Yay, a new Tomb Raider is coming and we’ve seen trailers and footage and a month-long campaign of mini games on the official Shadow of the Tomb Raider site. NuLara is back for another adventure that will likely see the writers beat her up in increasingly creative ways as a means of “character growth.” If this sounds like I’m not excited for the game, you’re half right. But let’s talk about that, shall we?
If we look at Shadow of the Tomb Raider as a whole, I’m excited for it. I’m a big fan of action-adventure games and I’ve enjoyed every offering of the reboot Tomb Raider series so far, at least on a mechanical level. I enjoy the gameplay, I find it satisfying in the mix of exploration, puzzling, collectibles and action sequences.
But when it comes to the writing, I continuously find myself disappointed, not because the plots of the game aren’t good, or the mythical/historical references aren’t accurate or weaved together well enough to pull it off. No, my issue has and will always be with the current incarnation of our protagonist, Lara Croft.
Crystal Dynamics has already somewhat admitted to their failure by stating that Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be the culmination of the Lara Croft ORIGIN STORY. Let me stop you right there. If you need three games, which is the equivalent of three novels, or three TV seasons, for your character’s origin story, you’re doing something wrong. That’s saying that every film in one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe phases is part of Captain America’s origin story. It’s nonsense.
But when you look at Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider (and yes, I still think the naming convention for the new games is dumb as hell), Lara Croft hasn’t changed, learned or grown very much. She still doesn’t have anything that makes her a person, she’s angsty and driven, which are only two characteristics that form a personality (if you can call it that) and if I’m honest, she doesn’t feel like a complete person, ever, she’s merely the personification of a quest.
Everything in her life is quest-oriented. She doesn’t have a single friend, family member or personal acquaintance that isn’t in the “you must rescue us at some point” group or the “central to the freaking story” group.
Her growth in the games is never through emotional hardship but through physical pain. Look at the number of scenes in these games where the sequence calls for Lara to get violently bashed against rocks, buildings, derelict planes and more? Showing the character capable of standing up after such a degree of injuries doesn’t equate to a strong character, when her emotional range is the same at the beginning and end of both games combined.
I said she was angsty and quest-driven, and I mean it, those are her only predominant traits. We can add loyal to the list maybe, and incapable of feeling joy for more than 30 seconds. But try to define any other trait about her. Is she sceptical, naïve, caring, hardened, trusting, cute, witty, snarky? What’s her sense of humour like? What are her moral limits? I have no idea, because the scripts focus too much on Lara the game character and not Lara the person. They don’t let her have moments where her personality comes through or let her have one in the first place. In the desperate quest of creating a strong female lead, they forgotten to make her a person.
If you compare that with the oft-maligned original Lara Croft, disregarded as merely a buxom fantasy for male teens, an over-sexualised symbol, you can see striking differences. It’s not to say those statements about OG Lara are entirely wrong, they aren’t really, but it takes a single cutscene in the first Tomb Raider title and its accompanying first few levels to tell you volumes of Lara Croft as a person, the things she values, what her morals are, where she stands on the whole raiding business. It doesn’t take three games to establish her, but a few short and key moments along with a plethora of quips and comments from the character that give you a hint of her personality, her sense of humour and the lines she’s willing or not to cross.
And it extends beyond the character to their acquaintances. OG Lara has so many characters around her, from friends and family to enemies, that are part of her story but not crucial to any individual games’ plot. Hell, even if you consider the LAU trilogy, in which the pursuit of Lara’s mother’s fate is the driving premise, with Lara’s Father spending his life and fortune attempting to discover it and failing, her parents are not really that relevant to the plots themselves, maybe mentioned a couple of times. Even in Tomb Raider: Underworld, which sees their greatest presence and contribution to the story, they’re there for maybe 10 minutes, a message from her father adding bridging some of the games together and offering insight, and her mother to add a finality to the quest. That’s it, the rest is about Lara herself, her desires and her damn adventures.
But before even reaching that point, she states early in the game that she’s not expecting to find her mother suddenly all well and happy, that she’s not that naïve. She just wants the truth, to answer the question and put it all behind her. Again, a simple statement that speaks volumes of the character.
This Lara was a fully-grown person with a defined personality from the very first scene of Tomb Raider: Legend, and you have to consider that this version of the character was essentially a soft reboot to the series, as it discarded several elements of the Core Design years, particularly the grim-dark storyline that encompassed The Angel of Darkness and the two titles leading to it.
If we go back to the Core Design years, Lara’s family didn’t even factor in, as they had expectations of her for her social status, and she kinda flipped them off and went off to do her own thing, at which point her parents disowned her. Once more, it’s a little morsel that speaks volumes of the character.
NuLara on the other hand has lots of tragedy in her background but it’s all plot-related to the most recent entry, so in the end, and because of the frankly shoddy writing, it feels lacking in the emotional department, as it all devolves into quest objectives. Lara breaks into her old manor and only does so to get some research, with no exploration of the past, and not even the revelations of a) the supernatural is real, or b) dad was murdered have a sufficiently convincing emotional impact on the character. Any of those two, considering the way it’s established that Lara feels about her father and his research, would have rocked her world and brought upon a great deal of emotional distress. Imagine if you think for years that your parents are crazy, and then suddenly something shows you they were not only sane but right. How would you feel? For Lara, the answer is apparently “I must embark on a quest!” I’ve seen cliché JRPG protagonists with more emotion than this version of Lara.
Hell, even the Rise of the Tomb Raider DLC, Blood Ties, which culminates in Lara finding her mother’s grave and a heartfelt letter from her doesn’t even give you a moment of the character shedding a tear or feeling something. It goes from a blank-faced character model and fades to black.
The only possible explanation is that the writers don’t know how to handle the emotional depth of a character and can only focus on making her physically strong and resilient. And when they do manage to hit the right notes in the writing, such as the Blood Ties aftermath monologue, where Lara states how much things mean to her, the voice acting leaves so much to be desired.
So, what do I want for Lara Croft in Shadow of the Tomb Raider? I want her to have a personality, a sense of humour and not just a sense of purpose. I want to see Lara have a defined personality that is not just things “she must do,” and angst. I don’t want her life and her outlook on it to be objective-driven. Show me she cares about things, or that she doesn’t, but make her human at the very least. We already know she can fall off a cliff, impale herself and regenerate like Wolverine, now show us that she’s got the heart to match the healing factor!
If I’m honest, I kinda also hope the writing improves overall, as the dialogue in Rise of the Tomb Raider could be incredibly dumb, clunky and unnatural. Hell, that scene in Blood Ties, that letter from Mommy Croft? I don’t know a single person who would write such a strangely worded letter to an offspring, the entire contents of which doesn’t so much read as a last message from a loving parent, and more like a self-help book!
Considering the last writer left already, a blessing really, there might be hope on this, though as always, I don’t hold my breath. I’ll wait and see and judge the game appropriately. I know I’m going to enjoy it in a mechanical sense, but let’s see if once and for all, Tomb Raider delivers a Lara Croft worth admiring.
In Blood Ties, Lara vows to make her family great again. Crystal Dynamics, please just focus one making Lara good enough. We know “Great” is too much of an aspiration at this point, but at least make her moderately convincing as a human being!