Published Apr 04, 2013Tomb Raider, like many long-running franchises as of late, has been rebooted rather than sequel-ized. So instead of the effortlessly effective, quip-spouting Lara Croft we nowadays associate with an ass-kicking Angelina, Crystal Dynamics delivered a lithe, inexperienced lass, new to the raiding of tombs and trapped on an island filled with deadly dangers from both man and beast. She's frightened and vulnerable and a right far ways off from her dual-wielding future.
In fact, it's several hours in before Lara even touches a gun, and it is one of the most intense moments in modern gaming.
"Nobody had told the story of how she became Lara Croft, the one we know," explains Crystal Dynamics' studio head Darrell Gallagher. "She started with the two guns, she started cartwheeling, she started with the short shorts in Tomb Raider One. Nobody told the story of how she got there, so we felt it was fertile ground."
So young Lara, fresh out of school, sets off on a reality show research expedition. Based on a hunch, she convinces her captain to head into the dreaded Dragon's Triangle where the ship is destroyed by a sudden, mysterious storm and the survivors crawl onto an unfortunately not-so-deserted island.
While searching for her crewmates, Croft is caught by an armed guard. We first get in a physical fight, before knocking him over and grabbing his firearm. We shoot at him when he rushes us, but miss — and then it's a wrestling match. If we lose, it's a gunshot to our head and game over. If we win, he gets the headshot. But it's not a cathartic release nor is it a blasé kill. It's actually quite horrifying.
The scalp-less guard's lifeless body lands on us, we push it off and start coughing, retching, nearly throwing up. Strings swell as Lara very slowly catches her breath. It's a gut-punch reaction to shooting someone that is a true rarity in gaming.
"When she has to kill a person for the first time, that's represented in a way that is pretty powerful," says Gallagher. "I think we do a good job trying to motivate why somebody would take another life. At various points in the game we show that there is weight to it. There's weight on her emotionally, as a consequence of it, and it lasts with her and even thought she does get hardened and she does take more lives. It is for a purpose; it's kill or be killed. It's not because she's chasing a treasure, it's that you're not going to survive unless you defend yourself. So we've tried to set up a strong fiction to motivate that."
Indeed, it only makes sense because this is an origin story and Lara Croft is new to the concept of killing. This wasn't the case in previous games because, of course, a veteran like her would be inured to shooting people. Turning her back into a fledgling adventurer, a rich girl without real world experiences, allows them to make killing matter.
But does it matter enough? As Gallagher himself demurs, "it's also important to remember it is a videogame, it is entertainment, it is active — so we want to make sure we're an entertaining game."
The action-adventure genre requires dramatic conflict and, like most games, you win by taking your opponent off the board. Killing is part and parcel. But that doesn't mean it has to feel as desensitized as it does in, say, Uncharted, where the Lara Croft-inspired treasure-hunting hero Nathan Drake leaves thousands of bloodied red shirts in scattered around the tombs he raids. What hero cracks wise amidst so many corpses?
Croft doesn't quip, but this Tomb Raider boasts considerably more visceral violence than the puzzle-solving series is known for, even getting the series first 18+ rating in the UK and Mature rating in North America, leading some to wonder if the game makers caved to pressure to compete with shooters like Call of Duty.
"There was no outside pressure to change. Audiences today want realism in their games," argued Eidos boss Ian Livingstone in the Guardian. "Combat had always been an afterthought in previous Tomb Raiders so we thought we want to raise the combat."
Making the combat feel impactful is a good first step; but that impact quickly lessens the more people you kill as Lara makes her way across the island. While you can choose to use a bow and arrow rather than a gun, as I largely did, you're still leaving a wide swath of dead bodies in your wake.
"I had to kill some people, I had no choice," Croft tells a fellow survivor over the walkie-talkie. "It can't have been easy," he replies. "It's scary how easy it was," is her reply, and this whole exchange hits close to home because it just keeps getting easier as the game goes along.
The design disconnect between the emotionally wracked cut-scenes and subsequent kill-crazed gameplay is an unfortunate lapse in an otherwise very well-made game. It's not that Croft had no choice, it's that she wasn't given one by the developers who could have included the option of occasionally achieving goals in a non-violent manner, or at least had her question her mounting body count more.
"We think we at least made something that shows how it could have an effect on an individual like her," argues Gallagher, "and is the reason why she becomes hardened."
But it's still, well, scary how easy killing was.