There was a feeling that rose up in me very gradually. I was watching Skyfall and having a good time, I thought. There was a tingling, almost imperceptible resentment that had taken root in me and was tunneling its way up to the surface. “Hang on a minute! This isn’t what I paid for!” was what it felt like, and I haven’t really been able to shake it since.
It’s very similar to when people want to mess with a classic: I want apple pie, and I don’t feel the need for it to be laced with cinnamon, blackberries, or alcohol of any kind thanks! That was what was going on with Skyfall. They were asking the what-ifs and exploring new territory, injecting what they seemed to think was a much needed humanity and vulnerability into the character and the film. Well it may have been new territory for Bond’s character, but it wasn’t new territory for us – for the film lovers – and it wasn’t done well or in an interesting way either. We like the cosmetic, we like the cars, the gadgets, the women, and the suits. We can get the deep, gritty, personal, humanity in any number of other films; we came here for Bond. We came here for cold, steely, stylish, surface; what we got was an oedipal, obsessive, and a far too serious character study. The two are mutually exclusive; in fact, they’re diametrically opposed.
The Name’s Croft…
Something similar is happening to Tomb Raider, and it doesn’t need to. To be clear, I like the Tomb Raider reboot as a game. Mechanically it was excellent. It took a number of ideas which games like Far Cry championed and it fused them with light survival horror elements and excellent cinematics. I should also declare that because I don’t have an Xbox One, I haven’t had a chance to play Rise of the Tomb Raider yet, but looking at the direction established in 2013’s reboot, I doubt things have changed drastically in the new game. What I’m getting at here is the subject matter, the tone, the way that Lara herself is presented, and the story that is being told.
One of my fondest memories of the first Tomb Raider was Lara’s early confrontation with Larson Conway: “What’s a man got to do to get that kind of attention from ya?” he asks, as Lara peruses a magazine with an article on Bigfoot. “It’s hard to say exactly, but you seem to be doing fine,” she answers back dryly, and with noted aloofness. Cool lines like this highlight the Bond-esque way that Lara approached encounters – she was always calm, cool, had plenty of attitude, and a calculating confidence. She took the power that Bond wielded and turned it around. She was the one with the upper hand, flirting, quipping, and charming, only to then roundhouse kick Conway in the head the very next time they met – after interrogating him, naturally.
I’m not saying I prefer the quippy and glib to the dark and gritty, I just don’t want to go to the same place for both – I don’t think you can go to one place and get both. I understand why they are changing this mood for Tomb Raider. The 2013 reboot isn’t a character study; it doesn’t show us the origins of Lara, because the game tells us that the old Lara is out the window – she’s been rebooted. Whatever comes of this new Lara is going to be someone else entirely, and judging by what we see in the game, she is going to be a cold-hearted killing machine with nary a quip to be found. It didn’t work. The scene in which Lara struggles with killing a man for the first time precedes a massacre that she perpetrates which takes place over the course of the entire game. She never struggled with any of the subsequent murders after that first one.
I Want it Painted Black
This isn’t progression, and it doesn’t work. The only way you can have a character that trots around the world grave-robbing and killing people, and make that character remotely likable, is tone. A breezy and adventurous tone like Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, paints Indy as a hero – he’s fighting Nazis after all – and though he kills a lot of people, he does so with humor; the film does so with humour. It isn’t gratuitous with its violence, and there’s romance, warmth, and levity to it. This was true of Tomb Raider before 2013.
When I said I know why Crystal Dynamics took the direction they did with the Tomb Raider reboot, I do, I just don’t believe it’s to advance the series, to move the character along, or lend it a gritty humanity. It’s because of stasis. Tomb Raider wasn’t really going anywhere. The Legend trilogy was excellent, and Keeley Hawes the definitive Lara, but after Underworld there wasn’t really anywhere new to take the series. They had a winning formula, so rather than wait and start developing new games on next-gen hardware, or try anything daring like they did with the misunderstood Angel of Darkness, the company decided to reboot. The trouble here is that they are using the established name of one of video games’ most respected and long-lived franchises in order to sell units. What you’re playing is not Tomb Raider; it’s change for the sake of change (to say nothing of the fact that there were hardly any actual tombs to raid, and those little bonus concession tombs barely count, though they were probably the best thing in it).
The one element that is missing from the mood of Tomb Raider is the most important of all – fun. The reboot makes all sorts of improvements to the formula: the platforming and movement borrows ironically and symbiotically from Uncharted; the graphics are obviously beautiful, and Lara’s improbable, impractical breasts are now more sensible and less leery – always a good thing. It’s a shame that it hasn’t managed to hang on to the infectious sense of fun that the series once stood for. Uncharted has managed to keep that sense of fun. It has clung onto its Indiana Jones roots – well, its Tomb Raider roots, really – and delivered an experience that is still brimming with adventure and humor and warmth. Uncharted is also able to keep its identity while probing more adult themes, and going to darker places – just without unneeded and atonal excursions into grittiness and despair.
Ultimately, all we’re talking about here is identity. In seeking to change the identity of an established franchise, Crystal Dynamics lost a lot of what made the older games great, because so much of why they were great tied into their unique character. Aside from the genre-defining mechanics, exploration, platforming, and graphics, it was the old Tomb Raider games’ charm, humor, adventurousness, and fun that made them unmistakable, and untouchable. Now the franchise is at an awkward impasse: if it tries to cram those elements back in then it risks losing whatever has been made of its new identity – that of the gritty, the dark, the human, and the vulnerable – but if it doesn’t, then it carries on being what its being. Sticking to their guns and sticking to that new vision is an approach that deserves our respect – and they have mine. Either way, I don’t get to play Tomb Raider anymore.