Tomb Raider lost me when the hero, Lara Croft, talked about shelves. I was standing in a tomb, and I had to retrieve a few (ancient, sacred) jugs of water from some shelves that I couldn’t reach. The reason why I needed these jugs isn’t so important—I mean, they’re jugs; it wasn’t life or death—the important part is that I didn’t know how to get them. For the first time, one of Tomb Raider’s puzzles had vexed me, and I welcomed it. Here was a chance to tinker and experiment. Except before I could, Lara piped up to say, “Those shelves look weak.” If some weight were added to them, she mused, they would probably fall.
I wish I could say that this was the first time I had seen a game solve its own puzzle for me, but it’s not. Tomb Raider follows a broader trend in which mainstream games are built around the “experience” rather than around the player. The shelf monologue taught me that the Tomb Raider experience is not meant to include quiet time spent thinking over puzzles, and if you try to use the game that way—to treat its puzzles as puzzles—it resists you like a petulant child: Nuh-uh, you’re playing it wrong. The assumption seems to be that if you were the type of person who enjoyed challenging your intellect, you wouldn’t be playing Tomb Raider. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Tomb Raider has an excellent foundation, which makes its narrow-minded game design even more of a shame. This “reboot” of the Tomb Raider series, which has been moribund for years, follows the story of Lara Croft, a young, ambitious archaeologist. Her first major expedition goes awry when she and her crew shipwreck on a remote, cursed island. Lara must discover the island’s ancient, spooky secret and fight off a cult in order to escape. The script, written by Rhianna Pratchett, traces a convincing arc for Lara as she transforms from a rabble-rousing greenhorn into a compassionate fighter, and even a leader.
The misogyny that characterized much of Tomb Raider’s marketing doesn’t drag down the final product. Yes, Lara’s ever-present grunts and moans lend themselves to salacious interpretations (does she need to whimper EVERY time she squeezes through a tight crevice?), and the game’s death animations, as Conan O’Brien discovered, are indistinguishable from a snuff film. Likewise, it’s inexplicable—by which I mean entirely explicable—that Lara never grabs a jacket to cover up her heaving cleavage even as she shivers in the rain. Yet she also has emotional complexity and a humane honesty that outshines comparable action-game characters like the Uncharted series’ swashbuckling lead, Nathan Drake. The upshot is that Lara is well-rounded, in both the superficial and the deeper senses of the term. While I don’t excuse the mild troglodytic tendencies on display here, a smart game critic takes his victories where he can get them.
Playing through Tomb Raider is like following one character’s through line in a season of Lost—the game is structured around a series of well-wrought McGuffins that pull Lara back and forth across the mysterious island. The island feels natural, and it’s thoughtfully constructed. From the eerie, thin-aired homeyness of an abandoned cliffside village to the rugged function-over-form aesthetic of the cult’s shantytown, the settings invite exploration. I wish the island could exist outside of Tomb Raider, as a virtual playground where other, more enterprising game creators could build their own adventures.
Tomb Raider ties down its more impressive elements with a disappointingly generic design template. It’s the same old hunter-gatherer treadmill: hunt some bad guys, gather treasure, upgrade your equipment (or yourself), and go shoot some more bad guys. Since we have advanced so far beyond the days when video games had you shoot down clones of the same idiot over and over again, Tomb Raider boasts at least five or six slightly different varieties of idiot, which I suppose makes for a nice mélange as you slaughter them by the busload with arrows to the skull. (The first time she kills a man, Lara grapples with the moral and emotional implications of her act, but before long she minds less and less. It’s like they say: The first thousand murders are always the hardest.)
In a nod to its predecessors, Tomb Raider includes a number of spatial puzzles where you have to, say, move the idol to lift the seesaw to topple the box to climb the ledge to earn the treasure. If old Tomb Raider puzzles could feel like they were concocted by Rube Goldberg, the new ones feel more like Marty Goldberg, Rube’s less clever cousin. (Marty sells real estate in Scottsdale if you’re ever looking for a deal on a condo.) Most of the puzzles take place in hidden tombs—the game hastens to note that these are optional—and they typically involve a single leap of logic. Or, more accurately, a single small hop of logic. And if you struggle at all, Lara’s right there with a ham-fisted hint. In its last hour or so, Tomb Raider presents a couple of tricky rooms that are worthy of its legacy, but they’re still tame, and they come too late.
These shortfalls are symptoms of a larger failure of imagination. Tomb Raider treats game design as a commodity rather than a venue for expression—“game-ness” is merely a thing that is bolted onto a preconceived experience. I’m not talking about the ratio of cinematic cutscenes to jumping and shooting parts. Nor am I especially bothered that Tomb Raider borrows liberally from games like Uncharted or Batman: Arkham City; all creators learn from their contemporaries in the field, and Arkham isn’t a bad exemplar to learn from.
No, the trouble here is the dearth of inspiration and ideas that Tomb Raider brings to its relationship with the player. Even if you’re a cog in a beautiful, well-executed machine—and Tomb Raider is that—you’re still a cog. This is clearest during the game’s “set pieces,” which is an industry term for segments where lots of pretty stuff explodes on the screen and you are occasionally invited to participate by pressing a button or two. When Lara runs across a collapsing bridge as gunfire crackles around her, but all you’re doing is holding the joystick forward, that’s a set piece.
The most memorable set piece-type moment for me is a quick bit that comes early in the game. Lara is clambering out of an underground hellhole when a cultist grabs her by the ankle. A graphic appears instructing you to waggle the controller’s joystick back and forth to escape.
This sequence made me think of Look Around You, a brilliant British comedy show that, for its 2005 season, satirized pop-science infotainment programs of the ’80s. The “Computers” episode sees an intrepid faux-reporter does a “special report” on video games. In the sketch, an enthusiast demonstrates Window Cleaner, which instructs players to “waggle your joystick for suds.” The joke is that the game is hopelessly rudimentary and makes the player look like a fool. It was hard not to feel like something of a jackass myself as I waggled my joystick to keep Lara Croft alive.
Tomb Raider’s abundant work-up-a-froth moments exist to give the player something to do while pre-rendered events play out on screen. You have to frantically tap a button to pry open a door on account of the door-opening animation takes a while, so Tomb Raider needs to distract you a while. That’s a backward way to build a game, and it creates a laughably thin illusion of agency.
Sure, Tomb Raider is a serviceable distraction, and you could argue that it’s a mistake to expect more than a time-killer here. But even the makers of the game, or at least some of them, seem to expect that the final product would be more than pretty wallpaper for another typical shooter, some inoffensive puzzles, and contrived moments of empty “interaction.” I’d argue that it’s fair to hold the entire game up to the standard it sets with its story and setting, which bear the marks of soulful artists plying their craft. These successes infuse Tomb Raider with a spirit of growth and exploration—it’s too bad that we, the button-pressers, are deemed incapable of that same growth.