On the Difficulty of Being Lara Croft

On the Difficulty of Being Lara Croft

2015 IN REVIEW: Jeremy looks at the story/gameplay disconnect that brings down one of the year's most engrossing games.

It can't be easy, being Lara Croft. Your father died in disgrace, your educational archaeological journeys keep leading you to bizarre encounters with supernatural forces, and entire armies want you dead.

Trickiest of all for Ms. Croft, however, must be dealing with the disconnect between Lara Croft (the character) and Lara Croft (the video game avatar). The former exists as an inexperienced student of history, a young woman born into wealth that afforded her a comfortable lifestyle yet also the opportunity to travel with her archaeologist father into the field and experience the realities of wilderness survival and marksmanship. The latter, on the other hand, is your typical video game hero. She survives shotgun blasts point-blank, recovers from grievous wounds near-instantaneously by rubbing healing herbs against them, and singlehandedly wipes out entire squadrons of hardened, heavily armed, and massively armored mercenaries.

The pivotal moment of Tomb Raider 2013: Lara's first kill, an act of desperation.

For the most part, we accept the improbable one-man (or one-woman) army element of action games in stride. Sure, you have your odd "Nathan Drake is a psychopath" meme here and there, but for the most part we've simply come to see the murderous, one-sided rampages of video games as a reality of the artform. Occasionally, a game's writer will throw in little digs at the player to make them feel bad about it—oh look, this faceless mook you gunned down in cold blood had a wife and children, you monster—but nine times out of 10 this effort comes off as manipulative if not downright disingenuous: Yes, your video game avatar has killed a lot of people, but that's because killing is the only form of player agency the designers bothered to incorporate into the world.

If we're lucky enough to be given anything resembling narrative "choice" in a video game, it invariably amounts to a handful of clicks on a dialogue selection wheel. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lara's mechanics for holding conversations with other humans in Rise of the Tomb Raider consist of:

  1. Speaking to them in a predetermined cutscene in which the player has no control;
  2. Speaking to them by pressing X, which adds flavor text and occasionally initiates an optional side mission.

And that's it. But killing? Consider the many and multifarious mechanisms Lara Croft can call on when she wants to snuff a life. Lara can:

  1. Kill people with arrows;
  2. Kill people with arrows that emit a poison gas cloud, whose power you can upgrade on Lara's skill tree;
  3. Kill people with fire arrows, which can also be upgraded;
  4. Kill people with grenade arrows, which can be made to spray shrapnel as a skill perk;
  5. Kill people with a variety of pistols, each of which can be upgraded or fitted with silencers;
  6. Kill people with an array of rifles, which include both semi-automatics and a single-fire bolt-action model, and all of which can be upgraded and customized to provide better performance, fitted with a laser sight, and possibly even a grenade launcher;
  7. Kill people with various shotguns, which in turn can be greatly enhanced;
  8. Kill people with the use of her climbing axes, including the opportunity to learn evasive maneuvers that can be chained into melee combos;
  9. Kill people by stealthily choking them out from behind;
  10. Kill people by leaping silently from high ground and jamming an arrowhead into their skulls;
  11. Kill people with a variety of blood-soaked deathblows specific to each weapon she wields, including jamming arrows into her target's throat or putting a shotgun up beneath their chin and pulling the trigger;
  12. Kill people by catching them in the blast of an explosive barrel;
  13. Kill people by making use of specific environmental weaknesses, such as falling debris or flaming rocks launched from a trebuchet;
  14. Kill people by knocking them off high places to splatter on the ground below;
  15. Kill people by transforming found objects like radios and canisters into improvised explosive devices;
  16. And more!
Sometimes a grad student's just gotta fall from the sky and double-stab a couple of dudes in body armor.

That's really quite a prodigious number of options for committing murder, especially for a woman who—at the beginning of the previous game—had never even killed a game animal, let alone a human. And that's the conundrum at the heart of Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot games: It plays by the conflict- and killing-heavy rules of modern action games, but its narrative ostensibly tries to tell a more nuanced story in which Lara is a ragged and reluctant survivor, not an indestructible killing machine. Unfortunately, the game itself doesn't reflect this; while players command vast and elaborate systems with which they can destroy the soldiers who stand between her and her objective, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn't offer a single dialogue prompt to shape the direction of the story. It offers players no direction to go but, ultimately, forward. Sure, you can dawdle in some of the sandbox hub areas and search for dungeons and treasures, where you rarely have to fight at all aside from the occasional bear or jaguar attack, but these amount to side excursions. There's only one path to the ending, and it's littered with mandatory corpses.

