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Tomb Raider – from zero to hero? Not bloody likely

Friday, 15 February 2013 08:06 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Tomb Raider is an origin story, showing us how Lara Croft became one of gamin’s most recognisable action heroes. But that doesn’t mean she starts off weak or spoiled, Brenna argues.

Lara Croft’s story begins abruptly. There’s a short cinematic, a montage of events showing the shipwreck of the research vessel Lara is traveling on, and then her attack on the beach by a mysterious assailant. Moments later, Lara awakens, tied upside down in a cave, and the player takes control.

It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings. We’re used to seeing Lara kicking arse and not even bothering to take names, so to see her so confused, frightened and helpless is jarring.

Lara’s first kill

Much has been made of the first time Lara shoots a human opponent, and her first hunt – both necessary actions to ensure her survival. But, depending on your stance on responsibility, Lara’s first casualty actually occurs much earlier in the game, when in her flailing attempt to escape an unknown assailant, she indirectly causes him to be crushed by a falling boulder.

“Ah,” said art director Brian Horton. “To be technical, she kicks him in the face. She doesn’t kill him. The rock kills him.”

But although she’s younger, and doesn’t yet have the skills her later self will no doubt manifest, Lara is still Lara. Being locked up somewhere without any weapons was a regular occurrence in past Tomb Raider games, and this new version of Lara deals with the situation exactly as her past self would have: she figures out what needs to be done, and then does it – no matter what the odds, no matter what frightening things may be happening around her, and no matter what physical hardship she has to endure.

The difference is, she seems affected by it; a human being rather than a barely-animated heap of polygons. Soon after Tomb Raider’s debut, critics began describing it as “torture porn” and calling out the fact that Lara is so disempowered, a situation very far removed from her gunslinging past. Lara’s voice actor, Camilla Luddington, does an excellent job of communicating pain, effort and suffering, as Lara’s grunts and cries of past games rarely did. It’s uncomfortable to watch.

But it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as the torture porn it’s been described as, because Lara doesn’t sit around begging and pleading for help. Throughout the opening hours of the game she repeatedly does what Lara Croft has always done: shows enormous courage in getting the job done. She’s not afraid of the dark or the monsters she knows well are in it. She doesn’t need anyone to help her. She’ll willingly put her wellbeing at risk if the goal is worth the gamble.

Lara’s camcorder

Crystal Dynamics found a cute way of delivering backstory to those players who want to absorb the game’s narrative more fully: Lara watches recordings of past events on her camcorder.

“Her magical, waterpoof camcorder,” I challenged Horton.
“That’s right, her magical, waterproo- hey! Some camcorders are waterproof,” he answered, reproachfully.

Lara doesn’t react to her extreme situation as a normal human would. I know we all believe we’re action heroes on the inside, but just you bark your shin on the coffee table and have to lie down and breathe deeply for a while; you’d be useless out there, disempowered. A disempowered character doesn’t tear an object out of their own abdomen and get their feet; they lie down and cry, or die, or wait for help, just as most of us would. Lara, by contrast, gets up, and continues getting up. When the story calls for it, she learns the action skills we remember – shooting people and animals in the face, mainly, but also acrobatics – in addition to those she already possessed, which are formidable.

The events of Tomb Raider will shape Lara into the hero we remember, but it’s her base personality, equipped with near superhuman amounts of physical and mental resilience and bravery, that allows the transformation to happen.

Later in the game we learn through flashback story sequences that Lara was already more than you average teenage girl. She doesn’t get on that vessel a naive kid; she’s a talented researcher whose opinion is respected by older and more experienced adventurers. She’s been trained in survival and other vital expeditionary skills by her mentor, Roth.

The original Tomb Raider canon, patched and repatched as it was, is not so startlingly different. I now quote from the instruction manual of the 1996 original:

Lara’s mentor

Lara’s mentor Roth is a silver-haired Northerner – sort of a grandfatherly figure, if your pop was in the SAS. Horton designed this character himself, and the process was not entirely smooth.

