I’d never played a Tomb Raider game before the 2013 iteration of the series; that playthrough was also the first time I’d played a newish AAA game in something like two years, so I’d gotten a bit unused to that sort of polished spectacle. And, I will say: it was a very well-done polished spectacle, I’m quite glad to have played the game. I enjoyed much of the mechanics, I enjoyed much of the plot, it’s probably the most conventionally gorgeous game I’ve played, and even the parts I didn’t like so much were fine to go through on autopilot.
Still, it’s a AAA game, which means that it’s not as coherent that it could be, that it contains a slightly ungainly mixture of elements, perhaps to increase the number of people the game might appeal to. You could make a case that this is a game driven by combat, driven by exploration, or driven by plot; those elements weren’t exactly deployed at cross purposes, but they weren’t all pointing in the same direction, either.
The game certainly spent a lot of time on combat: I think the game would probably be better named “Bow Hunter” than “Tomb Raider”. Or rather, I used the bow a lot; but for people who like combat, there are four different weapons to choose from, each of which can be upgraded to have a few different firing modes. And, actually, “Hunter” isn’t the right word, either: while your bow is introduced with a scene of you hunting a deer, the vast majority of your weapon uses will be against humans.
And, honestly, for a lot of the game that annoyed me. I didn’t mind the combat mechanically, but it’s just not my sort of thing: I set the difficulty to easy, mowed through waves of enemies and didn’t think twice about it. But from a thematic point of view, the manner and quantity of violence didn’t seem to fit in the game. At the start of the game, it seemed to me that the game wanted me to feel like Lara was vulnerable (albeit in a very capable way), having to use all of her skills, ingenuity, and perseverance to survive. So, from that point of view, using a makeshift bow to kill a deer fits: but having the animal hunting be a one-off didn’t fit nearly as well. And feeling like any stranger could kill you fits; but that feeling goes away when you meet (and subsequently dispatch) wave after wave of enemies.
About halfway through the game, though, my feeling about the combat shifted. I realized that enemies had started referring to Lara as “The Outsider”, and used that term with fear. Lara had morphed from somebody who was barely managing to survive to somebody who had taken control of the situation, an avenging angel who wasn’t going to let anything stop her from rescuing Sam and getting off of that island. And, from that point of view, the combat fit in a lot better: of course she can take on a dozen enemies at once and emerge victorious.
Having said that: still way too much fighting, still way too little respect for human life. I’d like to see a game that manages that better, and in fact there are a few examples: Another World is one model, The Walking Dead another, Shadow of the Colossus a third. Controlling violence seems to be hard for AAA games to do; and there is a very real question of whether it’s worth investing time in real combat mechanics with a cap on the body count. (The Walking Dead says no, Another World and Shadow of the Colossus say yes.) It feels to me like constraining the body count would be quite difficult to do within what I imagine the structure of the AAA development process to be (but what do I know!); it also feels to me potentially worthwhile, with individual deaths turning into Strong Centers from a narrative point of view.
The game’s title isn’t “Bow Hunter”, however: it’s “Tomb Raider”. I don’t know what previous games in the series were like, but I will say: not a lot of raiding tombs here. But there was a lot of exploring and navigating environments in general.
And in some ways that felt to me like the best of AAA development coming forth. Big, beautiful environments that the studio had clearly invested a lot of time into, combined with extremely legible affordances for how you can maneuver in and manipulate that environment. I can imagine an alternate version of this game (or of me!) where the exploration felt a little too focus-group tested, a little too pat, but for me it was great: I enjoyed getting around the environments.
I’m somewhat less thrilled with the purpose of my getting around the environments, though. It’s a rare game that is willing to have the navigation of a complex 3-D world be its own reward, so there have to be goodies strewn about. So: collectibles, and lots of them. I’d be going through a portion of the world, and the narrative would be telling me that I should be frantically trying to save Sam, but the map would tell me that I should be trying to figure out how to reach a GPS cache hidden over in the corner somewhere.
Which certainly isn’t a problem unique to this game: right now I’m in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which has the same problem and is handling it worse. Still, as with the copious gunfights, it’s a problem.
But, as with the copious gunfights, I became more at peace with the problem towards the end of the game. I came to a situation where I felt like it was reasonable to take a breather from the main plot rush, and just explore: Lara is, after all, an archaeologist, and archaeology is the reason for the trip in the first place. So I went back to the previous environments to poke around them, finishing off my collecting.