Rise even makes a furtive stab at the tired "Don't you feel like a monster!" schtick; at one point, you come across a document in which a soldier has written wearily of his hatred of the organization you're fighting and his desire to get out of the mercenary business. I suppose you're meant to feel bad for killing the soldier (whom you can sneak up on as he hammers away at a computer terminal), but it's disingenuous: There's nothing to differentiate this generic, balaclava-clad gunman from the half-dozen who attempt to murder Lara right outside the building where you come across the personal journal. In theory, you could sneak past him, but in practice the game disincentivizes non-lethal stealth play—not only do the sneaking mechanics lack the precision to make it a practical option, but the countless collectibles you're meant to accumulate are near-impossible to collect with nearby soldiers on the prowl. Stealth exists, but using it for anything more than simply getting a jump on enemy encampments by thinning their ranks turns the entire game into a miserable slog.

Interestingly, Tomb Raider's promo renders and imagery largely focused around exploration and grand ruins; you'd never know this was predominantly a third-person shooter from its ad campaign!

While this carnage ultimately is no different than any of dozens—hundreds!—of games released over the past few decades, it feels more out of place in Rise of the Tomb Raider than it does in your typical mindless shooter. Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix have presented the Tomb Raider reboot titles as having higher aspirations; the idea has been to humanize Lara Croft, to chart her growth into the media-friendly heroine of the 32-bit era. How did she go from tremulous post-grad student to stylish pop icon splashed across 100-foot-high video monitors at U2 concerts?

The first hour or so 2013's Tomb Raider concerned Lara being pushed into ever more difficult situations by the elements and rapacious bands of heavily armed men until finally she's forced to kill an assailant in self-defense. That game began with her escaping from captivity following a shipwreck through sheer nerve and desperation, followed by a post-adrenaline comedown in which she was forced to kindle a fire and kill a deer to survive a ranging winter storm while wearing a thin tank top. One thing led to another, and soon she was forced to snatch a gun and fire on her would-be killer at point-blank. Lest there be any doubt about the gravity of that particular situation, it played out as a quick-time event in which failure subjected players to an unsettling scene of Lara being murdered in cold blood. It was kill or be killed, and as such this key event in her life played out as justified if unfortunate.

Where the new Tomb Raider games stumble is in the follow-up to that situation. Crystal Dynamics made the deliberate design choice to turn the games into hybrid exploratory platformers and third-person shooters, and the heavy emphasis on the latter—gunplay and combat represent the lion's share of game mechanics and skill tree options—undermines much of what the story aspires to accomplish. The problem isn't with the story itself, which seems good and worthy on its own; were this, say, a book or film scripted by Rihanna Pratchett, there would surely be some violence and killing, but only a fraction of that seen in the games. But these are big-budget video games, and that means the central mechanic—the interactive portions of the experience to enjoy the greatest number of development resources—concerns conflict and killing.

Lara's exploratory stunts are pretty unrealistic, too, but at least they don't involve her surviving dozens of point-blank gunshots.

The disconnect between story and action in Rise of the Tomb Raider speaks not to a lack of skill or creativity by Crystal Dynamics, but rather to the suffocating limitations of video games as a medium. Or rather, video games as major tentpole media releases. Games can span a remarkable gamut of expression, as this year has demonstrated. Witness Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, an exercise in putting together home interiors that lacks a fail state. Or Her Story, in which players are left to their own devices to piece together a mystery (and even then must draw their own conclusions through evidence and inference). Or Undertale, an RPG in which the question of whether to kill or not kill not only rests entirely with the player's discretion but shapes the outcome of the entire tale.

