I finally care about Lara Croft

They did it. I finally care about Lara Croft.

When the original Tomb Raider hit in the 90s, I was in love with the innovative gameplay--platforming and puzzle solving in 3D!--but I really didn’t like the character. I suppose that’s odd, since as a young teenage boy, I was in the target demographic. I just remember reading an article (it may have been in the long-dead Next Generation magazine, a gaming magazine I saved up my allowance to subscribe to, and one I had a love/hate/respect relationship with, because unlike most publications based on games, it did not give a damn about how old I was; they refused to dumb down the writing), where one of the creators or original developers blatantly said Lara was Indiana Jones but with more T & A. I remember asking a friend at school what that meant, and then being bummed out at the answer. Even then I had a distaste for being so deliberately pandered to.

 

I went on to play many more of the games in the series, but could never bring myself to care about Lara. The character they built up just wasn’t appealing. Indiana Jones was out there cracking whips for the sake of preservation, and Nathan Drake does it because he thinks there’s money in it. Neither are great reasons, but at least they’re acknowledged. Lara was always positioned as a grown-up rich kid out defiling ruins and shooting people just for fun. Again, I can see why this badass, thrill-loving, risk-taking, woman with gigantic boobs would be appealing to a largely white male demographic. To me she was a hollow character with great marketing “assets” who starred in games that featured fun spatial and logic puzzles.

With the Tomb Raider reboot of 2013, developer Crystal Dynamics made an effort to bring the narrative and character up to the increasingly high standard they were setting with gameplay (I didn’t like the old Lara, but Tomb Raider Underworld and Legends are both solid games, gameplay wise). This new Lara was young and inexperienced. Over the course of that game Lara’s skills, endurance, and relationships were tested. While they definitely made Lara more relatable and realistic, I still didn’t feel like I had a grasp on who she was. She was selfless, and strong, and passionate like all good video game heroes are supposed to be, and aside from some hints at some emotional baggage, that’s about it. She wasn’t the old Lara, but she also wasn’t much more than the aforementioned heroic attributes assigned to her as a result of the circumstances she endured in that game.

They planted a seed in the last game, and while she was a bit bland there, I think it paid off. If the 2013 Tomb Raider is The Hunger Games, then Rise of the Tomb Raider is Catching Fire. Like Katniss, Lara’s second outing isn’t just about survival, and that gives her character more room to grow. She’s not stranded, she’s looking for something. She’s not taking risks because she has to--she’s out there climbing a frozen mountain because she wants to. Over the course of this game you can see how this Lara becomes the old one--the badass, possibly murderous, thrills junky. She’s willing to risk her life, and the lives of others she meets along the way, to get what she wants--a relic that will clear her dead father’s name, which we learn was tarnished because of his insistence of said relic’s existence.

She is a character now. You will feel a certain way about her. This is a very good thing.

I’ve always been in favor of game protagonists that aren’t blank slates. Games seem to be obsessed with making the protagonist an avatar for the player. Make them generic so we can be them. While that can be empowering for a player, and lead to some fantastic organic systems-initiated organic stories (think Skyrim), it’s problematic from a directed narrative standpoint. Do you remember the lead character’s name from Watch Dogs? Bob Genericson. What about the guy from Red Faction: Guerrilla? Blandy Blanderson. Who were they? Why were they doing what they were doing? What was their motivation beyond the broad strokes of revenge, or justice? They were symmetrically-faced, gruffly-voiced white dudes. Completely forgettable.

I liked that this new Lara Croft has real motivations. During the game she made decisions I didn’t agree with. She pressed onward when I thought she was being foolish. She insisted the actions I was making her perform through gameplay were righteous when they were clearly selfish. Even when she seemed to selflessly help others, it was not without some hesitation; she was wary of being knocked off course. All of this resulted in a far more interesting character. Was I leading her to ruination as the one behind the controls, or would she turn it around and find redemption? I won’t spoil the specifics, but I think she ended up doing a bit of both. She’s got motivation to put her life in danger in sequels, but she’s also left a fair amount of destruction and death in her wake. Overall it’s a good summer-blockbuster style story with only a few goofy video gamey contrivances (like a final boss fight...this isn’t Mario Bros, we don’t need those). I’d love to see this Hunger Games analogy play out for another game. Maybe we’ll see a grimmer, more determined, slightly cynical Lara next time.