“At one point he had a mullet,” Horton confessed, somewhat defensively. “It was sort of like – I call it an Irish mullet. Not a really white trashy mullet. I remember seeing a bunch of guys from Ireland, and at one point he was Irish.
“And then as we got into his backstory and fleshed it out a bit we realised it would make more sense for him to be a little bit older, a little bit more conservative. And we really wanted to make sure people took him seriously.”

“Lara Croft, daughter of Lord Henshingly Croft, was raised to be an aristocrat from birth. After attending finishing school at the age of 21, Lara’s marriage into wealth had seemed assured, but on the way home from a skiing trip her chartered plane had crashed deep in the heart of the Himalayas. The only survivor, Lara learned how to depend on her wits to stay alive in hostile conditions a world away from her sheltered upbringing.”

It goes on, with Lara’s return to civilisation and her discovery that she quite likes the rough life, actually. The implication is that prior to her accident, Lara was a spoiled rich kid, and she underwent a profound life change.

Of course, later games saw fit to fiddle about with this simple origin story. By Tomb Raider: Revelations, the fourth Core Design entry, Lara had been ret-conned to have been adventurous her whole life, and at age 16, acquired a mentor in Werner Von Croy. She was no longer the privileged socialite metamorphosed by tragedy, but instead, uh, a privileged socialite with some highly eccentric habits, like shooting people and animals in the face, acquired over a lifetime of training.

If you combine the two together, you get a picture very much like that Crystal Dynamics and Rhianna Pratchett have put together. A young, somewhat sheltered and privileged woman possessed of an extraordinary thirst for knowledge and the balls (if you’ll forgive the inappropriately gendered term) to do anything is put in a situation requiring her to do everything. She does so, drawing on lessons gleaned from a lifetime of tutelage from various sources.

Core Design never showed us the plane crash in its first backstory, or how Lara grew from cheeky teenager to action hero in its second. In its earlier games, Crystal Dynamics didn’t manage it either. In all past games we just had a vague description of an everyday although well-funded individual, a tragic event, and then bam! Full-blown sociopathy: the basic job requirement for all action heroes.

Tomb Raider is actually going to show us Lara’s growth into a hero: tough as iron, fierce as fire, clever as a fox and with the gameplay-necessitated moral dimensionality of a snake. When the closing credits roll, I suspect she’ll be the Lara Croft you remember, only significantly more consistent and three-dimensional. But what you need to remember is that for all her groans and breathy, hitching fear, when you first pick up that control pad – she’s already the Lara you remember. You just don’t know it yet.

Tomb Raider is due on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in early March.

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15 Comments

  1. doswillrule

    I’m not sure if they’ve revealed this elsewhere, but part of this new, more relatable narrative for Lara is that despite having vast riches at her disposal, she’s funded her own way through uni as a means of independence. That’s straight from Rhianna Pratchett at the recent Bafta presentation.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. YoungZer0

    Lara doesn’t kill people. Rocks do.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. SplatteredHouse

    The typical counter that naysayers of this game use, comes from a strange point of view, because it neglects any strength of character, assertiveness and more traits that formed or existed before Lara got on the ship (how is it that such consideration would be overlooked, by those decrying a shallow appearance of Lara in Tomb Raider). As you say, Brenna, Lara must have started somewhere, otherwise, when she is forced to reach down and push on…What is she reaching down to for strength.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Ostercy

    So is the statement “Lara Croft, daughter of Lord Henshingly Croft, was raised to be an aristocrat from birth” still true? And is Lara’s mother still English? You certainly don’t need to change either of those things to tell the story of “how Lara became a Tomb Raider”. Or is all this just smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that they’ve Americanised Lara?

    #4 2 years ago
  5. salarta

    Unless she’s a child or early teen, she is in fact starting off weak and to a large extent spoiled in every way that matters. Funding her own way through college doesn’t do much to diminish the aspect of her being sheltered, and it does nothing to keep her from being weak.

    What we would do in Lara’s situation is not the issue here. How “realistic” it is is not the issue here. Yes, many of us would react to the situation this game presents in a much worse way, many of us would just curl up into a ball for days and probably need to go through years if not decades of therapy. But Lara Croft is not the average person. She was explicitly created to be tough, strong and brave as a grown ass woman, so for her to not be that way when she’s an adult is a betrayal of who she is as a character.

