[31 January 2014]
You don’t often encounter origin stories in video games. In open-world storytelling environments like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the player is often empowered to create a character’s backstory, while in more traditional linear narratives, a character’s history is revealed organically or stated explicitly—think Red Dead Redemption and John Marston’s history. With a wealth of source material, last year’s Tomb Raider and the subsequent Definitive Edition, which debuted for the current generation of consoles, face a storytelling challenge with few precedents in the medium.
But video game origin stories have a problem that does not affect movies or books. While the conclusion or moral of any individual game is unlikely to be in serious doubt, origin stories—specifically prequels—necessitate that all players have the same experiences. Consider the modern Star Wars prequels that had to address the previously referenced Clone Wars or Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side. Those moments were formative experiences in the Star Wars universe and had to be shown. Tomb Raider follows this mantra in spite of the agency that the medium allows for, which results in a near-endless string of Quicktime events and preplanned cinematics. Lara Croft: Amateur Archeologist needs to become Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which means every player must experience her kicking would-be murderous cult members in the face as she escapes a collapsing cave.
More than these button-mashing cutscenes, Tomb Raider suffers from an on-rails architecture that reminds one more of Crash Bandicoot than any of the early Tomb Raider titles. The amount of narrow crevices and five-feet-wide walkways you traverse is either lazy game design or a comical attempt at getting as much side boob in the game as possible. Worse still are the invisible walls that litter the environment. Countless times, I saw a reachable ledge or cliff only to jump and watch Lara run into the game’s boundaries before falling to her death.
What made the environments of the original Tomb Raider games so immersive was their encapsulation. With limited technological powers, building a game that took place largely indoors displayed brilliant foresight. Out of bounds constraints could be dismissed, and the architecture and interactions could all be designed. Exploration in those early Playstation titles was about uncovering all of the crevasses that were scattered around the tombs, but it felt organic. Tigers and dinosaurs and backflip pistol wielding acted as a necessary evil and gameplay challenge because it was difficult to conceive of a game like Mirror’s Edge in 1996.
That sense of discovery has been summarily removed from Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Aside from the aforementioned invisible walls, the game will alert you to “secret” tombs. This kind of talking down to the player marks a disappointing turn in the design of a series that had always been mentally challenging. But then again, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is only a Tomb Raider game insofar as it features an overly sexualized Lara Croft grunting through vaguely ethnic ruins. The only reasons to spend time exploring is to find salvage with which to upgrade weapons or to gather any of the plethora of worthless collectibles.
All of which is to say that Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is no longer the platforming, puzzle solving adventure that it built a legacy on. What this iteration does do—the ever pervasive cinematic action thriller—it does with some success. The acting, key to the character development, stands as the game’s greatest strength. The large-scale set pieces occur often and never lose their drama; the stunning, current-gen graphics and attention to detail on display show that the heart of this game lies in its boisterous moments.
However, It’s difficult to reconcile Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition‘s downfalls with its brief successes. Problem solving has been relegated to a secondary feature not unlike the Zelda series: a lot of needless backtracking that when you acquire the proper tools—a rope arrow, shotgun, rock-climbing axe, etc.—you’re able to access new parts of the map. And for all of the dramatic weight of the story, the gameplay feels so rudimentary as to be of several generations prior. But this style of gameplay has an audience and is increasing at an exponential rate. Looking back, we may find Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition to be an essential stepping stone in a grander scheme of video game storytelling that also allows for complete autonomy, but currently, it feels like game design in neutral.