It was the lazy summer of 97 (or maybe 98) when the three of us sat on the cool basement floor, clustered around the TV and swearing like sailors every time Lara died which worked out to be about every 5 minutes. At any given time, two of us would be spectating and shit talking, while the third would be trying to make jumps happen in the game. Whenever the person holding the controller got too frustrated to continue he would pass it over to the next person. This is how my brother, my cousin and me made beat the original Tomb Rider. So I guess I could say I have fond memories of the original game, though I doubt that I would have ever seen the ending it if I wasn’t for the fact I was spending the summer with two very stubborn platformer fiends.
As a whole, the Tomb Rider franchise never really had that much appeal to me because the games were just very hard, and the game-play was designed around around the infuriating DIAS principle. The games were a cult classic, but at the same time they were becoming a niche attraction accessible to only the players willing to put up with the torturous difficulty and more and more sexualized protagonist. It’s no secret that the series very deservedly came under heavy criticism for the way it was portraying it’s protagonist. In fact if you ever read an article about the male gaze in video games, Lara Croft’s picture, with her ever-expanding bust will probably be on page one.
The 2013 reboot of the game promised to “fix” the franchise and make it accessible to a wider audiences by addressing both the difficulty curve and by re-casting Lara as an actual heroine one could relate to and identify with, rather than sex-doll with guns that you are merely supposed to ogle. At least I believe these were the objectives of this project. Were they met? Well, yes – but not fully.
Game-play wise, the reboot is definitely an improvement. I actually enjoyed the platforming and physics related puzzles because they did not insist on punishing me for having no hand-eye coordination. I was able to nail most jumps on the first try, and even if I fell to my death the auto-save system was usually generous enough to put me right before the tricky jump. I don’t think I ever had to back-track more than a minute or two after an unfortunate fall. I also noticed that unlike her predecessor, this Lara actually has a self preservation instinct and automatically stops when she hits a ledge or a hole in the ground. Platformer purists may be unhappy about it, but I was quite pleased with this feature and it saved my life countless of times.
Combat is done very well. There is probably more of it in the game that would be reasonable story-wise, but I didn’t mind. The fights are actually nicely spaced out with exploring/platforming bits so combat fatigue never really sets in. I have really low tolerance for endless combat these days. If you remember my Max Payne review the endless gunfights spaced out only by brief cut-scenes nearly made me quit the game on more than one occasion. Tomb Rider on the other hand has great pacing. A There is a good balance between stealth sequences were you can strike from shadows or silently snipe enemies with your bow, and all out pitched battles when you are expected to doge Molotov cocktails and make a liberal use of the grande launcher attached to your assault rifle. But after each enemy encounter you get some breathing space where you can just run around, hunt, explore optional puzzle-tombs and etc..
In other words, Crystal Dynamics more or less nailed the core game-play. If they stuck to having Lara running, jumping and shooting dudes in the face I would have been absolutely enthralled by the title from purely mechanical perspective. But I guess at some point the development team realized that you can’t make a Tomb Rider title without something that would absolutely infuriate the player. Apparently what the game was missing was quick time events.
I have a big problem with quick time events because in my opinion they remove agency from the player. In Tomb Rider they typically happen during a cut-scene and require you to quickly press a button not to die. The time window for pressing the button is typically very short, and it is always a random button. Sometimes you have to pres F, sometimes shift, other times you need to mash E repeatedly or alternate left and right movement keys. Frequently you will have 4-5 of these per cut scene, and if you miss one you get to do it all over again.
The other variety of quick time events happen when Lara is sliding, falling, or running away from something Indiana Jones style and you need to mash keys to avoid or destroy obstacles and it is just as bad. It is not that these sequences are difficult to execute – it’s just that they are annoying. Since I could never guess which button was going to be needed I typically missed them on the first try. Since most scenes involved a sequence of 4-5 quick-time events I would frequently have to re-start the entire scene that many times, until I memorized the button order and could execute it in time.
What about the other goal of the game: fixing Lara Croft herself? I have to say I have mixed feelings about this.
On one hand the new Lara is a huge improvement. For one, she wears pants in this game and has somewhat more realistic body proportions. While the camera still sometimes contorts itself to a weird angle to better expose her back-side or let the player look down her blouse it is not nearly as jarring as in previous games. More importantly, she has an actual personality and a rather nice character arc which takes her from wide-eyed and enthusiastic but inexperienced archeologist to an ass-kicking action hero you may remember from the old games. But not quite the same, mind you. The new Lara is channeling her inner Katnis Aberdeen. Her weapon of choice is a bow and she has the same brave but vulnerable vibe likely inspired by and styled after Jenifer Lawrence’s performance. You get to watch her slowly gain confidence, learn survival skills and make difficult choices. When at the end of the game she exclaims “I’m not going home” hinting at the inevitable sequel, you actually understand why. It is a classic heroes journey story, and it is executed almost perfectly. She is no longer merely a pin-up doll treasure hunter but rather a fully fledged character with a back-story, motivations and relationships.
