Tomb Raider’s Gameplay Betrays Its Message
The freshly rebooted Tomb Raider is, fundamentally, an excellent video game. Lara Croft has been reestablished as a character worth caring about, and seeing her grow from a shaky greenhorn into her group’s most dependable person is fascinating. The island her group of survivors is stranded on is a delight to explore, with an abundance of collectibles that never feel like a chore. The gameplay itself is finely tuned as well; the platforming doesn’t hold your hand but doesn’t punish you for being imperfect, while the gunplay is smooth and even offers an evolution of cover systems in third-person shooters.
Yet for all of the life it’s breathed into a fading franchise, this year’s Tomb Raider just misses its full potential, as its underlying themes are undone by falling into the trappings of your average violent game.
Lara’s evolution throughout the game is handled extremely well through Tomb Raider’s cinematics, with us viewing her at her most vulnerable early on. She’s pinned up against a wall by a thuggish brute who tries to take advantage of her, and she eventually fights through it and shoots the guy in the head. This is the first person Lara has ever had to kill, and she’s understandably shaken to the point of tears. As uncomfortable as it is, it’s a brilliant moment. Lara keeps the gun, of course, and soon enough she’s mowing people down left and right, never again commenting on the toll that taking another human’s life, much less dozens, can take on someone. Much like Sony’s Uncharted, you’re playing the role of a sympathetic killing machine.
In an interview with the Penny Arcade Report, Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett discusses some of the narrative dissonance between the story she’s trying to tell and what happens on-screen between cinematics. About the time between that first kill and the many more after, Pratchett offers:
“I think it’s hard. There’s always a balancing act. I think the narrative team would have liked to see that as a slower ramp up. That time between the first kill and lots of kills, I think we would have liked to see that slower paced. But, this isn’t always about narrative. It’s not a narrative-led game or a game play-led game.”
She further mentions that play testing revealed that gamers simply didn’t want to go long periods without using a gun as long as they have one to use, which is a real shame. Pratchett built one of the most sympathetic characters in games, but its undermined by the swarms of people she has to kill because gamers apparently can’t handle more than a few minutes at a time with a gun on their hip.
As Lara continues to fight through enemies and explore the island she’ll acquire new skills and abilities. Among them are several weapon-specific “finishers,” but in reality they’re simply stone-cold executions. They’re a hell of a spectacle and a decent source of bonus XP for further leveling Lara, but the disconnect between her personality as a kind-hearted person and seeing her stick a shotgun barrel under someone’s chin and pulling the trigger is laughable. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re playing Tomb Raider or Gears of War.
Just like her enemies, however, Lara can also meet with a grisly death. When the cavern is crumbling near the very beginning of the game and you encounter the first quick-time event, you’ll see her head crushed by a boulder if you fail. If you don’t immediately grasp the timing asked of the triangle/Y button press, you’ll see it over and over. When Lara has to parachute through a forest, she can be impaled by an enormous branch. As you may have seen when Conan O’Brien played Tomb Raider, she can be impaled by a pipe to the throat when she’s being carried away by a river. I hadn’t seen that particular animation in my playthrough, but I was just as shocked as Conan was when I saw it; my jaw literally dropped at the sight of it. He plays it up for laughs, of course, but if that had happened while I was playing I’d probably have to put the controller down for a few minutes.
While Pratchett didn’t outright say she disliked the animations when speaking to Penny Arcade in the second part of her interview, they weren’t something she had a part in. “I didn’t see them until quite late into development and I’ll admit that I was quite shocked,” said Pratchett. She points out that the sequences highlight the dangers of her environment and may even be a nod to the “unnerving popularity” of death animations in other Tomb Raider games. However, those stilted PS1 animations were nothing more than a goofy afterthought, whereas Square Enix were practically using them as a selling point for this year’s reboot. If you piece them all together, you pretty much get a jungle-themed Final Destination supercut.
None of this takes away from Tomb Raider’s high production values, of course. The vistas and set pieces are impressive, the story is well-scripted and well-acted, and the gameplay is highly polished. Yet it’s a reboot of the grittiest variety, more than enough to earn it the first M-rating in the series’ history.
There’s tremendous potential for Tomb Raider to become a narrative gaming powerhouse in the years to come. Let’s just hope focus testing doesn’t install a glass ceiling over it.