Lara Croft became one of my childhood’s tertiary fixtures as the titular character of my older brother’s gaming habits. Age begets priority, after all. Relegated to watch his back and also Lara’s a bit further away, I saw them puzzle-solve through and navigate Atlantis, the Great Wall of China, Venice, and every place interesting.
I remember the tomb-like silence in that fake Earth, interrupted only by the auditory swell of enemy encounters. I remember inexplicable strength in her thin limbs, only more angular than my own (I was not an athletic boy). I remember stoicism in her subdued grunts, and slow grace in her movements.
I remember she was female; I don’t remember she was human.
What made her admirable was also what made her alien. She did not eat. She did not bleed. She did not feel fear. She did not feel lonely. All the older games have apt titles because they never stray from that identity. “Lara Croft” is a pair of words she signs on dotted lines, but to me, she was always simply The Tomb Raider.
Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of the franchise reimagines the legend, takes a look at the person behind the twin guns, and shows how she becomes such a force of nature. But how clear is the image of what we see? How believable is the transformation? Any origin story stands before these questions most of all.
1. YOUNG MISS CROFT
With an intro cinematic under four minutes long, we don’t glimpse too much into Lara’s normal world. This part of the Hero’s Journey is excised in favour of thrusting players into the action quickly. But there was a missed opportunity here. Four non-playable minutes could have been ten to twenty, in which players explored the Endurance, met with the other characters we were meant to care about, and — most of all — see into the hero’s room as a way of understanding Lara’s character before she is transformed.
A big part of her arc is coming into her own as a Croft, but we don’t get a strong sense of resentment towards her father or a pointed resistance to her heritage early on. We learn this only from the ending cinematic’s voice-over. Where are the heiress luxuries she purposefully leaves behind at the docks, or the Croft family locket she ‘forgets’ on the seat of her family limo? Why wasn’t more attention given to the fact that in Lara’s 21st year — in which, possibly, the Croft fortune finally became hers to spend (inciting incident?) — she instead decides to leave civilization behind?
One of the most striking things about Lara to me even as a boy was the fact that she didn’t bask in her tremendous wealth, but rather spent her time away from it on dangerous adventures.
2. EXPOSITION & SUPPORTING CAST
It would have been a mistake to dwell on backstory too much, and it’s not one the game makes. Bits trickle through journals and encounters. Tomb Raider does still count on a certain continued belief in the strange penchant of characters to keep a diary and leave pages of it in places they’ve never visited. But it’s not much to ask by today’s conventions.
One wonders if the supporting cast’s fairly one-dimensional natures couldn’t have been used for more. It’s clear the facets they mirror in Lara’s personality: confidence from the mentor, disbelief of the realist, spiritualism from the gentle giant, etc.
But they could have also illustrated how the island’s extreme Darwinian atmosphere can change people — all people. Two or three encounters could show this change. The skeptic goes nearly mad holding on to her normalcy; the gentle giant turns ruthless; the survivor brushes closely with sadism as his/her acts are forced towards the extreme.
Isn’t that what the game is about?
3. THE FIRST KILL
Tomb Raider‘s first kill scene is a pivotal moment for Lara, and its briefness rings a certain truth. Her survival instincts reinforce her mantra: “Just keep moving.” She has no time for a full-on breakdown.
At first, I thought this might translate better if she had reacted not with tears, but with the eerie numbness of suppression. Yet her quote, “it’s scary just how easy it was”, would have taken on a different meaning that way. Instead of a greater realization about how extreme circumstances breed extreme decisions, it would have been a personal epiphany about her own murderous impulses. And that wouldn’t be Lara at all; that would more resemble a certain Florida-based serial killer.
Yet something was still missing. She got over it just a little too quickly, particularly considering the climb of the body-count soon after. Should she have thrown away the gun? Should kill-number-two have been another shaky-aim QTE? Should she have seen visions of Vladimir or relived that traumatic incident in a nightmare?
4. LUDONARRATIVE RESONANCE OR DISSONANCE?
The above is one of a few rifts between gameplay and story I see in Lara’s origin story. As players play on, it becomes clear that the title of this game might be a bit misleading. True, in some sense, the entire island is a tomb of trapped souls being dessicated by a crazed cult. But even in this light, one can’t quite find that certain wonder and silencing mystery unique to the old Tomb Raider games. Tombs there had a specific feel to them, which was deftly captured in the optional side missions, but less so in the action-packed main one.
