Tombs & Treasure Case Study

This post should be sub-titled, “Making Me Appreciate Modern Save Game Mechanics.”

This has been a writing week for me, as I’ve made it through my play-throughs of Tombs & Treasure, the first game in the series of 10 case studies for my dissertation. I wish I could express the mingled feelings of nausea, anger and relief that sentence causes in me. It’s been a long week.

Tombs & Treasure only allows you to save the game through the use of the Ixmol Jewel, an item you receive early on in play. By LOOKing at the jewel, you receive a 16 character alpha-numeric code, which has to be entered in to save your game, and then entered in again anytime you want to load your game. This combined with linear gameplay that doesn’t give you any hints about where to go next, and the game allowing you to use items incorrectly and assemble items into new combinations without being able to disassemble them, means that it’s very easy to end up in fail-states in which you don’t die, but can’t progress and can’t retreat. In these cases, all you can do is restart from a save, assuming you have one. Good luck if you failed to write your 16 digit code down correctly, or you made a mistake in item combination that didn’t have a ramification until 3 or 4 saves on. I spent a lot of time this week upsetting my dogs by throwing a vintage NES controller on the ground and stomping away.

In better news, the writing process has been very good this week. I’m about halfway through the case study write-up, and have finished all of the discussion on the material culture in the game. My goal for next week is to bash out a first draft of the ethical issues encountered in the game. I made much better progress this week than anticipated, and I’m a week ahead of where I needed to be to meet my deadline. Having this extra bit of time has mentally made a difference, as it’s allowed me to do things like work on data visualizations as I go, without feeling guilty about doing so.

In terms of material culture, Tombs & Treasure is situated in Maya archaeology, sort of. The game is set at Chichén Itzá, anyway. A lot of what I’ve written about is how Maya imagery and materiality is co-opted for narrative and mechanics purposes. There are issues in the game with the level of archaeological research that occurred during development, and how that research plays out in practice. On the one hand, the game represents Maya archaeology reasonably well, through representations of architecture, monumental sculpture, and general aesthetic. On the other hand, there are areas, like murals versus vase painting, where I can see research path the developers were on, and where they just…didn’t get it.

Authenticity isn’t my chief research concern though, archaeological representation is, and those two things aren’t actually the same. I’m more interested in how archaeological material is being used to drive narrative, and being utilized in mechanical choices, than whether the details of the in-game ceramics are accurately depicting Sierra Red. A lot of my time this week has been examining each in-game artifact and determining where it falls on my three axes of analysis – physical composition and makeup, cultural distance and anachronism, and conceptuality of usage. I’ve had to consider what each item means, in its archaeological context out of game, in its archaeological context in game, and in its ludological and narrative roles.

I’m glad I started with this case study, as frustrating as the game has been, technologically. I have a background in Maya archaeology, and doing this case study first has meant working within an archaeological framework that I feel comfortable in, and that I trust myself in. I chose to leave Maya archaeology, but I didn’t stop loving it, problematic as it is.

A shout-out to my friends in Maya archaeology, some of whom who are in the field RIGHT NOW.