Game Pile: Tomb Raider

In Quantum Theory, the family of sciences where scientists mostly spend their time going ‘well, I dunno but maybe,’ there’s a principle referred to as quantum superposition, which is where a particle does two things at the same time. This isn’t like you doing the dishes and thinking about umbrellas, but it’s about a single fundamental particle having incredibly different, mutually exclusive properties at the same time. Imagine being both dry and wet, hot and cold, rich and poor.

This is Tomb Raider, a game that is a creepy, misogynistic, un-fun mess, and at the same time, a brilliant, feminist, fun game.

While I’ve joked that Tomb Raider should come with a trigger warning right on the box, I want to be absolutely clear that yeah, this game has some pretty creepy stuff in it and if you’re sensitive to possible discussions of violence against women or sexual assault, or even you just don’t want to hear yet another white cis male prattle on about what he (mis?)understands of feminism in videogames, it may be best to just give this review, and game, a big ole’ miss.

Discomfort

Before I can talk about Tomb Raider and what it means for me I have to talk to you about the ad campaign that surrounded it. When I learned Tomb Raider was being given a gritty reboot, my natural reaction was to roll my eyes and figure it would be boring and bad, and dismiss it like that. After all, I live a year behind the modern tech curve, I don’t tend to hold newest games in too high a sense of esteem. Then, while walking through a store with Fox and Pendix, I stopped short to watch a game trailer looping on display that I could only describe as creepy. I squinted at it as it played out a sequence of hurting a pretty young lady I didn’t recognise from any franchise, menaced her in a dark alleyway with what sure looked like impending sexual assault, and then flashed up the phrase I Am A Survivor, followed by the words Tomb Raider.

Three voices went ‘What the hell?’ in varying degrees of not-safe-for-work language.

My first impression of Tomb Raider from launch was that of a game that fundamentally didn’t want to be what I thought Tomb Raider should be about. Just that tag-line stuck in my head, the idea that what defined Lara Croft was survival in dire environments, with a variety of helpless gasps and thrashing attempts to right herself against a world that tried to destroy her, rather than what I remembered – back-flipping over a Tyrannosaurus Rex while shooting it in the face while in pursuit of treasure and fun. This was further compounded by an Ubisoft representative saying something enormously stupid and implying in response to the sexual menace in the trailer, the idea was to inspire players to ‘protect’ Lara. That set off a PR firestorm which only confirmed my fears: These people had no idea what they were doing, and didn’t know what I’d do in their place. Eventually the fires were extinguished but the lingering doubt remained that this was not a Tomb Raider game that spoke to what I thought the Tomb Raider franchise should be about.

Then the game came out, people talked about it as the game and mostly seemed to ignore that initial drama. The drama focused mostly around one scene in the trailer, where Lara appears to be about to attacked by a rapist, who she then has to fight off, with her arms tired behind her back. If you fail the quicktime event in the game itself, you’ll learn that he wasn’t going to rape her – he was just going to strangle her to death, which you see in discomforting detail. Some reviewers said this indicated that the assault wasn’t sexual (and therefore exploitative, disgusting, and representative of a massive double standard), just threatening!

That piece of information isn’t the only context you need, though, because he’s also the man who helped tie her up, and a few moments prior, had shoved Lara against a tree by her throat, and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. That gesture is not an innocent action. You do not leer at a woman, stroke her skin, use her neck as a sign of power, then later choke her to death asexually. All that the choking death indicates to me is that he killed her and then probably had sex with her corpse. The gestures, the language of his interaction with Lara means something – and I fear that it was selected because the people who put that scene together didn’t realise what they were doing had such a sexual overtone.

Games are made by dozens of people – there’s almost no chance that the game we experience is the result of one singular, holistic artistic vision, and parts can come together in unexpected ways. The animator who stroked Lara’s cheek may not have realised that the character they were working on was going to later look like a rapist.

Death animations in Tomb Raider are breathtakingly detailed and utterly horrid. There was a list of them here, but I honestly felt quite uncomfortable just mentioning most of them. I think this is what was meant by the ‘protect’ instinct comment – there was a deliberate attempt to make death animations invoke sympathy, to drive the player to avoid death if at all possible, and treat it as something uncomfortable. For me, it was uncomfortable enough that when I died in one of these visually horrible ways, I tended to split from the game for a bit, because Eugh! Rather than make me take greater care with Lara’s life, the game just made me feel nasty.

I don’t think there’s a deliberate desire to make Tomb Raider creepily obsessive about showing ways in which Lara is hurt and helpless. While there’s a truly astounding array of fetishes on display, including submerging her in blood, her lying helpless and seemingly dead, being bound but not gagged, her being mummified, inverted, held down by larger men and repeatedly punched in the face, being impaled, being drowned, her being threatened with being dismembered and eaten, and her shivering and wet, these things are not inherently sexual. They just have become so because of the internet and because we live in a culture that’s already pretty damn creepy in how we objectify and treat women in mass media.

The problem is, we still exist in that world. It’s very hard to render a beautiful woman suffering and not feel creeped out about the other people you know are seeing that scene with an erection.

