A Survivor/Killer is Born

Hm, that's not a tomb. Not even close, Lara.

Lara Croft spies the greatest mystery of all…

A Survivor is Born.

At least that’s what Tomb Raider informs me, right before the credits roll. (Spoiler? Well then, here’s fair warning: mild spoilers throughout this writeup). And that — the concept of a survivor being forged from raw not-survivor material — is what I want to talk about. I must caution you though, I’m finding it difficult to talk about Tomb Raider. More on that below.

"Thank you for sacrificing your low-polygon low-resolution-textured body for me," Lara whispers in its ear.

Lara’s first kill is a buck for the sake of survival.

I think the best comparisons for Tomb Raider are the Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games. Both contain combat scenes, stealth segments, open-corridor and exploration time, and rigid storytelling moments. And just as the Dark Knight’s cowl becomes ever more frayed, his cape more tattered, and his diamond-cutting abs more visible through the rips in his rubber suit, so too does Lara Croft’s outfit begin to wear out, scum piling on layer after layer, and smellier rags used to bind everything together. In fact, it’s so incredibly grimy that it cured me of my own fear of filth for the space of a single afternoon. I have trouble getting my hands dirty, at least without the immediate promise of a good scrub, so I always wear gloves when I do basic chores like taking out the trash. The instant those gloves get a bit gray on the inside, I get new ones. Well, right after finishing Tomb Raider the other day, I went to take the garbage out, and only realized on the way back that I wasn’t wearing my gloves. So well done, Tomb Raider.

(Of course I still washed vigorously afterwards. I’m not a barbarian.)

I’m going to say right up front that I think Tomb Raider is an excellent game. The characterization, especially of Lara herself, is really well done; and I mean to a commendable level. The gameplay is solid, even if the shooty parts get repetitive. But I’m not going to talk too much about that gamey stuff, because I’m sure there are better reviews elsewhere. Instead, there are two sticky elements to this reboot/origin story, and I’d like to try my hand at tackling one of those.

Is that how you'd treat a lady in one of your Moscow nightclubs? Yes? Oh...

Not appropriate, dude.

The first is the gender and sexuality issue, and that’s the one I don’t have much to comment on. Lara is a girl, I’ve got boy bits, and as much as I consider myself a feminist and earnestly want everyone to behave in a generous and non-horrible manner, I simply don’t feel qualified to talk about this. I wasn’t even a Tomb Raider fan growing up. It came out in fifth grade (or thereabouts, math is hard), so I, like most other ten-year-old boys (again, thereabouts; you do the math if you love it so much) saw little more than a sex symbol with improbable knockers that we never suspected for an instant would be a major impediment to spelunking. One kid said he knew a nude-code, but I think he was just making stuff up to impress us. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I lack a litmus test with which to gauge Lara’s new appearance, or the way she’s treated by other characters, or anything involving a legacy that may or may not have been shat upon. My wife played the original one more than I did, and the first thing out of her mouth when we saw the Lara Croft cardboard cutout in Best Buy was, “Wow, she has, you know… normal boobs.” So that’s a plus.

The second issue is the one that concerns Lara’s transformation from doe in the headlights to mass killer. Because here’s the possibly controversial bit: I thought it was really well done.

As one of those gun-owning nutcases that everyone in games journalism talks with such authority about, I really appreciate that the gun's slide locks back when it's out of ammo.

After Lara’s first real kill.

It’s possible this isn’t as much of an issue as I’m inferring from all the complaining. I’ve noticed that the complaints generally source from the same people who complain (seriously complain, joking around is a different thing entirely) about Skyrim’s disproportionate bandit population, as though Skryim should have been about a cabbage farmer who encounters a pair of bandits once in his entire life and gets stabbed in the gut when he doesn’t hand over his load of cabbage that represents hundreds of hours of growing and harvesting — because let me tell you, I play games to escape my current cabbage-farming life, because cabbage farming sucks rocks. Or the people who complain about regenerating health on the basis that it’s unrealistic, when functionally every game is thumbing its nose at reality when it allows you to recover from an invasive injury without contracting an infection, enduring terrible fever nightmares, and then living with the antibiotic-shits for a week — and that’s provided your character didn’t fail their penicillin-allergy skill check.

Suspension of belief isn’t always an easy thing, but at some level all games require us to play along.

With that said, anyone who wants to make a game about a protagonist who loses their innocence (or becomes a survivor) when they kill to survive must toe the very difficult line between making their character growth believable and making the game interesting. A game about a guy who commits his first brutal murders and then spends a few months in therapy before realizing he sort of wants to do it again would have been a really bad draft of Hotline Miami, because nobody wants to wait around for the character’s conscience to crack. Far Cry 3 basically is the bad draft, considering how Jason Brody goes from vomiting at his first kill to screaming “This is awesome!” as he commits war crimes half an hour later.

Tomb Raider is the good draft. Or at least the best draft I’ve played in a long time.

