The new Tomb Raider chronicles the birth of a survivor, but it's a story that is easier to see than it is to feel.
In the new Tomb Raider, the phrase "A survivor is born" pops up at the title screen and just as the credits roll. It sums up the game's narrative tone. Instead of the dual-pistol-wielding, dinosaur-killing, quip-making Lara Croft, we get a character who struggles through uncertainty and ends up thriving in the face of overwhelming adversity.
From a plot-based perspective, everything is against her: Lara is betrayed by equipment, people, and even the weather. On a surface level, it seems like a tense survival situation, but the game's systems don't always match this sense of urgency. The drama of the game's plot and the relative predictability of its systems demonstrate how difficult it is to portray survival situations in video games and how increasing visual fidelity will make it even more difficult to do in the future.
Jorge Albor wrote about the way Tomb Raider's impressive character animation helps tell Lara's story ("Touchy Feely: Tomb Raider and Haptic Design", PopMatters, 14 March 2013). The way that she navigates the environment, the way that she scrambles in combat, and even the way that she shivers all help make her situation seem extremely dire. During cut scenes, she worries about finding food and shelter, and you are forced to forage and hunt to keep up her strength.
The problem is, almost none of this is mandatory from a systemic viewpoint. Though she may complain, Lara is fine in a tank top even in the snow. After hunting the first deer, you never have to kill another animal if you don't want to. There are no real hard choices to make about how to spend resources. Salvage is abundant and no one upgrade path has a dramatic impact on Lara's ability to navigate the world.
This stands out by comparison to other games that have tried to back up the authored survival narrative with gameplay support. In Metal Gear Solid 3, the constant battle against hunger impacts the way that you manage resources and plan your fights. The set pieces in Tomb Raider are impressive, but none of them scared me as much as playing Don't Starve and realizing that I didn't have enough wood to start a fire. Lara sustains some pretty gruesome injuries throughout the game, but they only nag at her in very scripted moments and fade into mechanical irrelevancy whenever the story dictates. Malaria attacks in Far Cry 2 were annoying, but they instill a sense of the random danger that is a part of surviving in a harsh world.
The more cerebral side of surviving is similarly narrow. The right choice is usually quite clear for Lara, and when there is ambiguity, it is taken out of the player's hands. In Tomb Raider, you never really have to worry about losing a companion; whether or not Lara's abilities don't change based on who lives or dies, nor do her options. The second guessing that takes place in The Walking Dead simply doesn't come up, and you are never faced with a Cart Life-style conundrum. The player often has no active role in Lara's survival decisions, and said decisions tend to turn out just fine regardless of what happens.
When things don't go according to plan, players are treated to some incredibly grisly death animations. The aforementioned aesthetics make Lara's deaths more shocking, but seeing a realistic character model go through the same impaling animation ten times in a row weakens the effect. Instant deaths and restarts devoid of any penalties call attention to the disconnect between the extremely realistic visuals and the traditionally contrived game rules. It's a problem that will only become more apparent as we gear up for a new technological cycle. Even the eerily realistic characters in Activision's new engine will become dehumanized by familiar gameplay routines.
In the absence of mechanical survivalism, the burden of constructing perceived consequences falls on Tomb Raider's aesthetics. To its credit, Tomb Raider is exceptionally strong in this department. The writing is explicit without being overbearing, the voice acting sounds very natural, and the character models have little quirks that provide character depth.
Ironically, the verisimilitude is so great that it draws attention to the disagreement between how things are aesthetically and mechanically conveyed. What is dramatic for Lara is bland for the player, as the moment-to-moment dangers of survival are nowhere to be found. Without the systemic backing, the drama of the cutscenes is undercut. No matter how hungry or cold Lara is, you're always able to pull off flawless headshots and death-defying leaps.
The limited impact that you have on the actual act of surviving means that players must be content mainly to watch Lara's development and to simply take the exposition at face value. While it can still be rewarding to see a survivor being born, it's difficult for even the best graphical technology and the smartest dialogue to stand in for the ability to experience the chaotic process interactively. As we make the transition to even better technology, Tomb Raider is a good reminder that it's hard for a game's facade to survive without support from its systems.