Tue
Jun 25 2013 11:00am
Sleeps With Monsters: Tomb Raider is Bloody Awesome

Lara Croft Tomb Raider

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.


Liz Bourke is a cranky youngish feminist. Find more crankiness at her blog and on twitter.

19 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
Going to have to get it and play it, clearly.
MadCap
2. MadCap
I liked it! It had a good hook, story wise and had great game mechanics. Wall climbing and traversing the game world obstacles was easy with the guide function.
MadCap
3. JamesEdJones
"Is this how guys feel most of the time? Because the difference is shocking."

Are you talking about ease of immersion? If so, then yeah, the importance of it cannot be overstated. It's the reason I can't play WoW after playing SWTOR. It's the reason I have yet to play Bioshock until I can get some curtains that block out my streetlight.

If you're talking about something else, then I dunno. We don't really feel that much beyond hungry or tired/bored most of the time. :P
Jason Denzel
4. JasonDenzel
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.
Yup. That.

I loved this game to pieces. Unlike you, I'm a guy, but like you, I was hesitent to try this game for the same initial reasons you listed. I found a positive review of the game and tried it out, loving it immediately. I want more like it, where the protagonist has to deal with their emotions in at least a semi-realistic way.
James Hogan
5. Sonofthunder
So one of my best friends talked about this game for a while - finally invited me over just so I could play some for myself. I sat down and got to it...definitely one of the most engaging and intense opening hour to a game I've ever experienced. I've never played the original Tomb Raider games...but this one was absolutely fantastic.
Matt Stoumbaugh
6. LazerWulf
"**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 the civilization they're looking for is "lost", wouldn't that mean they don't know where to look? And if they don't know where to look, how can they get the paperwork to look there?

Besides, the game is called "Tomb Raider", not "Archaeologist". The dubious legality of their task is kind of implied.
MadCap
7. Eric Saveau
Argh. I have a huge backlog of games, books, movies and TV to get through, but I'm sorely tempted to shove this to the head of the line based on the fact that everyone I know who has played it just can't stop praising it with every superlative they know and a few they look up in a lexicon.

On a related note, I'm very much looking forward to the forthcoming review of The Last Of Us. I just finished it, and I am still shaking.
MadCap
8. Jeff R.
@6: Sure, but then we have the whole "exactly who thought that bringing a camera crew to document your criminal enterprise was a good idea" thing.
Fade Manley
9. fadeaccompli
This is one of those games that makes me wish I'd developed good hand-eye coordination and twitch reflexes in my youth. (Alas, I spent a lot of time re-reading books while my friends were playing baseball. In my defense, I would've been happy to play if they'd explained the rules to me, instead of just assuming everyone knew.) I was just as dubious based on early reports, and yet I've heard nothing but good about the game as my friends play through it.

It's especially interesting to me how many of my female friends have been playing it, too. I have a lot of friends who are gamers, and who recommend all sorts of games. But women I know who usually don't play shooter-style games at all were cornering me in the game store to tell me how good the game is, and recommend it to me. (One friend in particular explained that she made her kid play the hardest parts for her, so that she could keep going. If only I had a high-reflexes teenager at hand to do the same!)

I end up rather wistfully echoing the last line. Is this how guys feel most of the time, when they enthuse about shooter games that look to me like Yet Another Grizzled Space Marine In Shades Of Brown? I can't think of the last game I ran into that had this many women coming up to me and saying, you have to play this. It's good. It's intense. When you play it, you'll care about these characters.