These games share one thing in common: Not their visual style, genre, or themes, but rather their scale. Each of them emerged from small teams with modest budgets. And even the biggest of them—Happy Home Designer—benefitted from only a tiny marketing spend. Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, resulted from the collaboration of a team of hundreds spread across multiple studios; its budget was evidently significant enough that Square Enix chose to lock it in as a timed exclusive for Xbox. These days, exclusivity usually amounts shorthand for publishers needing a helping financial hand from platform holders, who are happy to sink cash into big releases that make their console look more attractive to prospective buyers than the competition's.

Rise of the Tomb Raider cost a lot of money to develop, and that means it needs to make back a lot of money. There's little room for risk with those stakes, so Rise (and every game sporting similar production values) plays by the default rules of video games. Violence, killing, tension, danger, and explosions rule the day. Video games aren't just for male consumers ages 15-30 anymore, but that remains the demographic most likely to drop huge chunks of cash on consoles and day-one AAA game purchases, so that's the demographic to which big games continue to cater. Even traditionally versatile franchises continue to pare down player choice and narrative options as the stakes grow; Fallout 4, unlike most previous entries in the series, makes a nonviolent character build practically useless.

Really, the problem with Rise of the Tomb Raider isn't that it doesn't break the mold of modern-day blockbuster games. The problem is that it couldn't. Its creators clearly want to turn it into something more meaningful than the tale of a person who accomplishes a personal goal by climbing over the corpses of her foes, but accepting the realities of video games as a business makes achieving the aspiration of video games as an expressive medium difficult once a project crossed a certain threshold of money invested. It's not impossible, and I'm eagerly awaiting next spring's Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which, hopefully, will offer less violent options for players. Rise of the Tomb Raider, unfortunately, isn't the ideal candidate for abandoning safe conventions—not after its predecessor was deemed a "disappointment" despite selling millions of units.

SPOILERS: All Rise of the Tomb Raider cutscenes, which could probably be expanded into a decent movie... and which feature very little killing.

And that, unfortunately, is why a game about a young woman seeking to find vindication for her disgraced father plays out as an absolute bloodbath in practice. The further you advance, the more human corpses you have to climb over; the game's final run consists of a massive shootout down a lengthy corridor followed by a three-phase battle against an entire army backed by a heavily armed helicopter. It's a joyless slog through by-the-numbers third-person cover-based shooting, and it seemingly exists to get just a little more mileage out of all the combat systems Crystal Dynamics implemented into the game.

It's telling that the tensest and most engrossing battles in Rise of the Tomb Raider aren't the endless shootouts with guys in body armor but rather Lara's rare and terrifying with alpha predators like bears and jaguars. These occur only a handful of times throughout the game, and each instance becomes an exercise in quick reactions and strategic use of Lara's tools. Unlike the army shootouts, which almost never come off as anything but yet another shooting gallery, the predator ambushes can make your pulse race and your hands shake.

There's a certain irony to the fact that fighting humans feels rote and mechanic whereas fending off animals creates tension: The exact opposite was true of the original Tomb Raider. There, Lara constantly gunned down bats, wolves, and bears, but only faced half a dozen human enemies. Each encounter with other would-be adventurers had impact that the army gunplay in Rise lacks, because those faceoffs occurred rarely enough to be surprising and novel. Rise inverts its origins by turning humans into anonymous fodder and making wildlife into nearly boss-level threats; it's an odd turn of events that ultimately speaks to the overuse of human enemies in the game. If soldiers appeared as rarely as wild predators, they'd also feel special and dangerous. But the game is packed with combat systems, and I suppose the designers felt the need to get some mileage out of them—unfortunately, to the game's eventual detriment.

I don't foresee any real changes in store for the next Tomb Raider game. Combat and conflict have been a part of Tomb Raider since the beginning, and the series has clearly staked out a space for itself in the third-person shooter genre. Much as I hope for Tomb Raider to rise above the rote design of big-budget games, the best we can likely expect is the partitioning of play styles as in Rise: Mandatory gunplay sequences to shoot through, optional sandbox to explore. With luck, the shooting will be more varied, with more unexpected sequences like the one that sees Lara lurking underwater beneath a sheet of ice, stealthily picking off foes one by one. It will never be easy to be Lara Croft, but we can at least cross our fingers that future outings will at least add some variety and interest to her compulsory shooting rampages.

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