TOMB RAIDER (2013) COMMENTARY

In a video game market filled with compelling male protagonists it’s nice to have a character like Lara Croft once and a while. She’s daring, confident and of course a girl. What I appreciated most from the Tomb Raider franchise though was it never tried to push an agenda that promoted the idea of “Girls can kick ass too”.

Lara’s gender wasn’t chosen on the basis of proving the value of girls in games as part of some social justice crusade. The character is simply more interesting and enjoyable because she is a girl (and not because of low poly triangle breasts). Indeed the character faced scrutiny for supposed sexualization during the franchise’s inception.  It’s worth noting though that the primary reason why people loved Lara and still do wasn’t because of her tight shorts or pronounced chest but because she did exciting things and kicked ass. However, when Square Enix decided they wanted to revive the franchise they understood that Lara’s sexualization in the earlier games would not fly in today’s more progressive video game industry. They needed a more humanistic approach to the character that players can connect with at the levels of others gaming greats like Commander Shepard, Ezio Auditore and Nathan Drake (among others). It would be a bold undertaking that would require new gameplay systems that compliment the character and a new environment to really test the character’s limits. It wasn’t going to be an easy task. But they nailed it.

Figure 1: A visual representation of Lara's constant modernization
Figure 1: A visual representation of Lara’s constant modernization

Tomb Raider is the origin story of Lara Croft as she transforms from a vulnerable, innocent archeologist into a beloved video game icon. To put it very simply, Tomb Raider does a lot of things right and very few things wrong. Its gameplay is built on 3 pillars: combat, platforming and puzzles. Each one is very well crafted and has few flaws. Additionally, its narrative is told in interesting ways that few games I’ve seen do as well. However, what sets Tomb Raider apart from other games is how it weaves narrative and gameplay components together in unique, organic and effective ways to create an enjoyable game experience.

This commentary aims to elucidate what Tomb Raider does right and wrong with regards to its gameplay and narrative. At its core though, Tomb Raider reinvents the franchise by melding its gameplay and narrative in ways that allow the player to invest in both the game world but also the timeless gaming icon: Lara Croft.

GAMEPLAY

Tomb Raider’s gameplay is comprised of of 3 pillars. At all points during gameplay, the player is engaged in one of these three activities.

Figure 1:  Tomb Raider's gameplay pillars are designed to support the narrative for a cohesive experience
Figure 2: Tomb Raider’s gameplay pillars are designed to support the narrative for a cohesive experience

The game melds each of these 3 pillars under unifying gameplay mechanics which creates an organic world that the player can really buy into. The first of which is Instinct Vision. This ability highlights interactable objects in the world clearly for a few moments. It provides players with a greater understanding of the game world by identifying to them if they can scale that wall over there or blow down that piece of debris for example. It is subtle enough to help players in the opening stages of the game when they are not familiar with the ludic language that the game presents (this will be discussed in depth later on) while not appearing too necessary or condescending to the player. Because the player can’t toggle the vision on or off indefinitely, they can’t rely on it to navigate the entire game world unlike similar mechanics like Detective Mode for example in the Batman Arkham Series 

Figure 2: Batman Arkham Asylum's Detective Mode  was often a crutch for inexperienced players
Figure 3: Batman Arkham Asylum’s Detective Mode was used often as a crutch for inexperienced players

This mechanic is particularly important because its application spans across all 3 gameplay pillars. It marks explosive barrels that damages enemies in combat. It marks scalable walls while platforming. It marks levers or switches when puzzling. It’s a mechanic that melds each of the 3 gameplay pillars seamlessly by having all information being presented to the player in the same way. Combat, platforming and puzzle objects are highlighting in the same fluorescent yellow tone. It’s up to the player to figure out how to interact with the given objects. It provides the player with the tools to solve any problem in the game without discreetly telling them the solution.

Figure 3: The Instinct Vision is essentially Lara's Detective Mode  equivalent
Figure 4: The Instinct Vision is essentially Lara’s Detective Mode equivalent

The second way Tomb Raider melds its gameplay pillars together is by having Lara’s equipment be very versatile. Here is a table of Lara’s equipment, what functions they can fulfill and under what gameplay pillar does the equipment serve. Note that these functions all exist within gameplay and don’t include cases where Lara closes a wound with a searing arrow in a cutscene for example.

