Thursday, December 7

Pushing Buttons: How Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft was let down by generic games | Games

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There’s been an interesting development in the games business this week: Square Enix, the Japanese company behind Final Fantasy, has sold off basically its entire North American business for $300m. Swedish entrepreneur collective Embracer Group, a relative newcomer in gaming, is now the proud owner of studios in Montreal the US, and properties like Deus Ex, Thief and, of course, Tomb Raider.

Not too long ago, this would have felt like big news purely because of the money involved. But given the eyebrow-raising sums that have been flying around in the games industry lately – Sony paid $3.5bn for Bungie, a studio that currently has only one game (Destiny), and of course Microsoft is set to pay nearly $70bn for Activision -Blizzard and its suite of games – $300m seems quite the bargain. You’d think Tomb Raider alone might at one point have been worth that much or more. But not any more.

Tomb Raider is a game series that’s never really been what it should have been, if you ask me. In the 1990s the series broke through because its star, Lara Croft, became a polygonal sex symbol, gracing the pages of lads’ mags and the cover of The Face. But I’ve always felt that Tomb Raider’s popularity is despite, rather than because of, the overt and deeply embarrassing sexualisation of Lara Croft. A lot of women and girls – hi! – Loved Lara Croft because she was a badass action hero, and in the absolute diversity desert of late 1990s and early 00s pop culture, she was pretty much all we had (her de ella, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer); it’s not like we had a bunch of non-sexualized female characters to choose from instead. The games, meanwhile – the best of them – were actually kinda quiet and cerebral (and frustrating, to be honest). Lara had two pistols, but she rarely used them. Mostly she was alone in tombs, trying to disarm ancient booby-traps and make tricky leaps of faith.

I believe that only a few of the various people who have been in charge of Tomb Raider and Lara Croft over the years – from movie-makers to developers – have actually understood why it is that people love it. Scriptwriters make Lara Croft one-dimensional, a posh heroine with a suite of one-liners and impractically skimpy clothing, when actually she’s kind of a big nerd at heart; she loves archeology and ancient civilizations, she pores over artefacts, she’s bright and aristocratic, self-sufficient and tough and brave. 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot attempted to humanize Lara Croft by turning her into a young shipwrecked survivor on a dangerous island where horrible things kept happening to her and her friends de ella; it was good to play a Tomb Raider game in which Lara Croft actually felt like a person and had human relationships, but at times that game veered too close to the old trope of making female characters ‘relatable’ by making them vulnerable. The Croft we played in the 2015 sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, was more self-assured and capable, following a character arc that would have been quite satisfying if 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider hadn’t absolutely fluffed it with a tonally disastrous pivot to Lara Croft as indiscriminate murderer of bad guys.

And what all these games did was turn Tomb Raider into a bit of a shooting gallery, an Uncharted-esque series of explosions and choke-holds and huge set-piece moments, all zip-lining towards a burning oil rig while aiming a rifle at mercenaries. I could take or leave all of that. What I loved – what I wanted – were the moments where Lara emerged from some narrow cavern and into an unbelievable vista, some waterfall with a tomb concealed beneath; an icy cave with an ancient wreck improbably stuck in the ice. I loved the (tellingly, optional) tombs, with their intricate puzzles and eureka moments. In these moments Lara Croft isn’t just good with a pistol – she’s clever, and daring, and curious.

There’s a Tomb Raider Live Experience on in London at the moment, an hour-long escape room thing where you scramble under nets and crawl through dark passages and collect relics, following in Croft’s footsteps while actors pretend that you’re her students. I had a go last week and though it was vaguely entertaining in a Crystal Maze kind of way, it was honestly nothing to do with Tomb Raider. The loose plot made little sense; none of the set-dressing had anything to do with Lara or the games; when one of our team made a joke about skipping cut-scenes in front of one of the actors, they looked genuinely perplexed. There wasn’t even a freezer in Croft Manor, to the immense disappointment of anyone who wasted an hour of their youth trying to trap her butler inside it in Tomb Raider 2. It was ultimately a generic set of team-building exercises with a Tomb Raider label slapped on it, and it made me quite sad. Once again it appeared to have been built by people who didn’t really understand what’s cool and interesting about the Tomb Raider. A zipline can’t compensate for that.

For me, Tomb Raider’s about exploring, really, about making discoveries and thinking laterally and pushing your limits. The recent games have had some of these moments, and I suspect that these were the parts of the games that the developers themselves loved most, rather than the more predictable action-movie stuff. Would people actually buy a more sedated Tomb Raider game, with less blowing stuff up and more actual raiding of tombs? The bosses at Square Enix clearly thought not, but I’m hoping that the series’ future custodians might be more optimistic. That, or we’ll end up with some dismal failed attempt at a live service multiplayer game like Fortnite. I know which I’d prefer.

what to play

This week’s must-play game is indie hit Citizen Sleeper Photographer: Fellow Traveler

If you’ve ever longed for a cerebral and thought-provoking video-game interpretation of Blade Runner – quite a specific yearning, but still – then this week’s indie darling Citizen Sleeper is for you. You play a dying runaway android on a space station that’s falling apart. Most of what you learn about your surroundings, you read through text descriptions, occasionally embellished with detailed illustrations of places and characters, and with its dice roles and sedation pace it feels more like a board game than a video game at times. What elevates it is the atmosphere, conjured mostly from words.

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox
Approximate playtime: 5 hours

what to read

  • The New Yorker imagines Mario as a washed-up 40-something in this surreal and mildly disturbing pastiche. Credit where credit’s due, the writer really committed to the bit, and it pays off. (Thanks to Daniel for sending this in last week!)

  • I grew up with Nintendo, as regular readers will have surmised, and though I had a total infatuation with the Dreamcast as a teen, for the most part the appeal of Sega (particularly Sonic the Hedgehog) remains a mystery to me. So I always enjoy reading Keith Stuart on his enduring love for these games, and how happy they make him. Even now he remains convinced that Sega’s due a comeback. Again, you gotta admire the commitment.

what to click

Nintendo Switch Sports review – the return of slapstick fun

I’m trying to educate my son in sport using video games. He’s having none of it

Pokémon goes to the Proms: 2022 season to feature first video game music concert

Question Block

Today’s question comes from reader Liam:

“I just got a PS5 and realized I don’t know what to play. I haven’t had an empty library in years. What do you look for in picking out your first game, from someone who hasn’t done it since 2014?”

Firstly, Liam, congratulations on actually obtaining a PS5, a console which is still absurdly difficult to buy even though it’s been 18 months since it launched. If you subscribe to PlayStation Plus you’ll get a solid-gold collection of the best PS4 games for free – if there are any there that you haven’t played, that’s worth checking out. For actual PS5-native games though, my first recommendation would be Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. It’s so beautiful that I regularly had to stop and gape when I arrived on a new planet. It goes down very easily, always showing you a good time without beating you over the head with too much challenge. And it really shows off what your new console can do technically.

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