(Side note on two things the game did right: I couldn’t go back to all previous environments, because some really only made sense as set pieces. The game wasn’t shy about inserting those set piece locations where they made sense, but it also didn’t put collectibles in them, so I didn’t have to worry about missing anything. And the second thing that the game did right, though it wasn’t obvious to me until I reached the end, is: once you’ve finished the main plot, you can still go back and explore the island to your heart’s content. That makes no sense narratively, but I don’t care, it’s clearly the right choice, one I wish more games would make.)
And those were some of my favorite moments in the game, favorite in a completely different way from the plot-driven moments. I was wandering around these lovely environments, lovely both visually and from an exploratory point of view. It was nighttime, lending a wistful atmosphere without me actually feeling lonely: instead, it felt like Lara was in her element in a completely different way from the kick-ass Lara that I’d spent most of the time with, and I liked that Lara as well. And actually the single biggest jump scare I got was during this wandering: I heard some whistling, and I realized that, for whatever reason, there actually were a few enemies left in that environment, unlike all the other ones I’d just been re-exploring.
So in that context the exploring felt great, even though it was still driven by collectibles. If I wanted to pull out some Alexandrian concepts that might make sense here: there’s Alternating Repetition between plot-driven action and plot-free exploration, with the exploration serving as a Boundary to the plot that’s thick enough to be Positive Space and a Strong Center in its own right. Or rather, that’s what I’d like it to be: the real issue that I had was that the plot was pervasive enough that, for much of the time, even though I was alternating between exploring and progressing the plot, I felt like I was actively undermining the plot by behaving that way. So I would have liked there to be more space for freedom from plot; or, alternatively, integrating the exploration better into the plot instead of having it be isolated collectibles. (I.e. more Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.)
Like, say, have more tombs, and work them into the plot. The tombs in this game were pretty odd: they were fun, but they were also short and optional. I’m not sure what went into that decision: maybe the shortness was to make sure people could solve them, or maybe the shortness was because they required one-off mechanics that needed individual crafting in a way that scattering artifacts across a level doesn’t? And maybe the optional nature is intended to make them feel like a real discovery instead of an inevitability, or maybe that’s because the game designers didn’t trust players to solve puzzles in the same way that they trust players to mow down dozens of enemies.
Still: I enjoyed the exploration, and I enjoyed the choice of elements both because of how they combined and how legible they were. And ziplines are cool.
And then there’s the plot, which I though was well done, in a way that is atypical for AAA video games. I liked Lara, I think they did a good job of presenting her as supercompetent but still needing to learn what that means, how to express that. (And both sides of that work really well in an action video game context: you want to be able to kick ass, but you also want to kick more ass as the game proceeds.) I liked the Lara/Sam arc: it was charming, it kept the plot moving, it made me uncomfortable that I was spending time poking around environments instead of rushing to save Sam. And I liked the interactions with the other crew members! (The crew member diaries made this one of the few games where narrative collectables really added something for me.)
I wasn’t a big fan of the enemies, admittedly. Not that the main enemy was badly done, I just didn’t think he was actively well done, and I had a hard time making sense of how the presence of his group (and other past groups) on the island would work in a practical sense. Also related to that was the game not being sure how far it wanted to push the horror aspect: it included a fair amount of horror aspects at the start, enough that Liesl quickly decided she didn’t want to watch the game, which I think was a little bit of a shame: that ended up not really being what the game was about, and I think she would have enjoyed watching most of the game? Or, alternatively, I can imagine the game going deeper into its horror side: trading combat off for horror would have made a lot of sense to me, it’s just not what they did. And I suppose was never going to go all-in on horror, given the desire to have Lara turn into an avenging angel as the game goes on. So, from that point of view, horror right at the start does kind of make sense?
There were a lot of impalements in the game: one right at the start, and they showed up regularly in quick time failure scenes. My first reaction was that this was cheap, inappropriate sexualization, but now I’m not so sure: maybe it’s a smart commentary on gendered violence? Ashelia had a really good post on how the game portrays violence against women; it affected her strongly and, ultimately, positively. Given her reading, I’m inclined to think that this is actually an actively good part of the game, details of the impalements and screams aside.
But I think what I liked most about the plot was the way it focused on small-scale individual interactions. There’s no saving the world from ultimate evil here: there’s a handful of people trying to survive being stranded on an island. With, admittedly, a psychopath heading up a small army, and with a remarkably competent heroine, but still: no overblown JRPG / Zelda plot, and also not the Metroid model of a smaller-scale problem being navigated by somebody effectively completely independent. The relationships are present, they matter, they’re just at a personal level.
I’m really glad I chose this as my first AAA game in a few years; many thanks to those of you on Twitter who encouraged me to play it. It showed off the way in which AAA games are a mess, but it kept that mess under control; and its polish also showed off the virtues of AAA games, and the game had real virtues entirely independent of the size of its studio.
This post has not been revised since publication.