A Survivor/Killer is Born
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.