Finding Lara Croft
A deep dive into the history — and future — of Tomb Raider according to both its fans and creators
This single tweet put me off from finding out more about the latest entry in the rebooted Tomb Raider series (now about to be re-released for Google’s Stadia platform):
This blurb is an example of how the relationship between games and movies is increasingly being blurred — not just in terms of the experience itself, but also the marketing and PR language around it. The ever-closer relationship between games and movies can be traced back a long way (arguably right back to the debut of Metal Gear Solid in 1998). The framing and cinematic atmosphere of that game made you feel as though you were involved in something huge, something important; and you didn’t want to stop playing.
At their core, games are meant to be enjoyed — to be played through — to make you feel that you’ve overcome the challenge, you’ve had fun throughout, and above all that you feel good about yourself for having achieved something.
Though there are clearly many advantages to be had by games adopting technique and concepts from movies, I worry that a much greater focus on narrative, drama, and various “film-like” qualities runs the risk of compromising gameplay, which is the fundamental quality that makes video games unique.
Revisiting a classic
I find myself going back to a game like Tomb Raider II and simply running around Lara’s home, making my own fun. This would primarily involve leading Winston the butler into the now-familiar freezer and, eventually, finding he’d escaped (thanks to the telltale faint rattling of a tea tray). It was akin to the steps of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, actually: the rattling tea tray mirrored the water rippling in the glass — truly haunting.
After toying with poor Winston for sufficient time, the main game would begin. The first stage — Great Wall — provided a sense of scope, indicating an experience that seemed impossibly broad (with Nathan McCree’s music further enhanced that feeling).
The absolute highlight of the game is its second level, where I could zip around Venice in a speedboat as the song Venice Violins played in the background.
Rebooting with a defibrillator
Years later, I found myself playing through the reboots (Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider respectively). These experiences were very different to the original games. For one thing, I felt like I was being dragged through an extended bout of suffering from Lara’s perspective, with no space provided to really take in the scenery or enjoy the gameplay. At every point Lara would take a break, she’s suddenly find herself thrown into another emergency (perhaps in the midst of a raging river, for example, trying desperately not to drown). The pacing, ironically, felt less Lara Croft and more Frank Spencer from the ’70s sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
The whole thing eventually became stale to me and making my way through the game felt like hard work. For all the spectacle and production value (including second-to-none voice acting), the heart seemed absent.
Comfort food for gamers
This conversation is happening at a point in time where millions of people watch “let’s players” and streamers on platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Mixer. I find something comforting about having a play through of a game I dearly love streaming in the background while I’m working on something. It’s great white noise; similar to the cozy umbrella bubble by the sound of rain or thunderstorms.
I mention this because it’s fascinating to see someone playing Tomb Raider II for the first time on stream or VoD (Video on Demand) via one of the services I mentioned above. Their reactions are very interesting.
I asked one of these “let’s players” — Nathan Hoar, host of NathPlays — about how thoughts on playing through the series for the first time, as well as how he views the current state of the franchise.
You’ve played the first three Tomb Raider games for your channel a couple of times now, what do you think it is about the games that appeals to you to finish them time and time again?
The main reason I come back to the first three games of Tomb Raider is that those games are what made me become a gamer today. It’s all thanks to my Dad for owning Tomb Raider II; I borrowed his game and then my love for the franchise started from there. So there’s plenty of nostalgia to be had, with the incredible and challenging level design, followed by an unforgettable soundtrack by Nathan McCree (which makes me emotional sometimes listening to it back).
“I’ll never get tired of playing these games, not only because it brings back so many memories. But also because they’re just pure fun and that’s what a game should be.”
Nathan Hoar (NathPlays)
Do you feel as though the ‘fun’ of Tomb Raider — such as driving the speedboat through Venice — has been lost along the way for dramatic purposes in the reboot?
