I cannot be too clear on this point: Tomb Raider is in no way a bad game. Over the course of its exceptional campaign, you’ll inhabit a newly-imagined Lara Croft, one who inhabits a wide range of vulnerabilities: crepuscular scavenger, torture porn survivor, hibiscus assassin. Considering that our previous Croft could only be described by a handful of terms—all of which involved some number of mammary glands—this range of character seems especially pertinent. One might even go so far as to declare Crystal Dynamic’s reboot of the series to be a refreshing and faith-inducing success, as it was just recently by our own Neil Connors.
And yet . . . lurking behind the game’s narrative of survivorship, in much the same way that Lara lurks among the dark foliage of an enemy encampment, lies something in conflict with itself, struggling to carry the emotional weight of its own conceit. The same as Lara, it takes aim at us silently and with bow-string strength. Good news is we don’t die from it; bad news is the game kind of does.
So what went wrong?
Games, as we well know, exist in the fusion of mechanics and context, and thus we begin looking for our culprit there, in the gameplay itself. First and foremost, for a game about survival—as evidenced by the oft-repeated “A survivor is born” tagline—you’ll spend a whole lot of time being perfectly and exceptionally just dandy, especially in the first two-thirds of the game. Okay, sure, overwhelming odds and all that, but mechanically the game’s about as threatening as a Carnival cruise, and we ain’t talking Triumph either. Feeling pounced upon by a beast-wolf? Well, you best be up on your “just keeping pushing X” skills. Hanging defenseless from a rail while being beset upon by enemies? Sit the controller down and grab a snack, the game’s got ya covered, girl. Honestly, for much of the game the most we seem to be “surviving” is plentiful and insistent accommodation. Yes, I understand that Crystal Dynamics is simply appealing to a demographic here; and yes, I get that “Push X to Awezome” is no original complaint; yet Tomb Raider had so much going for it—namely a courageous, unsexualized female protagonist—that I find it unfortunate to see the narrative’s central conceit belied by a failure to follow through mechanically.
Take, for instance, the cover system. As was the case in last year’s Far Cry 3, much of the work is done for you, with Tomb Raider taking things a step even further and actually sliding Lara into position for you too. In itself, this is a welcome relief to the “push circle to break-dance” cover-system of games such as Uncharted. The problem, however, is that this is the only way you are ever able to crouch. Ever ever. As Erik Kain over at Forbes wrote last week, “…but I still have to run up to the cover in order to trigger [crouching]—it’s still up to me even if I’m saved one extra push of a button.” And really it’s a bigger deal than one’s desire for control—the omission actively argues against survivorship. . . . Numerous were the times Lara stalked ink-black caverns teeming with unseen danger, standing straight up as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
This is all to say that despite all its accomplishments, Tomb Raider’s weak knee is its inability to handle its own artifice—that sense that the things I am up to could go disastrously wrong in the space of a heartbeat. I know a lot of you are attached to this idea of “total agency” in games (and don’t you worry, I’ll touch on that plenty in the months to come), but truth be known, you dig down far enough and everything begins looking predetermined. For me, a well-crafted lie will do just fine, thank ye . . . and the standout failing of Tomb Raider is that Lara is not a particularly good liar. As a matter of fact, for most of the game it’s as if the poles of danger have been reversed: we flat-out breeze through the collapse of a flame-swept fortress, yet plummet to our dooms plodding up to a rope. We’re either being led by the hand, or we’re dropping right off of cliffs. And that’s not a failure to survive on our parts—that’s poor parenting on the developers’ part. “A child is born” is more like it, “and swiftly loosed upon the rocks.”
More to point, for all its moaning and hard-scrapping, it isn’t a survivor that is born but a compulsive disorder. Lara will fight tooth and nail, sure . . . from time to time . . . and our imaginations will be surely lit toward survivorship when she’s, say, covered in human viscera whilst brandishing a last handful of arrows, or clinging to the splintering tumult of a collapsing ship, but otherwise you’ll be spending a lot of your time turning on a dime to collect enough junk so that your skill tree stops being so damn boring. I don’t mean so damn ineffective . . . I mean so damn boring. Not once in my thirty-years of gaming do I recall choosing from such a lackluster set of upgrades as were my choices during the first two-thirds of Tomb Raider. “More scrap metal from animals?” Wow. Yet still did the compulsion strike me to barrel through, for in the hazy future of as-of-yet-unavailable options did I see skills that, you know, seemed worth my time. And I suppose it would be dead-beating the horse at this point to say that it felt nothing like survival. However, it didn’t—actually it felt more like signing up for a payment plan.
“A reliable income is born” . . . there’s your tagline, Tomb Raider.
And yeah, I get it: Tomb Raider is a video game, not a treatise on the psychological trauma of survivorship. And I might have acquiesced to that point, had Crystal Dynamics not had the perfect opportunity to create such gaming-treatise; or more to point, had the arc of video game ambition not so ratcheted up my expectations of the medium. Because I assure you, games are capable of it. Tomb Raider is capable of it, or was, I guess, before the game began to feel more like a banking simulator. Minecraft, Don’t Starve, Amnesia: the Dark Descent . . . even Red Dead Redemption handles the concept of “survival” better, what with rag-tag bands of grizzly bears roaming the woods, and it had an actual “push X to kill” button. But beyond it, each of those other games feature a true sense of overwhelming odds and what it means to overcome them, and most of them do it simply by obfuscating danger until the last possible second. Oh and they do a second thing too: they unabashedly let you fail at it.
I’ve been fighting this entire time to use the word “systemic,” but I’ll go ahead and whip her own out: Tomb Raider suffers not necessarily from a systemic failure in its mechanics, but from a systemic failure of its industry (that’s a twofer) . . . and it isn’t enough anymore to just say, Whelp, maybe the next go-round. This is especially troubling with developers who seem to have their sights set on something interesting, as Crystal Dynamics’ was with Tomb Raider. For them, a realization has to come that games, like every other medium, are vessels of conveyance, and should they let slip their central conceits they must account for the incongruity in some way, or (in the truest style of the arts) allow it to account for itself. Because it’s too easy to just wave away issues like this and chalk it all up to a case of “devs gotta eat.” For the divide between meaningful games and mainstream game grows wider every year. Developers with true, honest ideas can’t just bat them around anymore, hoping something will come of it; they have to fully dedicate themselves to them.
That’s the only way the idea will survive.