In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
I didn’t think it would be that bad. Time makes the most outlandish things seem quaint, almost innocent, once their edges have been smoothed out by the years. That’s how I approached Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix when I revisited it for this column. I expected the Barbarella effect. The once-bawdy slice of exploitation would become playfully campy under modern scrutiny.
The promise of historically delightful camp isn’t all that drew me to the game. Fear Effect 2 was the culmination of the “sex sells” years for the game publisher Eidos, an era that began with the ’90s ascent of Tomb Raider and its curvy star, Lara Croft. In the present day, Raider has been re-imagined with the specific goal of wash away its sex-object roots what does Fear Effect 2 look like? Far worse than I imagined. Like, really bad. But as much as it highlights the Tomb Raider reboot as work of narrative maturation, it also demonstrates how much less fun the modern game is to play.
When it came out in 2001, Fear Effect 2 looked like the worst byproduct of video games’ adolescence. The lead characters aren’t just scantily clad girls, fellas! These are scantily clad LESBIANS! They shoot people and touch each other’s boobs. The advertisements said so. It was the fever pitch that Eidos had been building toward since the summer of ’97, by which time Tomb Raider had become a phenomenon and video games had their first bona fide sex symbol. “Bigger than Pammy, wiser than Yoda,” declared Britain’s The Face magazine. (Those were, I promise, topical comparison points in 1997.)
Eidos, sensing the profitability of breasts, made a full-court press. The publisher was pumping out a new Raider every year, with Lara showing more skin each time out—compare and contrast. At the same time, Eidos applied mammary enhancement to other popular genre fare. Raider had guns and adventure covered. For swords and sorcery, Eidos backed Deathtrap Dungeon, a game whose lack of subtlety remains impressive. Fear Effect followed in 2000, a sci-fi horror game that would capture the booming Resident Evil audience by placing a prostitute-turned-superspy in the lead role. The game sold well, and Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix hit a year later.
The ads for Retro Helix are tame compared to what’s waiting in the game. One of the first images you see, with little setup or context, is a man throwing a huge handful of money on top of a sleeping, nude woman. That’s not inherently bad on its own, per se. Perhaps this is pertinent to the tale of espionage and sinister supernatural dealings that follow! It’s certainly a blunt but effective way to establish that guy as a bad person.
Nope! He actually doesn’t show up for hours. The scene’s just there for ambience, to set the tone for how the lead characters, two lovers named Hana and Rain, are treated as the story goes forward. There are plenty of gratuitous shots of the two undressing throughout, and enough pun-filled dialogue to fill an omnibus of Penthouse Forum letters. This Maxim-level stuff is the tone of the whole game, punctuated by some truly ugly shit now and again.
For example: The first chapter of the game sees the pair sneaking through sewers beneath a corporate research facility, and it culminates with Rain being kidnapped by a mutated freak, and then bound up in her underwear. When you find her, playing as Hana, there’s an enormous, penis-shaped insect writhing on her groin. (The game never offers an explanation for the giant bug.) After Rain is freed, she and Hana discuss infiltrating a party in the building above. Hana tells Rain to back her up while she sneaks in as a guest, and Rain complains that Hana always gets all the fun. “You just had your fun on that pony ride back there,” says Hana.
Now, at first blush, Tomb Raider 2013 (published by Square Enix, which acquired Eidos in 2009) doesn’t look like it has evolved much from the days of Retro Helix. Barely five minutes of the game go by without the neophyte Lara Croft being thrown into some grisly predicament. In just the first few hours, Lara is impaled on an iron spike, groped by some greasy thug, and dragged by her ankles through a cave. She pretty much falls off of every cliff on the island she’s stuck on.
None of these moments involve much interaction on the part of the player. They’re color, tone for the story. These are the same sort of torture porn maneuvers used in movies like Hostel Part 2 and The Descent to make the eventual violent empowerment of their heroines so affecting. A seemingly fragile woman endures constant physical hardship and becomes a warrior as a result.
It’s a formula that works, and for the most part it’s one that works in Tomb Raider. Lara Croft isn’t just treated as a sex object in Crystal Dynamics’ game. She’s not a prop like Hana and Rain are in Retro Helix. At the beginning of the expedition, Lara is an intelligent student living in the shadow of her father’s career as an explorer. By the end, she’s an adventurer in her own right. She overcomes fear, danger, and even an angry god to save herself and her friend. In the closing moments of the game, she doesn’t say that it’s time to go home and rest. She heads right back out for another quest. “I’m not going home,” she says, staring out at the horizon. It’s a badass moment for a character who used to be just about bust size. Not subtle, but moving all the same.
For the person playing, though, it’s not much of a badass moment at all. Tomb Raider has a strong story but not a whole hell of a lot to do. Lara jumps up mountains and crumbling ruins just like she did back in 1996, but there’s no mystery of how to get from point A to B since nearly every useful ledge is highlighted in some way. Fall off one, and you’re back where you started in seconds. There are only seven puzzles to solve in the game’s optional tombs, and these are about as conceptually challenging as the word search on a box of Captain Crunch.
For the most part, what you do in Tomb Raider is shoot people, over and over again, and surviving is as easy as hiding behind a metal wall while your health comes back. It’s hard to feel powerful when the hurdles in your way are barely ankle high. Lara changes, but you don’t.
Which makes Retro Helix a conundrum. These heroines are treated like dirt by the writers for the sake of titillating the player—far worse treatment than Lara gets—but it’s fun and rewarding to play around in their world. For starters, bullets are actually dangerous. Every confrontation in Retro Helix is tense since you can be killed almost instantly.
Combat isn’t really the game’s primary activity, though. Most of your time is spent exploring its cramped settings, figuring out how to move forward, and solving some excellent spatial and logic puzzles. There are no dialogue prompts telling you what to do, either. Stumble into a hall filled with super-heated steam? Better find the plumbing controls. Don’t know how to use them? A safety diagram on the wall half-explains it, but you still need to do heavy mental lifting to reach the solution. Retro Helix is difficult, obscure, infuriating, and deeply satisfying when you make progress.
Video games are trudging out of their adolescence these days, and it’s slow going. The content of game stories is, by and large, improving. Lara Croft is no longer the star just because she’s stacked. It’s still a factor, naturally. People like stories about good-looking people. Tomb Raider 2013 feels like a big step forward from the first empire built by Lara Croft. But it also feels like two steps have been taken back. “Don’t bother thinking, just look at this body,” said the old games. “Don’t both thinking, just press forward on the controller,” says the new. The stupid misogyny of Retro Helix isn’t missed at all, but it’s hard not to long for a game where it feels like the player matters.