We need to talk about Lara…

Hello Internet, and a happy new year!

It may not have escaped the attention of my readers that I’m a tad keen on Tomb Raider.  However, I increasingly believe that the franchise has wandered so far away from its roots that it might as well have strayed into an alternate universe. In today’s ramble, I want to share a few reasons why I believe the rebooted Lara Croft, and especially the overuse of in-game dialogue, has harmed her credibility as a tough, intelligent character. This troublesome problem can be applied equally to any game franchise or title you care to name – I’m simply using Tomb Raider as an illustration because it’s closest to my gaming heart.

Before the comments section spontaneously combusts with angry Crystal Dynamics fans, I want to douse everything in dry ice and state that I did enjoy certain aspects of the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot (I have yet to play Rise of the Tomb Raider, and until it hits a Steam sale and my PC gets a pep talk, it’s unlikely I will be playing it). The gameplay mechanics and visuals of Yamatai were fun, challenging, and made for great escapism. Half the battle in designing a video game is in nailing the player-environment interaction, and creating a world that makes you eager to explore around the next corner. Tomb Raider 2013 did that very well, and the ever-versatile bow has even become my second-best favourite doodad/weapon in the entire franchise. Laser-sight crossbow, eat your heart out.

However, the other half of designing a video game – the most critical half that forms the foundations upon which the entire structure is built – is its story and characters. And that, dear friends, is where Tomb Raider 2013 left me colder than yeti-flavoured ice cream.

Lara Croft – the 90s icon

First, some shameless nostalgia. I was eleven when Lara Croft made her debut in 1996. At the time, I didn’t own or come into contact with a console (a situation that continues to this day); my only knowledge of Lara Croft came second-hand from the world of advertising. In the late 90s, it sometimes felt as though Lara, with her trademark aqua tank top and pistols, was literally EVERYWHERE, from hoardings and magazine covers, to posters and pop bottles.

The marketing campaign behind this intended for this perfect, pixelated female to move a lot of merchandise and simultaneously make the world fall in love with her. And it worked. Where else at the time, apart from the top shelf of seedy newsagents, could so many people have access to such a sexed-up character who was willing to blow them kisses or pose in provocative bikinis? Lara Croft the marketing icon was an unprecedented success.

However, the advertisement vision of Lara Croft at the centre of this media feeding frenzy left me utterly indifferent. To me, she came across as empty-headed and shallow. Cutesy and eager-to-please. Provocative. Over-sexualised. Tedious.

Then, almost by chance, I ended up with a copy of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. What an eye-opener.

Almost from the moment Peter Connelly’s melancholic yet triumphant theme music swept through my headphones, I realised that my initial impression of Lara Croft had been, quite simply, dead wrong. By the time young Lara was kneeling to decipher the Iris inscription, I had fallen under the game’s spell. Lara Croft, I learned, was no dim-witted bimbo. If asked to pucker-up for a cutesy photograph, she’d more than likely end up force-feeding you your camera rather than strike a pose. Her true hallmarks turned out to be, not a respectable pair of *ahem* pistols, but dry wit, striking intelligence, and a backbone of steel.

To this day, it is Lara’s character that draws me to Tomb Raider. The puzzles and gorgeous environments are still admirable, but over time even the most challenging brain-teasers grow stale with repetition. However, classic Core Design-era Lara herself never loses her appeal. For a character who barely utters a word during gameplay, this is quite an achievement. How did Core Design – and other games from other developers – pull it off?

Lara’s attraction

For me, Lara’s appeal is not solely rooted in her personality, but in her motivation and backstory. In Lara’s original Core Design biography, her character had an intense sense of rebelliousness and adventure, as evidenced by her willingness to drop everything to stow away to a mysterious haunted island (Tomb Raider: Chronicles), or travel across Asia with a comparative stranger to glimpse archaeological wonders (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation). The original Lord Henshingly Croft and his practically-invisible wife indulged their daughter’s ‘hobby’ of adventuring only for as long as it suited them; when she left a Swiss Finishing School at the age of 21, she was almost immediately engaged to a suitable future husband, with the consensus amongst her family that this was how she should live the rest of her life. However, we all know how well that turned out. There is something powerfully intriguing about a character who not only survived a Himalayan plane crash alone and unaided, but who then returned and rejected the plans laid out for her in favour of forging her own destiny. Lara Croft experienced an awakening within herself and calmly accepted that if she had to turn against society’s expectations in order to pursue her passion, then that’s exactly what she would do.

This feature of the classic Core Design-era Lara often seems to be drowned out by discussions about the T-Rex encounter and Atlantean mutants in business suits; i.e. that Lara Croft was, first and foremost, a lone rebel. This Lara chose her own path and stuck to it, to the point where her family disowned her for being too outgoing and wilful. This incarnation of Lara didn’t need to save anybody, follow in anyone else’s footsteps, or validate a deceased relative’s unorthodox theories in order to undergo her own journey of self-discovery. She understood betrayal, sacrifice, and triumph all on her own terms. To quote the Prima guide for Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, “Lara lives the same way she prefers to work – alone”.

