I’m halfway through the follow up to the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider series, this year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Which is about all I have to say about it so far. Despite beefing up to some degree the actual tomb raiding elements of the game, this sequel plays more or less the same as the 2013 game, a game which I and a number of video game critics liked pretty well.
Lara Croft has been around for nearly 20 years, has served as the protagonist of more than a dozen games, and remains one of the most well known video game characters in video games’ relatively short history. The reboot two years ago was not Lara Croft’s first reboot as a character, and it was probably a reasonable decision if SquareEnix remains committed to maintaining relevance for both the character and the series.
The 2013 game once again modernized the series, but it also took what was largely a fairly flat character, the stoic, ever so British Lady Croft, and humanized her a bit by telling an origin story of sorts. The new Lara is still a survivor, tough and capable, but the 2013 Tomb Raider gave us a younger, initially more uncertain vision of the character, whose hardening we are in part witness to as the game progresses. It is a compelling journey and a compelling story. The most compelling story that a Tomb Raider game has told in years (and frankly, maybe it has told a more compelling story than any Tomb Raider game ever has).
Croft ultimately emerges from the game (as she must, if she is to remain familiar to us) more or less as she began the series, an archetypal badass female adventurer, but she also still managed to gain a slightly richer emotional life than she ever has before in the previous versions of the character, giving her, perhaps, a renewed lease on life.
Characters in media that remain relevant to a culture over decades and even centuries have a tendency to be somewhat archetypal in nature, Conan the barbaric meathead, Sherlock Holmes the super genius, or James Bond the ever cool, competent, and charming cad. That being said, how we view meatheads, geniuses, and cads tends to be subtly altered by the historical situations and new and abandoned ideologies that effect culture.
Long running serials like the ones found in comic books have found it especially necessary to go ahead and allow their most common archetypal figures to evolve and grow over time, but also a need to sometimes simply discontinue an approach to a character (or a whole universe, as DC and Marvel have both done at various points in their history) to give them a fresh, culturally relevant, new paint job. DC’s emblem of vengeance, the Batman, has gone from his initially dark and violent roots to campy incarnations of himself and back again, from a crime fighter to a more methodical detective to an investigator of horrors to a slightly broken, but still unconquerable old man, as just one example. He is still Batman, though. Certain elements of his character cannot change if he is to represent what he represents to Western culture, vengeance with a purpose and a victim turned into a competent and capable hero.
Characters like this, like James Bond, for example, generally take on a new life when seen in a fresh light. While the Sean Connery James Bond is well loved and fits nicely alongside the values and expectations of his era, the 60s, Connery’s version of the character as a tough, but charming superspy gave way to the slightly less overtly masculine and campier versions provided by Roger Moore and eventually Timothy Dalton in the 80s a period that embraced androgeny more so than rigid traditional images of masculinity. Bond’s antics as a supposedly charming (but now viewed as quite sexist) rapscallion felt played out and largely irrelevant and Moore’s and Dalton’s slightly less traditionally rough and rugged Bond were both guilty of falling back on the previous vision of Bond.
The reboot of Bond with Pierce Brosnan’s turn at the role in GoldenEye cleverly challenged this idea by challenging Bond himself. Bond’s boss, M, was now cast a woman and she (and the film) would critique Bond as a character and as a model of contemporary masculinity. Both Goldeneye and the more recent Bond reboot Casino Royale are both examples of some of the best Bond films in several decades with each taking a turn reconsidering the character, his relevance, and what it means to be Bond and to be a man in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.
All of which is all well and good, but it does return me to the subject of rebooting an archetypal character like Lara Croft. Such moments allow for re-evaluations of a character, possible growth, possible evolution, and as a result, usually end up telling a unique and engaging story — at least at first. Casino Royale is a very good movie, Quantum of Solace is not that great, and Skyfall (barring the one really brilliant scene that gives Javier Bardem a chance to monologue for awhile) is pretty much just fine, nothing to write home about, but competent.
And that’s where I am at at this point with Rise of the Tomb Raider. As far as the gameplay goes, it works. It is fun enough to play. As far as the character of Lara Croft goes, she works. She’s just fine, nothing to write home about, but competently written.
Fresh eyes on a character that is more archetypal than anything else can feel revelatory, enlightening, innovative, and, thus, exciting and engaging when rebooted. However, then they need to become what they were before, tomb raider, superspy, whatever. Follow ups to reboots can feel competent, but rarely do they feel like works of genius, as our expectation of the character and our familiarity with what they represent must remain somewhat constant, I guess. Not every adventure provides an opporunity for a significant transformation in character (though maybe the lesson is that they should).
I wish I could say that I love Rise of the Tomb Raider. But I don’t. However, I really don’t hate it either.
It’s not like I wouldn’t recommend playing the game. It’s good, a perfectly competent installment of the Tomb Raider series.
As a result of the reboot, Lara Croft is slightly less sexualized, but still sexy. Slightly less bulletproof, but still pretty damned tough. Slightly less absolutely certain of her decisions, but still competent enough to get the job done every time.
In other words, Lara Croft abides.