I’m also pleased to report that the game passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, which is something that very rarely happens in video games. With two prominent, named female NPC’s and a female protagonist this game is ahead of most triple A titles in terms of gender diversity. But that’s also where the game drops the ball. Lara’s best friend Sam has a really bad case of the Princes Peach syndrome which makes her susceptible to being repeatedly kidnapped. So while Crystal Dynamics was trying to lift up Lara to be something more, they also decided that she needed a damsel in distress to be repeatedly rescued. It’s as if they were trying so hard to avoid objectifying Lara that they were completely blinded themselves to this other old trope they were writing into the plot.
Actually, they weren’t fully successful at not objectifying Lara either. I already mentioned the occasional creep-shot camera angles, but that’s not really what bothered me the most. It was the fact that Lara’s version of heroes journey had to include a “scared, helpless and alone” phase that you rarely see for male protagonists. At the very beginning of the game she is captured, bound, beaten and completely lost. When she is huddling around a camp fire shivering from cold and trying to hold back tears it is unclear whether the player is expected to empathize with her or feel bad for her and want to rescue her somehow. Then she is captured again, and you have to pass a quick time event to avoid rape. No I’m actually not kidding. Tomb Rider has a “push button to avoid rape” mechanic, and this bothers me a lot.
Before you say that this moment was pivotal scene for the character, please consider that surviving/fighting off a rape attempt is almost never used as a “shit just got real” moment for male heroes. Outside of tasteless prison rape jokes (which are common) the very idea of male character being violently raped is something most writers are just to squeamish to consider, and much less describe. A woman getting groped and about to get raped is often merely an excuse to kick-off a rescue romance or show that the female character “can take care of herself”. This is not ok. Using near-rape-experience as valid character development device legitimizes rape as something “normal” or “expected” for women, and helps to perpetuate rape culture.
I think that the major flaw in the game’s plot is that it relies almost entirely on a damsel in distress trope to generate drama and tension. Lara is always running around trying to save someone. Whenever Sam is temporarily not kidnapped, the focus switches to another character: either the fatherly Roth who gets injured and needs to be nurtured and protected, or the nerdy guy who gets in over his head trying to impress Lara. The opening chapter has a damsel in distress too: it is Lara herself. She is helpless and scared iron woobie in a trauma conga line, and only you, the straight male player, can rescue her from this predicament. At least that’s how it felt to me. I felt as if I wasn’t really supposed to empathize with her plight as much as go “awww, poor Lara, lets’ find you a jacket and get you away from those bad men”. I think this emphasis on innocence and vulnerability is in a way form of objectification.
Can you imagine a reboot of say Uncharted in which Nathan Drake is is a nerdy school boy who is kinda afraid of heights? Or a Max Payne prequel in which he is an idealistic police cadet who has to overcome his insecurities to make it on the force? Can you imagine a coming of age story featuring Master Chief or Marcus Fenix fighting off a violent rapist? No, because open displays of fear and vulnerability are typically considered to be feminine and thus are rarely written into male protagonist story arcs. Female protagonists however get it in spades.
The writers at Crystal Dynamics set out to make Lara into a compelling female protagonist, which is commendable goal, but maybe this is also their mistake. Perhaps they should have just concentrated on making her awesome, instead of making her an “awesome female” (which I put in quotes because I don’t feel comfortable using the word female as a noun). Perhaps it is better to try writing a the best, most interesting character possible without letting gender infer the plot and the story. Then again, that might be an oversimplification because in real life gender is a big part of one’s identity. It is actually incredibly difficult to write great female protagonists because of the impossible standards we impose on them. Lara Croft especially vulnerable to this because of her background as the poster-girl for the male gaze syndrome in video games. Rebooting her character is not an easy task, and there is an enormous amount of pressure to get it right. Considering the kind of criticism the character gathered in the past, it is easy to see why the team might have been compelled to over-compensate and veer in the wrong direction.
But that’s not really an excuse on a big budget, high profile project like this. I’m quite amazed that no one on the Tomb Rider team ever went “hey guys, how about we run the script by someone with background in feminist theory to make sure we are not being accidentally sexist or misogynistic”. I’m sure that if they done so, at the very least the rape thing would get axed in the first draft. Then again, this sort of obliviousness is the very definition of male privilege.
The good news is that eventually Lara gets out of her woobie funk, overcomes her fears, insecurities and lack of experience and ends up saving the day and rescuing all the princesses in all the different castles. Despite a few glitches and mistakes and ineptitude of the Crystal Dynamics writing team, she does manage to grow into a very fun and compelling protagonist that I had no problems identifying with. The new Lara is more Everdeen than a Croft but I think that’s actually a good thing. I’ll take a character with strong convictions, relationships and moral code over a rich pin-up girl treasure hunter any day. All things considered, I think the game is a step forward rather than backward with respect to depiction of female protagonists. While it’s not perfect, it definitely could have been much worse.