This looks to me like he's choking himself, really.

I’d use the axe first.

I don’t want to give away too much, because the process Lara’s transformation is the story of the game, but I can say it toes that line agreeably well. At the outset, Lara is terrified. Her natural response is to run from threats, not to barrel through them. Her first kill is a hefty buck for its meat, and even that upsets her to some degree. In fact, you spend a surprising length of time not doing violence to other human beings.

After a while she’s forced to kill someone, half thanks to defensive reflexes, and then, finally equipped with the proper tool for combat, she fights her way out of a battle zone — which doesn’t strike me as too far-fetched, considering that people have fought through battles before, especially when they have little choice in the matter. Even for a while after that, it takes many small encounters before she really embraces her nature as a killer — and certainly a long time before she bellows “I’m coming for all of you!” to a crowd of enemies that has tortured and murdered her and her crewmates for most of their stay on the island.

She does kill a lot of people. Even unbelievable amounts at times. But the process itself feels natural within the confines of a video game. It’s also a relief that she doesn’t ever indicate a taste for it, even as she becomes more proficient. This is the story of how a person goes from being (she would assume) weak and vulnerable, to being capable; it’s never about a serial murderer, or a sadist.

Note that Lara isn't the one saying "I bring you life." That's like a cultist chant in the background. But it looks *awesome* if she's saying it.

Lara eventually learns how to kill up close with guns.

So when the game concludes with A Survivor is Born, yes, it also means a killer. But the story of that transformation is well done, and compelling, and as believable as any game I’ve played has managed to be without also being incredibly boring. And for all the game’s little problems, it’s an utterly fascinating journey. If Crystal Dynamics continues making Tomb Raider games, I sincerely hope they make them about this person, this human being, rather than that little boy fantasy from the fifth grade.

Posted on March 13, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Wow, never thought that would happen. I’ve been persuaded to invest in a Lara Croft game. They’ve all seemed retarded up till now. I remember trying one of their first games years ago and quitting after about five minutes because gameplay was so awful. This one looks like a major departure from the everything else made up to this point.

  2. I wasn’t all that interested before your review. Wait for a Steam sale interested to be sure but not get it first day by any means. I’d love to play a game that tells the story of transition from normal person to killer. Tomb Raider seemed to be an unlikely vehicle for that story. I agree that Far Cry 3 was amazingly bad at it. Especially that flame thrower scene where he screams this is awesome. Forms I had used the flame thrower and killed tons of guys so it really didn’t work for me.

  3. The character development was definitely done much better than virtually any game I can recall, but perhaps that’s exactly why the missteps (in immersion, mostly) are so jarring. I’m certainly not calling it a bad game; it was fantastic.

    The little things about the game that destroy the illusion end up bothering me all the more because it’s so good otherwise. It’s like a form of uncanny valley. For example, the little KILLER HEADSHOT! +20 XP blurb. If Lara is supposed to be going from vulnerable to capable as opposed to psychotic, why am I being rewarded in such a sociopathic manner for being an efficient murderer?

    Another example would be her superhuman immune system. Right at the beginning, she takes a rusty iron spike right through her abdomen. Ignoring the dangers of bleeding out, she’s on a moist, deserted island. She should have ended up dying from infection.

    Of course, the pain train continues for her in cutscenes throughout the entire game, and she takes tons of bullets and stuff in gameplay (but that’s gameplay) but that was kinda nuts. If they wanted to show me she was human and vulnerable, it had the opposite effect.

    Still a great game, just this kinda minor stuff ends up clashing heavily with everything else that’s being set up to reinforce her as a human, believable character.

  4. For anyone wanting a much better-written article about why Tomb Raider is an important game, Ashelia’s article over at Hellmode is it: http://hellmode.com/2013/03/21/this-isnt-the-article-i-wanted-to-write-about-tomb-raider/

  5. My brother said I might like this site, and he was right. Good article – expresed exactly what I like about TR.

  6. Oooh… much as I hate to do it, I have to be the contrarian here.

    I *loathed* Tomb Raider. Hated it possibly as much as Duke Nukem Forever, and that’s a hefty payload of loathing. It even prompted me to write a hugely long and irritable Amazon review, which you can find here:


    under the title, “Farewell ‘Tomb Raider’, hello ‘Corpse Looter'”. 9 of 11 found it helpful, so I guess it struck some chords somewhere?

    Bit late to the party I know, but I’d value your thoughts, Innocent.

    • I don’t think Dan minds contrarians… he lets me stick around, after all. 😛

    • Ha, no worries about being contrary around here. As long as you aren’t in full-fledged moron mode like some of those folks in the Last Light & Women comments section, I welcome all opinions with open arms. =)

      There’s nothing in your review I really disagree with. I don’t mind QTEs in and of themselves, but they’re done so poorly in Tomb Raider and nearly everywhere else that it’s easy to understand why “QTE” is something of a curse word in gaming. For QTEs done well, have you checked out Telltale’s The Walking Dead? I think every game developer should take a long hard look at how that game handles its QTEs, because they’re vastly superior to the type found in TR.

