Usual rules apply: The script below was my working script and there are copious differences between it and the final product, so don’t take it as gospel.
Also, this episode contains spoilers for the following recent games:
- Tomb Raider (2013) – Pretty much everything.
- Uncharted 3 – No real spoilers, but scenes presented without context. I don’t know, people are sensitive about spoilers.
- The Walking Dead – Footage from the first 30 minutes. Again, nothing plot relevant, but people can be anal about this stuff and I’m sick of actually having to mention it in the script/video.
Oh, and the YouTube link, just for completeness.
That said, the script:
I never really understood why Lara Croft became the cultural icon she did. I mean, I *do* understand it. To marketers she was a wonderful tool for selling Tomb Raider games – sexy and eye catching and iconographic. And to pop culture at large she was convenient because she was a visual shorthand for everything videogames were at the time – low-fi 3D setpieces of violence and adventure that announced loudly and proudly that they aimed exclusively at an 18-34 year old straight male demographic. A low-poly, big busted 3D lady with short shorts and dual pistols drawn giving the camera a big Dreamworks style smirk said everything you needed to about videogames in the late 90’s.
But I never understood why players *themselves* embraced her. Firstly because the Tomb Raider games never really settled on a specific focus: neither the puzzles, the combat, nor the platforming were ever exactly best-of-breed. And they didn’t blend dynamically together very well either – there were shooting sections and platforming sections and puzzle sections but it never congealed into a cohesive whole nor was any part of it particularly satisfying. It was more of a warmed over buffet of a few different game styles that had been sitting in the heat lamps too long rather than one single gourmet entree.
More importantly, though, I don’t think Lara Croft was ever a particularly strong or empathetic character. Really, I think she’s kind of a sociopath. She has an addiction to adrenaline and a desire for extreme thrills that puts her needlessly in harm’s way. (“TR2 intro?”) She doesn’t hesitate to slay endangered wildlife. She kills countless mercenaries without a thought and without offering quarter, and often in situations where her goal is to just be the first one to get a trinket. She’s fabulously wealthy and came to that money by way of inheritance, and now she just uses all of that money to finance her archeological digs turned crazed murder sprees, not in the name of furthering anthropological knowledge but instead in the name of self-aggrandizement and thrill seeking. (“I only hunt for sport.”)
Unfortunately for Eidos Lara Croft’s rockstar status peaked around Tomb Raider 2 or 3 and never quite recovered. 2007 saw Uncharted take the Tomb Raider formula and actually make it palatable for a modern audience with free-aim cover shooting and improved platforming mechanics. Tomb Raider Underworld, released just a year later, immediately felt dated. It was a cartoonish, shallow, clunky, absurd relic of the PSX era at a time when Nathan Drake was running with the “contemporary Indiana Jones” schtick and actually selling it. There’s some dispute about whether the game was ultimately profitable or not, but poor initial sales figures made it clear that the series had become an also-ran in the 3D action-adventure genre it helped create. If Tomb Raider was going to continue as a franchise post-Uncharted it needed to reinvent itself with a modern hero, modern mechanics, and a modern aesthetic sensibility. Auto-lock on combat and the world’s most most ridiculous cleavage-and-butt revealing swimsuit just wasn’t cutting it. (cut this line)
Which brings us to this year’s Tomb Raider reboot. According to Geoff Keighley’s Final Hours of Tomb Raider, the team at Crystal Dynamics went through several iterations of game mechanics in an attempt to reinvent the series, from a Shadow of the Colossus style game about fighting giants to a game where you play as both Lara and a magical little girl to a horror game. And arguably at least some of the horror influence stuck – the new Lara seems to pull her signature pickaxe from the film The Descent, and at least one scene in Tomb Raider is a direct reference to British horror film.
But ultimately they settled closer to Tomb Raider’s established wheelhouse – the game is functionally a marriage of Uncharted’s platforming and third person combat with bits and pieces from Arkham Asylum. Batman’s detective vision, the shallow leveling up system, the linear power unlocks, and tons of collectibles that made that series a success are all here.