  • Combat (red)
  • Platforming (blue)
  • Puzzling (green)
EQUIPMENT FUNCTION
Pickaxe
  • Prying open doors
  • Attacking enemies/ animals
    • Stunning enemies
  • Stealth takedowns
  • Ziplining
  • Turning valves
  • Scaling rocky walls
Bow & Arrow
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Pulling down walls(rope arrow)
  • Igniting loot caches(fire arrows)
  • Igniting explosive gas (fire arrows)
  • Destroying flammable cover (fire arrows)
  • Creating ziplines (rope arrows)
  • Stealth takedowns
  • Pulling objects towards Lara
Pistol
  • Shooting down suspended objects
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Igniting Explosive Barrels
  • Executions
Rifle
  • Shooting down suspended objects
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Igniting Explosive Barrels
  • Executions
  • Destroying tin walls (grenade launcher)
Shotgun
  • Shooting down suspended objects
  • Shooting enemies/ animals
  • Igniting Explosive Barrels
  • Executions
  • Stunning large enemies
  • Destroying debris
  • Opening new paths
  • Igniting loot caches (napalm shells)
  • Destroying flammable cover (napalm shells)
  • Igniting explosive gas (fire arrows)

As you can see, every piece of equipment can be used in multiple pillars of the game. It isntills a sense of mastery in the player both over their own skills as a player but also over Lara Croft. It also enforces the survivalist mentality in the player by making the most out of whatever they can find on this deserted island.

These are just two ways that Tomb Raider unifies its 3 gameplay pillars through universal mechanics. However each pillar is well developed in their own way. Let’s take a look at each in detail.

Figure 4: Apart from springing traps and puzzle solving, the rope arrow can be used in combat to yank enemies off high places
Figure 5: Apart from springing traps and puzzle solving, the rope arrow can be used in combat to yank enemies off high places

COMBAT

Tomb Raider’s combat is in a word: satisfying. This is primarily because Crystal Dynamics perfected all the gun and bow elements from realistic sound design to proper amounts of recoil put behind each pull of the trigger. Additionally, the game’s auto-aim system is intentionally loose which forces players to carefully pick their shots. This is certainly a wiser decision than having a more generous auto-aim system that conventional action games employ. It forces the player to value each shot they take providing a more potent sense of realism, a good thing to have in a gritty survival adventure game.

These points aside, Tomb Raider’s combat is not without its flaws. The loose auto-aim is smart because it promotes a survivalist mentality and improves engagement by requiring the player to focus when placing their shots. However this idea is effectively moot because the ammo in Tomb Raider is far too abundant. There is no need to conserve ammo and be careful in combat when the player has 3-4 magazines of bullets in each of their guns. The player doesn’t feel afraid or desperate like Lara when they have more than enough bullets. It creates a needlessly large disconnect between the player and the character.

A common criticism upon launch was that Lara’s tolerance of shooting an enemy goes from that of a hippy nun to a blood thirsty Patrick Bateman in about 2 hours or so. This is certainly true but this observation is only a microcosm of the true issue. Not just Lara, but the entire game’s tolerance of violence is wildly paced. The best way describe this is to provide an example:

1 hour into the game:

  • Lara is hungry for food and struggles to loot a dead body.
  • Lara’s leg is caught in a bear trap and has to fend off savage wolves with her bow.
  • Lara apologizes to a dead deer after killing it for food.
Figure 5: In the opening hours, Lara faces more grounded threats like hunger and wolves
Figure 6: In the opening hours, Lara faces more grounded threats like hunger and wolves

8 hours into the game:

  • Lara escapes a burning cult castle in a helicopter which crashes because of a freak lightning storm caused by an ancient sun goddess.
  • Lara fights waves of ancient Japanese warriors who deflect bullets and fire explosive arrows.
  • Lara stops a Japanese sun goddess reincarnation ritual after scaling an ice monastery housing warrior golems and machine gun wielding cultists.
Figure 6: "Yeah I could really go for those wolves right about now"
Figure 7: “Yeah I could really go for those wolves right about now”

It’s tonal disparities like these that just makes the player say “what the hell happened?” If Lara can’t shrug off a bear trap in the opening hours, she sure as hell can’t shrug off an explosive arrow in the closing hours. I understand the need to raise stakes constantly throughout a narrative but establishing visceral survivalism as a theme in the opening hours than having the game compromise its tonal consistency is a major disservice to those who appreciated the tonal change in the first place.

This level of dissonance and ammo abundance can pull the player out the experience and soil otherwise engaging action sequences near the end of the game.

That being said, these two flaws are seldom realized due to combat being frantic, fast paced and fun above all else.  One way Crystal Dynamics accomplishes this is by having the player constantly being shoved around during combat sequences. There are several ways they manage this including:

  • Dynamite/ Explosives thrown at Lara
  • Destructible cover leaving Lara exposed
  • Enemies flanking Lara’s position

These all force the player to maneuver around enemies and the environment which makes each encounter more dynamic than other “stop-and-pop” third person shooters. Despite the missed potential for grittier survival gameplay by increasing ammo scarcity and having tonal dissonance from the beginning and the end of the game, Tomb Raider’s combat is successfully executed because it is dynamic, engaging and satisfying.