(Sometimes they recommend other games, but with a sort of wry disclaimer of, "Of course the only women in there are the usual types," and we all sort of nod. The sexy pseudo-naked robot/computer chick. The breathy girlfriend who gets kidnapped or murdered. The slinky maybe-enemy woman who betrays the hero but falls in love with him and throws in with him at the end, usually getting killed while trying to help him. Yeah. The usual types.)
Scott Silver
10. hihosilver28
Liz, I would love to hear what you think of The Last of Us. Though that may be difficult (read: impossible) if you only own an Xbox. It's my favorite game to come out this year, and that includes playing Bioshock: Infinite.
Carl Anderson
11. Carl V Anderson
I've been looking forward to this one since the first trailer was released. I've enjoyed the franchise in the past, despite its problems and the ridiculous tarted-up nature of the character, and the gritty realism this one appeared to possess made it look like an exciting new chapter in the franchise. I've been waiting for the price to dip a bit before buying it as I'm not hurting for games. You make a convincing argument to give up any more waiting.
Francisco Guimaraes
12. franksands
Tomb Raider is awesome and I loved playing it, but, I think there is a huge divide between the narrative and the gameplay. The story tell us the sad sad story of Lara and how she grieves shooting another human being, the game show us how to customize WWII assault rifles and gives us bonuses for headshots. I felt I was playing 2 different games: the sad survivor story and the ultimate badass slayer of armies. Not that TR is the first to do this, but I expected more from a game that was sold as not being just another shooter.
Liz Bourke
13. hawkwing-lb
PrinceJvstin @1:

Yes.

JamesEdJones @3:
If you're talking about something else, then I dunno.
As it happens, I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about the fact that most videogames assume their audience to be (cis) men, and don't bother to think about small things like not utterly alienating people like me. I'm talking about the fact that, unlike a vast majority of games, Tomb Raider doesn't position people like me as not-subject, as object, as Other. It doesn't remind me that it's not for me, that I'm included as an afterthought - if that, if ever.



jwdenzel @4:

Yes! This exactly. So few videogames consider character growth important, in a narrative way.

Sonofthunder @5:

I vaguely remember hating instalments from a decade ago, but this is the first one I've played properly, myself.

JeffR @8:
"exactly who thought that bringing a camera crew to document your criminal enterprise was a good idea"
My keyboard doesn't thank you for its baptism by tea. :D

fadeaccompli @9:
I can't think of the last game I ran into that had this many women coming up to me and saying, you have to play this. It's good. It's intense. When you play it, you'll care about these characters.
Yeah. Me neither.

hihosilver @28:

You think I can afford to keep more than one console? What kind of fancy-pant rich kid d'you think I am? *g*

Jesting aside, from what I've heard of The Last of Us, I'd love to play it. But unless PS3s suddenly fall out of the sky, that's not going to happen. *sad*
MadCap
14. Pre5to
@8 actually that does happen, it even happen in tv, the law is a lot more bendable on the high seas, I'm talking about whale wars. They are officially pirates under international and us law but there is still a tv show about them.
MadCap
15. GuruJ
Sorta kinda related: Except for a few loons, white-male-straights can still greatly enjoy games like Tomb Raider. Why? Novelty.

It's fun to experience another point of view. It's part of what storytelling is all about, after all. I've never worked out why videogame publishers don't recognise that ego-substitution can sell just as many games as ego-identification. (Then again, perhaps that's obvious: Because creating a alternate identity actually takes "work" and "writing skills".)
Jenny Thrash
16. Sihaya
#6: One, you take a guess, and then you get permission to go dig where you guessed. If you would like that permission, or a budget, then you had best back up that guess with some laser mapping, some geography, some literary clues, etc. Or two, you ask around. Seriously. I had a college professor who found a "lost" Mayan city by walking through the Yucatan with his partner in the most likely place and asking the local Mayans. He was very polite, and they helpfully pointed him, slowly and step by step, to where he needed to be. And boom - there was a square topped hill, covered in trees. Then he asked permission to dig.
Ursula L
17. Ursula
@16 I had a college professor who found a "lost" Mayan city by walking through the Yucatan with his partner in the most likely place and asking the local Mayans.
Because "lost" means that the academics can't find it, not that no one knows where it is.
Scott Silver
18. hihosilver28
Liz,
Don't let that stop you. Find a friend who has the system and borrow it for a bit. ;-) I'm in the same boat with Xbox exclusives. I've been fortunate that most of what I've wanted to play has been multi-platform or PS3 exclusive.

I'm looking forward to giving Tomb Raider a try. I've heard nothing but good things about it.

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