There’s a moment in Tomb Raider when you sneak up on two men that are arguing with one another: One of them has just killed a fellow comrade because: “He wouldn’t shut the fuck up. It was driving me crazy. Sun Queen this, Sun Queen that. All that goddamned praying and chanting. I couldn’t take it.”
“You coulda just knocked him out,” says the still living comrade, and the murderer responds, “I lost my temper. The place brings it out in me.”
That’s about when the conversation ends, and I shoot them both in the head with an arrow. It’s an instinctive action at this point. I’ve been trained to kill Solari before they see me, life is just simpler that way, but those words stick with me for the rest of the game: “The place brings it out in me.”
Combat in Tomb Raider feels desperate. Everyone is fighting like this is going to be the last fight of their life. The Solari are extremely aggressive, charging at you with a pry axe raised like a claw. They feel more like the necromorphs from Dead Space than the pirates from Uncharted. Lara is no exception, her animations emphasize this desperation, as Jorge Albor explores in his post, “Touchy Feely: ‘Tomb Raider’ and Haptic Design”:
Lara can avoid enemy attacks by scrambling out of the way. Dropping down, almost on all fours, she dashes to one side, bracing herself on the ground and haphazardly dodging harm. The movement feels sudden and unrehearsed…Lara is no acrobat, she is just desperate to get out of the way, vulnerable but capable.
That capability is born out of necessity. Lara doesn’t want to become a survivor or a fighter. She’s justifiably horrified by her first kill, but the game goes to great lengths to validate her character arc. There are multiple moments when Lara calls out to the Solari, asking them to stop or to talk, and they respond by trying to kill her. She opens the door for negotiation, but they close it. So, Lara comes to kill in the righteous name of self-defense while the Solari are just low-lifes. That intangible, violent “it” is burgeoning in Lara, but it’s also being contextualized so that I still feel bad when she gets shot in the head with an arrow.
Then I beat the game, and everything changed. Lara escaped the island, but then she went back to hunt for collectibles. There were still Solari around, which provided effective gameplay variety, switching things up between combat and exploration, but the combat was nowhere near as intense, empowering, or “disempowering” as it was before. You had the same gameplay with the same equipment and the same controls, against the same enemies with the same animations in the same environments, but it was surrounded by a different context. That context made all the difference.
A moment experienced in the Shanty Town area encapsulated this change: I heard voices coming from a hut and went to investigate. Inside were three Solari on their knees before a makeshift idol of the Sun Goddess; they were praying to her. They didn’t know I was there, so I could have stealth killed all three, one at a time, blown them up with the conveniently placed explosive barrel, or just shot them all in the head with an arrow like before. But as I pondered my options and they didn’t move, I realized that the power dynamic on the island had shifted.
I was now stronger than them, Lara was now stronger than them. She had learned so many ways to kill that she was now overwhelmed with options. Suddenly I felt bad for these guys. They were probably the survivors of my initial onslaught just trying to get back to their normal island life. Sure, their normal island life probably involved murder and violence, but since Lara had stopped the magical storms, there wouldn’t be anymore new shipwrecks. The only people left to kill were each other.
Before, the Solari were scary as an enemy but also as a symbol. They represented all the unknown dangers of the world that the fresh-faced Lara Croft had yet to encounter. They were an obstacle bigger than anything she’d ever faced, and to beat them she’d have to become stronger and more ruthless than she ever thought she could be. The combat was intense not just because of the animations involved but because of what it represented for her in that moment. It wasn’t just gameplay, it was character development.
At first, you counter enemies by throwing dirt in their face, then you counter them by dodging their attack and stabbing them with an arrow. The former action is defined by panic. It is defensive in nature, emphasizing her vulnerability and fear. The latter counter is defined by skill. It is offensive in nature, emphasizing her ability to think fast, move fast, and kill fast. She’s come a long way. The island really does change her; it brings “it” out in her so much so that when she returns to the island everything feels easier.
The mechanics are so closely tied to her character arc that when she changes, it feels like the gameplay changes as well. The combat in Tomb Raider is genuinely thrilling and I still want more of it, but to get that same experience, I have to start a new game. Without the context of her character arc, it just feels like pointless filler.