It’s hard to believe that the Tomb Raider series is now 20 years old. The franchise has changed a lot during its long lifetime, and so has its iconic hero Lara Croft. The First Lady of Gaming has donned countless different appearances over the years and been rebooted two separate times. She’s travelled all over the world, solving deadly ancient puzzles and recovering artifacts of incredible power. She’s also had her fair share of enemies - everything from black magic cultists and corrupt corporate cronies to subterranean dinosaurs.
While the Tomb Raider series has always been great at conveying the thrill of globetrotting adventure, recent years have seen game developers creating stronger stories and deeper characters to complement their ever-changing worlds. New intellectual properties and classic franchises alike are putting more time and effort behind writing better plotlines, backstories, and dialogue. It’s not easy, though - the biggest obstacle to a solid story in a video game is the fact that it needs to account for a random variable: the person playing it. As a result, most games struggle to balance the skill and entertainment of gameplay with the insight and subtlety that good storytelling needs.
This is especially true for titles like Tomb Raider. The increasing popularity of narrative in games has brought Lara to a strange, conflicted crossroads. Her most recent reboot tries to retain the violent, explosive, trigger-happy sense of danger that the series has always been known for while also attempting to deeply humanize her in a pseudo-realistic setting. As Tomb Raider 2013 tried to get the best of both storytelling and gameplay, it only made the juxtaposition between the two more obvious.
Tomb Raider created these jarring problems for itself, but its recent sequel makes noticeable strides towards solving them.
The 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider was developer Crystal Dynamic’s first entry in the series after it was acquired by Square Enix, and the publisher wasted no time in hyping the game up before release. Tomb Raider 2013 promised to be a darkly compelling and intimately relatable origin story about a young, inexperienced Lara Croft. We would get to see her thrown into a do-or-die situation and watch her transform from a terrified archeologist into a hardened survivor. Once the game launched, it had a promising start – Lara and her crew were shipwrecked on the island of Yamatai. She was captured, injured, and vulnerable as she struggled to endure her early hours on the island. That pretense of believable realism didn’t last long, though.
Despite Tomb Raider 2013’s deliberately slow start and steady buildup, it only had a growing sense of dissonance as the game went on. Lara soon seemed less like a survivor and more like a superhuman. Cutscenes and brief gameplay sequences that showed her hunting for food, bandaging wounds and subsisting off of what she could find began to look ridiculous in context.
This was a character that didn’t have any of those human needs at any other time during the game - Lara had no necessity for sleep, shelter or even food. She was only required to shoot one deer to get the feeling of “survival” across. She could leap and climb with reckless abandon in spite of her injuries. When she was forced to kill someone for the first time, Lara collapsed to the ground and vomited from shock; seconds later, she was mowing down dozens of men and miraculously recovering from bullet wounds.
Tomb Raider 2013’s gameplay experience ran completely counter to the story of arduous perseverance that it was trying to tell, and yet it was a well-received game that drew praise specifically for that story. Most of that praise was directed at the way that Lara’s ordeal transformed her as a character, but such acclaim ignored the fact that she wasn’t surviving - she was thriving thanks to her unnatural physical and mental powers.
These recurring tonal issues in Tomb Raider are self-inflicted, sure, but they’re also pervasive in modern, semi-realistic games in general. The Uncharted series stars a savvy psychopath in Nathan Drake, who is really just a murderous avatar for the player. Yet the overarching narrative of the series portrays him as a likable thief with a heart of gold, and even as a sort of warped family man in Uncharted 4. Indeed, it’s never easy to write a good story with the knowledge that the story needs to be interactive. But respectable storytelling in games is rapidly becoming an expectation rather than a rarity, and developers of action/adventure games like these are learning how to adapt to that trend.
A game like Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly doesn’t solve all the jarring inconsistencies of its predecessor, but it works hard to balance out as many of them as possible. While Tomb Raider 2013 tossed in a number of disposable secondary characters to provide Lara with motivation between shooting tons of cultists, Rise of the Tomb Raider introduces a militaristic Christian sect with roots in the Vatican who have manipulated her family for years. The backstory, revealed through audio logs, also shows how she was forced to confront the fairly absurd events of the first game (including her traumatic experiences, debilitating injuries and the fact that she had to kill dozens of people) in a series of therapy interviews.
Rise of the Tomb Raider dives deeper into Lara’s personal history as well as her obsessive tendencies, both of which have a lot to do with her father. Suffice it to say (without spoilers) that relationships with old friends are strained as she grapples with her deceased dad’s wishes while trying to find her own legacy. She’s become almost disturbingly comfortable with killing the enemies that stand in the way of her aspirations, but the story leverages that fact instead of ignoring it. Other characters that Lara cares about worry about her, and they don’t hesitate to point out her issues. In the end, Rise of the Tomb Raider actually finds some success in making Lara seem more human than in Tomb Raider 2013 without shying away from that game’s contradictions. It makes her feel believably flawed and vulnerable – not physically, but psychologically.
There’s definitely still room to improve the narrative dissonance; after all, Lara can apparently survive out in the Siberian wilderness in nothing but a long-sleeve shirt. But if Rise of the Tomb Raider is any indication, Crystal Dynamics can see those problems and is doing something about them. By acknowledging the dissonance of the past without making light of it, this retelling of Tomb Raider fills in a lot of its own plot holes and makes you start to take the new Lara Croft seriously. It manages to make me care about where the rebooted Tomb Raider series could go next, and I hope that developers of other games in the genre can learn from its small but significant steps forward.