So I’ve recently spent some time spelunking, digitally speaking. Breaking through walls. Putting arrows through heads. And it’s mostly been enjoyable, but has come to an end that makes me realise I’m a terrible person who spoils everything.
Yes folks, I’m Lara Croft.
What I’ve been doing is catching up with the Crystal Dynamics-rebooted trio of games about the fearless adventuring toff heiress, the latest of which came out last year: Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
And you know what? They’re pretty good.
I mean, I already figured that part of things out. I played these three on my PS4, but I have previously played the first game. My thoughts on it – found here – are largely the same. It’s still a lot of fun, and the game looks wonderful. I felt it played a lot easier until I got to those same QTE events that proved irritating on my first go-around – hello, river full of impalement – and then my frustration level rose.
As ever, I loved the design of the thing. The first game looks wonderful in its definitive edition, and the mechanics still play well. I love that revisiting areas once you’ve unlocked different abilities – rope arrows and the like – adds new layers of exploration to a familiar locale. It’s clever, and the overall palette of the game is grim enough to keep interest but not so dark it grinds everything to paste.
The weird thing is that unlike, say, Assassin’s Creed – a series I found to make more sense when played one after the other (I went from the first game to Black Flag in a pretty much unbroken run) – this trilogy of Tomb Raider games could use a breather between outings. Sure, this is my fault and not that of the developers, as they’re not responsible for the dynamics of my shame pile interaction. So perhaps it’s not ideal that I played the games so closely together.
For starters, they kind of ran into each other. The mechanics at play in the games are largely identical, with the second and third instalments featuring some pretty sweet rappelling and swimming action. There’s a great sense of freedom, but playing the middle and last games together felt a bit like watching the second and third Back to the Future movies – it feels like they were made together, or that they’re the same thing in different clothing. One’s snowy, one’s tropical. Different, but not really.
The second game was a lot of fun, no doubt. It featured more of the sort of stuff that made the first enjoyable: big set pieces, Jonah and arrows through the head. It had a Siberian/rusted Cold War equipment vibe that was fun, and the presentation of snow and ice – and the addition of languages to ‘learn’ – was a neat addition. I felt that there was always something interesting to do, and like good cinematic action blockbusters, it was fairly popcorn-heavy, and didn’t outstay its welcome.
It was fun while it lasted, and kind of unmemorable after. It introduced a bunch of Military Bad Guys to the mix, and dealt a bit with PTSD, but never forgot that people were expecting to zipline to tombs and shank baddies from behind. And for that, it was great.
The third, though, seems to have had more in mind. It seemed to want to make us think about the effects of Lara’s incursions. (As an aside, it also seemed to want to move in on Uncharted‘s territory more fulsomely – the setting of Shadow of the Tomb Raider felt like locales where you were likely to find Nathan bloody Drake hamming about.)
This reboot cycle has always dealt with the idea of places that may or may not have existed. Yamatai. Kitezh. Paititi. But the fact the third game feels the need to express how closely the team worked with academics versed in the culture they’re digging into probably should be a warning that they’re going to be getting a bit closer to reality than normal. Which means, invariably, dealing with colonialism.
There’s some good articles about Lara’s colonialist attitude. Try this, this, this or this. There’s probably a lot better people than me – an average white dude – to tell that side of the story. But it’s inescapable that it’s part of this game. It makes us question – or at least, it made me do so – how much shit Lara does without thinking. How much death she causes. Sure, that’s a good line for a character to throw at you – but when you’re the person who is legitimately responsible for cataclysmic events killing hundreds of people at least then there should be a bit of questioning about whether it’s worth it.
Especially when – spoiler alert! – the game ends with Croft in her stately home, drinking tea served in fine china, supplied by a butler. This person – the young woman who became a killing machine, who has a dead dad and a sizeable collection of shit that isn’t hers – is who we should sympathise with? Certainly, it’s not expressly stated that LARA CROFT IS A BAD EGG, but the amount of side-eye she receives from other characters – including Jonah, who’s now been mooning after the adventuress for three games – coupled with the amount of terrible shit that happens in her wake should cause most players to wonder if it’s all worth it.
The weird thing is that so many people online bang on about how making the player feel like their avatar’s behaviours – lifting shit from tombs and people’s houses so they can upgrade a weapon or an outfit with all the cultural sensitivity of a Native American headdress worn at Coachella – are bad is somehow SJW propaganda instead of a meaningful exploration of White People Doing The Same Shit They Always Do Where POC Are Involved. Probably the same people who thought Spec-Ops: The Line was nuanced commentary, I guess?
Sure, a AAA game is not going to be the most delicate version of this discussion, and there’s always going to be a good argument that the decision was made to make the player feel this way for narrative reasons (rather than for the purposes of reflection or education). But I’m glad they tackled it in some form. It’s pretty telling that a video game has made more movement towards engaging with the issues of colonialism than some of the great colonial powers.
Aside from the colonialism stuff, though, the game was reasonably forgettable. Well made, and enjoyable, sure, but not something that I feel will stick in my mind the way others I’ve played have. It’s a shame. An enjoyable shame, but a shame nonetheless.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from my play-through of these games. For the others to live up to the promise of the first? I guess they did – but that promise was mostly mechanical rather than the promise of story that gripped. I was interested, yes. I thought about things, yes. But at the end I was left with a feeling of disappointment at odds with my at-the-time enjoyment of the games. Kind of like a meal of empty calories.
(Except, again, for the llama patting. That’ll never get old.)
I’m not sure what’ll come next, but it’ll either be super-rich in story, or the most brainless shit imaginable. Onwards, at any rate.