Old Lara from Tomb Raider Underworld, 2008

Old Lara from Tomb Raider Underworld, 2008

New Lara from Rise of the Tomb Raider, 2016

New Lara from Rise of the Tomb Raider, 2016

So what about the gameplay part? It’s fantastic. An absolutely perfect mix of the linear level-based progression of older games, and the open worlds so popular in AAA games today. There’s just enough room in each section of the map to encourage exploration, and just enough set pieces and action to push you forward in the story. The controls are tight, the visuals are astoundingly pretty (the top image is an in-game screenshot I took), and the performances in the cutscenes are excellent. I actually turned off the subtitles (I usually play games with them on), because they were distracting me from watching the life-like performances of the cast (check out the early game cutscene below). With the graphics turned all the way up, there were moments where this game looked like a CG movie, like Beowulf, only less uncanny and more emotive.

That's nuanced emotion on her face! Games are getting better at showing, which means less ham-fisted telling. This excites me. 

I knew I’d enjoy playing this game, which is why I didn’t write a lot about the playing part here--I was more interested in the character and story work. It plays very much like the 2013 game, only better. If you liked that, there’s no reason you wouldn’t like this one even more. And if you, like me, were looking for a reason to finally care about Lara Croft, you’ll find one in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

How I got an agent

So before Movie Title Typos, I wrote novels. Plural, because I wrote two. The first I finished three or four years ago. It was about sidekicks in a world where superheroes had been wiped out. I got more than 20 rejections from agents, all with the same feedback, “You’re a good writer and we like your voice, but this won’t sell.” I was also told at least a half dozen times to turn it into a graphic novel. That had me like:

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Which, yes, fine, it would make more sense as a comic, but at the time I really wanted it to be a novel. Still, I had been to enough writing conferences to see more than a few of those mid-50s writers holding on to that one manuscript they’d written over 20 years ago, convinced it was just one more revision away from getting published. You know the type. Just this in repeat:

I didn’t want to be that, so I shelved that book and considered my time spent on it a learning experience.

Then I wrote another novel, this one a contemporary take on Aladdin. It’s set in high school, and there’s no princess, or magic carpet, and the genie is kind of an ass. I finished this one in late 2012 and started sending it out to agents.

Quick aside, I’ve been asked how I found agents and how I queried. I used agentquery.com, which would often lead me to Publisher’s Marketplace or an agency’s website, and then to a specific agent’s twitter feed or personal site. I would look for agents that represented work like mine, then I’d send out personalized queries, no more than five at a time. It’s a long process, and it can take months to hear anything back from agents, but that’s how it goes. 

I had some early readers going through my Aladdin book while I was sending it around, and one of them came back to me and told me I needed to change the perspective from third to first. That would mean rewriting the entire book. At first I was like:

But then I rewrote the first chapter and was like:

So I spent the next year or so slowly rewriting the book. Turns out it’s more than just doing a find and replace on pronouns. Every description was now coming from the main character, so if it wasn’t something he’d say, it had to be changed to fit his voice. It took a while. 

While I worked on that, life happened. I left Red Ventures, then went back three months later. I had another kid, I took a bunch of art classes online, and then there was this:

I’ve always been a writer who liked to draw, but for many, Movie Title Typos swapped my talents. People thought of me as an artist who could write, despite writing being my main profession for nearly a decade. I bring that up only because it’s still crazy to me that my first published book was a bunch of illustrated jokes, not a novel.

So I got through the book launch, finished off that novel rewrite (and totally included a link to Chronicle Books' Movie Title Typos page in my query, to show I'm a legit maker of things), and started sending it out again in October 2015. This time I was trying to be even more deliberate and picky with who I sent it to—I wanted an agent who could rep me as an author and an illustrator. Normally when people see author-illustrator they think children’s books. While I’d definitely like to do those, I didn’t want to be pinned to them. I needed someone who could rep me as a creative person, someone who could support my whole career, not just my current project. 

That’s where Allison Devereux of Wolf Literary Services comes in. I sent her a query immediately after getting a rejection from another agent (protip: when you get a rejection, immediately send out a new query, or at least start researching who you’ll send it to next. For me, it helps me move on and not take it personally. An agent has to be pumped about your book, and if they’re not, you don’t want them anyway).

Allison liked my query and my sample pages and requested the full manuscript just a day or two after the initial query. I got her request right after landing in Arkansas for a visit to my brother’s house. I got off the plane like:

I sent her the full thing on a Thursday night, then on Sunday night got an email from her. She’d bumped my book to the top of her to-read list and blew through it over the weekend. She loved it! She wanted to talk on the phone Monday morning! I did a bit of this:

Then responded all cool like:

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The next morning I borrowed my brother’s office and talked to Allison. She really did love the book! If it seems like I was surprised it’s only because the only people that had read it so far were the people who rejected it. I mean, I thought it was good…but I’m biased. Allison loved all the things I’d hoped people would love, and she also totally nailed the themes I was going for. For the first 15 or 20 minutes of our phone call she told me all the things she thought were great and I just sat there with a mixture of this:

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And this: 

Then we got to talking about her and her agency and how we might work together. As thrilled as I was to have someone pumped about my book, I needed to make sure this would be a good working relationship. 

