This post is part of Tomb Raider: Writers’ Raid, a blogging collaboration hosted by NekoJonez. This isn’t my first crack at an event like this – first Jonez created the awesome Zelda Project, then the Well-Red Mage helmed a similar Final Fantasy piece, the Crystal Compendium; in each case, it’s a bunch of people writing about each and every game in an iconic, much-loved franchise. Make sure to check out Jonez’s hub article for links to every other post in this series!
One of the questions that any reboot must answer – perhaps the most central question, particularly when dealing with an iconic franchise whose image is embedded in popular culture – is this:
Who is the protagonist?
It’s a question by which the strength of reimaginings must live and die; indeed, it’s one of the things that can determine an entirely original story’s chances of success, whether it be a game, novel, film, comic, or any other form of media. It is at its most relevant, though, when the protagonist in question is somebody that everyone who’s not been living under a rock for some time is at least vaguely aware of, and that a lot of people are probably going to have rather strong opinions about.
So, of course, one of the things of which Tomb Raider (the 2013 reboot of the adventures of Lara Croft; from here on, if I say simply ‘Tomb Raider‘ I’m talking about this game unless specifically noted otherwise) was always going to have to convince its audience was that it knew precisely about whom it was talking when it… well, called itself ‘Tomb Raider‘.
On the surface, it seems like a simple enough problem.
Q: ‘Who is the Tomb Raider?’
A: ‘Lara Croft, obvs.’
Sorted, break for lunch.
Problem is, who Lara Croft is and what that means to the story had already been jumbled up a whole bunch of times by various iterations of the character across nearly two decades of games on multiple platforms sharing something of a common continuity, but rather a muddy one. (I think it’s safe to say that the various film adaptations don’t really pretend to be part of the canon and can thus be reasonably ignored for now.) At turns, Lara has been a full-on aristocrat, the prodigy daughter of an archaeologist, a professional explorer-turned-mercenary-turned-hunter-turned-thief, a young girl on a more personal quest… it’s not as if these elements are all massively inconsistent with one another, but the fact remains that the games had already been rebooted, retconned and otherwise muddled, and so Tomb Raider needed to ensure that it defined itself and its heroine sharply, clearly, and definitively. What would this Lara’s past look like? What would be the nature of her quest, and her stake in it all? (Of course, even decisions like what her cup size ought to be were fraught with the potential to cause trouble, but let’s not go there.) I don’t think it would be hugely unfair, too, to say that in at least some cases the raider of tombs has taken a little bit of a back seat to the tombs being raided – or, well, the ancient conspiracies unearthed by either raiding tombs or doing something vaguely archaeologish – with Lara’s own personality and character development not really factoring into some of the games to any great extent.
There are of course elements common to all versions of Lara, and one has to assume that when the debate about being ‘faithful to the character’ comes up, it’s in the context of adhering to these elements. (I don’t think anyone would even attempt to argue that it would be possible to be entirely faithful to all previous Laras, as the result would be an inconsistent jumble of nonsense. This isn’t a point against any of those previous Laras – the same can be said for any character who’s been reimagined a couple of times, or even just one who’s been around long enough to have had their history a little bit muddied.) She is mentally and physically capable: smart, strong, and possessed of a determination and intuition that allow her to overcome puzzles in the face of which most others would simply give up. She’s also well-travelled and well-read, with a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon to help her solve the mysteries she so often stumbles into.
Tomb Raider‘s Lara is perhaps the youngest and most inexperienced yet; she is, of course, an extremely intelligent young woman and very physically fit, but more than any of her previous incarnations she’s not yet had to actually apply these skills in a life-threatening situation. She’s immensely passionate about history (apparently, her friends have had to drag her away from books to go for nights out); she’ll regularly get almost giddy with excitement when describing objects she’s found in the game. It’s mostly ‘in theory’ when we meet her, though: the actual experience of discovery in an extremely dangerous environment is something that she needs to acclimatise to, and doing so forms a large part of her character arc. This game, unlike those before it, needs to find a way to show how Lara Croft became the Tomb Raider, meaning that when we first meet Lara… well, she really isn’t there yet.
Perhaps it’s a hallmark of modern triple-A games, which I think are trying to tell stories more like the ones a novel would tell. Something with emotional impact, character development and believable relationships, plots that grow and develop and reveal hidden things… maybe this trend is (if perhaps unconsciously) an attempt to do more to legitimise gaming as a mainstream art form, but certainly Tomb Raider gives its Lara more flaws, more personal barriers, and its story is just as much about Lara overcoming internal struggles to become a stronger person than it is about her triumph over external foes.
Lara’s relationships with others also form more of an emotional backbone to the story than before. Sure, she’s gone in search of missing parents and battled former mentors, but here we have a fuller, more developed cast of supporting characters. This is a Lara who feels responsible for the plight of others – not without some justification, admittedly, as it was her mission to the island of Yamatai that put her companions in danger – and who must learn both to use her connection to others as a reason to fight and to overcome feelings of guilt that that connection might cause her, and which might put the battle in jeopardy.
Her empathy provides new beats to the story, too: in previous Tomb Raider instalments, Lara has been a fairly experienced and weathered survivor, used to combat, but this Lara has to pick up not only the skills required to survive against aggressive foes (I mean, she already has some experience with weapons and so on, but using them against real people is an entirely different scenario) but also the fortitude of character to be able to fight for what she believes in and deal with the reality of killing in order to protect her own life and others’. I don’t think this part of her evolution works for everyone, and I even wrote one of my first posts on Overthinker Y about the (buzzword alert) ‘narrative dissonance’ that some players will probably have experienced when playing through Lara’s journey of being initially disturbed by death and conflict and ultimately thriving in it.
In the end, though, Lara’s empathy gives her a motivation to keep fighting. She has something to fight for other than just some nebulous ‘save the world’ thingy; she has personal stakes, both in the form of friends she needs to protect and her own character development causing her to gain the courage to take a personal stand against those who would do harm.
I’ve not really talked about anything about Tomb Raider other than Lara herself, and that’s kind of deliberate. In this series, writers will be exploring each of the games in the franchise from their own perspectives, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty said elsewhere about how the gameplay has evolved over time, why it reached its iconic status, all sorts of details. Personally I think one of the things I liked most about Tomb Raider was the way it put its star character front and centre of everything. I mean, she always has been, of course, but it felt to me when I first played this game as if it was really trying to tell a compelling story using mostly Lara’s internal development as a hook and a story arc, and I do think it did that pretty well. Perfectly? Nah. But pretty well.
And that was 2013’s Tomb Raider! For the rest of the posts in the series, check out Jonez’s hub article RIGHT NOW!