When compared to Uncharted the platforming is… similar. And by similar I really mean almost indistinguishable. There are scripted sequences where you almost fall but Lara catches herself at the last minute, and lots of auto-assisted jumps and grabs to make these segments more thrilling to watch than to play. As with Uncharted it’s not so much a matter of skillful platforming but more a matter of path finding – figuring out which rail or stone ledge leads the way to the next.
But surprisingly the combat arguably feels better here than in Uncharted – the dynamic cover system is a little wonky but it makes fight sequences have a more dynamic flow than a Gears of War style stop-and-pop. And the weapons themselves feel powerful and decisive where Uncharted feels floaty and ineffectual. Really, combat does its thing in both games pretty well – in Uncharted it sets the swashbuckling adventure tone where shooting bad guys is treated like meaningless henchmen. In contrast, Tomb Raider’s combat is fast and mean and painful for all parties involved. It’s so common and boring that it sucks for character building, but it does a great job of establishing the tone and lethality of the island. But if I had to choose which one feels better in my hands overall.. I’d have to go with Tomb Raider’s solid, mostly heavy and visceral combat.
The game’s only real mechanical weak spot is a fondness for quick time events – or at least badly designed quicktime events. The Walking Dead has shown it’s possible to engineer QTEs in such a way that the mechanics reflect an emotion they’re going for – the panic of trying to line up cursors that emulate a hand scrambling for a dropped shotgun shell or the visceral anger of pounding on a zombie’s face after it’s already dead. While they may not be full mechanics they can still be used artfully to communicate a character’s experiences or feelings to the player in a way only games can provide. And in Tomb Raider the vast majority of them just don’t work. They’re the normal simon-says junk that lets something awesome happen on screen while you flail away at a controller pretending that you’re interacting.
I’d go so far as to say there are only two that ever really clicked for me. First, there are times where if you don’t catch a ledge just right or if you come in at a weird angle Lara will need to quickly strengthen her grasp or risk falling entirely. This was actually done in Tomb Raiders past, but I’m glad they kept it – it’s fast and it’s reactionary and it keeps you on your toes when platforming. The other – and I know I’m going to catch hell for this – but the other is the standard God of War door opening mechanic that requires rapid presses of a single button. But in God of War it never really made sense – he was a super strong literal god who had trouble opening doors for himself. Here, though, it gives a sense of the island’s hostility – even simple acts like opening doors and lockers requires exertion and the help of a tool. It’s a mechanic that helps emphasize both Lara’s lack of physical strength and the amount of exertion the island is demanding from her – and any mechanic that can help tell your story or make your point is a good one to keep around. The rest of the QTEs are goofy boss fight or scripted escape sequence nonsense and they don’t do anything other than show you a nifty cutscene you can pretend to be a part of.
But on the whole, the game mostly works – mechanically anyways. It doesn’t feel like a game from 1996 or 2002, it feels like a game that comes the here and now. Well, scratch that, actually – it feels like a game that comes from the past three to five years. It’s not a forward looking game; it doesn’t blaze any mechanical trails, it doesn’t have any systems you haven’t seen before, and it doesn’t even combine them in particularly new or interesting ways. If you’re looking for a videogame that does inventive or daring things – or even just gives a nice twist to established concepts – you won’t find it here. But considering that the last game played like this (tomb raider combat, platforming) it’s hard to complain too much, especially when one thinks about how awful a new Tomb Raider game could have been, and how much ground Crystal Dynamics is making up in its mechanics. It’s a competent if completely derivative outing from a design perspective.
But if we move away from raw mechanical implementation and instead look at presentation things get… conflicted? Not bad, exactly, but, well…
I thought going into Tomb Raider that the game’s big problem was going to be an overwhelming sense of ludonarrative dissonance. They were really pushing this frightened young woman angle, but then showing all of these hyperviolent assassination moves and extreme combat. It felt like it was going to be another game like Max Payne 3 – a story that was ostensibly about one thing, and a series of mechanics that were very much about something else. And that’s still definitely here, but only really in the first third or so of the game.
That first third of the game wants to be a coming of age story – or if not a proper coming of age story, at least a story where a young woman full of self-doubt and insecurities discovers just what she’s capable of and in the process finds herself.