The reboot games are fun to play in their own right. But it’s clearly obvious they’re taking a more serious approach. So I do believe that levels like Venice and many other classic levels that had vehicles will never happen again.
It’s a shame, as classic Tomb Raider was never trying to be serious or take a realistic approach. I get what approach Crystal Dynamics are going for but it does lose the variety of gameplay [as a result]. The old games did have a lot of shooting but it was well balanced, with the tombs, puzzles and the crazy over the top vehicle levels. The reboot is mostly shooting now which is a shame really. I’d love to see over the top vehicle levels make a come back but I don’t see it happening for a while.
Why so serious?
Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the media landscape around games. Remember, I’m not just talking about how movies influence the direct game experience; I’m also taking issue with the way movie marketing and PR impact our experience with games.
In 1998, upon Tomb Raider II’s release, the only major marketing channels available to us were physical magazines, TV adverts, and shows like GamesMaster on Channel 4 — these were the avenues through which we had any awareness of upcoming games. Web sites were still in their infancy, and we often had to rely on pure chance to find out about upcoming games. GamesMaster Magazine’s E3 Special 1997 was the only way I found out Pandemonium was receiving a sequel, for example.
Nowadays, we live in a social media filled world where it’s almost impossible to miss all the key announcements about upcoming titles. We’re actually exposed to so much that we can forget what’s being released in the next holiday season.
If a game like Tomb Raider II were being released in today’s media environment, how might that impact the experience from a player’s point of view?
Well, let’s remember that in Tomb Raider II, Lara is searching for the game’s MacGuffin: a magical dagger called the Xian Dagger. Consider the tweet at the beginning of this article and imagine it being applied to Tomb Raider II:
“Lara will stop at nothing to find the Xian Dagger!”
Would I still want to play it?
No, I wouldn’t. It still takes on that overly serious, self-important tone; I just want to play a game for fun. Imagine if a slogan appeared on Twitter for Sonic 3 saying something like “Watch as Sonic becomes THE HEDGEHOG!”
It doesn’t make sense.
Composing a grand adventure
Both games and movies can evoke certain emotions, whether from how a scene is framed, or how a piece of music can tug at the heartstrings. And, as mentioned earlier on, Nathan McCree’s score for the original Tomb Raider trilogy is exceptional and formed a major part of the classic experience.
For a game such as Tomb Raider II — that didn’t bring realistic visuals or an in-depth story — do you think that the music you composed brought a sense of realism to the atmosphere?
In terms of sound effects, yes, I think my sounds most definitely brought a sense of realism to the game. My main focus on the sounds and atmospheric sounds was to immerse the player in the world of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
From a musical standpoint, it’s a tricky question. Music itself is not a real aspect of daily life. We are not accompanied by a full orchestra when we go for a walk through the forest, or down on the beach, but in the movie/gaming world, music is an intrinsic part of the sonic experience.
“Music reinforces the emotional content, or forces the player/viewer to feel a particular emotion at a particular moment. So in that sense, yes, I think the music helped to reinforce the moods and emotions that Lara may have felt during her adventures in the games I composed for.”
Nathan McCree (Tomb Raider series composer)
In 20 years, you’ve amassed a fan base where they’re willing to pay to travel many miles to hear your music being played by an orchestra, which has now grown to a massive event. Do you think the reboot will have the same appeal in 20 years time?
Nostalgia is a funny thing, and no doubt some of the younger players whose first game might have been the reboot, will feel nostalgic in 20 years time about that particular game.
Will it have the same appeal as the original games from ‘96, ’97, and ’98? For those new players — perhaps, but I don’t think so for the older fans. Their nostalgia lies in those early games. And there’s something special about those early games that seems to have been lost in later titles. It seems developers have been slowly dumbing down their gameplay, providing hints and tips, and real-time help — “Press A now” — to ‘improve’ the gamer’s experience.