      Other things I agree with:
      * The cinematic moments where all you do is walk forward are galling.
      * The QTEs that kill you instantly, like with the Russian thug early on, are also galling.
      * The side-quest tombs are silly.
      * The weapons upgrades make no sense whatsoever.

      The one thing I suppose we differ on is that I enjoyed Lara Croft and her story enough that I didn’t mind TR being a “cinematic” game more preoccupied with telling me its story than in creating a world for me to interact with. While many examples of this genre aren’t particularly good, I enjoy well-constructed “interactive movie”-type games, and I’m willing to forgive its missteps because its central story — that of a younger Lara Croft transforming from an unsure young woman into an (admittedly unhinged) survivor — resonated with me. I’m willing to forgive a lot of mechanical silliness when presented with a good story.

      Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s definitely been polarizing, and its notable missteps, especially as a game, make it easy to see why. I like Rob Florence’s take on TR, as he explains a bit of why I like this incarnation of Lara Croft so much: http://effingarcade.tumblr.com/post/44702546202/on-lara-croft

      • Fair do! Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks and all that.

        I suppose what irritated me most about Tomb Raider (apart from being horrible in terms of game mechanics) was its timidity. It’s the apogee of equivocation. Trying to turn a soft-hearted young girl into an apex predator is a pretty hard sell from the get-go, and there were several flaws that for me meant it didn’t so much ring true as clunk like a cracked bell.

        In my screed, I stress that a spark of psychosis in nu-Lara would have made for a more convincing transformation as well as a more fun game. This is probably the crux of matters: she didn’t unravel *enough*. Jason Brody in Far Cry 3 is already a soulless dudebro, an automaton consumer (such expensive toys and holidays!) whose solipsistic worldview and inherent first-world entitlement makes the jump to killer less hard to swallow: he’s still seeing people as mere means to his gratification, he’s just found that homicide tickles his tummy in ways that a new smartphone (or First Person Shooter – hey, how meta!) never could.

        Whereas even by the end, Lara fails to display this supposed awakened killer instinct. Take two examples: the miniboss encounter in the burning temple, and the ending. In the former, Lara moves from cover to cover then ziplines over to where the henchman is manning the machine gun, knocking him back and tipping the gun over. OK, so killer-Lara would then be on him like a cat on a pigeon, teeth bared as she buries her climbing axe in his skull, yes?


        She then attempts to wrestle the huge belt-fed machinegun back onto its stand so she can then assumedly shoot the baddie. Result: baddie recovers while she’s doing this and they grapple. This makes her look like an imbecile.

        Similarly, at the end. The temple is coming apart in a fierce cyclone, her best friend is about to be possessed by a dead empress, the nasty cult leader is cackling or whatever. Lara’s toted a small arsenal with her – I’ve been upgrading the damn things and saving my ammo, I know this. She’s got a clear shot at the cultist, so what does she do? Lines up with the rifle and ventilates him, yes?


        She fires an *arrow*. In a howling storm. Which surprise! goes off course. At that point I actually shouted “for fuck’s sake”, my patience had become that thin. How can I believe in this character? She’s a cretin.

        A *big* weak spot was Camilla Luddington’s voice work. Weak, weak, weak. If I heard “Saaaam. Saaaaam.” once more by the end, I would have chewed off my own ears. Again, that lack of real madness that would sell me the transition from squishy caterpillar girl to razored butterfly. I can’t put it better than the ‘Zero Punctuation’ reveiw – “when she’s supposed to be yelling defiantly at her foes the voice actress sounds more like the head girl giving the half-time pep talk at the county netball finals”. Her opening voiceover sounds like a teenager reading from her diary of the year her parents got divorced. One of the reasons the Bloodrayne games remain a guilty pleasure for me is Laura Bailey’s impeccable voice work: this is how it should have been done. The PR gimmick of using the mocap actress to do the voicing just doesn’t pay off when she doesn’t have the chops, though admittedly the script is so painfully weak it leaves little for the thesps to work with.

        The thing that made me feel I needed a shower was the icky Freudianism of LC’s many deaths. How many involve violent penetration by a foreign object? Arrows, rebar, most notably the tree branch during the parachute sequence – listing more would require another playthrough, which I’m not prepared to countenance for the time being – accompanied by those agonised gasps/screams/groans which make you anxious about what the neighbours think you’re watching. By contrast with TR Legend, where a misstep in a QTE will show you a closeup of Lara’s face changing from concentration to horror, accompanied by the sound of a whistling blade or somesuch, nu-TR gives you a full-frame writhing body. It’s explicitly voyeuristic and sadistic: fine if Crystal Dynamics had gone the grindhouse route, where you could take it as sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander after gleefully snuffing multiple cultists, but it felt pandering here. Watch the pretty girl suffer….

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