This is far and away the game’s most interesting and emotionally resonant conceit, and there are a ton of little touches that make it work. There’s the obvious stuff, like when Lara is alone and afraid, shivering into her knees while she begs for someone to come save her. She apologies to a deer she kills early in the game, and she sobs and gags after taking her first human life.
More than anything else, though, the game tries to get you to empathize with Lara because of its own incessant brutality towards her. It wants you to understand how serious this is and how much danger Lara’s in. But in order to do that it inflicts a lot of pain on Lara. Like… a lot. <Montage> Ostensibly the game attempts to use Lara’s physical fragility as a visual metaphor for her ruggedization. Early in the game when Lara is still emotionally weak and unsure of herself she gets hurt in ways that make you cringe, but as her will to live grows more resolute those scenes are reduced in frequency. But still… at times the game comes off like it’s kinda getting its rocks off seeing its protagonist get punched, pummeled, stabbed, and drowned.
One of my favorite, more subtle touches used to convey Lara’s story involves her muttering “I can do this” to herself. Early in the game it sounds like she’s simply trying to convince herself that she’s not incompetent as she climbs trees or cliffs, but as the game progresses it becomes increasingly reassuring. By the time she climbs to the top of the antenna tower (arguably the highest point of the island) and has proven her will to survive against some of Matias’ strongest followers, her self confidence is so strong that her “I can do this” is now a simple statement of fact.
The only real problem with the “self doubt giving way to confidence”/coming of age story as a game is that we rarely empathize with Lara through play. We’re handed an already quite serviceable set of gunplay, stealth, and platforming mechanics right out the gate. While those get added to as the game progresses we never feel ourselves gaining proficiency with them. If you’re halfway competent at third person shooting the opening gunfights are just as trivial and full of headshots as the last gunfights. The mechanics are actually so wrote and the game itself so easy that gamers will feel incredibly comfortable and confident from the word “go” – which is exactly the opposite of what they should feel!
Ironically the original Tomb Raider games instill a feeling of self-doubt and despair much more strongly than the modern game does. The controls are awkward, you never can quite position yourself properly, your jump has an odd time delay, screwing up often plummets you back down several complicated platforming steps, and the blocky, low visual fidelity of the levels means you’re never 100% certain you’re going where you’re supposed to. In preparing for this video I spent, and I’m not joking, in excess of 20 minutes in the very first platforming section of Tomb Raider 2. Wasn’t sure I could even do it. But once I did it was a victory that I could cherish, I proved to myself that I could do it. That sense of overcoming adversity is something 2013’s Lara experiences in the narrative, but I never get to experience as a player – which is a shame because that’s actually something games are really good at conveying!
Unfortunately at around the time Lara has climbed to the top of the radio antenna the narrative begins to switch tracks. With its young protagonist getting stranded in the wilderness and learning how to care for herself with simple tools, the first part feels like a bit like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet – although I guess in this situation the novel would probably be called Pickaxe. Regardless, from this point the story starts trending away from coming of age/finding yourself young adult fiction and veers violently into sort of a Batman Begins style origin story.
I don’t know how much of this was intentional, because the actual narrative arc still leaves plenty of room for Lara to to be doubting herself and struggling with inner demons right up until the end. Reyes and others are constantly doubting her intuition, instincts, and abilities. And as the game progresses just about everyone she tries to save dies – Grim dies, Roth dies, the pilot dies, Alex dies.. the only person she actually manages to save is Sam. And that gives you this plot structure that sets up a character arc that should have taken her the whole game to complete. Instead she’s a confident and self-sufficient survivor by the antenna scene. By then her arc is over and what we’re left with is a pretty flaccid, predictable action movie plot.