For me, this is a mistake. With our games of the late ‘90s, we provided no help at all. It was up to the gamer to find the solution. If they got stuck, they were stuck, and they had to search and explore to find their way out. This is what we felt was a true puzzle game. If you have provide the player with clues and help on how to proceed, then you have failed to make a puzzle game. I think for this reason, the games of the ’90s were enjoyed by so many fans. They had to work at them, they had to struggle, and when they found the solution, the reward was ten times greater. I think this also brought fans closer to Lara in a real sense.
They were alone, without help, just like Lara, and this connected them to Lara in a way that has not been repeated in later titles. I think that really adds to the nostalgia and the appeal of the early games. Gamers remember the struggle they went through with Lara, and they will never forget that. And the music was the glue that knitted their experiences all that together. When you hear the music, you remember the struggle, you remember Lara, and you remember the reward. I don’t think that connection with Lara has been achieved to the same extent in later titles.
The Tomb Raider franchise has arrived at an interesting point in its lifespan — perhaps similar to Sonic the Hedgehog from a few years ago.
Sega has responded to this collision of old and new fans by releasing games like Sonic Generations and Sonic Mania, where they are offering both a clear nostalgic experience alongside upgraded visuals and new content.
In my view, this is what needs to happen with Tomb Raider in order to keep the fun and humour of the classic series going — to preserve its DNA.
Crystal Dynamics should continue the story of “classic Lara” through a new game — which can feature the voices of the original Lara Croft, Shelley Bond, and her successor, Judith Gibbons. Nathan’s music could also be incorporated, perhaps leveraging the recently-released Tomb Raider Suite which consists of entirely remade orchestral tracks from the first three games.
It’s only natural to see an iconic hero go through multiple iterations over the years. You only have to look at legendary superheroes like Wonder Woman and Superman to see the ways in which they have evolved and changed over time. Regardless of how many interpretations of these characters appear, fans will often have their own favourite iteration (whether it’s Gal Gadot, Dean Cain, or Christopher Reeve, for example). The nice thing for fans is, these different styles of character don’t need to be mutually exclusive — they can all live side-by-side. So, it’s possible for Crystal Dynamics to let old school fans see ‘their Lara’ again without diminishing or eliminating the modern version of the character.
DNA of a tomb raider
Let’s consider the view of another prominent member of the Tomb Raider community. This time, I’m talking to Stella Lune, creator of tombraiders.net, which hosts a collection of invaluable guides for each game. Stella also hosts an incredible charity event called Extra Life TR, where players from around the world stream Tomb Raider for one week every year.
Stella has seen so much of the Tomb Raider series since the late ’90s (and writing game guides does give you a unique and in-depth perspective on the relevant franchise). So, I reached out to her to get her insight into the series as it stands, as well as where it could go.
Everyone has their own idea of what Lara Croft and a Tomb Raider game should be. What’s yours?
I’ve enjoyed almost everything the various developers have come up with so far, but I prefer Lara when she’s getting on with the business of adventuring, rather than struggling to survive or dealing with family issues. I also like a little sarcastic humor, whether it’s “Happy retirement…” from Tomb Raider 3 or “Better keep your distance then” in the reboot. If I never again hear Lara say, “I can do this,” I’ll be a very happy raider.
“As far as gameplay and story go, I prefer a stronger emphasis on exploration and puzzles, especially puzzles that span large areas and require multi-step solutions. When there is combat, I like to try and find stealthy or strategic solutions, rather than go in guns blazing. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be, so ambushes and boss fights can be rough. I don’t mind combat, but the should be alternatives to run-and-gun.”
Plot-wise, I’m partial to modern mysteries with roots in real history, whether it’s the Egyptian mythology referenced in The Last Revelation and Temple of Osiris, or the legend of Himiko in the reboot. I think it was Cameron Suey, one of the writers on the reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider, who called it “plausible Googlability,” which basically means if you search online for historical references, there’s something to find. I love that, and I love the little historical sub-plots told through documents, relics, and NPCs.
