Playing Tomb Raider from the Beginning: MADNESS

A quick take on Lara Croft in MS Paint; I find doodling in paint to be surprisingly fun. She looks kind of worried that raptors are about to sneak up on her, though.

When I first started playing Tomb Raider in high school, I was briefly obsessed with the game and commented to a classmate that I would love to be a professional tomb raider when I grew up. It seemed so perfect: I had long brown hair, I was kind of a stuck-up bitch, I liked nature hikes and firearms and shiny things, so I was halfway to being Lara already.

Then this dude reminded me that another term for tomb raiding is grave robbing, and that kind of took all the fun out of that idea. It’s kind of like how Pirates of the Caribbean (or any of the dozens of Japanese RPGs that romanticize pirating), can get you really psyched up about the idea of being a pirate, until you remember that regardless of whether or not they’re charming rogues, pirates are thieves. And additionally, they might even rape and pillage. It’s not a pretty picture.

Suffice to say, tomb raiding is one of those pursuits best left exclusively to video games. One of my ideas for game blogging was to play through all of the TR games, in order, and write about them like some sort of adventure game anthropologist. Keep in mind that while this entry marks the beginning of that project, I fully expect to die somewhere in the middle of The Last Revelation— if I’m lucky.

There are several possible interpretations of that statement, all of them macabre.

I'm breaking up this post with some of the TR art I've done over the years, otherwise it would be a pretty unforgivable WOT; you're welcome.

Before delving into the original Tomb Raider as a game, I want to address the subject of Ms. Croft herself. She’s been so incredibly over-exposed as a character that it may seem like there’s nothing left to say about her, but it’s important to note that Lara as she appears in classic Tomb Raider is essentially a different character from the incarnation in the later games and the movies.

Original Lara was a woman of few words, classy as she was concise, and only carried weapons because large jungle cats tended to try to kill her if she wasn’t careful. She was primarily an archeologist and a writer with a passion for exploring, and if she was also an action hero, she performed that role as a means to an end. Basically, original Lara was far more likeable and alluring because you were given very little information about her, she handled herself very capably, and the game really wasn’t trying to hit you over the head with how awesome she was.

I don't think that's really how one should handle firearms, but I drew it, so I guess I can't really complain.

After the huge success of the first TR, from the sequel onwards Lara evolved into one of those obnoxiously self-aware movie badasses, who possesses a huge wardrobe of sexy adventuring gear and doesn’t need much provocation to shoot someone in the head. I wouldn’t dismiss the later games and movies, since there’s a lot more to TR than just Lara, but I think you have to have a sense of this evolution of her portrayal in order to understand my tremendous affection for the original character of Lara– When I say Lara, unless you played this game when it came out, chances are you are not associating the same character with the name.

I drew this when I was going through this odd phase as a teen of putting as much detail as humanly possible into my drawings- that's a lot of rocks back there. Why did I draw so many Laras? I honestly have no idea.

Another thing to keep in mind about her is her age; It’s very telling that Lara was conceived of as a character who was around 30 years of age, if not older. By any reasonable standard that’s still pretty young, but when you sit back and think about it, it’s astonishing how rare that is in video games. The last thing I ever want to do is go on some sort of indignant feminist rant (seriously, if I ever start doing that, just shoot me. Like an injured race horse), BUT, the fact remains that women tend to stop appearing in games after they hit the ripe old age of 18, or early 20s at the latest. It’s getting a bit better now- in Metal Gear Solid 4 for example, both Meryl and Naomi are supposed to be post-30 and still babes, if professional ones–but in 1995, usually the only females above a certain age were the apron-adorned mothers who stayed in the house in Japanese RPGs, and sometimes doled out fruit and/or free healing.

This is actually one of the oldest drawings I have scanned into my computer- I think it's circa '97 or so. I kind of miss the heavily Image Comics-inspired style I had at that time. It was ridiculous, but it was so much fun.

In the case of Lara, the developers were forced to make her a little older because the character type they were going for was so experienced and erudite that making her too young would have rang false. That presumed experience and intelligence is very appealing in a character, at least if you’re like me and are tired of playing as either plucky ten year old boys, or virile special forces types who wouldn’t know a book if it bit them on their well-muscled gluteus maximus.

Like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider is a game that you can’t really give it’s proper due without taking into account the zeitgeist of the time. Many of the features that were so innovative at the time have become bread-and-butter features in games with any sort of adventure component, and the things that made us miss sleep to play it in the mid-90s are hard to even imagine now. I remember being motivated to beat the next set of levels as soon as a I could so I could see the next FMV of Lara in action, because you only got one cinematic for hours upon hours of gameplay, and as a result, every single one was critically important to the plot.

Today, the overabundance of video game cinematics has become such an epidemic that we rate scenes on a kind of Kafkaesque “Sandwich scale”, or how many sandwiches you could make and consume while the characters on your screen preen and emote like first-year drama majors and generally refuse to SHUT THE HELL UP.

The sparse use of music in TR caused you to have strong emotional connections to individual music cues, whereas now games have full Hans Zimmer scores and hearing a full orchestral track in the background of the most mundane parts of a game is completely normal. The graphics had just reached the level where you could believe you were in an immersive world if you engaged your imagination and pretended that ammunition totally would be at the bottom of a pristine mountain lake and the whole world is made up of squares– nowadays, if you have to use your imagination at all in most games, the graphics have failed. The world of TR was like an impressionist painting, the graphics we see now are a hyper-real simulation. It’s a very different aesthetic.

At the time, TR opened the door for the future of gaming, while thematically being based on nostalgia for the past. You were using the newest technology of the time to explore the ruins of human civilization, and there was a certain reverence there for the past that was moving in a way that I’ve never encountered in another game. The TR franchise, and others as well, have explored environments drawn from lost cultures since, but never with the same perfect meeting of the future and the past. Current game environments tell us with authority what they think the past was like; the blocky, pointellistic environments of Tomb Raider were not a statement, but a suggestion: Wouldn’t it be nice if it had been like this?

Note: This, and the first three level entries, were originally posted on my Destructoid blog, Gaming Goddess. Since I lost a few of my posts the last time they updated their site, I decided I should move it here for posterity. Yes, I do intend to continue blogging TR, I was just busy for a while….

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