On Tomb Raider

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
  • This piece was originally written for my old site, Oh What? Oh Jeez! As such, it may not have transferred over properly and some images and links might be broken (and, to a lesser extent, my writing from years ago is about 80% run-on sentences).

I do my best thinking plunging off cliffs.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: Legend

I recently (and by recently I mean in early January, but sod off; when you have an audience of none you are perfectly allowed to procrastinate) finished the 2013 remakimagining of Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider (Tomb Raider, that is, not Tomb Raider) was both a disappointment and handily demonstrates a lot of things wrong with modern vidyagames. Whereas Tomb Raider is rightly revered as a gaming classic, a hugely influential action-adventure game and a thing that was good, Tomb Raider is none of these things.

A reasonable place to start would seem to the the gameplay, which aims to be just unambitious and still manages to fail. Actual gameplay consists of a small proportion of the game itself and consists of standard Uncharted-style fare; lots of hiding behind conveniently-placed walls and playing whack-a-bloke with guns. Of course there are incessant quicktime events, but Tomb Raider deserves respect for going one step less engaging: holding forwards whilst scripted wonders occur onscreen. Uncharted did this too of course, and they’re by no means the only offenders, but at least Uncharted allowed you to walk towards the camera and die if you desperately wanted to rage against the machine; as an experiment in one section of Tomb Raider in which Lara found herself wading through a partially-flooded cave, flaming torch held above her head and miraculously not choking her with smoke, I stopped holding forwards. Lara stopped, so far so good. I moved backwards. Lara did a reverse breaststroke animation but remained in the same spot. The animation would suggest that at one point moving backwards was possible, but in a scene straight from the Half-Life 2 developer’s commentary, playtesters got confused and it had to be removed. Moving to the left and right have absolutely no effect, not even a canned animation. These scenes happen every so often when something is chasing Lara over a cinematically rickety bridge, but they are also used when entering and raiding any of the titular tombs (now only a side activity, which kind of sums up the attitude of this whole game towards its IP), I assume to mask load times, making them more frequent annoyances than in similar games.

Almost as if they realised a few months from release that they’d forgotten to make enough game to call Tomb Raider a game, the developers have positively flooded the game with pointless collectibles for padding, some of which reward you with: audiologs (another check on the Shit Modern Games Have to Include list) which miss the feature’s strengths, i.e. relaying small fragments of backstory in a form that can be digested whilst still playing the game, and instead read the player paragraphs of text only whilst in a menu; paragraphs so long they have other, smaller summary paragraphs to the side. Lengthier books as backstory work in a game like Morrowind, where the backstory and lore is actually worth giving a damn about, but it just bottlenecks the experience in Tomb Raider; scrap, the currency in the game which (better get that checklist out again) can be spent on upgrades for Lara’s equipment and abilities, because of course it can. When designing what is meant to be a gritty and realistic survival story, I would have the perky young post-grad be able to mash scrap, which in this game is everything from bird eggs to the contents of inexplicable crates of metal components just laying around in the jungle, onto her shotgun to give it incendiary shells. Harrowing survival against the elements and all that.

This leads onto another issue with the gameplay, in that the sense of missed opportunity is palpable throughout. After the lengthy intro in which you hold forwards a lot and shake the analogue stick eventually Lara stumbles (her only mode of transportation throughout the game as she falls over every cliff, rock or stone and is survived only by the fact that she has a spine made out of adamantium) upon a campfire under a rocky outcrop. Wearing only a tank top and drenched by the heavy and all the bodies of water she just stumbled through, she shivers and her teeth chatter as she sets up a fire. Good mo-cap work aside, this seemed like it was going to lead into some sort of survival mechanic wherein you have to keep Lara from freezing to death (a la Cryostasis, perhaps) by finding flammable material where you can, or something to that effect. Nope, the fires are just for upgrades, saving your game and fast travelling to other fires. Okay then, but how about the hunting mechanic that gets introduced shortly after? Will I be stalking the jungle of this island for more than just man? Nope again. Outside of the introductory tutorial wherein meat is retrieved from animal corpses for Lara to put off starving with, their bodies offer up only the enigmatic scrap, which in Lara’s capable hands seems to include all of matter. The missed opportunity with hunting is doubly egregious, because Lara’s prodigious bow ability is never explained, where even a single line about her being a hunter before the events of the game would have served to both justify it and segued nicely into the hunting mechanic. But nope, disappointment is the order of the day.

That disappointment is remarkable, considering I went into the game with barely any expectations to disappoint. I had largely ignored the game when it came out, as burned-out from the farce that is gams jarnalism as I was back then, but I saw the above image (or a similar one) in some article somewhere, presumably on the AV Club and my dereliction boner rose. The same dick-powered drive that leads me to fawn over S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and has me dreaming of visit to Chernobyl led me to download the game and play it without reading a further thing. I don’t know anything about it, maybe it’s about exploring an abandoned island or something, I naively thought. All I knew was that it was supposed to be a mature videogame for mature gamers such as myself reimagining of Tomb Raider, its Rhianna Pratchett-penned story had been lauded by vast swarms of the gams jarnalist masses and there was some sort of brouhaha before release about some scene seeming a bit rapey. I have a theory about games writing (or at least AAA games writing) which is that it is largely the domain of writers too terrible to make films and who turn to a medium with far lower standards wherein their shoddy writing gleams like some overpolished turd. For the finest example of this, see David Cage. I don’t know how accurate this is for Ms Pratchett (although Wikipedia says she is now moving into filmwriting), and of her previous credits I remember Heavenly Sword as being nothing more than safe and inoffensive, Mirror’s Edge barely had a story to cock up and <emciteOverlord was sometimes amusing, but this attempt at something bigger and more serious seems to suggest either incompetence or confusion.

