea that here is a woman constantly moments from death, fighting tooth and nail to survive. If I am not mistaken, combat serves a smaller part in this game than in the previous installments. I can think of only a handful of moments in which the game implicitly had me fight a group of enemies head on without an alternative solution. And reducing the amount of combat is certainly one way of approaching the problem. But combat was still the most common cause of death in my playthrough, even with the combat difficulty turned down.

I believe the problem lies in the “everything and the kitchen sink” gameplay of the game as a whole. Especially on a console, you only have so much real estate for input controls and when a game tries to do a great many things, you end up with overlap and multipurpose inputs. Designers have to get creative in how they set out inputs. As combat is a tertiary (at best) function of the game, it is stuck trying to fit all that is needed into a relatively small space, this makes the combat feel clumsy compared to what we may be used to in games more centered around gunplay. As an example, there is no input space for cover controls. As we have established, Lara cannot take many hits before dying, so keeping in cover is essential to surviving a firefight. But without a dedicated cover control, it is left as a contextual decision made by the game. Walk to piece of scenery you’d like to use as cover and the game will usually pick up your intent and have Lara crouch and snap into position. But often in a fight, with chaotic movement and aiming at enemies who are moving and flanking, I would often find that Lara had snapped out of cover and was instead,standing proud, out in the open, soaking up bullets.

Then there are all the controls around on-the-go crafting that the game includes. Mid fight we can cobble together special arrow, jury rig explosives and create poisons. All this is handled through a complex system of button taps, holds and tap while holding commands that gets daunting to use accurately whilst bullets are flying around you.

Then there are the sections with melee opponents; wild animals and tribal savages. As badly optimised as the gunplay is in a firefight situation, the frustration only mounts when enemies that move quickly and take many successful shots to bring down, and enemies that charge and swarm you. In these situations it can feel somewhat hopeless. Of course there are upgrades that will help in these fights, but there are usually no way to avoid them, so if you choose to spend points on other upgrades, you may struggle.

And there is the problem, you can choose to upgrade Lara in any of three categories, but with the fights being unavoidable and a large barrier if you keep dying, it can be problematic for those who do not expend points into combat upgrades. Even in stealth sections where you are encouraged to avoid open conflict, any mistake on your part thrusts you into open combat. With some scrambling and hiding you can get back to using stealth. But often it comes down to fighting your way out of the situation or dying and trying again.

I think there are ways that could have made these fights a better experience and more in line with the narrative of Lara Croft. I feel it somewhat out of character to have her mowing down enemies with an automatic rifle. I would have loved to see her utilise some of the scrambling, improvised, split second survival that is a feature in other parts of the game. Perhaps more ways to use her environment to her advantage, ways to fight dirty and tilt the fight in her favour. Perhaps snap decision moments, where the game slows and you can focus your attention of this or that to defend or attack more indirectly. Ie, a troop of gunmen close in, the player gets to decide, do I try to take out the brittle supports of the ledge they are on, or shoot a wasps nest to distract them, or dash through some thick brush to escape momentarily and maybe turn the encounter into a stealth one.

 

The other problematic area for me was the writing. Clearly the historic and archaeological aspects were well researched and dialogue is generally well constructed. But it had a bad habit of raising my eyebrows at its lack of sense. Perhaps a symptom of having a game in place that a story must be delicately constructed around. They present Lara in a light of a well meaning person heaping too much responsibility on herself by trying to stop an evil organisation from destroying the world. But really, the way Lara pins the blame of every bad thing on “Trinity” you could start to wonder who this “Trinity” really is and if she isn’t imagining them or making them the subject of some overblown conspiracy theory. Then there are the natives, a tribe isolated in the jungle for centuries, yet who trade in modern technology, speak perfect English and repeatedly fail to recognise a barely disguised Lara as an outsider despite her British accent and white skin. I just found myself incredulous throughout the story


 

So there is my take on Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Frustrating is the word that best sums it up for me. Not just in the sense of getting frustrated at all the punishing deaths from minor errors and clumsy mechanics. But frustrating in how clearly you can see how much they tried here. There was a lot of care and love put into this game but it missed the mark on so many occasions. I like the idea of making a cinematic game by adding action and suspense packed moments played out with established mechanics rather than the previously used methods of cutscenes or quicktime events. I enjoyed the world and scenery and getting to explore it through character interactions and finding artifacts, puzzles and secrets. I think it suffers the AAA action adventure game blight of trying to be a jack of all trades. In the indie space it is acceptable to focus on narrower gameplay. SotTR probably contains enough material for several games; I would certainly play a game about climbing and puzzling in ancient deathtrap ruins, I would play a one-calamity-after-another survival game where you descend ever deeper into the Heart of Darkness looking for a way out, I would play an environmental storytelling game where you collect artifacts and documents to learn a place’s history. SotTR has all this, plus the seen it all before mechanics that somehow just have to exist in a AAA game or else presumably no one would by it (“You know know what this game needs to sell copies? Guns and crafting, like Fortnite and Minecraft.”). If anything, this game reminds me that as a designer, it is important to keep an eye on what makes your game engaging and deliver on that as best you can. Variety is good, but I felt like the brilliance in this game was forced to be spread very thin and the spaces in between were filled with the everyday and the ill conceived. Oh to have a modern Tomb Raider that is just environment exploration and storytelling, with platforming and puzzles, without the morally dubious story and the endless murder of mercenaries and indigenous peoples. I can dream.

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