Making Us Care: How Tomb Raider Redefines What It Means to Control an On-Screen Hero
Story is becoming more and more important in video games. It’s almost ridiculous to think that years before, people played famous RPGs and action titles with almost no narrative attached. The games were simply that: just games. Neither players nor developers thought it necessary to have a story arc tied into video games considering that the medium was originally created to let players control on-screen actions and compete with yourself or others, not experience a convincing tale.
Thankfully, we’ve moved past those darker days, and now video game stories are just as important as the gameplay itself. As a matter of fact, many gamers–myself included–value writing, characterization, pacing, and overall plot more than gameplay mechanics and graphics. These categories are where Crystal Dynamics excel, but what they succeed at the most is giving players a protagonist that we don’t live vicariously through but root for and watch grow as the story unfolds.
Many games today, no matter how good they are, present heroes that exist simply for the player to experience the game through. I think of Bungie’s Master Chief, Chell from Portal, and even Link from the Legend of Zelda franchise. As great as these games are, the heroes don’t have any outstanding personalities or even any redeeming qualities; they are there simply as a portal for which the player experiences a game through. The point of their existence is to give fans a way to be the hero, not the game’s protagonist.
Tomb Raider changed all that in a significant way. Crystal Dynamics didn’t give fans a silent hero through which they can feel like an invincible, gun-slinging BAMF. As a matter of fact, they didn’t give us a hero at all; they gave us a scared, innocent girl thrust into a world she’s not meant to be in but determined to overcome. As a result, I didn’t feel like I was Lara Croft as I made my way through the game. I felt like I was with her on that journey, watching her grow, keeping her out of danger, and struggling to save her and her friends.
What made me particularly attached to Lara as a character was the fact that she’s a girl. I can’t imagine feeling as protective of her if Lara Croft was actually Laurence Croft. Crystal Dynamics would have had a pretty hard time writing a convincing story featuring a scared and weak male character that breaks down due to fatigue and fear on a regular basis. When gamers play as males, such as Nathan Drake, they want a witty, strong, independent fighter ready to take on any challenge. I’m not saying that’s not what fans want when playing as a female character, but the opportunity to present a more fragile protagonist is much easier when it’s a well-written female lead.
As much as we’ve all played the hero, we’ve also played the heroine. Anya Stroud and Bernie from Gears of War 3, Samus Aran, and even 1996 Lara Croft are examples of strong female lead roles. Crystal Dynamics could have done the same for their Tomb Raider reboot, but instead they gave the world a girl out of her element that you’d do anything to protect.
Keeping Her Safe
Tomb Raider features lots of bloody and grisly deaths. And I’m not referring to the enemies you kill. Die as Lara in Tomb Raider and you’re going to remember it. Whether you crack your skull open on jagged rocks as you fall to your death or get skewered on a tree branch after flowing down some raging rapids, the death scenes stick with you. And they’re a brilliant addition to the gameplay.
Watching Lara die in horrific ways reminds you of your responsibility to keep her safe. When she’s shot in the neck with an arrow or impaled on an enemy’s blade, it’s your fault, and you have only yourself to blame. This is an ingenious tactic on Crystal Dynamic’s part. Not only do they give players a character to attach to and feel for, but they punish you on a personal level when she dies at your hands. I often found myself whispering “No, no, no…” as I regrettably discovered new ways to meet Lara’s grisly demise. As a result, I learned from my mistakes just to avoid seeing her suffer, a testament to the developers’ ability to truly make me care.
Besides make Lara a vulnerable character players want to protect, Crystal Dynamics develops the tomb raider in a perfect way that makes fans become attached to her. As you progress across the island with her, players see her grow from a sheltered, frightened girl into a powerful, fearless woman. The pacing of her growth makes you see the changes happen gradually, but by the end, you know Lara is a different person then when she started her journey.
All of these elements come together to make a story and character unlike any I’ve played in quite a long time. I wonder how Crystal Dynamics will be able to replicate this feeling of attachment and care for Lara Croft in the sequel considering that by the game’s conclusion her characterization is established. Even if it can’t be done in following installments, experiencing such personalization in Tomb Raider is something I’ll cherish for a long time, and I can’t wait to replay the game to journey with Lara all over again.