Narrative in Video Games #7: Tomb Raider

Few franchises in gaming are as iconic as Tomb Raider. With a string of hit games in the late 90’s, Lara Croft dominated the action adventure genre, but the turn of the millennium brought with it a downturn in both sales and quality which finally forced the series to go dormant in 2008. During the interim, another franchise heavily inspired by the tomb raiding of old rose to prominence: Uncharted. So when it finally came time for Lara Croft to make her long awaited return in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, the odds were stacked against her. So how does the reboot fare?

The Uncharted comparisons come up early and often with a one woman army mowing down swaths of enemy mooks, heavily scripted sequences, and climbing around a perpetually crumbling landscape littered with ammo and collectible treasures. Tomb Raider isn’t all Uncharted comparisons, however, there are also plenty of Batman: Arkham Asylum comparisons with the sectioned off island mostly explorable at your leisure, audio/text logs, miscellaneous gameplay challenges on most maps, and upgradable equipment. I only partially kid, Tomb Raider treads a lot of familiar ground with its gameplay, but does enough with its third person shooting/exploration to stand out among its peers, and in some cases even surpass them.

The game’s biggest weaknesses come down to the narrative and tone. Lara Croft gets shipwrecked on Yamatai and unable to leave because of mysterious storms that destroy any craft that comes near the island. She and her fellow survivors aboard the Endurance have to deal with crazy cultists, ancient curses, and the island itself if they want to escape. Right off the bat, Lara is separated from the other survivors and their relationships are either conveyed through camcorder flashback or over the radio. The few times they do appear in person are few and far between. This becomes a problem when they start dying because the player hasn’t had enough time with most of them to create an emotional connection; alluding to their relationship with the protagonist isn’t enough to establish a connection with the audience.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game narratively is its textbook example of ludonarrative dissonance. Throughout the game Lara undergoes an arc to become a stronger person, a “Survivor” as the game calls it, but it almost completely ignores the descent into psychopathy that makes the gameplay possible. A certain level of gravitas is given to Lara’s first kill, it was self-defense, she did what she had to do to survive. But by the time Lara starts firing a grenade launcher yelling “That’s right! Run, you bastards!” she is clearly taking some level of enjoyment out of murdering people en masse. The narrative gives carte blanche to her actions under the “Survivor” banner and suffers because of it.

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