Allison had no problem with my “do all the things” approach, in fact she said I was her favorite kind of client to have. She said the agency would be happy to help with illustration stuff if I wanted them to, they’d even help me with big contracts if I needed some assistance. This was looking pretty good, but what sealed the deal was when I asked Allison about herself and career and she told me the first book she ever sold was a book of illustrated parodies. 

Huh. Where have I seen one of those?

I told Allison I’d like to work together, and she said she’d get right to work on line edits of my novel. She said my book didn’t read like it was my first, and that most of her suggested edits would be small—no big sweeping structural changes. That’s pretty cool. 

Once I get those back and make the revisions, we’re off! Allison will send it out to editors, and hopefully we’ll get this book sold. Then I’ll have a novel AND a book of goofy illustrations on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

No big deal.

Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver, Part 8

It's a new year!

I'll be posting here more frequently in 2016. I've got a new position at work and some exciting developments in some personal projects and I'll be sharing all that stuff soon. For now, my final post about Stephen's class. 

The class has been over for months, but I figured I should share my last project. We had to design a set of characters based on traits—shy, athletic, bully, smart. Two boys, two girls.

I decided to try to fit these teens into the short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man show's style. I loved the art style and character design of that show (hat tip to Sean Galloway). It’s a style I’ve always admired, but never tried myself. If you haven't seen it, the show had super thin lines and flat colors, but everything looked really smooth and dynamic. 

Here’s what I ended up with:

I think I was mostly successful.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the feedback video for this one. I forgot to download it before the class closed. But his feedback was in line with a lot of the other things he said during the course. He pushed some of the forms a bit so they could better lean into their traits—a stronger inward hunch for the shy kid, a sassier tilt for the mean girl bully, etc.

The biggest thing I learned in this course (and this assignment was a good example of how I still struggle with it) is how to keep the energy and excitement of a sketch in the final image. Sketches are loose, kinetic, exciting. They're alive with possibility. When you start putting lines down, you tame that wildness. Tame it too much, and your drawing looks stiff and lifeless. It's not an easy thing to do, but I'm more aware of when it happens now than I ever was before.

I went to CTNX for the first time this year and got to meet a lot of art friends I know online in person, and that includes Stephen. I got to do some live drawing at his art studio with a bunch of my Oatley Academy friends. It was so cool!

Stephen has a bazillion students, both online and in person, but he remembered my art and, as I knew he would be, was super nice and friendly. He's an all around good dude, and I'm so glad I got to learn from him.

So if you're thinking about brushing up on your character design, I cannot recommend his class enough. It might be worth it alone just to watch him draw each week. Seeing character design the way he sees it has helped me be more thoughtful about the characters I create.

Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver Part 7

After a bit of a delay (things got hectic late September to early October with my book launch), we're back on track. I finished the course a few weeks ago, and overall it was fantastic. I learned a lot and I can see an improvement in my art. Totally worth it.

Here is the second to last lesson.

For this assignment we were tasked with turning a celebrity into an animal. In the lesson, Stephen turned Steve Buscemi and Sylvester Stallone into birds. The point of the exercise wasn't so much about creating a celebrity likenesses, but more about finding inspiration for character designs from real people. 

His final birds didn't look exactly like those actors, but if they were voiced by them, you'd make the link. Stephen showed us a few examples of characters that took inspiration from their famous voice actors, and the likenesses are usually pretty subtle. 

Just like with previous assignments, I wanted to challenge myself. My wife suggested I draw Kevin Hart, her favorite comedian. I figured because of his stature, I'd turn him into an otter. It wasn't easy!

First I Google image searched him.

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Then I tried to find his most defining features. What things would you need to see in an animal to connect it to Kevin Hart?

With these loose sketches and notes (and a random doodle of an otter), I was ready to take on the image. Here's what I ended up with:

Not bad! If this otter was voiced by him, I'd totally believe it. In Stephens' feedback, he agreed that this was a challenging celebrity to take on, but he made some solid suggestions that would sell the likeness even more. 

Next week I'll post the final assignment! Since the class ended, I've been going back and cleaning up some of my assignments based on Stephen's feedback. I'll cover those after I'm done with the class posts. Until then!