The aforementioned controversy-causing sorta-rape scene is about when I gave up on the story, which is unfortunate as it’s about half an hour in. Lara’s stumbling her way through a village as it is torched and hordes of unnamed crewmates from the ship she crashed in on are butchered. Eventually, she sees the bearded leader of the unknown enemy coming her way and wedges herself between two buildings. On account of the fact that she decides to stop when barely concealed and then pants like a dog, he finds her and brings her out at gunpoint before running a hand on her. It’s perhaps telling that vidyagames as a medium are such a joke, narratively, that shit was flipped over this. I can think of many examples (code for I’m sure I could if I tried but none are coming to mind so take my word for it) in films, TV and books where similarly sexually threatening scenes are used to show the stakes in play for a female character. These are shifty grubby foreign types, generally narrative shorthand for rape machines, so it only makes sense for attractive, nubile, innocent tank top wearing Lara to have to contend with this threat, a threat that players aren’t used to worrying about when playing The Adventures of Roll Fizzlebeef Across the 8th Dimension. I thought the whole appeal of the story was that it was gritty and mature. Instead, failing the scene just has the man strangle Lara, which is either entirely at odds with reality (now what is he going to shag?) or even more unnerving (the now-dead Lara?) depending on how you look at it. After fighting him off and pulling a Tyson on his ear, she shoots him in the face and the gore is admittedly quite shocking. So is Lara’s pained dryheaving and weeping, an entirely reasonable reaction to her taking of a life. Any impact this could have had is taken away moments later, however, when Lara efficiently cover-shoots a string of bad guys and couldn’t give less of a toss about it. There’s a phrase here that instantly makes someone sound like the world’s smuggest twat when they use it, but that’s kind of my M.O. so here it is: ludonarrative dissonance. Over the course of the game you go on to kill roughly a trillion scabby foreign-types, which never meshes with the goal of a thoughtful, mature story about someone having to confront a horrible situation.

Things take a turn for dumber when Lara meets back up with her friend, Asian Girl Who’s Name I Don’t Remember Nor Should I, who has found a strange old man wandering around who takes great interest in her story of being the descendant of a sun goddess and talks in some kind of ponderous comedy villain voice the entire time and nobody bats an eye. He sounds like Dracula and the player is expected to believe that both of these women see him and just think wow, we should totally hang out with this guy and tell him all about our group and that, and also Lara you should totally fall asleep because don’t worry, despite being clearly evil he will leave you alive when he kidnaps be because 10/10 top quality writing. Also, returning to the murdering dudes theme, that villain in his final monologue pulls the old how am I the villain when you’ve murdered loads of people too shit, which you may remember as being nicked practically verbatim from . However, this is a game that’s supposed to actually tackle things like that, and the entire moment comes off as ridiculous when followed up with a spree of more murder. Another moment later on sticks out as well, where Lara finds herself at a shipwreck that has been suspended in the air with a complex network of ropes and pulleys in the middle of a ravine (because reasons). She murders a bunch of dudes (natch) and then someone on another boat appears with a machine gun turrent. You killed my brothers, he yells quite fairly. Die! he then says, before opening fire on the ship crawling with his brothers, killing swathes of them. Little bit of consistency would be nice, is all I’m saying.

There are a couple minor things too, such as Robin Atkin Downes doing the same terrible Irish accent he was ridiculed for in The Saboteur in his role as Cripplingly Mortal Mentor Figure which takes out just about all of the gravitas of his dumb death scene, there being no option for a optional original outfit skin and the irrationally angry black woman who suddenly pulls an equally irrational 180 in the end. I also found it ridiculous that someone who has such a magnetic attraction to mud and the ground as Lara would stay so clean, but there was a DLC skin that permanently coated her in filth which was welcome. The game also looks bloody nice, with very good environments, fantastic character models and God’s gift to muh dick: tank tops. Seriously, the Lara model is quite something, and if you happen to be playing on some sort of future computer you can even enjoy fancy hair physics! Just don’t think about the time that went into implementing that and that didn’t go into making a better game.

In closing, Tomb Raider is emblematic of many of the issues of modern AAA games. It values a poorly-written (although nonetheless highly praised by the filthy gaming press) story over any sort of fun or gameplay, is so tightly scripted as to make player agency practically nil and can’t help but force in the flavour-of-the-week gameplay mechanics that everyone else feels they must no matter how poorly they reconcile with the aim of the game. Uncharted is my oft-mentioned comparison, but at least that knew it was goofy. It had humour (not funny, but trying at least), fabulous adventure and in a real departure from the norm these neat little things called colours. When you end up fighting zombie samurai or whatever the hell happened at the end of Tomb Raider and the game still tries to convince you it’s a super serious story about a young woman finding out just what she’s capable of and something something feminism, and back this up by showing you all the shades of grey it can render, it comes of as entirely laughable, or at least it would if it wasn’t so saddening.

P.S. I only remembered after writing this that the game had puzzles. I guess that shows how well they registered.

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