PLATFORMING

It pains me to be vague when describing such an important part of this game but Tomb Raider’s platforming just feels really good to play. Lara has smooth animations that hold up well when the player is traversing the game’s complex geometry. Level design complements Lara’s weight and nimbleness with intelligently placed jumps. Occasionally there are instances where it seems like Lara can jump 40 feet which always cracks a laugh or two while playing because of its absurdity. However for every silly looking leap there are some truly tense moments where Lara barely grabs a ledge and must quickly regain her grip wth a quick time event (QTE). I found this the most effective way of implementing QTE’s in this game. They seem natural to do as a player and make sense within the game world. It is also subtler than the other QTE’s like the obnoxious trigger mashing climbing sections.

Figure 7:
Figure 8: A unobtrusive QTE that melds with platforming nicely. More games need QTE’s like this

It is rare to have a third person action game with a “good” camera. I can say with certainty that I had no troubles with the camera throughout my playtime. Tomb Raider has a static camera during platforming sections that gives the player the perfect amount of information as to where to jump next. The player can move the camera slightly just so it seems like they haven’t lost complete control but ultimately the camera is placed in perfect angles and is also a non-issue in combat scenarios. I wouldn’t consider this camera “perfect” because I’m not entirely sure what that would even entail but it is certainly one of the game’s strongest assets.

PUZZLING

What makes Tomb Raider’s puzzle design so special is the use of the unified game mechanics like Instinct Vision and equipment versatility to make the puzzles feel organic and satisfying. The best way to describe this game’s approach is to compare it to Valve’s game “Portal”, a first person puzzle platformer where players can place up to 2 navigable portals in the game world to solve puzzles.

Portal’s art direction is entirely focused on the puzzles. The game takes place in a testing facility where the the player’s ability to use the portal gun to escape test chambers is tested. Apart from a thin narrative of the protagonist trying to escape this facility, “Portal” really focuses on the puzzles and not much else. This is why the setting of a test facility is perfect. It’s boring, clean, easy to  design and isn’t distracting. Tomb Raider on the other hand is different. The puzzles exist to complement the game world of a deserted island- they are not the focus.This means that when Lara turns a certain valve with her pickaxe or ziplines using her rope arrow, the player’s goal isn’t to solve the puzzle like they would in “Portal” but to further explore the island and advance the narrative.

When the player is using Instinct Vision and their tools effectively to solve these puzzles the player’s satisfaction is not a derivative of their pride in puzzle solving skills (like in “Portal”) but rather their desire to further explore the island and to watch the narrative unfold. Puzzles aren’t testing the player’s intelligence but rather Lara’s ability to survive with the player serving as a vehicle. Tomb Raider’s puzzle system connects these two things and in turn makes puzzles more enjoyable.

If there is any flaw in Tomb Raider’s puzzle sections it is that the tombs themselves are very simple and need to be fleshed out much more. They lack complexity and length. None use the existing mechanics in novel ways that the player hasn’t already utilized in the main storyline.

There are a total of 7 tombs in the game however each only contains one or two puzzles and lasts no longer than 10-15 minutes. It is a shame as I was looking forward to what this franchise’s name lives up to. I do appreciate the notification the player receives when they are near a Tomb if it’s any consolation (it’s not). Crystal Dynamics is aware players want to experience the tombs but doesn’t force those who aren’t comfortable with the puzzle mechanics. There isn’t much to say apart from Crystal Dynamics needed to make more tombs that had more than just a couple of puzzles.

Figure 8: It truly is a shame that the tomb raiding of Tomb Raider is no barebones
Figure 8: It is disappointing to see that the tomb raiding of Tomb Raider is so barebones

NARRATIVE

The story that Tomb Raider tells isn’t unique by any stretch. Lara and her friends find themselves on a deserted island and must fend off crazed cultists as they try to escape. There is a long and convoluted back story about a sun goddess, samurai and nazi scientists, and yes, it is as crazy it sounds. That being said, Tomb Raider’s strength isn’t necessarily the story it’s trying to tell but rather how the story is told.

The relics system is a simple but very effective way of immersing the player into Tomb Raider’s narrative.

As you can see, the player is rewarded for exploring the game world and finding these treasures.The experience points (used for upgrades) provided by inspecting an object further has enough incentive for the player to put in the extra effort  but also provides facts insightful enough to leave the player feeling like they have learned something. The system caters to both kinds of players. If the player is simply looking for experience points to improve the gameplay experience they can. Conversely, if the player is looking for more information to enrich the narrative experience they can as well.

