Following the wee kerfuffle last summer, I’d no plans to play Tomb Raider; combine the producer’s statements with a vague memory of loathing the franchise ten years ago and a working knowledge of how gaming tends to treat female characters in general, and you understand why I might be reluctant.
Then the game came out. People whose opinions I respect began to say good things about it. I read an interview with Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer. I found a reasonably-priced copy and said to myself, Well, maybe we should give it a shot.
The last thing I expected, when I cracked the cover, was to look around sixteen hours later and discover I’d played through the night and most of the next morning, hooked on the narrative, determined to find out what happened next.*
*The last time I lost track of time that thoroughly for that long was with Dragon Age: Origins, the December of my final undergrad year. Mind you, DA:O is really more of a thirty-six-hour game than a sixteen-hour one. Or a sixty-hour one, if you’re a completist.
As narratives go, Tomb Raider’s is fairly straightforward. Survive. Escape. Rescue some mates. (Mostly survive.) Where it excels, though? Tone. Character. The deployment of emotional realism.**
**Not very realistic: the treatment of archaeology and archaeological projects. You need to know where you intend to survey and/or conduct excavation before you set out, because not only is it time- and labour-intensive, but you need paperwork, people. If you don’t have at least the landowner’s permission, and in most cases government permission, it’s not archaeology, it’s theft. Which happens a lot—the global trade in illicit antiquities is worth millions—but it’s not in the least respectable. See the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and for recent treatments of the field, Loot, legitimacy, and ownership: the ethical crisis in archaeology (Renfrew, 2000), and “Looting and the world’s archaeological heritage: the inadequate response,” Annual Review of Anthropology 34, 343—61 (Brodie and Renfrew, 2005). But we pass lightly over such avoidable failings, because—to be honest—real archaeological projects probably make more for sitcom or soap opera than for high drama.
The crew of the Endurance are searching for the lost (mythical, Japanese) kingdom of Yamatai. Part archaeological expedition, part reality TV show, most of the participants seem to be under the delusion that one can get rich through archaeology if you just find the right site. But a dramatic shipwreck intervenes! Cast ashore on a mysterious island, you finally regain consciousness tied up in a cave full of bones and dead people. Thus begins your adventure as Lara Croft. The tone of things for the first act is set by the words delivered by the voice-over actor: “This,” she says, “is going to hurt.”
(Other telling phrases delivered with conviction: “What is this place?” “You can do this, Lara,” and “Oh god, what am I doing?”)
Let’s be clear about one thing: Tomb Raider isn’t a fluffy adventure. It starts out with a survival-horror aesthetic, and ramps back to merely brutal and bloody.*** It isn’t, however (some elements of art design aside), gratuitously so. Naturally this is a judgment of taste, one based in part upon what I believe the game to be attempting as a piece of art: the material remains open to other interpretations.
*** The art design for some of the underground charnel houses leaves me wondering at the gory logistics. How much murderous killing can one population support?
So what is Tomb Raider doing, as art? It makes a damn solid attempt at charting the development of a character from a college kid with adrenaline sports skills into a badass survivor with a decent degree of emotional realism. Lara-you starts with nothing; stranded, wounded, alone, in pain. As you progress, Lara-you levels up in badassery without ever leaving the acknowledgement of this is going to hurt entirely behind. On an emotional level, this works, I feel, supremely well: it’s the first time that a “zero-to-hero” narrative has actually worked for me. And it’s the first time that I remember seeing a game address consequences for engaging in one’s first act of serious interpersonal violence, a visceral reaction of shock.
It’s also the first time I’ve seen female friendship drive the narrative arc of a videogame. Aside from surviving and regrouping with other survivors, Lara-you is driven to try to rescue her best friend Samantha Nishimura from the hands of the leader of the weird cultists who live on the island—cultists who seem to think Sam and a sacrifice are the key to controlling the storms that keep all the wreck survivors stranded in place. (I’m still gleeful with unholy delight that it centres female friendship! Not just features, but centres!)
There are several characters besides Lara, and they’re all well-drawn examples of human beings. Not to mention surprisingly diverse for a videogame! High drama, snark, and sacrifice dog everyone’s footsteps: you rapidly get a sense for them all as people, and care about what happens to them.
Some of the art is gorgeous. Gameplay, at least on the Xbox, is intuitive and tends not to get in its own way. I’ve played through twice now (on Easy: story interests me far more than testing my twitch-reflexes) and while death dogged my footsteps, the game’s autosave feature is damn handy: it saves everywhere. Puzzles tend to be fairly straightforward. It’s a game that comes together easily and really works.
And yes, I really bloody loved playing a game that owes much to FPS mechanics and has a female character in the central role; a game with an immensely compelling narrative approach and solid characterisation; a game that centres female friendship and doesn’t give us an obligatory male love interest.
I want more games like this. More like this, dammit. Bad archaeology (*cough*LOOTERS*cough*) and all: I felt so goddamn happy and welcome and at home playing Tomb Raider, it only reinforced how often before I’ve felt alienated by a game (or by a film, but that’s another story).
Is this how guys feel most of the time? Because the difference is shocking.