    A disempowered person when pushed into a corner the same way “Lara” is in this game will, in fact, do every single thing listed as things she does in this game. People will saw their own damned arms and legs off when pushed into a corner. That’s not them displaying some form of surprising inner strength, that’s them showing they have the same basic survival instincts every single person in the world has. Yes, a character pushing on is admirable, and to some extent it may even be considered strong… but it’s strength that’s entirely different from the kind Lara is supposed to represent.

    What I can say is that Roth teaching her survival skills as a teenager does make the mentoring aspect more acceptable… but if she was taught all those skills as a teenager, then she SHOULD ALREADY BE STRONG by the time she’s a grown woman, which is the problem with “Tomb Raider” here. It’s saying that as an adult she’s still terrified by danger. In fact, depending on how extensive and thorough her training under Roth is, how Lara behaves after getting shipwrecked could be even worse than it originally seemed. If she’s had all this training that put her life at risk or prepared her mentally for such an intense situation, yet she still reacts in this utterly terrified manner, then it implies Lara is even more intrinsically weak and cowardly by nature than it first seemed.

    The obsession with “realism” many people have is asinine in and of itself as well. It’s fine when you’re creating brand new products then sure thing, but when you’re completely redefining characters and franchises through the lense of “realism” to the extent that they’re doing to Lara as a character here when they were NEVER created to be treated that way, it’s going too far. At that point, you’re expressing a sentiment on the same level as people that think Superman is a “bad” character because he’s extremely idealistic and heroic and it’s “unrealistic” for any person to be such a shining beacon of humanity, completely missing the whole damn point of the character.

    And yes, the implication of her plane crash origins is that she was to a large extent spoiled. I’m glad this was pointed out, because I have failed to acknowledge it in the past. But notice it does NOT say “Oh, and she was utterly terrified about everything she faced and acted like she was on the verge of tears repeatedly while trying to survive.” The sheltered espoused in those origins is the kind where she hasn’t had to face any kind of survival situation and had an affluent life with no struggle laid out for her, but makes no suggestion of her acting scared and weak once in that situation. The sheltered of this “Tomb Raider” is the kind that makes Lara into a mentally and emotionally fragile creature, the kind of woman that the real Lara Croft of the plane crash origin story would have comforted and protected.

    On the plus side, I guess I can just say this game is an alternate universe noncanon game since everything happening here is the result of a ship wreck and not a plane crash.

    Lara Croft is supposed to be an ACTION HERO, not a horror film survivor girl. Even if she gets written as an action hero in future games or even a couple hours into this game, that will NOT change that this team has decided that her defining identity is not Lara Croft the action hero, but Lara Croft the horror film survivor girl. This is not the Lara I remember, this is a new character with Lara Croft’s name and face slapped on her to sell more copies of what should have been a brand new IP.

    In conclusion, when it comes to Lara having this kind of origin story, you may as well be saying Die Hard needs to have a prequel made where the exact same scenario of getting stuck in a bad situation and reacting to it with quaking fear and on the edge of tears happens to John McClane. (I’m not using Rambo because as I’ve pointed out to someone in the past, unlike with Lara Croft, Rambo acting that way actually WOULD fit him given that a core element of his character is PTSD due to his time in the Vietnam War).

    #5 2 years ago
  6. YoungZer0

    *fart noises*

    You really hate any kind of change, don’t you?

    #6 2 years ago
  7. salarta

    @6: I hate stupid and unnecessary changes. I love changes that actually fit the character and make sense, as I’ve repeatedly said in citing Resident Evil 4, Mortal Kombat 9 and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. The Dude

    I am, to an extent, in agreement with salarta in that I think Lara has been made a bit too weak in her beginnings. But to be honest I haven’t seen enough of the story to know how long her “terrified little girl” phase lasts. So I’m going to just wait and see. It’s like the whole “rape” thing. Many sites (including this one) were all throwing their arms up in the air, crying “OMG RAPE, SEXIST MALE VIDEOGAME WRITERS” before anything was properly known. And then it turned out to be bollocks, with a woman writing the script. And everyone conveniently forgot about the whole hoo-ha as though they never jumped the gun in the first place.