This is just one the many ways that Tomb Raider blends the gameplay and narrative in a unique and rewarding way.

Being on a deserted island, Tomb Raider’s narrative lends itself well to themes one might find in a book like Lord of the Flies. The degradation of sanity, the idea of civilization vs. savagery and the will to survive are all touched upon in Tomb Raider but the game does not comment or provide a new perspective on them. The player can see quite evidently the descent into madness a character like Whitman faces, the robust cult politics/ hierarchy, and Lara’s unwavering will to survive. However, these are all themes we have seen before in other mediums like books or movies. Not adding a “video gamey” take on these themes seems like a squandered opportunity on Crystal Dynamics’ part. Games like Deus Ex that handle the ethical implications of human/robotic augmentation through its characters or Spec Ops: The Line which comments on glorified game violence through its combat are truly unique because they broaden the game’s narrative scope.

Figure 9: William Golding's Lord of the Flies is one of many works that explore the struggle between civilization and savagery when faced with isolation
Figure 10: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is one of many works that explore the struggle between civilization and savagery when faced with isolation

The deserted island locale also gives Crystal Dynamic great liberties when designing death animations the player must watch when they receive a game over. As cringe inducing as they are, these animations provide a glimpse of comic relief in the game. Laugher is likely not the response Crystal Dynamics wanted to have when players watch these but some of these animations are just….well take a look.

LUDIC LANGUAGE

A subtle but not unimportant mechanic in Tomb Raider is how it implicitly communicates with the player the ways in which they can interact with the game world. The game uses objects that feel natural on the island to indicate how the player can advance through the game. For example, every ledge Lara grabs or sidles is lined with the same faded white paint for the entire game. Every scalable rock surface uses the same texture. Every rope arrow post uses the same art asset.

What is important is that these elements do not change over the course of the game and the cues that are being used do not feel out of place in the environment of a deserted island. Here is a model outlining the learning process the player experiences when they encounter a new obstacle like the jagged wall for example.

Figure 10: A simple graphic outlining how Tomb Raider introduces gameplay elements
Figure 11: A simple graphic outlining how Tomb Raider introduces gameplay elements

This is a very simple framework that Crystal Dynamics used to help both the player and Lara come to terms with their abilities as the game progresses. By the end of the game, the player can fluidly navigate the toughest platforming sections as they are accustomed to the “if X do Y” mindset that governs this game.

Figure 11: In the case of this scalable wall, the rock texture serves as the visual cue to player to climb
Figure 12: In the case of this jagged wall, the rock texture serves as the visual cue to player to climb

To prevent staleness in these sections, Crystal Dynamics integrates certain set pieces that through the player off guard, like having chunks of ice fall on Lara as she scales the ice monastery during the game’s climax. Despite the player seeing an obstacle and then executing the proper response many times throughout the game, there is a constant sense of danger and novelty to the platforming due to the stakes constantly rising, even if they do reach comical proportions (i.e Samurai golem fire arrow attacks).

Figure 12: Same mechanic, MUCH higher stakes
Figure 13: Same mechanic, MUCH higher stakes

This ludic language is arguably the most integral mechanic with regards to how Tomb Raider operates fundamentally as a game. It applies to all pillars for its entirety. None of the explosive barrels in combat, rope arrow posts in platforming, or rotatable valves in puzzles change over the course of the game. This mechanic allows the player to traverse a complex level geometry by teaching the player simple cues that are acted on in conjunction with the tools and upgrades provided over the course of the game. Similar to Instinct Vision, this mechanic is subtle enough to let the player know what they CAN do but not what they SHOULD do.  All this while still providing a sense of achievement not just over the game’s rules but of the island itself.

Figure 13: I think we all know what these do...
Figure 14: I think we all know what these do…

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Tomb Raider is a great game because it’s shortcomings are in the least influential aspects of the game and its strengths serve as the bedrock for which it is played for its entire duration. As mentioned prior, the player is always shooting, platforming or puzzling. When each of these developed facets of the game’s design are able to weave with the narrative in unique ways like the relic system, the experience is truly satisfying.

One could argue that the villain of Mathias was weak because he was one dimensional. One could argue there too few Tomb and were too short. One could even argue that the game lacked memorable characters. However, it is near impossible to argue that combat isn’t frantic, satisfying and fun or the platforming wasn’t smooth and tense.

Tomb Raider told the coming of age story it needed to tell in an effective way by melding narrative and gameplay seamlessly. It rested on 3 solid gameplay pillars that were complemented by a ludic language which created a natural and enjoyable game experience. Once again Lara can stand tall beside the gaming icons of today’s testosterone filled video game industry. And if she must be subjected to countless Polygon articles about feminine gender equity prerogative nonsense, so be it.

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