As a result all of those deaths don’t feel much like character growth – they feel like cheap versions of Bruce Wayne’s parents, giving Lara enough motivation to start approaching the bloodthirsty sociopath of old games. Early game Lara runs around saying this: “Stay away from me!”. Angry psycho Lara says this: “I AM COMING FOR YOU ALL!” This is definitely beyond “doing whatever one has to in order to survive” and has clearly entered the realm of “hot-blooded revenge quest where none shall be spared.” And there are little nods to the idea that this is as much origin story as anything else. Roth makes mention that Lara is a Croft and has a name to live up to – and while there’s a narrative context for that relating to her father’s legacy, it’s hard to ignore when hearing those lines that this Lara Croft is also heir to a legacy of 15 years worth of videogames. As the game progresses Lara’s shirt dirties from a light grey to a navy blue that more closely matches the hue of the original Lara Croft designs. Even the unlockable models name the Lara with the white shirt as quote-unquote “Innocent Lara” while the beaten and battered middle of the game model is more formally named “Lara Croft,” implying that the true nature of the Lara Croft character is the super hero videogame character and not the scared little girl. All signs point to the idea that this isn’t a game about one woman finding herself, but one woman’s transformation into a videogame icon.
The last hours of the game feel like a big lead up to that final sequence where we get our iconic the-super-hero is born moneyshot. You know, Batman brooding over Gotham, Spawn on top of a church with his cape in the wind, Spiderman web-slinging across New York… and then there’s Lara Croft, pony-tailed blue-shirted sociopathic adventurer firing silver pistols akimbo into her latest victim. All of that interesting inner drama is gone and replaced with the reveal that our beloved Lara Croft is back, right where we left her.
And that seems to be the game’s core problem – there’s this palpable tension between the game’s legacy and the parts that are perhaps the most worthwhile. Even the title is awkward now – Lara Croft doesn’t really raid tombs any more than Mario cleans pipes and unclogs toilets. The new Lara is an archeologist who would want to preserve and research a dig site, not raid it for treasure. When she finds trinkets in the overworld the player turns them over on screen the way Lara would turn them over in her hands, looking for additional information and clues. Lara will read off what she knows about the history of the object, and if she notices any details while palming it she’ll give more flavor text. Everything about this mechanic works – it lets the player interact with and appreciate doodads the way Lara does, it shows us Lara geeking out about obscure history, and it lets us know a bit more about her character and the world she’s in while rewarding the player with experience and collectibles. It’s mechanics and story working together to build empathy with the player, and it’s beautiful.
But the second she’s in a tomb it’s completely different. Once the puzzle is figured out players are presented with a stereotypically giant, ornate chest full of nondescript gold trinkets where Lara just reaches in yanks the first thing she likes out. We don’t ever see what she’s taking or why she’s taking it. It feels contrived and game-y; a prepackaged reward that players have come to expect after completing a task with Pavlovian anticipation. These tombs don’t flesh out the universe or the island or the cultists very well at all, and if anything they directly contradict most of Lara’s established character.
I mean, think about that – Tomb Raider is now a game where raiding tombs is out of character and feels like a forced gameplay contrivance. This is a game at odds with its namesake; a game constrained by its legacy and expectations. It’s clear the developers wanted this to be a game that mattered on some level; that . And the game opens strong – it does! And for those few hours I got to watch Lara go from alone and afraid to confident and resolute I’m grateful. But so much of that character growth and human weakness is front loaded in the Hatchet part of the game, and by the end you’re basically playing Arkham Asylum’s Gears of Uncharted. Lara’s weakness is undercut by her being a death machine, Lara’s fear is undercut by the blind jumps and graceful falls, Lara’s anger is undercut by a lack of exposition explaining why we should care about her friends. It’s a game that lost me emotionally even as it won me over mechanically.
That said, I can’t help but end on an optimistic note. Crystal Dynamics has proven that they can take a callous, sociopathic sex symbol of a bygone era in gaming and make her fresh and relevant and sympathetic and above all human. And now we’ve got a Lara Croft with unresolved daddy issues, an axe to grind, and who knows what emotional baggage from this game. There are a lot of worthwhile places you can take this character from here. And after all, origin stories are hard to do. Batman, Spiderman, and X-Men all had just okay-ish origin story movies that went on to have fantastic sequels that let them focus on their thematic elements instead of their hero’s creation. Of course, they all also had really bad third movies but never mind that right now! I’m hopeful Tomb Raider could be one of those – a well produced but structurally awkward origin story that sets the table for a smarter and more focused follow up. The real question is whether Crystal Dyanmics can push back against the industry standard calls for sequels to be “Bigger, Better, and more Badass” and instead make a game that’s “smaller, more focused, and more meaningful.”