This independent character perfectly suited the style of Tomb Raider gameplay pre-Crystal Dynamics. These titles – from Tomb Raider in 1996, to Tomb Raider: Chronicles in 2000 – had minimal side characters, and a distinct lack of dialogue during gameplay. We could explore tombs, ruins, and cities with a sense of near-perfect isolation. This was a perfect reflection of how Lara herself preferred to go about her business.

Lara talk through

When it’s good to talk…

It’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on the odd one out in the Core Design-era in terms of story and dialogue: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. This game made much more extensive use of cutscenes, dialogue, and character exploration than had been used in previous titles. However, I don’t believe that the execution of these elements diminished or dumbed-down Lara’s character in the same way that the Crystal Dynamics’-era titles did for two reasons:

1) For the first time, Lara was joined by equally independent and wilful characters who had their own reasons for being included in the plot. Take Lara Croft out of the game entirely, and you still have a perfectly credible story about Kurtis Trent’s quest for vengeance against Eckhardt. Both our and Lara’s exploration of this hidden Cabal / Lux Veritatis underworld went hand-in-hand, and provided a natural excuse for her solitary character to grow and gain allies. In this way, Lara’s ‘chance’ meeting with Kurtis did not feel like a convenient addition of a superfluous, stereotypical sidekick, but a logical alliance that remained faithful to the characters’ underlying motivations and personalities. Well-crafted character interaction (via cutscenes and semi-scripted exchanges) was, in this instance, both valid and necessary in order for Lara to make sense of this tangled, ancient conflict.

2) Practically all of Lara’s dialogue was still delivered during cutscenes, or after she (we) had actioned a particular set-piece. Apart from a talk-through tutorial and occasional comments about strength upgrades, Lara’s in-game dialogue was kept to a minimum.

I could ramble on about other story elements of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness for much longer than is healthy, so let’s save that for another day and return to the main argument.

…And when silence is golden

Why, then, is it so important not to overuse in-game dialogue? After all, who doesn’t like the main character to comment about things in real-time? To today’s triple-A, QTE-laden games, the comparative silence of the classic Core Design-era games might seem unnatural, even boring. But as one who was introduced to Tomb Raider in 1999, today’s games – up to and including the latest incarnation of the franchise – seem like an endless stream of stating-the-blindingly-obvious purely for the sake of giving the voice actor something to do.

A talk-through tutorial from the character to the player might be helpful, but it serves no positive purpose later on if the protagonist automatically mutters clues to puzzles we would much rather figure out for ourselves. For example, if there’s a climbable wall ahead of us, it seems reasonable to us players that we should climb it. If there are enemies about, we can probably guess that making a lot of noise is a bad idea. The character of Lara Croft loses any credibility that she is intelligent or skillful in these situations if the game insists on having her tell us these things. It also destroys the illusion of isolation if Lara constantly breaks the fourth wall – on purpose or not – to tell the player what she’s thinking or feeling. Part of the classic Core Design-era Lara’s appeal was that she – and the game – credited us with the intelligence to work things out for ourselves. And, nine times out of ten, we did – rewarding us with intense satisfaction.

The future

So where does this leave the franchise? The newer games may look stupendous, but changes in gameplay style means that Lara herself has, for me at least, lost those traits that made her such an engaging character to begin with. An extremely vocal crowd of friends and foes now surrounds Lara, when in previous titles she purposefully chose to go it alone and keep most of her thoughts to herself. The overuse of in-game dialogue, especially when Lara is breaking the fourth wall, dumbs down her character rather than provide us with an enlightening window into her thoughts and feelings. Much more could be achieved with a well-placed ‘hmm’, than yet anotherI can do this’ line.

In conclusion, it’s my belief that the character of Lara Croft was always at her best when she was following her passion for her own reasons, regardless of what others thought of her. Additionally, the old advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ should be enough to illuminate Lara’s inner thoughts without her ever having to say a single word, thus preserving the very traits that made me fall in love with that feisty teenage explorer in Cambodia so many years ago.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts on in-game dialogue, Lara’s character, or any other subject in the comments below! (trolls can stay under their bridges).

Creative Commons Licence
We need to talk about Lara… by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “We need to talk about Lara…

  1. Uncouth Angel

    Excellent points! Remember that moment in Chronicles where Charles Kane says something along the lines of “At least she died doing what she loved.”? I don’t get that from this new Lara at all. The old Lara did what she did because she LOVED it, and I thought that was awesome. She was adventuring for the same reason we were playing her games.

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