This is the vanguard submission of my thoughts to the internet singularity. I have opinions and you get to hear them! More precisely, I have some thoughts that just won’t stay locked up. My reaction to the current Tomb Raider reboot has been agitating most urgently, so I’ll start there.
I will be talking about Tomb Raider, specifically Laura Croft and her significance in video game character realism. I think Crystal Dynamics has reached a milestone and given the game dev community a goal to reach whenever we field a new imaginary person. But, I should confess in the beginning that I have played none of the original Tomb Raider series. None of it.
If you’d asked me who Laura was before playing this title, I would likely have pointed out her surreal polygon breasts and their affect on the gaming community’s view of women in games, with a possible aftershock of “I think she might have been one of the early 3D adventure game pioneers”. I don’t know her history, or where her games fit in the history of the genre. I’m speaking purely from a position of common-enough ignorance about her pedigree, back story, and impact before the reboot.
Forget the old Laura. Because of her, I had to preface this review with talk about imaginary breasts. Let’s look at the new Laura.
From the intro and the notes scattered throughout the game, we know that she’s something of an adventurer already. She’s not on the Endurance by accident. When her instincts tell her that the find the crew came looking for is in a potentially dangerous, stormy section of the sea, she backs everyone else down and leads them headlong toward discovery, storms-be-damned.
Not to give too much away, but she then spends the majority of her time on the island living off the land, killing people, and hurtling through the air (often accompanied by a Michael Bay-esque series of explosions).
Laura falls and impales herself on a piece of exposed rebar early on, drags herself through pools of blood, and tolerates more stab wounds and gunshots than my suspension of disbelief was wholly ready to forgive.
Most game protagonists stop there. It’s all we ask from the leads in our action movies, after all. But let’s take a minute out to peruse her motivations. She did just kill a few hundred guys, after all.
Laura has left in search of a mythical city, ostensibly because she’s a huge history nerd and thrill seeker, but also because she’s chasing after the legacy of her father. This theme is the point around which the story turns, as she forces herself to transition from scared survivor to determined savior. The story takes a moment to meditate on what it means to be a Croft, and as it turns out, being a Croft immediately means two things:
1. You can climb rock walls and have the grit to purposefully throw yourself through the air. She’d been doing this in response to external dangers, and occasionally out of necessity, but up to this turning point with Roth, she had been visibly and audibly reluctant. Basically, I recall her doubting herself and bemoaning her fate a little more pre-pep talk.
2. You do what you have to do. You do what others are too weak or afraid to do. This also clearly means looking out for your friends.
It’s significant that Laura’s murder spree isn’t one continuous action movie kicked off by a singular situation or revenge-motive. Throughout the story, she keeps getting herself to a situation where she can seemingly put down the guns, having found her friends, and walk away, give up, let the team shoulder some of the burden, etc. However, new wrinkles pop up. Different friends are in danger for different reasons.
Sometimes she shoots a guy because she needs to get by to make it to her friends in time. Sometimes because they’re trying to keep her in or out of somewhere she needs to go. And sometimes, she’s blasting them just to survive.
Laura’s whole story revolves around dragging her friends out of the mess she put them in, and though we don’t see a whole lot of remorse for her role in putting them there, we do see her taking responsibility.
Okay, so she’s less a killer, more a survivor, and occasionally an agent of justice. But mostly, she’s a bodyguard. She wants to live up to her father’s name. Also she can’t help but gawk and murmur about the various historical treasures around her. She wants to put out the fire she started, be a good friend, and not shame herself. We’re doing alright in the motivation department.
You could say the above about a fair number of action heroes, but I think she stacks up well against the likes of Nathan Drake, who is more driven to achieve, with a side-order of survive and help friends, and a huge dollop of vindication.
So what makes Laura stand out as a real character? Obviously, she’s beautiful on the screen. While some of the other characters shown in the game slip back into the uncanny valley, she makes good use of her trademark jumping skills and leaps easily over to the human-friendly side of the gulf. I mean that she looks like a person.
More importantly, she moves like a person. Throughout the game, Laura hunches to crawl through narrow spaces, peeks around corners, and drops into cover convincingly. The way she cradles her arm after a bad fall is the pinnacle of this behavior modelling. Where other game characters resume ass-kicking as usual, leaving no lasting impression of the event, Laura nurses her wounds and changes her posture long after the tumble. I really feel like the impact meant something, and it moved me to consider not just how bad a fall she’d taken, but what kind of guts it took for her to make the leap, or how scary her situation was. It engages my empathy.
Backing all of this up, are her verbal cues. Crying out when she burns her arm on a steam pipe, talking herself through the terror of the island, and grunting as she pulls herself up a ledge all sell her as a real human caught in a surreal adventure.
The culmination of these effects is a scenario about a third of the way through the game where Laura wounds herself badly. The gray-screen effect that has signaled near death in combat becomes permanent for the duration. This shows us she’s hurt, but more importantly it cements that colorless view as a fact of the game, even outside combat. Whenever we see this from that point on, we equate the damage she’s taken as equal to the life threatening wounds from earlier.
In her search for medicine and bandages, Laura cannot climb simple ledges. Attempting to force her to do so results in a cry of pain. When Laura drops away from the ledge, disoriented, we realize we’ve taken her abilities for granted. She’s not a superhuman avatar; she’s a real, vulnerable person.
I may come back to this later, specifically to illuminate a few points and clean up tense. Possibly to talk about this victory particularly for female characters. But for now, I think this is good.