The Game Of The Game

Now that we’ve made everyone nice and uncomfortable by discussing sexuality and violence against women, let’s talk about shooting things, because one penis substitute is as good as amother.

When it comes to gameplay, Tomb Raider is basically the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. That isn’t meant to be a glib criticism or mockery – Tomb Raider represents the best designed elements of Nintendo’s legacied free-roaming, context-heavy running, jumping, stabbing and shooting games. You’re given a steadily expanding arsenal of different keys to apply to different doors, and they’re even made more convenient, meaning early puzzles are easier to solve after you’ve progressed past them. The game really is at its finest when you’re given a large, open space, full of things trying to kill you, things you can climb, and things you want to pick up. You can go in guns blazing (get mugged by a dozen dudes then killed) or stealth your way through the fight with a silenced weapon and carefully dismantle bad guys. You can even avoid some of them, which shouldn’t be listed like it’s a goddamn feature, but here we are in 2014.

The real highlight of the game for me is the archery system. As a silent weapon that can one-shot enemies when they’re hit in the head, with ammunition all over the place (like the quiver fairy went on a rather tragic bender), I made it my tool of choice for killing people. This is a task it achieves quite well, especially when you play with the guns and realise that a shotgun blast to the face at point-blank range is slightly less harmful than being hit with a fist-sized rock.

The Legend of Zelda style aiming coupled with a more conventional limited-range camera can make for unpleasant moments when you have to move quickly and fire on targets. This is most evident when the game puts you in a limited combat arena and throws a finite number of targets at you before you can advance. These are easily the second-worst part of the game, where I wound up memorising where enemies would come from just so I could take them out before they became too much of a hassle and didn’t have to try and be dynamic. I find that many games, in particular Far Cry 3 had this problem – showing some deep flaw when an exploratory game became more linear.

There are moments of – ugh, okay, I have to say it, ludonarrative dissonance – where Lara’s dialogue, and the people around Lara, speak of how terrifying she is, how dangerous she is, and the game doesn’t back it up. I remember a nadir when Lara acquired a grenade launcher, prompting people to terrifiedly scrabble away from her, only to completely mince me when I tried to use said grenade launcher. “That’s right,” Lara crowed, “I’m coming for you bastards!” as I hid behind doorways and used the bow and arrow to pick apart remarkably grenade-resistant ambushes. The cutscene where you first use the grenade launcher looks rather impressive, if unreasonable, and thereafter it seems to be a damp squib.

Also? While we’re talking about cut-scenes, Lara just absorbs too much punishment for my tastes. This is a game that ostensibly wants to give me a feeling of realism and danger, where falling a storey into water will kill you, where an arrow through the temple is a fatal hit, but Lara just absorbs damage like a damn sponge. Cut scenes show her being smashed into things, thrown around like a ragdoll, dumped down waterfalls, thrown through the floor numerous times, and every time she comes out of it with only a steadily degrading shoulder decal. It doesn’t feel like the story of a woman finding strength within herself, it feels like the story of a person who was already made of iron finally having her superpowers outed.

This brings us to the weakest part of Tomb Raider, mechanically. This is a game that definitely wants to be modelled after Uncharted, where enormous set pieces play host to one of four basic modes of play. There’s your classic shoot-out bit, which is chaotic and relies on enemies spawning in precisely controlled numbers, there’s a stealthy bit which will be fun but not quite as well-implemented as it would be in a dedicated stealth game, there’s explorey bits which are used as connecting tissue between the other stuff, and then there’s … sigh.

I tried to come up with an appropriately dismissive, disdainful term for this style of gameplay. “Hold W” bits, for example. “Death Corridors,” was another. “Signpost Courses” was in the lead for a moment there, but no matter the name, they are always the same thing. Completely linear, highly cinematic passages in which you, the player, make no decisions, demonstrate no skill, and simply advance, whether well or poorly, and the game surrounds you with very impressive visuals in a bid to convey drama. Except none of it is dramatic. I can hang off that ledge forever, and know nothing will go wrong until I press W and advance to the pre-determined Shaky One, which will require me to press W and advance past it.

Whether it’s an incredibly long ladder climb where rungs break and you simply advance past them, or a long corridor full of burning pipes that you can’t manually avoid, the game has numerous sequences where your entire involvement is holding down W and waiting for the game to tell you when you should be scared.

Still, I did compare the game to the excellent Twilight Princess, and I don’t make such comparisons lightly. It’s certainly value for money, now with its price point at thirty dollars and its enormous number of side-quests and guff-hunting, not to mention its puzzles and timed courses to fill out the obsessive completionist in Lara’s life. While there’s no fishing mini-game, there’s still a lot to collect and hunt for in this game, a skill tree and gear system to level up, and little gegaws and doodads to look at for a list within a list. The game also has a stunningly effective autosave function, which coupled with the lack of irreversible decisions in the game and the overall linearity of the plot means you’ll probably never feel the need to save yourself at any point – just pick up where the game feels you last left off.