I have a soft spot for over-the-top villains like Natla and Willard, but I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with a more nuanced antagonist in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Overall, I guess I want a blend of classic puzzles and modern plots.
You’ve talked to many fans of Tomb Raider over the years, do you think Crystal should start to follow the Sega model and try to appeal to all fans with two types of games?
It’s probably impossible to appeal to all fans of any series, especially one that’s gone on as long as Tomb Raider has, but I think Crystal and Eidos-Montréal have so far done a half-assed job of trying to win over fans of the classic games. At times they’ve even flat-out offended the classic fans. I’m thinking of things like Darrell Gallagher saying, “Forget everything you know about Tomb Raider,” and that offhand comment Daniel Chayer-Bisson made about not giving Lara double pistols or putting her in a bikini, as if that has anything to do with what the classic games are about.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the Guardian of Light and Temple of Osiris. I love those games, but saying they should appeal to fans of the classics is disingenuous. They’re lots of fun, but they’re nothing like the old Tomb Raider games.
The vast majority of fans I interact with are happy with the reboot series overall. They don’t expect a complete return to the classic style and mechanics. They just want the origin story to be over already, for Lara to become more decisive and less whiny/breathy/conflicted, and for the games to focus more on puzzles and less on mass murder.
The franchise is now in its third incarnation. With such a focus on story and Lara becoming ‘The Tomb Raider’, do you sometimes just wish that there was a spare freezer for Winston to be locked into once again?
What’s that they say? You can never go home again? It would be great if they remastered all of the classics for the next generation of consoles and computers, but I don’t think we need to go backwards in terms of story or game mechanics.
Still, there are some elements from the classics that should be a part of any future Tomb Raider: solitary exploration — preferably without a lot of radio headset chatter and self-talk — complex puzzles and deadly traps, jaw-dropping scenery and mysterious artifacts, and most of all a strong, self-confident heroine who dives head first into dangerous situations, not because mommy is missing or daddy would be proud, but because it feels good to be a badass.
Where to go from here?
2019 has come and gone, and we’re at a point where gamers — and their tastes — are diverging more than ever. Nostalgia is a growing commodity, and the ideal memories of playing certain games in certain ways will stay with us forever.
This story is not about venerating nostalgia above all other considerations. Rather, it’s a reminder that games are meant to be played for fun. A game is an art form, yes, but if it’s part of a longstanding franchise — and if that past isn’t appropriately honoured — developers risk alienating longstanding fans.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider was met with a mixed reception. But Crystal Dynamics’ response to this shouldn’t be another reboot; continual rebooting is, I feel, a waste of time.
An alternative path forward might be for Crystal Dynamics to continue to expand on the modern story — and on the new series they are trying to make — but also consider retaining a “classic Lara” that is able to diverse from this new experience in order to please both sides of the fanbase. Regardless of any particular aesthetic choices, the overall underlying constant would be to focus on fun first and foremost.
One of the universally fond memories from the original trilogy is locking the butler in the freezer, after all. It’s significant enough to have become a meme in its own right on social media. You don’t see memes based on cutscenes of Lara, no; you see poor old Winston stuck in that freezer. This is perhaps my barometer for whether or not comedy — or, at least, an ability to poke fun at oneself — has returned to the series.
This sense of fun is a big part of the reason why the franchise has lasted for so long. This aspect of Tomb Raider marks it with a unique signature upon which much of the nostalgia is based. It’s not just the direct experience, but the anecdotes and stories passed from one player to the next — especially to new generations of gamers who can also discover these quirks themselves based on those stories. For some, the way the series has progressed is bittersweet — but the fact that I’m even writing this now is a mark of the extraordinary impact of Tomb Raider.
As Yoda said in Return to the Jedi, “Pass on what you have learned.” In my view, understanding — and building on — those learnings is the best advice for the team at Crystal Dynamics as well.