It's possible that I've never given the Tomb Raider Franchise the attention it deserved. In my entire gaming life I could probably count the amount of hours I've spent with the series on both hands. I can just about remember putting Lara's first outing into my Playstation, getting promptly stuck somewhere around twenty minutes in, and never really bothering with her again. I was in the enviable position of having a dad that sold second-hand games as part of his business. I was also young, impatient, and above all, a shitty gamer. Having such a massive selection of games to choose from meant that if something didn't grab me straight away, or was too difficult , then I just didn't bother persevering with it. Me and Lara were done, and no amount of playground-whispered cheat codes to reveal crudely pixelated breasts were going to convince me otherwise.
I'd pretty much carried my ambivalence towards the franchise with me, but something about the recent reboot got me interested. Almost universal critical praise and a couple of recommendations lead to a rental, and I found myself completely hooked from start to finish. The end credits marked a milestone for me. It was first time I'd beaten a Tomb Raider game. Hell, it was the first time I'd got past the opening level.
This isn't intended as a review, but I will say that I found that Tomb Raiderplays like an absolute dream. Movement is fluid, combat is satisfying, puzzles are engaging and just challenging enough to make you feel a little bit clever for solving them without breaking up the flow of game play. The action direction is also, from what I can tell having never played much of the Uncharted series, pretty special.
So far, solid game. But Tomb Raider was supposed to be so much more than a mechanically solid, entertaining title, right? It's intended as a origin story for Lara, showing us her transformation from a unremarkable archaeologist to a pistol-toting superhuman icon, letting the audience love her for her vulnerability and gain a new appreciation of what a bad-ass she is. It's no small task for a game to take on – an attempt to both humanise and deify a character simultaneously. Both traits are depictions of binary opposite characteristics, and both compliment each other insomuch as if an audience is never allowed to see character's weakness, it's hard to appreciate their strengths.
All fiction is a form of escapism, and videogames especially rely on providing at least some form of wish fulfillment to the player. They're also in a unique position to offer this because of the interactive nature of the medium. The issue then lies in how to let us project both our desire for strength along with our natural tendencies to root for the underdog. It's fun to play as Superwoman for a while, but it's pretty hard to become emotionally involved with someone who's practically invincible.
I'll just get it out of the way now. I thought Tomb Raider was a badly written game. I played it because I thought the premise was interesting, and I think that premise – Lara's character arc – was poorly executed. Lara's transformation struck me more as a feature claw-hammered into the package than an organic narrative device, and her jarring leap into sudden genocide wasn't backed by enough foreshadowing, but I don't think that the problem was lack of talent or effort on the part of the writers. I think they were given an impossible task to begin with. That is, to give Lara Croft depth, to humanise her.
Lara's first outing was in 1996. Although there's plenty of exceptions to the rule, she comes from a time where a characters central goal, mechanically speaking, was enough to base an entire persona on. She never was Lara Croft: Archaeologist forced into an unpleasant situation. It was always, and was always going to be, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Lara, in both game play and character, collects shiny objects. In terms of the hero's journey, she's only aiming slightly higher than Miss. Pacman, and that's only because the items of interest happen to have history, rather than being pixels on a grid.
It makes it even harder to empathise when you know the funds from her historic grave robbing aren't really going towards anything much more significant than such lifestyle essentials as a freezer big enough to trap her butler in. Campster has pointed out in his Errant Signal videos that he feels Lara is a Sociopath, and I'd agree with him, but I don't feel her sociopathy is a character trait, more a hangover from her existence as a videogame character in the first place. In many cases, blending mechanics and narrative makes for great games, and it's something we don't see enough, but the Tomb Raider reboot overreaches itself by attempting to humanise a character that is literally the embodiment of a mechanic in herself. It's similar to Naughty Dog inventing a dark, trauma-ridden origin story for Crash Bandicoot. I'm sure Carl Jung would have had a field day with all those masks.