Tomb Raider: Disappearing Into Lara

lara-heehee I don’t consider myself a gamer- I’m a straight-up casual – but even I have a few go-to games when I’m bored, sad, or just want to get away for a while: Katamari Damacy and its sequel; the iconic Mega Man 2 and 3 or Maverick Hunter X on the PSP; the glorious and impeccable Chrono Trigger. These days I’m completely obsessed with stupid swap-three-jewel games like Disney’s Frozen and Maleficent Free Falls.

Tomb Raider is like gaming “comfort food” – something I can go back to over and over. Even with all the graphic issues that plague the early Tomb Raider games, like the flickering and distorting textures, weird camera issues, blocky figures and stiff, weirdly rotating flat-plane background elements, there’s something that just puts me at ease whenever I pop the disc in to boot up Lara Croft’s world.

It’s not hard to believe the game is 18 years old now – the first game has aged really poorly and feels old – but in 1996 an all 3D environment with a 3D woman at the center of the screen (even if all you saw of her 98% of the time was a badly pixilated backside) was still a phenomenally risky idea. In 1996 and 1997 Lara Croft was the virtual queen of the world- appearing in news media, television, doing commercials, comic books, theme park rides, and being idolized in fatuous coffee table books by Douglas Copeland – everyone was salivating over a few lines of code and texture wrapped over a 230-polygon wireframe.

Never mind that she was originally not even going to be female in the first place. That’s neither here nor there now. Never mind that she was all triangles and her chest could scar you for life if you tried to hold her; never mind that geeky analyses of her body weight ratios to her chest done at the height of the media blitz said that she wouldn’t be able to stand upright, let alone perform complicated rolling dive maneuvers – CORE and Eidos had a monster hit on their hands- $14.5 million in profits in the first year of release. In 2006, in time for the ten year anniversary of the game, the Guinness Book of World Records, called Lara the “Most Successful Videogame Heroine” of that year.

Why? If the game had terrible physics and a dodgy camera and texture mapping issues and seams in the levels big enough to make game-breaking exploits out of, why was Tomb Raider the insane success that it was?

There’s been tons of arguments about Lara Croft as sex symbol, Lara Croft as feminist icon – whatever. People tend to pick their side and then argue it into the ground. For me what works about Tomb Raider is the utter lack of competition and time-pressure – the freedom to explore at length, in detail, every nook and cranny of the artificial world. For me, Lara Croft is someone I can fully disappear into.

Tomb Raider has only a few mechanics where time and speed are issue in game play – mostly involving swimming in underwater tunnels and manipulating certain traps, doors and floor patterns – but by and large the game presents the feeling of a big world that you are free to explore at utter leisure.

Boss encounters and enemy encounters are not only sparse but incredibly easily controlled. Most boss and mini-boss encounters are quick and dirty. The game’ll throw you a handful of wolves, an unexpected bear, a couple of guys with Uzis. The game doesn’t punish you if you take a couple of hits, climb to higher ground and snipe at the dumb things from a safe distance – most enemies are incredibly sluggish, stupid and slow as thrown bricks, and Lara’s autolock function allows you to track them from across the room even if you can’t see them and autofire if they’re dumb enough to move back into a clean line of fire – or just plain run away to another part of the map to catch your breath, heal yourself, find new ground and regroup.

The enemies go down real easy, and once you take them out things get quiet again. Atmospheric. It’s just you and some eerie, low-key mood-setting music-that-isn’t-quite-music, the sound of your own footsteps, some wind effects maybe, and the sense that the world is yours. The game encourages intense exploration with a few ‘secrets’ planted per level. Most of the time these are just extra clips of ammo, health packs, and occasionally a stone icon. A lot of boss fights can be kludged around. In the Lost Lands level, when you’re supposed to be having a big, dramatic running gun battle with the T-Rex it’s just as easy to outrun them, make it to the bridge or a cubby hole in the level, and snipe and laugh. I pull the stealth-kill dickery all the time in TR and the game doesn’t deduct points, lower my score, or tell me I’m doin’ it wrong.

The relief of not having a ticking clock to beat or another player to fight against or any sort of major rush-rush element within the game is incredibly freeing. Many games include ‘beat-the-clock’ scenarios that feel hyper-accelerated, thrown in just to be there. You can leave Lara standing out in the open in the middle of nowhere for 30 minutes and nothing happens. The game doesn’t penalize you.

And while it’s completely fair to accuse the series of having ridiculously circuitous and pointless puzzles when you have to traverse a level seven or eight times in total to find four keys to open a doorway with four separate locks- what ancient civilizations are bored enough to rig up a stupid system like that? Didn’t the Egyptians have anything better to do? – the strange vistas that you open up, and all the tunnels and climbing and jumping somehow seem worth it in an indefinable way.

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Even better, the game’s own glitches, including the legendary ‘corner jump bug’ where you can fling yourself halfway up the level by positioning yourself correctly and jumping just right to get to places you couldn’t normally get, actually adds value and replayability to the game. It’s pretty entertaining to get up in a spot you’re not supposed to be in and stand there smugly looking down. It feels like you’ve broken a rule, and in a game where you already have permission to do pretty much anything you want to the environment, that’s saying a lot. (Even more fun: Getting out the Game Shark to enable flying and super jump cheat codes to climb to the top of the world and walk on the tops of building texture walls.)

Tomb Raider’s one of the rare games where it really is about the journey, and I think that’s the secret of why, even now, the game holds a mysterious appeal. It’s completely noncompetitive, a private little world just between player and machine.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go take a nice long swim in the Cisterns. Just gotta snipe those alligators first…

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