Press Start: Tomb Raider

My beef with Lara Croft's latest outing.

Lara. Lara. What happened? You talked the talk. Gritty, you said. Realistic, you said. And yet you take bullets to the everything like Marcus Fenix wearing Master Chief’s armour. You talk with great heart, and yet you walk like a comic book super hero – a Super Woman moonlighting as a British archaeologist.

But you could’ve been so much more, Lara. You’re a believable, well-acted, appropriately proportioned character. You pulled me in. You prepared me for a journey of great emotional and physical pain, only to shatter it the moment Tomb Raider becomes Lara Croft Pinball – knocked, kicked and bounced, and nigh-on a scratch, fractured bone or broken nail.

In short, then, Tomb Raider can’t commit to its own premise. A vulnerable, untrained explorer lost in the depths of the wilderness, Lara is forced to overcome the impossible to stop the massively improbable. But this once-innocent civilian radically transforms into a merciless, unstoppable killer without as much as blinking an eye. For all its talk, Lara Croft is no different to her beefcake contemporaries. Quick to kill. Slow to be killed.

That would be fine, too, if it wasn’t trying to convince me otherwise. Lara is the underdog, apparently. Constantly being dragged, dropped, or pushed to impending doom – only to pull through fine and dandy. In a world where Lara is essentially Clarke Kent, peril fatigue is Tomb Raider‘s greatest foe. Lara needs her Kryptonite.

But not only does Tomb Raider miss this vital point on a narrative level, it almost entirely omits it on a mechanical level, too. No need to bandage flesh wounds or remove bullets – Lara’s regenerative health has you covered. Medical kits? No thanks. I’m Lara Croft. Bullets, bombs and narrative be damned. Tomb Raider is undoubtedly a video game.

Lara wants the credit for surviving a harrowing and emotional journey, but refuses to endure the hardship of that journey. A vulnerable, very human, very real protagonist in cut scenes is quickly reduced to a psychopathic gun-wielding bullet sponge in play. Tomb Raider becomes yet another action game. It’s another action game incredibly well-done, mind you. But just another action game nonetheless.

By tapping into action-shooter game vocabulary – regenerative health, exploding barrels, push-button-to-win – Lara is stripped of almost all humanity. She, like other protagonists in the genre, isn’t meant to be human, it would seem. Rarely can actual people achieve such feats, and perhaps this is the medium’s greatest problem – its protagonists need to be badass.

Lara is the fibber down at the local pub – she tells a cracking story, a tale of woe and strife, a tale which pits her against all the odds. Except that she’s Lara Croft – survival was never the issue. No, she was too interested in telling a story that enthralled, entertained and shocked.

And that, in and of it itself, is okay, too. It’s just a shame that the tale she begins to tell becomes a story that we’ve all heard before – the tale of the almighty hero: unstoppable, unbeatable, and grossly inhumane.

Press Start is a brief blog that talks about the games we’re playing and what we think about them. Share your thoughts about the game in question below.

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