Yeah, it’s that time of year again where everybody who is even remotely affiliated with video games takes to their various outlets (blogs, YouTube, magazines, smoke signals, face tattoos, etc.) to opine about their absolute favorite games from what was the thirteenth year of the declared “Willennium*.” 2013 was a calendar year for gaming with Sony and Microsoft giving us new iterations of Playstation and Xbox, the continued rise of the “indie game” with Gone Home, Papers, Please, Don’t Starve and, of course, the announcement and beta of Dungeonmans from my friend Jim Shepard.
There were a ton of really, really, stupendously amazing games this year: BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Retro City Rampage immediately come to mind. But there was one that stood head and shoulders above the rest for a multitude of reasons…
Enter Senior Narrative Designer John Stafford, Lead Writer Rhianna Pratchett, and Writer Susan O’Connor. All three have rich backgrounds (Pratchett has worked on titles like Mirror’s Edge and Overblood, O’Connor has contributed to BioShock and Conan, and Stafford has a very rich Star Wars background – making him my new best friend), and their work breathed new life into the Tomb Raider franchise. They introduced us to a new Lara; a young and curious woman who possesses incredibly intelligent, but is also somewhat naive due to a protected upbringing. The criminally abridged TL;DR of the setting: During an expedition to locate the lost kingdom of the Yamatai, a storm swells seemingly out of nowhere and shipwrecks the Endurance. Adding to Lara’s problems, a mysterious group of men whom, after many playthroughs, I’ve affectionately come to refer to as “the motherfuckers” take Lara’s friends captive. From here, Lara must survive on this island, find her friends, and discover the secrets of the Yamatai before everyone dies.
When we first take control of Lara, she is understandably frightened. She’s also weak, at least in comparison to the typical emotionless video game protagonist. She’s never had to forage for food, or endure the elements. When she kills for the first time – a deer – she is visibly upset. A short time later Lara is forced to kill a man in self-defense, and her reaction is far more human than what we’ve seen in past games – she’s trembling, in tears, on the verge of vomiting. This is the antithesis of what we’re used to seeing in games, and it does more to present Lara as a character with nuance and depth than the typical emotionless brute that we’re used to seeing in these kinds of scenarios. This moment also serves as a pillar for us, the audience, to look back on in retrospect when viewing the stark contrast between who Lara was when she arrived on this island, and who she becomes throughout her journey. This is reinforced shortly after Lara’s initial kill, when she has to fight her way through a half-dozen others before escaping to the relative safety of the forest. Once she has a moment to breathe, she’s radioed by her mentor, Roth. She confesses to him that she killed people, and hinted that the most frightening aspect of her whole ordeal up to that point was the ease in which it came to her.
LARA: I had to kill some of them. I had no choice.
ROTH: That can’t have been easy.
LARA: It’s scary just how easy it was.
I love this. On the surface it may seem like a bit of throwaway dialogue to keep the player from being distracted during a transition point, but I think it serves two very important purposes. 1.) It shows us that Lara is a creature capable of adapting to situations, and adapting to them quickly. 2.) From a design perspective it’s a brilliant hand wave to the fact that you’re about to kill – violently – a whole hell of a lot of people.
Make no mistake about it – in a very fundamental way, Lara’s story in Tomb Raider is a story of death. Of coping with death, and of accepting the ultimate price of your actions. A lot of people, friend and foe alike, die as a direct result of Lara’s actions and throughout the story we see how this affects Lara. We see her growing hard to the environment around her, morphing from the timid child unsure of her own threats when she timidly shouts “stay back or I’ll shoot,” to a warrior hardened by experiences that would break lesser people, having her Wyatt Earp moment when she warns her captors “I’m coming for you all!” I would be remiss if I didn’t shower some praise on Camilla Luddington, who voiced Lara. It’s easily one of the more nuanced performances I experienced in a year filled with fantastic voice acting – mostly from Troy Baker (BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Batman: Arkham Origins).
Of course, none of this would matter if the game itself turned out to be a turd. Luckily, the game is freakin’ amazing. Crystal Dynamics found a near-perfect balance of action, exploration, and progression. The combat feels, in a word, “right.” It’s very much cover-based, but you’re strongly encouraged to keep on the move and pick your enemies off from afar with your bow, which is easily the most satisfying weapon in the game. Quick Time Events do make an appearance in the game, though they are rarely called on in fights – most of the time you initiate the QTE to finish an enemy off. I also thought the character progression was inspired, as it serves to not only unlock new abilities for the player, but serves as visual representation of how this place is transforming Lara from the hunted into the hunter.
Although the game’s narrative places you on a fairly linear path, it’s easy to find yourself in a situation where you see something shining in the corner, and on your quest to retrieve it you find yourself slipping inside a cave that takes you to a long-lost ruin containing one of many very clever puzzles that provide a challenge without being overly frustrating. While Lara has always been presented as an archaeologist, the past games didn’t really do a whole lot to give the sense that you were looking for historic artifacts. This time around you actually are given that opportunity to be an explorer and examine artifacts found – each one providing a tiny bit of color to an already rich and vibrant game world. I can’t praise the art direction enough, either – every cave holds mystery, and every half-demolished ruin, beached ship, or abandoned bunker tells a story. I could even argue that the best part of Tomb Raider comes after you complete the story, and are able to explore this mysterious island to find all of the caves, artifacts, and journal entries of past visitors. I can run around this damn island for hours.
I didn’t love everything in Tomb Raider, mind you. I wasn’t a fan of the multiplayer when I tried it (on PS3), and I feel like some of the more gruesome deaths that Lara can experience border on “torture porn” fetishism. I get that they want to make death as unpleasant as possible to give players incentive to not die, but if you happen to find yourself on a part of the game that you find particularly difficult – for me it was that damn sequence with the parachuting through the trees – it can quickly morph from “oh god, I don’t want that again!” to just being hard to look at. But all things considered, these are very minor gripes and did not in any way negatively impact what I thought of the game.
So, that’s why Tomb Raider is my personal Game of the Year. It not only reboot one of the most important franchises in our medium (Tomb Raider was one of the first truly break-out mainstream franchises in games that wasn’t a cartoon mascot), it did so in a way that carried gravitas with it. Tomb Raider is relevant again, and Lara Croft has been reborn as an emotionally and psychologically complex character and I hope that when the sequel comes around we will be able to see how Yamatai has changed her.
*I will never tire of making that stupid Willennium joke. Never.