    But anyway, I’m going off-point. I’m willing to give this one a shot. The origin story does seem to fall in line with the original, and Lara may well become action-Lara sooner than we think. We’ll see what happens.

    Actually, one thing that DOES bug me though is the part in trailers I’ve seen when Lara says timidly “I hate tombs…”

    …Err, what?

    #8 2 years ago
  9. salarta

    @8: On the whole “rape” thing… I want to preface what I’m about to say with that I am NOT disputing what the team has said in correcting that producer. I am not calling them liars. I think they meant it when they said that producer was wrong and had no idea what they were talking about. What I am about to say is only devil’s advocate kinds of remarks, to encourage people to think past the surface of a statement.

    Again, this is devil’s advocate kind of talk, not accusations.

    A woman writing the script doesn’t automatically make a script not sexist. It makes it less likely to be sexist, but it’s still very possible to be sexist against women and have ladyparts. This is part of where the Female Misogynist trope comes from. That refers to fictional examples, which could be created by men, but the possibility is still there, just like men can be misandrist. In addition, it’s not uncommon for companies, especially Squeenix (though mostly Squeenix’s Japanese headquarters) to lie about their content or intentions when faced with severe criticism and backlash. Toriyama claimed HD Towns were too “hard” to make on next-gen systems for FF13, and for 3rd Birthday, Tabata bullshitted that the clothes-ripping-off mechanic was added into the game to provide realism despite everything about the game making it obvious that it was added in to make Aya Brea even more of a sex object.

    I do believe this team when they say the “rape” comments were BS, but hopefully this makes it clear that it’s important to look deeper than the surface about companies and people involved in projects. I don’t know, maybe I’m being Captain Obvious with that, but with some of the arguments I’ve had in the past, it felt important to say.

    EDIT: One thing I forgot to mention, that I originally wanted to say too… while the team doesn’t seem to intend the game to be sexist in any way, you have to seriously wonder what it says about the game and the direction they’re taking it in if one of their own producers legitimately thought the game’s focus was about the player feeling like the protector of this fragile little girl named Lara Croft, rescuing her from the evil clutches of rape with QTEs. If nothing else, it says that regardless of the team’s intentions, how they have chosen to reimagine the character and franchise can very, very easily be interpreted in the exact same way I have been complaining about so much, perhaps even worse. What the writer INTENDS to say is never entirely the same as what the medium ends up saying.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. The Dude

    @9 Oh, I completely agree with what you stated there. Of course, a woman writing the script doesn’t automatically make a script not sexist. Just what annoyed me about the whole saga was that it seemed to me that as soon as it was known that Rihanna Pratchett was the writer of that scenario, those who had previously damned the whole thing immediately backed down.
    As if their whole argument in the first place was built upon their perceived (not saying they’re right or wrong here) sexism of the male dominated video-game industry. And when it was revealed that a *female* was in fact at the helm of writing this “rape” scenario, suddenly it all goes quiet. As if they didn’t actually believe in what they were saying, arguing against in the first place (with as little information as they had to begin with)… but rather using the whole thing to push another agenda, a wider story.

    There was no follow-up discussion about maybe Female Misogyny as a result of game culture being so male-orientated, etc etc.. Just swept under the carpet because, from the way I saw it, the whole situation no longer fit the “men are dicks to women” in games thing. Even after the scene was revealed to not include any sort of rape, I still think that if Pratchett had not been revealed then the gaming press would still have talked about it further.

    I just basically found it all very shallow and totally distracting from the actual game of Tomb Raider itself.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. YoungZer0

    @7:

    So you think it was okay that they turned Leon into a run-of-the-mill action hero in RE4. It’s okay for you that they turned Raiden into an mascara abusing angsty Ninja, who keeps saying the dumbest shit about getting off on cutting people (I still think he should’ve been a tourist guide, he had so much potential) and you think it’s okay that they haven’t really changed that much about Mortal Kombat.

    Well, aren’t you merciful.