The Legacy

It’s often very possible to tell when a piece of artwork is attempting to serve two masters. I often refer to it as the two handjobs problem, where giving two handjobs at the same time requires both be in almost identical rhythm, or the whole experience will be awkward for everyone. I’m well aware that I’m a byproduct of an internet life, and therefore, I view many things that I know of as fetishistic as having a different sexual connotation than others do. When my friends see a video of a woman bound in stocks being tickled, their reactions are ‘That’s incredibly weird, why would anyone make that?’ while I know full well it’s someone’s masturbatory aid.

It almost feels like the game is trying to say, ‘You liked these creepy things? Don’t worry, we can include those in this game as well. Don’t feel excluded,’ which is weird, because I think if there was any part of Lara Croft’s prior life I loved it was the idea of her as a hypercompetent bullet-shitting badass. I didn’t want to hold onto the parts of Lara that felt like someone’s Tomb Raider Heroine Peril fanfiction – I wanted to hold onto the parts where she kick-started a motorcycle with a gun and leapt out of zeppelins.

This is a game that wants to relaunch a franchise’s value, but not the franchise itself. The people who made this game didn’t want to make a Tomb Raider game that was about the Indiana Jones badass, they wanted to tell a story about an ordinary archaeological student (with bones of iron and an infinite blood reserve) surviving a supernatural horror scenario. Yet, in the process, what they created is a game with a variety of female characters, a diverse cast, an interesting story and a truly lovely environment design. This is a game that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, that shows characters having complicated, uncertain relationships, and even attempts to use death as a serious device. How well it executes on these things is, I feel for others to decide. They didn’t land for me quite so well.

In the same way living in a world of sexual violence makes the violence hard to separate from sex, living in a world of objectified women makes it hard to separate Tomb Raider’s female relationships from sexual relationships. No matter how I look at it, I am pretty sure that the relationship with Lara and Sam is hinting at a romantic relationship – but I also can’t prove that. Rhiannon Pratchett suggested that she’d like to have done that, but it was vetoed from on high, which means that what we see is just meant to be a close friendship between two women… which still looks gay to me.

This is a game that challenges me to look at myself, and the way my society has influenced me. It is a game that – mostly – tries to treat a woman similarly to a man, and the areas where it differs make me uncomfortable. This is a game about women, written and developed by women, and that tries to use a different set of rules and sensibilities to address videogame situations. At times that makes me queasy, but it does so I think in part as a reflection of greater, systemic problems. Sam and Lara shouldn’t ‘seem gay’ because they hug and share their emotions. That’s something friends do, but the media is cautious about showing that, and therefore, these rare things are interpreted through a different set of story elements.

Of course, then I have to ask why is Tomb Raider called Tomb Raider? Why is it a game in that franchise? Well, the easy answer is because franchises bring brand recognition and brand recognition, no matter how pathetic, sells games. That’s why there are more Sonic the Hedgehog games than retail game outlets to sell them. The Tomb Raider franchise would move this game – and I guess, considering what they made, I can’t blame them.

The problem with Tomb Raider in my mind was never that the game was a pointless power fantasy. The problem, if there was one, was that the pointless power fantasy was one directed at making Lara an object of desire for a male gaze, instead of an object of power for a neutral gaze. I would have hoped, I think, for Tomb Raider to be about the bullet-spitting badass Lara Croft, a woman who cartwheels with guns in her hands and takes no guff from anyone, but does it now in more reasonable shorts. If gratuitous power fantasies are acceptable – and I think they are, provided they do not become hegemonic – then surely Lara Croft was the perfect vessel into which we could pour a woman-empowering fantasy?

The tiniest concern that sparks here is the question: Is this what games about women have to be, now? Are videogames going to see games like Tomb Raider, with their gender diversity, and say, That’s the kind of games women make, instead of what I feel is more reasonable, women can be the centre of any game? It feels a stupid concern, when I voice it – but really, it’s just disappointment. Why can’t we have Bullet Badass Lara game, and this Tomb Raider game? Why can’t we have more games like this, with more variety? Further compounding this embarrassment is that thanks to Squenix’s mismanagement, Tomb Raider was technically a failure of a videogame – and you can bet that ‘the women’ angle is one of the things marketers blame for it.

In Tomb Raider, raiding tombs is a side quest you can do, an optional activity that isn’t part of or required for the core experience. This is, I feel, the truth of this game, as it relates to the franchise: There is not a game about being Lara Croft, the badass – being Lara Croft is an unnecessary side-quest to the other story that interested the developers more. You know, it could have been about Lara Croft II – a true rebirth for the franchise, with Lara trying to live up to the legacy of her incredible badass mother, and making her own path. In fact, in my head canon, that’s what this game is.

Tomb Raider could be a better game. It could be a less creepy game. It’s still good, and I hope it succeeds in giving more women voices within the industry.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You enjoy free-roaming exploration, collection, and stealth segments.
  • You enjoy cinematic narrative, including games like Uncharted.

Avoid it if:

  • You’re bad at precision aiming in a small window of opportunity.
  • You want a game like any previous Tomb Raider game.
  • You’re sensitive to any of the problems outlined above.

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