They did it. I finally care about Lara Croft.
When the original Tomb Raider hit in the 90s, I was in love with the innovative gameplay--platforming and puzzle solving in 3D!--but I really didn’t like the character. I suppose that’s odd, since as a young teenage boy, I was in the target demographic. I just remember reading an article (it may have been in the long-dead Next Generation magazine, a gaming magazine I saved up my allowance to subscribe to, and one I had a love/hate/respect relationship with, because unlike most publications based on games, it did not give a damn about how old I was; they refused to dumb down the writing), where one of the creators or original developers blatantly said Lara was Indiana Jones but with more T & A. I remember asking a friend at school what that meant, and then being bummed out at the answer. Even then I had a distaste for being so deliberately pandered to.
I went on to play many more of the games in the series, but could never bring myself to care about Lara. The character they built up just wasn’t appealing. Indiana Jones was out there cracking whips for the sake of preservation, and Nathan Drake does it because he thinks there’s money in it. Neither are great reasons, but at least they’re acknowledged. Lara was always positioned as a grown-up rich kid out defiling ruins and shooting people just for fun. Again, I can see why this badass, thrill-loving, risk-taking, woman with gigantic boobs would be appealing to a largely white male demographic. To me she was a hollow character with great marketing “assets” who starred in games that featured fun spatial and logic puzzles.
With the Tomb Raider reboot of 2013, developer Crystal Dynamics made an effort to bring the narrative and character up to the increasingly high standard they were setting with gameplay (I didn’t like the old Lara, but Tomb Raider Underworld and Legends are both solid games, gameplay wise). This new Lara was young and inexperienced. Over the course of that game Lara’s skills, endurance, and relationships were tested. While they definitely made Lara more relatable and realistic, I still didn’t feel like I had a grasp on who she was. She was selfless, and strong, and passionate like all good video game heroes are supposed to be, and aside from some hints at some emotional baggage, that’s about it. She wasn’t the old Lara, but she also wasn’t much more than the aforementioned heroic attributes assigned to her as a result of the circumstances she endured in that game.
They planted a seed in the last game, and while she was a bit bland there, I think it paid off. If the 2013 Tomb Raider is The Hunger Games, then Rise of the Tomb Raider is Catching Fire. Like Katniss, Lara’s second outing isn’t just about survival, and that gives her character more room to grow. She’s not stranded, she’s looking for something. She’s not taking risks because she has to--she’s out there climbing a frozen mountain because she wants to. Over the course of this game you can see how this Lara becomes the old one--the badass, possibly murderous, thrills junky. She’s willing to risk her life, and the lives of others she meets along the way, to get what she wants--a relic that will clear her dead father’s name, which we learn was tarnished because of his insistence of said relic’s existence.
She is a character now. You will feel a certain way about her. This is a very good thing.
I’ve always been in favor of game protagonists that aren’t blank slates. Games seem to be obsessed with making the protagonist an avatar for the player. Make them generic so we can be them. While that can be empowering for a player, and lead to some fantastic organic systems-initiated organic stories (think Skyrim), it’s problematic from a directed narrative standpoint. Do you remember the lead character’s name from Watch Dogs? Bob Genericson. What about the guy from Red Faction: Guerrilla? Blandy Blanderson. Who were they? Why were they doing what they were doing? What was their motivation beyond the broad strokes of revenge, or justice? They were symmetrically-faced, gruffly-voiced white dudes. Completely forgettable.
I liked that this new Lara Croft has real motivations. During the game she made decisions I didn’t agree with. She pressed onward when I thought she was being foolish. She insisted the actions I was making her perform through gameplay were righteous when they were clearly selfish. Even when she seemed to selflessly help others, it was not without some hesitation; she was wary of being knocked off course. All of this resulted in a far more interesting character. Was I leading her to ruination as the one behind the controls, or would she turn it around and find redemption? I won’t spoil the specifics, but I think she ended up doing a bit of both. She’s got motivation to put her life in danger in sequels, but she’s also left a fair amount of destruction and death in her wake. Overall it’s a good summer-blockbuster style story with only a few goofy video gamey contrivances (like a final boss fight...this isn’t Mario Bros, we don’t need those). I’d love to see this Hunger Games analogy play out for another game. Maybe we’ll see a grimmer, more determined, slightly cynical Lara next time.
So what about the gameplay part? It’s fantastic. An absolutely perfect mix of the linear level-based progression of older games, and the open worlds so popular in AAA games today. There’s just enough room in each section of the map to encourage exploration, and just enough set pieces and action to push you forward in the story. The controls are tight, the visuals are astoundingly pretty (the top image is an in-game screenshot I took), and the performances in the cutscenes are excellent. I actually turned off the subtitles (I usually play games with them on), because they were distracting me from watching the life-like performances of the cast (check out the early game cutscene below). With the graphics turned all the way up, there were moments where this game looked like a CG movie, like Beowulf, only less uncanny and more emotive.
I knew I’d enjoy playing this game, which is why I didn’t write a lot about the playing part here--I was more interested in the character and story work. It plays very much like the 2013 game, only better. If you liked that, there’s no reason you wouldn’t like this one even more. And if you, like me, were looking for a reason to finally care about Lara Croft, you’ll find one in Rise of the Tomb Raider.