    Again, you’re the guy who argues that the new Tomb Raider is sexist, because a 20-something girl who never learned how to survive should be able to know everything from the get go, killing dudes left and right, because everything else is sexist. Not unrealistic, but sexist.

    You’re also the same guy who argued that Naomi Hunters inability to climb into a chopper on her own is fine, because she isn’t a warrior or a fighter.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. salarta

    @10: That’s a very good point, someone says “Hey a woman is writing it” and that is somehow instant proof that it’s in no way sexist. Granted that woman is one that has written other female characters in the past, but at least my perception of how most people mention her involvement is to suggest that her gender rather than her credentials somehow invalidates any worries about the character being treated inappropriately both as a character and as a woman. It would be much like harping on the fact she’s Terry Pratchett’s daughter rather than harping on her actual work and the credentials she’s earned for herself through that work. “She wrote Mirror’s Edge” makes for a better case than “She has a vagina.”

    I also think you hit on a very good issue concerning game culture being so male-oriented, and that focus affecting both how women are depicted in games and how women think fictional women should be depicted. I’m always so disappointed when I see female cosplayers dressing up as the “reimagined” versions of these once strong female protagonists and practically disowning the tougher, braver, much more admirable original versions.

    I don’t know, I’m a guy, and having to argue against the mischaracterization of characters like Lara Croft and Aya Brea even to women has me seriously reconsidering how ardently I try to defend against that kind of change. I don’t know, when you’re arguing with women that want their role models to be scared, weak, submissive and sexually objectified (last one with games like 3rd Birthday, not here… at least from what we’ve seen so far), maybe it’s time to accept that that’s what women want to become in this day and age, just like a majority of women and girls in decades past actually looked forward to a future as obedient housewives. I’m not trying to be exaggerated for purposes of making some kind of point, that’s what I’m genuinely starting to think this morning. I grew up in a time when women wanted to have tough, strong, smart, brave role models, and the video game industry was willing to start supplying them in the PS1 era. But that was a decade ago, and maybe this generation’s values are that women really are inferior to men, that while men can be macho tough guys with no fear, it’s unrealistic for women to behave that way, and women are meant to be these sort of weak, scared, fragile little girls inside by nature.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. salarta

    @11: For Naomi, I think it’s fine because it fits her characterization. Just like in FF4, it fits Edward’s characterization that he’s such a non-warrior and so terrible at fighting that he trips while running away from monsters during the defense of Fabul. Not that Naomi couldn’t get into the chopper herself, but she’s the type that would go along with it. That, and Kojima was behind the game; I generally don’t argue against a change if it was made by or had the blessing of the actual creator of the series and its characters, unless there’s a good reason to do so, like when Monet tried to destroy all his paintings.

    Raiden’s attitude in Rising matches his attitude in MGS4. He’s exhibited that behavior already. And honestly, I think how he turned out in MGS4 is where Kojima wanted to go and would have gone with him gradually over time after MGS2, but the undue hatred of Raiden in MGS2 led to him just setting Raiden aside and jumping straight to the end point in Raiden’s next appearance.

    They actually changed quite a lot with MK9, they just fixed what needed to be fixed and didn’t break what wasn’t broken in the process. The gameplay got a complete overhaul, the game presented the very first full-fledged story mode in a main Mortal Kombat game (something I’d been hoping for for at least half a decade), and it reached back to the series’ roots and expanded upon them in the story rather than rubbing them out completely. The story mode cannot be underestimated as a big change. Before MK9 (well, MKvsDC, but that was a spinoff), the level of story for each game could have been written in a day. It was typically one paragraph of biography up to the game and one paragraph of ending per character.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. Dustie

    The forth game was called Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, NOT “Revelations”. Good luck researching stuff next time.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Vice

    I’m really pleased with the overall direction they’re going to. Lara must be more of an anti-hero, actually quite a villain who always gets what she wants. I’m glad she kills people left and right, and not just some animals. I’m glad there’s alot of blood and gore.
    On a negative side.. I’m not glad at all that her breast size is far less impressive than it should be, but I expect that to be fixed in future games when she gets older… And I miss previous actress from Legend and Underworld, she was fantastic…

    #15 2 years ago

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