In a way, Lara Croft’s ‘tomb raiding’ job was only a part-time gig.
Tomb Raider‘s primary verb is ‘navigate,’ followed by either ‘kill’ or ‘treasure-hunt.’ But given that her character’s goal is to save her crew and survive the island, players find themselves at odds. The impulse is to explore every nook and cranny of the level, looking for irrelevant GPS caches, scavenger hunt items, and (interesting but unnecessary) artefacts. Meanwhile, a cult of savages hunts down NPCs we haven’t been made to much care about except perhaps for Sam.
This was the main reason I couldn’t get into Lara’s rebirth as a survivor. I simply had too much fun searching for collectibles and appeasing my inner completionist, but this is almost entirely my fault. How would it be possible to reconcile the two mindsets, when one is about the bare necessity of living and the other is about the thirst for adventure?
5. PIVOTAL MOMENTS
Sidenote: I had another fleeting thought about how the game would have changed if all the other crew members of the Endurance died, including Sam. The Ascension ritual would have succeeded, and Lara would have to put down her childhood friend herself. A bit dark, but Lara’s status as a survivor would have been ironclad.
Roth’s relationship with Lara was one of the most memorable elements of the story. The surrogate father/mentor relationship was excellently rendered, and allowed a softer side to Lara The Survivalist to emerge. I only wish there could have been more, somehow. But even so, Roth’s death and burial is Tomb Raider‘s most poignant moment. Amidst dire gunfights, Roth offered words of wisdom without superiority, warmth without false safety, and encouragement without fanfare. It’s a palpable loss.
The one oddity is the growth it supposedly inspires in Lara; by this point, it seemed as if she had already begun to trust her instincts anyway.
Part of the reason I include that side-note above is because of Grim and Alex’s deaths. There’s doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose except dramatic effect, yet they lack a certain rhyme and reason. If they had been only part of a series of Endurance-related deaths, they would have served to further isolate Lara and chisel her into the strong, solitary figure of The Tomb Raider. How do skeptical Reyes and spiritual Jonah survive without experiencing some change, when Lara has to redefine herself entirely?
6. A SURVIVOR IS BORN IN BLOOD
The major criticism lobbed against Tomb Raider is the disconnect between the significance of murder in the plot and the meaninglessness of it in gameplay. From this schism, two Lara Crofts exist: one who kills only to survive, and the other who mass-maims while picking up shiny objects. (This piece presents a strong but rather spot-on reaction to the ludonarrative dissonance.)
In many ways, I think a more appropriate title for this game would simply be “Lara Croft.” This isn’t about the creation of her myth-seeking persona, but rather of the person who becomes hardened enough to take on that mantle. We find no motivation by game’s end that explains why she would suddenly be interested in seeking out ancient civilizations and artefacts. We only learn how far she’s willing to go to protect herself and her friends: very, very far.
So, is a survivor born?
I’d say ‘mostly yes.’ The kill count rises fast, but it’s always clear that Mathias’ cult has orders to kill her on sight. It would have been good to spend more time drawing parallels between Mathias and Lara, who are on two sides of the same struggle: doing whatever is necessary to survive. Mathias should have been more of a Kurtz to Lara’s Marlowe, endowing her with the “hesitant foot” that refuses to cross a certain line.
Ultimately though, the game is a fun and immersive experience that does remarkably well with its resources. This was my first experience of Rhianna Pratchett’s work, and I’ve an incredible respect and admiration for where she, John Stafford, and the rest of the team have taken the character and IP. Issues with gameplay-story disconnect are notoriously hard to quash. It’s interesting to ponder though: how could the story and gameplay have congealed better by the end?
I’m reminded of another great moment in the game that comes during the second trip through the Endurance, now torn apart by the rocky jaws of the shore. Lara catches her reflection in the mirror. It’s a clear echo to the first time we see her in the game’s opening, only now she sees someone she barely recognizes.
I feel like I met Lara Croft for the first time in 2013’s Tomb Raider. But whoever it is whom she sees in that moment — I only wish I could see her, too.