Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The strength of an actual character

I played the new Tomb Raider. Ok, in reality, I played it several weeks ago, but I had too many assignments to do the game justice by reviewing it until now, so, here we go. Not exactly the most trending topic by now, but I think that what I have to say on the topic still holds enough water to revisit the game, before we can launch into an extended review of "Bioshock Infinite" at some later point, which suffered the same problem with my time schedule. So, before we actually talk about the new Tomb Raider, a caveat: I never played any of the old games. I watched the old Tomb Raider II at a friend's back in the day (it was the 90s, remember?), but never played them myself. They simply didn't interested me, neither concerning gameplay nor the character. I never found Lara Croft attractive,  not even in her "real-world"-counterpart Angelina Jolie or the several thousand models that were hired by Eidos Interactive at one point or another. 
Looking at you, girls.

I say this because the franchise always had this weird opposites: on the one hand, a character that had oversized boobs, a tight butt and was in essence a walking, clothed porn model, clearly aiming at the male constituency, but on the other hand, Lara Croft always was empowered, shooting (male) enemies left and right and doing stuff that's normally done by male characters in games. To say that the Tomb Raider games were some kind of feminist pamphlet would lead way too far, of course. There's not much progressive about them, simply because they objectified her so much. In the old games, at least, she also wasn't really a character - she was two boobs with two guns. Later, they tried to at least tell something of a story, but judging from the reviews, they didn't really succeed back then. 
Behold feminism in action. Not.
I first encountered the new game by its "theatrical" trailer, which found its way into the game as the intro. If you haven't ever seen it, watch it now:

I was intrigued the minute I saw it. It was a reboot, which seemed smart to me because the character from the old franchise didn't really allow you to tell good stories with all the ridiculous stuff she had already done. But what caught my attention was the style of it. I couldn't really nail down why in the beginning, but it soon became clear to me: the Lara Croft in this trailer was Lara Croft, not Tomb Raider. It seemed like they were going for a real origin story and, more importantly, gave weaknesses to the character. Just look at how battered she is by these unusual circumstances. So, I picked the game up when it arrived, eager to see whether my high expectations could be fulfilled. 

If dirty means weak, she qualifies.
And boy, it did. Nevermind the story itself, which is fairly straigthforward (isolated island, angry god, crazy cultists) and serves its purpose without getting into the way, or the disappointingly flat supporting characters. They concentrated soly on Lara, and it's her scenes that pay off. She is not an adventurer, but a survivor in this game, and while this seems to be a little difference when you see her climbing shit and exploring the island, it actually makes a huge difference. Her goal is to survive and flee the island, and she grows with the challenges, but she also loses what made her the innocent Lara before. This gain in survival skill and loss in...well...humanity is too strong, but innocence? Works for me. This gain-loss-dynamic makes her interesting. 
Not your innocent girl anymore.
But what really makes the game gripping, what captures me as the player, is something that many feminists won't approve of, I'm fairly certain. Lara is more realistic in this game. Her boobs have a size the body could actually support, and her whole frame is believable. But beside that, the designers made a clever choice: Lara is small. If I had to guess, I'd say she's about 1,60m. You can see it whenever she stands besides any other character. Lara Croft, as absurd as this may sound, wakens guardian instincts in the player. You want to save her, to rescue her, because you care for her. This must be the first game that really made me care for a character. It surely helps that Lara is smoking hot, and not in the obvious big-breasted way that never was attractive to me but in these details. Her vulnerability, her size, the nicely built body - it all sums up to a girl (and it's a girl, not a woman) you adore from the first instant. 
I want to cradle her in my arms.
And here we have yet another important aspect: you adore her, you don't drool over her. It's not a "want to fuck", but it's a "wow, what a woman". Not the usual thing in video games, to be sure, and hell of a risk of the game developers to go for. While still pandering shamelessly to the male part of the audience, she is also empowering herself in a really meaningful way. While she relies ultimately on you, the (presumably) male player, this is just the feeling she evokes to get to you. In the story itself, she does it by herself. She takes command of the group, she does the dirtywork, she makes the hard decisions and risks herself for others - especially the male members of the group! The males are saved by her (or refuse being saved and die). This is also somewhat interesting. 
Someone needs rescuing?
With that out of the way, let's do the rest fairly quick. The graphics are very nice to look upon, especially the hair of Lara has been done really well, but also other aspects. The island is gorgeous and dangerous, and both is reflected in the great graphics. Feast your eyes! The gameplay is pained by some Quick-Time-Events, but the developers do a good job of using them to show how dangerous a situation is. If you don't win the QTE quickly, you die a gruesome death. And that part of the game really hits home the setting more than anything. If Lara dies, she dies horribly. Impaled, smashed by stones, sliced or shot, brutally clubbed down. Since it's a survival game, this really shows you. You don't want to see these sequences, so you try not to let Lara die. Very effective to exploit the player's caring for the character. 
Why's there a pirate ship? - Bah, worked for Lost, too.
In the rest of the gameplay, it's fairly standard. You can use cover, upgrade weapons, shoot bad guys, sneak around (the sneaking is done better than in Assassin's Creed, by the way), jump and climb. Well done, but nothing out of sort. In theory, you can also explore the areas and go back  later with equipment allowing you to access previously closed off parts, but I never felt the need. The story, while very linear, motivated and interested me enough. So, a warning: if you hate the current trend to make the games essentially long tunnels, with QTEs and cutscenes, you won't find that much joy in Tomb Raider. But I don't mind when it's well done (looking at you, Assassin's Creed 3), and in this case, it is.
Press Q to look awesome.
So, go out and pick up your Tomb Raider today. It's worth it. 


  1. What makes you think feminists don't want to see female characters being small and vulnerable?
    Some women are really tiny - I know that, I've met some - and still pretty badass. And everybody is vulnerable. Let's see this more as "game designers being realistic" than "game designers being feminists", because, you know. Batman's coming over for dinner tonight.
    But still, great move.
    I've been told, time and again, being an archaeologist and liking campy, cheesy trash I should play Tomb Raider. I've tried it, it was horrible. But now, I don't know, maybe I'll try again.

    1. It's not about what they want or don't want to see themselves but what I am allowed to publicly like, unfortunately.
      Other than that, I totally agree.

    2. As a woman, I've always enjoyed a woman with guns. I was glad that someone had finally I played the Classics and there weren't any other Tomb Raider games yet, I was too young to understand that she may have been created as sex symbol, I just enjoyed playing the games. Now that I am a bit older (18 years lol), I played Tomb Raider 2013 immediately when it came out and that part moved me so much. The story of a girl becoming a strong woman by terrible things she's going through. In my opinion, she's become an example for so many women. As a 1,67m (5''5 feet) woman, I adore her and how she does all the dirty work in the game!

    3. I'm sorry, I meant to say: 'I was glad that someone had finally chosen a woman to play that part instead of a man. When I played...'