Princess Peach or Ms. Pac-Man? Until the nineties, that was the choice for women seeking positive female role models in video games. Then along came the Tomb Raider series, the enduring appeal of which is often attributed to heroine Lara Croft. After all, she is the common denominator in a series which has survived several console generations and a change of development studio. She is just as courageous and skilled in combat as your average male gaming hero, yet she also possesses intelligence, nobility, acrobatic grace, and massive knockers.
But a great main character alone cannot sustain a series in the long term. (How else do you explain the fact there are only four Bubsy games?) Tomb Raider is not just about Lara; it’s about the scenarios she finds herself in, and the fact she faces them alone.
Before she turned up, the majority of platform games were set in brightly colored fantasy worlds, which were populated by hordes of wacky enemies and packed with meaningless stuff to collect. Every game had a silly level where you’d be stuck in an out-of-control mine cart, just like every amusement park has a roller coaster. Then things changed. There is no mine cart level in Tomb Raider.
The first half hour of the original game, released in 1996, is a tranquil trudge through a series of gray caverns and corridors. There are some doors to open and about two things to collect. The only enemies Lara encounters, indeed the only other living beings, are a few wolves, a couple of bears and some crap bats. There’s little in the way of incidental music. A few subtle touches, such as the soft padding of Lara’s feet and the sight of paw prints in the snow, establish an atmosphere of quiet isolation. There’s a real feeling of being on a solo adventure, with freedom to explore and space to think. The entire introduction to the game is permeated by a sense of eerie peace.
Which explains why the arrival of the T-rex is so terrifying. It happens right at the start of the third level. Lara emerges from the shadowy caves of Vilcabamba into the lush greenery and open skies of the Lost Valley. A velociraptor attacks, but it’s nothing she can’t handle, especially if the player has already worked out an advanced tactical defense strategy—such as my personal favorite, “Jumping Backwards While Shooting The Thing In The Face Over And Over Again.” With the raptor dispatched, Lara continues her peaceful stroll along the valley floor.
And then a gigantic Tyrannosaurus rex thunders out of the darkness. It comes at you with terrific speed and roars with the kind of rage you’d imagine it reserves for people who make jokes about its tiny arms. Just in case it wasn’t scary enough to be surprised by a furious razor-jawed enemy the size of a house, the soundtrack kicks in with frantic strings and pounding bass. It’s a heart-stopping moment.
Every Tomb Raider fan remembers where they were when they first saw the T-rex. For me, it was December 1997. I was home from university for the holidays. I spent them almost entirely in my parents’ kitchen, hunched in front of a 12-inch portable TV with the lights turned off, pressing buttons and swearing. When the T-rex appeared, I yelped so loud my Mum woke up and came downstairs to see if the neighbor’s dog had gotten its leg trapped in the fence again.
Part of the reason the T-rex incident is frightening—all right, part of the reason I was so frightened—is because the game doesn’t give you any clues that it’s about to happen. There’s no cutscene heralding the beast’s arrival, no super-powered weapon that you “coincidentally” find a few moments before. It’s hard to think of other games that are confident enough to introduce their bosses with so little ceremony. The lack of pomp, though, is fitting for a beast that is rather unassuming in its own way. The T-rex doesn’t throw fireballs or breathe lasers. It doesn’t have a flashing red weak spot on its underbelly, and it doesn’t turn around so you can aim at this weak spot every 90 seconds. It’s just a big, angry lizard. The natural, unpolished animalism makes the T-rex more real and fearsome, as if there are no layers of video game artifice to protect you from its rage.
What a shame, then, that the T-rex encountered was reimagined in such an unimaginative way for the Tomb Raider: Anniversary remake. In this 2007 update of the original, the majestic beast is replaced with a creature so dumb it can be persuaded to run head-first into giant spikes. Defeating the monster no longer requires graceful evasion and patient determination, for you’re now able to perform something called an “adrenaline dodge.” It’s like David squaring up to Goliath having swapped his sling for a semi-automatic and a can of Red Bull.
The T-rex’s arrival is announced by a brash, entirely unfrightening cutscene. The ensuing battle takes place in broad daylight instead of at night. (Okay, the original battle was probably set at night because the old PlayStation didn’t have the power to generate a dinosaur AND clouds, but still.) The minimalist strings have been replaced by a swelling operatic piece that John Williams would describe as overblown. It’s hard to experience that sense of perilous isolation when there’s a Welsh male voice choir hiding in the undergrowth.
To top it all off, the fight climaxes with a series of quick-time events—you know, those “press the down arrow to win!” flashcards that reduce a game to an exercise in stimulus-response. This is the equivalent of remaking Casablanca so that instead of beginning their beautiful friendship by walking off into the fog, Rick and Renault add each other on LinkedIn.
But let’s not get too riled up, fellow Tomb Raider fans. Let’s conserve our energies for the new game due out later this year. Judging by the footage released so far, rubbishy dinosaurs are the least of our worries. It looks as though this could be the end for brave, strong, capable Lara. She seems to have been replaced by a gasping, shivering, barely legal wreck, trapped in a scene from Fifty Shades Of Grey and pursued by growling men with grasping hands. If this is what we’ve come to, I’ll take Ms. Pac-Man.