Most videogames are power fantasies. Tomb Raider is no exception. Lara Croft has always been an action heroine, and this latest Tomb Raider is an origin story to get her to that point. However, the template this time is a horror movie instead of an action movie. It’s a bit like Far Cry 3, but without being embarrassingly bad. Far Cry 3 clumsily resembles something by Eli Roth, something about how foreigners are bad, and learning to stab them with a machete is as much a rite of passage as getting a tribal tattoo on your forearm.
So what sets Tomb Raider apart? For starters, it knows better than to mistake Eli Roth for a good horror director.
After the jump, from zero to axe murderer in one game
Horror is often about the transformative power of violence. In Alexander Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake, the main character starts out uncomfortable around guns. He can barely manage a screwdriver. He’s therefore dismissed by his father-in-law as a limp-wristed liberal pansy (i.e. Democrat). His character arc peaks later in the movie with the way he efficiently flips an axe around to the pointy side before hefting it into someone’s skull. It’s a quick adroit flick of the handle and Aja knows it’s an important enough gesture to show it clearly. But before that happens, a lot of people will die horribly. That’s how horror works. You can’t make a transformative power of violence omelet without splattering some skulls.
This arc is often applied to women, but since movies prefer to show women running around helplessly imperiled, the arc is often compressed (one of the female characters in Hills Have Eyes gets a convenient axe moment that might as well be a postscript). Women run from the slasher for 85 minutes, struggle with the slasher for four minutes, and then triumphantly stab the slasher in the eye in the final minute. Call it last-minute transformative power of violence.
The model for Tomb Raider, a game that would not work as well with a dude front and center, is The Descent, Neil Marshall’s horror movie putatively about six women who descend into a cave. Literally. What it’s actually about is how one of the women goes from being incapacitated by grief to using direct violence against someone who’s betrayed her. That is her arc. A woman empowered by violence, horror, darkness, gore, and blind cannibal batpeople. It all leads to a very specific swing of a climbing axe into a very specific leg after certain information emerges. The blind cannibal batpeople are just catalysts, really.
If you know The Descent pretty well, you’ll spot in Tomb Raider two direct riffs on distinctive shots from that movie. Crystal Dynamics knows their subject matter and they have no qualms about letting you know they know you know. And if that’s not enough, there are things here far gorier and far grimmer than you’ve seen in a Tomb Raider game. This is not your mother’s Tomb Raider. This is a world inspired by horror movies, featuring a survivor often drenched in blood, as if she’d just come out of one of Dragon Age’s tactical battles, but different from any Dragon Age character because she doesn’t seem very comfortable about it. This is in marked contrast to the previous Tomb Raiders, a product of the same clean serial pulp that birthed Indiana Jones. And Nathan Drake, by the way, who has a much harder time narratively justifying the killing of 300 people and would look a lot less dashing if he got blood all over him, so let’s not do that.
I’ve seen some complaints that Lara Croft’s transition in this Tomb Raider is too abrupt, that she commences mowing down enemies in shooter gunplay gameplay without ceremony, that the narrative doesn’t support the gameplay, that Crystal Dynamics jumps too quickly to the swinging of axes. I disagree. It happens exactly as quickly as it should, and more importantly, in exactly the manner that it needs to happen in a videogame.
In the early stages of the game when Lara has to gather food, there’s a cutscene in which she anguishes over killing a deer. A short time later, when she has to escape from the island’s fanatical inhabitants, there’s a cutscene in which she anguishes over having to kill a man during a struggle with a gun. After that sequence, while climbing a ladder, she has a brief exchange with another character about having had to kill people (traversal is always a good time to verbalize your feelings). These are pretty much the only cutscenes about Lara getting acclimated to the fact that she’s in a shooter that will eventually have a set of grim fatality animations and a bodycount comparable to anything with the word Uncharted in the title. If there had been more cutscenes, it would have belabored the point. No one wants a main character whining about having to kill people trying to kill her. Crystal Dynamics knows this. They didn’t record sound bites of Lara’s moral struggle to play during the shooting. They know we got the point. We know where this is going from here. Lara doesn’t need to tell us.
Instead, Crystal Dynamics charts Lara’s emerging ruthlessness in the actual game systems. At first, Lara can only dodge and run away if a bad guy charges her. She is not a melee fighter. You can tell by looking at her. She’s a tiny little thing next to the burly henchmen (when she learns the stealth kill, she can barely keep her feet on the ground). But one of the options on the skill tree is a move to blind an enemy with sand and then bean him with a rock. That will come in very handy, because this isn’t the cover shooter it sometimes appears to be.
This rock fatality upgrades skill by skill to Lara using her arrows, her climbing axe, and eventually her firearms. The brutally graphic shotgun-under-the-chin move doesn’t come until very late in the game, and only after a wide range of survival skills have been unlocked, only after she’s been through enough to learn to use her guns as melee weapons, only after she’s steeled herself to be that violent, only after she’s shot enough men — they’re all men, and overly sensitive Arkham City players can rest assured that none of them calls her a bitch — to level up for this particular transformative power of violence. This in-your-face gore is an endgame gameplay system for instant kills when you have a particular weapon equipped. You and Lara have to earn it. It makes enough narrative sense that it doesn’t need cutscenes to explain it. And it’s gratifying enough that I can almost forgive the twee cross-game reference of Lara’s arrow-to-the-knee skill (this is the single stupidest gag since Ezio’s cousin in Assassin’s Creed 2 announced, “It’s a-me! Mario!”).
Furthermore, the battles escalate over time. Lara isn’t “mowing down dozens of enemies”, as I’ve seen it characterized in at least one review. This isn’t Call of Duty. Well, it won’t be for a while. When she finally gets the most powerful weapon, she calls out, “That’s right! Run, you bastards! I’m coming for you all!” It’s the less wisecracky and more grim version of “ho ho ho now i have a machinegun”. More importantly, it’s very nearly the culmination of her character arc to the Lara Croft we know in the later games, firing pistols akimbo at a charging T Rex. Lara has earned it even if Crystal Dynamics didn’t announce it with overly obvious cutscenes.