Ohh! Ahh! Ugh! Where Tomb Raider Fails Just As It Wins

This is a week of and for women. On the cover of Time is Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. The cover line: Don’t hate her because she’s successful. Sandberg’s new book, already number 2 on Amazon, is called Lean In. It’s a new feminist manifesto by the company’s chief operating officer, one for the social media age. Her tome comes on the heels of The Atlantic’s very popular article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

So, in a time of feminist resurgence, we also were honored by a re-jiggered, re-imagined Lara Croft in the latest Tomb Raider game.  The Crystal Dynamics game was released by Square Enix on March 5th.

Last year when Tomb Raider was shown at E3, a lot of the online press went wild. They complained that the Lara Croft portrayed in a demo which took place on a vicious island wasn’t just a wimp. At every turn early in the game, she cried, moaned, screamed, whimpered. There were so many different kinds of sounds of distress, it stopped me from thinking about moving forward, about what was next, about her future on this mysterious island where the waters crash against the rocks like dynamite. Lara was made to groan and whine to such an extent, it was as if she weren’t scared so much as she was mugging for the gamers who would play the game. “Save me! Care about me!” she was imploring with each moan. It was too much.

Last year, writers said that this new Lara was perhaps the product of sexism on the part of game designers. The game designers simply said they wanted the player to want to protect Lara. And there was this thoughtful story from Circle member Jason Schreier.

When the game was reviewed this week and last, few complained about those opening sequences. How did they forget their harsh words? Why did they forget them? Was it perhaps all just a pre-release plot by marketing-oriented writers to get hits on websites?

Because the opening of the game plays the same. Early on, Lara doesn’t seem to be able to take pressure of any sort. She still cries, moans, screams, whimpers, shivers. And when she does finally make her way to find a kind of cell phone/walkie talkie that works, on the other end is some guy who has to guide her to give her directions.

My guess is that critics loved the game design, the long, action-filled hours of play,  and beautiful artwork so much, that they forgave the introduction. But the introductory hour or so is poorly written melodrama that’s without nuance. It’s all action and full of black and white, full of cliches, with no grays.

And it doesn’t have to be. It’s not like you couldn’t process a deeper story early on because of the incessantly wild gameplay with which you’re presented. There’s enough breathing room between action sequences for some tight dialog – story-telling with depth.

But there isn’t any such depth.

I’m the kind of person who needs a fairly believable story and/or compelling dialog fully enjoy a game. It could be like any of the chapters in L.A. Noire, or the overarching homages to Steven King and Ayn Rand in BioShock. Heck, it could be no words at all, like the emotional tale-telling in Journey. But I do need story, one that doesn’t screw up the plot points it sets up.

Others don’t care. A blogger at Forbes says that “the true evolution of Croft doesn’t involve her bust size. It’s about whether or not her games have been getting better or worse.” But he doesn’t say anything much about the story. Then another Forbes writer talks about how wonderful it is to see Lara Croft go from being weak to strong. I’d be happier if she didn’t need men to help her along during the weak moments at the game’s start. But after happily discovering a cell phone and having a man on the other end have to calm her down and have to give her directions on what to do really took me out of the story and the game. And while the game has some really compelling twists and turns even as you reach the 20 hour point, I still kept thinking about clichés that occur at the very beginning.

But again, writers didn’t seem to care.  After writing about how the new Lara is not so different from the old and that “few reviewers have mentioned that the new Lara’s tank top is cut lower than the combat vests she wore before,” The Guardian makes this weird leap to end a Tomb Raider feature by saying that Lara Croft is a feminist icon. What? How?

If you don’t care about story, just game design, you’re not going to care about how the game makers treat their action hero.  Generally, it’s a very nicely balanced gaming experience. But I still care about story. I care about every moment in a game. If you’re going to make a good game, make all of the game good. Elegance. Simplicity. Nuance. Story. Lara Croft doesn’t have to be Emma Goldman. Heck, she doesn’t even have to be Joan Holloway. But if you’re creating a dramatic arc through back story, don’t fail from moment one. Because you can’t get that failure back. Again: if you’re going to make a good game, make all of the game good.

-Harold Goldberg, Founder and Editor in Chief

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