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Tomb Raider - Why I can't care about Lara Croft

Tomb Raider - Why I can't care about Lara Croft
Here's the hot scoop: Tomb Raider is a decent enough game.
It's fairly enjoyable, clips along at a good pace, has some interesting story elements (if mystical supernaturalism is your thing... which it kinda is for me), showcases some excellent set-pieces, there's plenty to do and it looks lovely - a solid 7/10.

But it still left me with this kind of gnawing feeling after I'd finished it. Something just didn't feel quite right. It wasn't that I hadn't enjoyed playing it but there was something a little bit... off about it and, as with Mass Effect's ending, the more I thought I gave it the more it bothered me. It.

I rarely have problems with the suspension of disbelief when I play games. They have always been a form of genuine escapism for me which generally negates the need for them to justify their happenings in believable (or even internally logical) ways.

Which is why it's all the more odd that one of the things that didn't sit very comfortably with me was just how many people there were on the island. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, all ship- helictoper- or plane-wrecked by the mystical storms that hit whenever anyone comes close. It's a silly quibble but it just did not feel right and really took me out of the game.

Equally pernickety and seemingly pointless a criticism was my constant wondering of just how on earth all these enemies got into these far-flung, out of the way areas of the island so easily when I'd just had to Parkour my way to them across ravines and up cliff faces wrapped in blizzards.

One of the most grating instances of this was one part of the game that feels paced to provide a bit of a respite after a story-advancing and particularly combat-heavy section. Down on the beach you're set a fairly straightforward task of retrieving a piece of equipment from a shipwrecked boat out in the bay. Off you hop and, lo and behold, when you get there you find a small group of enemies standing around. On a shipwreck. Out in the sea. With no obvious means of getting there. For no reason.

Humans have emotions

Both of these criticisms can be easily answered away with a simple "because videogames" - and in one sense that is a fair enough explanation. But problems of these ilk (and there are several more of them I could level) aren't why the world of Tomb Raider left me cold: they're a a symptom of a lack of immersion, which is the real issue here.

To my mind, there's a big difference between something that is story-driven and something that is character-driven: the former is where characters develop as part the overarching narrative, the latter is where the narrative is a tool to develop a character. In a story-driven piece you might end up caring about the characters and their interactions; in a character-driven piece it is essential that you do.

And here's where it went wrong. I wanted to care about Lara but every time I got close to doing so, the nature of the game didn't so much put a dampener on it as douse it with petrol and set it alight with a flaming arrow. Having your callow protagonist apologise for killing a deer followed by an existential moment the first time she kills a man only to later shout, "Yeah you'd better run, I'm coming for you" when she finds a grenade launcher is too large a jolt, progressed too quickly, not to take you out of the world.

Crystal Dynamics worked so hard to humanise her and portray her as a vulnerable being learning to cope with the demands of the island - not just physically, with the early stab wound to her side, the need for shelter and the later quest for medical supplies but also emotionally, with the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Lara and Roth, and the feelings of culpability and guilt for leading them to the island in the first place - that her character simply no longer fits in with the world in which she's rendered.

Humans feel the cold

That's why it's so difficult to get past the nagging, pedantic criticisms. There is a massive disconnect between the narrative and the mechanics of playing the game itself. For the story the writers want to tell, the interactions need to be meaningful. Unfortunately, the nature of the gameplay can't help but strip them of any and all meaning: the remorseful killer going on to coldly slay legions; the rookie traverser being saved not just once by a lucky landing or a fortuitously placed piece of masonry but time and time and time again by a quicktime event; instant death after being impaled on a tree branch during an action sequence but a bullet sponge in battle. You can't puncture a power fantasy with one hand while inflating it with the other and expect it not to jar.

By humanising the protagonist and trying to add some kind of layer of reality you do the same to the context, to the island and its inhabitants - but the island is about as 'gamey' as it's possible to be. The heart of the problem is that what Crystal Dynamics really wanted to do - to create a character-driven experience for a player to connect with - simply did not mesh with the framework of the action-adventure game the Tomb Raider name necessitated they make. The character element was inappropriate for the world which, sadly, made both far less fulfilling than they ought to have been.

The real shame is that had they not even bothered trying to incorporate meaningful character development and just focused on what's good about the game - the exploration, the set-pieces, RPG elements - I would've enjoyed it more. It's sad that I'm criticising them for ambition.

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