I figured I’d give this a go. I’m pretty bored of not talking about video games, and this seems like it might be a good place to try and fix that.
The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot is one such game. That’s this one:
So let’s get into it! As the title suggests, this is just going to be two thoughts, two things that stood out to me as I played. Nice and simple.
Every game does some things well and some things poorly. That much is unavoidable (unless you managed to do nothing well, which would actually be quite a feat). For players, the problem is often not so much that a game is bad at something, but that it chooses to focus on that thing to an undue extent.
There’s an element of that with Tomb Raider. It does atmosphere and exploration very well. Uncharted has provided a detailed blueprint, but there’s enough added schmutz here to sell the idea that the natural or ruined world is truly a difficult place to be. A stooping, wading, scraping sort of place that resists intrusion. Moving looks and feels a little bit harder than it does for Nathan Drake, but not so hard that it ceases to play smoothly. There’s still a lot of showy stuff, but Tomb Raider also takes the time to make you crouch through a tunnel or get stuck in some mud. It adds texture. Not every area is a winner, and it’s true that there aren’t many honest-to-god tombs to be raiding, but these are blips on an experience basically defined by its effectiveness.
The combat, on the other hand… the combat is OK. That’s all. And I know that’s all, because the game takes the time to explore every last inch of its OK-ness, just to prove that there really is nothing more than that. There are a lot of gunfights in Tomb Raider, and their potential is exhausted long before it ceases to be tapped. There’s a longstanding dogma concerning the primacy of armed combat against human enemies. This game falls in line. From what I can gather, the Tomb Raider franchise as a whole has been a bit up-and-down on the issue.
Ultimately, the flow becomes one of alternation between two distinct activities: traversal and combat. One stays fun throughout, the other wears thin. This ends up creating something interesting. As I reached the next designated arena and immediately saw what was coming (all of those cover-shaped walls are a dead giveaway), I realised something. My disappointment with the scenario, that “not this again” moment, was a direct analogue to what Lara was supposed to be feeling. She doesn’t want to fight waves of suspiciously identical men in a room! She just wants to loiter near a cave, or climb a tree or something. She wants to look at collectibles – you can tell, because each one is accompanied by a voiceover of her enjoying looking at it. Tomb Raider’s pace manages to fail its way into being immersive, after a fashion. I can think of plenty of occasions on which a game’s missteps managed to make it more entertaining, but not so many on which they made it more on-theme.
This was a bit of an exercise in playing a game completely out of context. I have no strong feelings about this franchise, and I don’t live in 2013. I played Tomb Raider because it was £2.39 and I expected it to be well-made and unchallenging. I wanted to tick things off a checklist and see a picture of a temple. I had very simple demands that the game was able easily to meet.
But back when I did live in 2013, this game seemed like a pretty big deal. It kicked up all sorts of discussion about whether or not it was a good idea to reboot the series again, about whether or not it was taking an appropriate direction with Lara’s character, or with a female protagonist in general. There were questions about the level of violence, about the suggestion of sexual threat, about the necessity of online multiplayer, about whether or not a male player could be expected to put himself in the shoes of a female character, about Lara not shooting two pistols at once while backflipping away from a dinosaur. All that and more.
I didn’t have cause to think about any of this, within my little decontextualised bubble. It never really stood out to me. Partly, that might be because Tomb Raider isn’t particularly worthy of controversy. It never goes very far out on any limbs, and that’s probably by design. After all, a lot of the pre-release anxiety seemed to come from the fear that it might. Somebody with an interest in such things might suggest that there’s a strategy of taking something quite safe and promoting it as something risqué. There’s probably something to that, but I don’t want to think about marketing for more than a few seconds at time. So, moving on.
The other thing, the thing that did stand out to me, is this: none of those discussions have actually ended. They’ve just relocated. Game developers the world over are still putting multiplayer in inappropriate places, throwing waves of suspiciously identical men at their players, and nobly or ignobly walking the tightrope of attempting to represent femininity in their characters. Tomb Raider fans are still uncertain as to the future of their favourite series, and I imagine still engage in spirited discussion about how Lara and her games should and shouldn’t be. This game’s particular conversations may be of its time, but times don’t seem to have changed very much. At least, not for games like this: games where the weight of expectation is heavy and multidirectional, that are all but guaranteed to be attacked both for their liberties and for their conservatism. It all feels totally, unremarkably modern.
… and those are my two thoughts. I enjoyed Tomb Raider well enough in the end. Well enough that I’ll probably play Rise at some point, when I’m in the mood for a safe bet. Sometimes you just want to know what you’re getting.
That said, I’d be greatly interested to hear from anybody who has a strong opinion about the game. Love, hate, or strongly mixed. In general I find that a lot of really eye-opening moments come when somebody cares deeply about an aspect of something that totally passed you by.
Thanks for reading, in any case.