Tomb Raider, a brief review and insight into character development within videogames.

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The Tomb Raider series has always been an expansive one, with countless videogames, comics, two appalling movies and a selection of merchandise. Since her first appearance on the Playstation and Sega Saturn in 1996, she was suddenly everywhere. She became world famous, as her pixelated scantily clad body adorned many posters, magazines and newspapers.

For over a decade, she was embodied as a ‘sexy’ British adventurer, on the search for relics in the most dangerous of places. Armed with big breasts, an impractical outfit and two dual-wielded pistols, she took down anyone that stood in her way. She was a feminist’s nightmare; an over sexualised icon for the male ‘chauvinistic’ gaming masses.

Since 1996, it can be fair to say that the gaming industry has changed. It’s matured. Lara’s popularity waned towards the later sequels, and the original developers Core Design soon disbanded after the sixth instalment. It was then up to Crystal Dynamics to create a brave and bold new rebooted Tomb Raider for a much different audience.

4 years in development, Crystal Dynamics revealed their new reboot at E3 in 2011. It appeared that they still retained the base elements of Lara, such as her adventuring spark and her quintessential ‘Britishness’, but with it came some unique traits, rarely seen in games nowadays; vulnerability, depth and an apparent personality. Crystal Dynamics desired to go back to the roots of Lara Croft, by throwing her in the deep end, as she was set to be reborn. 

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Gameplay footage revealed a young Lara showing off her talents, as she hunted, explored and for the first time, killed. With each moment, it appeared that Lara was struggling both physically and emotionally. A new first for the franchise, this Lara Croft felt effectively human. The gameplay showed fans and critics that this was a lead character that was young, scared and inexperienced. A strong female protagonist was born, in the form of a big bosomed character that was admittedly a little one-dimensional.

There’ll always be a soft spot for strong female characters in modern culture, such as Ripley (Alien), Veronica Mars and Lisbeth Salander (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but the videogame industry severely lacks any recognisable faces. Female protagonists struggle to make an impression in an industry which is rife with manly space marines and beardy, antagonistic Russians.

It can be argued that the industry does include characters such as Chell (Portal) and Samus Aran (Metroid), but they lack a certain complexity to them. Samus has barely voiced any emotions in the past two decades, and Chell’s character has little to no development in the series whatsoever. Crystal Dynamics redesign of Lara Croft retains elements that makes characters so interesting; personality, depth and vulnerability.

Such mannerisms are hardly explored in the gaming industry, which is a sad fact. Whilst Halo 4 recently touched upon Master Chief’s weaknesses, he was still a bulking, unstoppable Spartan warrior who could take down an entire alien armada alone. It appears in all of the Call of Duty games, and it’s also apparent in Assassin’s Creed. They all have strong male leads, without any significant weaknesses to them.

The only example of recent character development that has been used in a clever manner is in Dead Space. Deeply troubled and affected by the events which transpired on the UMG Ishimura, Isaac Clarke reigns in interest by having tragedy attached to his personality. He faces some truly horrifying moments throughout his dismal ‘engineering’ career, and it makes you emphasise with the character, and that’s what a good story should warrant; feelings towards an individual.

Developers Naughty Dog borrowed many elements from Tomb Raider to include into their highly successful series, Uncharted. They mixed up the action-adventure formula though, by creating their uniquely brilliant character; Nathan Drake.

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Voiced by the infamous Nolan North, Nathan Drake was new territory for most gamers. He was a quick-witted adventurer on the search for forgotten treasure, but for the first time ever he was a protagonist who was surprisingly susceptible to his surroundings. It’s a great trait for a videogame character to embody, as Drake stumbled over rocks, struggled traversing great heights and was deeply affected by some the events that transpire throughout his adventures.

Drake wasn’t defined by his weaknesses, but adding the vulnerability made for a much more interesting character. A sense of realism and complexity were included, which strengthened the story. The threats felt convincing throughout, and the loss of Drake’s friends would actually mean something. A player could actually have an emotional response to the game, which is a remarkable achievement.

Coincidentally, Uncharted’s impact with its stellar storytelling and captivating gameplay appears to have influenced Crystal Dynamics rebooted Tomb Raider. It’s a wonderful little circle, with elements that have finally been mixed together to create a perfect action-adventure game.

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The new Tomb Raider has been jokingly marketed as Uncharted ‘with breasts’, but it’s naïve to label it in such a manner. Crystal Dynamics bring their own original ideas to the table, with greatly revised gaming mechanics. Utilising a bow and arrow, a trusty pick-ace and a vast array of weaponry, Lara Croft is a force to be reckoned with. Of course, she doesn’t just pick up these immediately, as a selection of skills sets have to be purchased later into the story.

The story is delightfully simple, but it’s rich with some fantastic script work. A search for the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai results in a frightful set of events, as a particular crewmember is kidnapped for supernatural purposes. As players progress through the story they’ll notice that there’s a severe lack of romantic subplot. As a result of this, this Tomb Raider passes the ‘Bechdel test’.

Known by many feminists, the particular test is used to identify gender bias in fiction, to discover whether or not a woman discusses something other than an interest in men. Hardly any works of fiction in popular culture pass the test, but Tomb Raider thankfully succeeds in avoiding any sappy dialogue.

The single-player campaign has a decent length, coming in at around 12-15 hours, depending on whether or not the player desires to complete the collectibles and challenges. The story isn’t bogged down by the length, as it’s just the right amount of time spent to get to know Lara, and to watch her evolve into something else entirely.

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Level design is also something worth congratulating Crystal Dynamics on. Throughout the game the scenery changes, from the dangerous snow-capped mountains, straight to the bloody depths where most of the enemies reside. The tombs that Lara can access optionally are not necessarily puzzling and can be completed rather swiftly, but they’re fun nonetheless.

All in all, Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider is as astonishing success. Not only does it provide the player with an entertaining story and engaging gameplay, it also proves that a game can be carried by a vulnerable female protagonist. Not only must the game’s story be awarded for its feat, but the graphics come into play here. Lara’s emotions may not be so apparent, if it wasn’t for the phenomenal graphics that are on display (especially on the PC version). Her face conveys pain remarkably well, as she grimaces and writhes throughout her journey.

It has been too long for the industry to receive a strong female figure amongst the masses, which is a damn shame. However, the videogame industry has finally received their own icon that has been perfectly reborn for a more mature audience.

Do videogames require strong character development and a deep story? No, of course they don’t. Nonetheless, some of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had have had deep stories with interesting characters. Tomb Raider joins the ranks of Uncharted 2, and the first Mass Effect. Games I hold in high regard. Is this the game of 2013? It’s too early to tell, but any other releases this year are going to have hard time to better such a fantastic and enjoyable experience.

 

 

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