A Golden Opportunity, or All That Glitters is Entombed
You know, I feel like there should be a lot to say unrelated to the Midas statue and its hand of shiny, glittery-gorgeous death, but the hand of Midas kind of dominates this area. I’m trying to think about all of the other level features, which genuinely are memorable in and of themselves, but my mind keeps going back to that moment when I first positioned Lara on the hand, and magic happened- by which I mean, LITERAL magic, because that’s what’s going on with this level.
I think it was Toby Gard who said during the TR:A commentary that the Hand of Midas was the only thing in the game where magic was the only suitable explanation- all of the Atalantean hi-jinks later on can be attributed to technologically advanced aliens- and that it was a major decision whether or not to include it at all for that reason. I think this is the second moment (the T-Rex encounter in Lost Valley being the first) where your expectations of what the world of Tomb Raider is and can be are shattered, then put back together again, and it works brilliantly.
I’m not 100% sure if this is how it went down, since it was probably fifteen years ago and I don’t remember every single second of playing this game for the first time vividly (for shame, I know), but I’m pretty sure I stepped Lara on the hand for the first time being aware of the myth, but thinking it would never happen in a million years. “Oh, and here’s a hand in a level that references King Midas, ha ha wouldn’t it be funny if Lara just turned to gold right now, except that so wouldn’t happen because there’s no way the game would be that amaziOHMYGOD IT’S SERIOUSLY HAPPENING.”
It was quite possibly the only time in my videogaming career where a Game Over produced both tremendous awe and a huge smile.
Tomb of Giant Statue Guy
This is also a very pure Tomb Raider level in one sense, since the palace is clearly a tomb; it’s not one of the major plot-tombs where the pieces of the scion are kept, but an additional tomb. However, have you ever thought about the mechanics of this in regard to the magical giant hand? Stick with me for a moment, it’s a little weird.
Okay, so Midas was a king in Greek myth, who, in punishment for his greed, was cursed so that everything he touched turned to gold. With me so far? Okay. Except, Midas was a person, who is presumably buried somewhere in the palace. So, why is a giant, disembodied hand the thing that turns you to gold? Are we supposed to think that Midas was a giant, like in Gulliver’s Travels, and his hand was chopped off sometime before his untimely death? Or was his soul put into the giant statue made to honor him after his death, so his “curse” lived on long after his body decayed?
I’m partial to the second theory- it especially makes sense if you imagine he’s entombed somewhere WITHIN the giant statue, so ultimately, the statue is just an extension of him. Obviously, the reason why the giant hand came about is because having Lara stand on an actual human-sized hand wouldn’t work (and that would mean introducing Midas’ actual corpse, which is just like, eww), but I’m always kind of fascinated by these leaps of logic you make in games without even being conscious that you’re making them- I mean, I think I always subscribed to the “within the statue resides Midas’ soul” idea while playing this level without ever for a second consciously thinking about it.
I think that may be one of the reasons why I keep coming back to Tomb Raider- I’m fascinated by the mental gymnastics I do subconsciously in order to make the world make sense to me, because I must want it to so badly.
In Which Lara is Not Nearly as On Fire as I Had Expected
The notorious pillar room, which separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls and the champion Tomb Raiders from the…people who have to reload in this room a lot. This fiery gauntlet is responsible for more people getting stuck than anything else in the entire game; at the very least, it has that reputation. You can tell the developers knew it too, because they put two save crystals virtually right next to each other so you can save right before you try it and right after you succeed. Even though there’s a metric ton of save crystals in this level, that still seems rather excessive.
To explain the significance of traversing this room to me, I have to explain something about myself: as much as I like video games, I don’t think I’m very good at them. Other than the Tomb Raider series and a few other third-person adventures, most of the games I play are RPGs- partially for the aesthetics and stories, and partially because they generally don’t require what you might call “reflexes” whatsoever. If I have to press a particular set of buttons in a timely fashion to avoid death, chances are my character is dead.
I don’t remember how long it took me to do this section when I first played the game eons ago, but I’m pretty sure I was stuck on it for at least a few days. I think I eventually used the “take damage whilst sucking down medipacks whilst on fire” technique to complete it. Needless to say, I was kind of dreading getting up to it for this playthrough.
And yet, when I first played through it again a couple of weeks ago, I was able to traverse this section using all running jumps (no pauses) in about three tries- no Lara on fire to speak of. The last time I played it just now, I did it on my first try.
I looked at Lara safely ensconced on the far platform (and, this is important: not even SLIGHTLY on fire), and wondered: How is this possible? The guys at the Tomb Raider Traveler’s Guide wrote, like, a full dissertation on how to get passed this part without having to do running jumps, because it was supposedly so difficult, and I just did it in ten seconds? HOW CAN THIS BE??
Friends, it may seem arrogant, but I think at this point I’m going to have to call it: after playing these games on and off for fifteen years, I am finally not that bad at Tomb Raider- in fact, I seem to be rather good at it. It is now my intention to bake myself a cake in honor of actually being good at a video game.
There are no Stupid Pierre Tricks for this level, because everyone’s favorite littering Frenchman doesn’t make an appearance. Since my “Pierre is a Sorceror” theory is clearly the most promising new area in Tomb Raider Scholarship since the seminal thesis “Atalantean Culture: Natla and the Marxist-Feminist Imperative,” it seems only logical to assume he’s doing something properly magical- like sacrificing gorillas to his dark gods to renew his teleportation powers.
In all seriousness, I like the randomness of Pierre just not showing up for this level for some reason. I don’t know if it was an oversight, or they thought his presence was totally unnecessary due to the grandness of this level (in which case they were right), but it’s a check in the win column nonetheless. Of course, that almost makes it even more annoying when he shows up in The Cistern.
Best: On first blush, turning Lara to gold is the best because it’s the most instantly memorable- however, if you’ve turned Lara to gold, that means you’re dead. I’m not sure if dying should ever be the “best” part of a level. Fortunately, running around the topmost story of the level is a blast- it almost feels like you used a code to cheat and get somewhere you’re not “supposed to”, even though there’s no cheating involved. At least for me, I spend the first half of the level thinking “hmm, it would be awesome to stand there, but it doesn’t look like I can get there,” about several areas and then, TA-DAH.
Worst: Having to go back and forth between the doors with the symbols and the platform with the switches so many times. In theory, you shouldn’t have to do it that much, but something often goes wrong for me even when I’ve memorized the symbol. Sometimes I’ll memorize the combinations, have the door fail to open, then reverse all the switches positions and it will work. Then I’ll think “ah-hah, now I have this switch silliness worked out,” only to get it backwards in the other direction, somehow. Odd quirk of the game, or early-onset Alzheimer’s? You decide. I’m also not at all keen on that secret switch behind the trees- great idea, but it’s so well hidden I almost didn’t find it even when I knew it was there. Plus, why is there a death trap in a SECRET? It’s supposed to be a bonus!
Rating: Five Uzi clips out of five; it would be an extremely memorable level just for the hand of Midas gimmick, and yet, there’s so much going on here that it would be a great level even without it. Admittedly, I probably would have been tempted to lower the score if the flame pillars had actually frustrated me.
If I may be so bold as to say anything even slightly negative about this level (other than the fact that the switches annoy me, but I don’t blame the level for my stupidity), isn’t this spike-room kind of an afterthought? “You know what we haven’t seen for a while? Spikes. Mysteriously bloody spikes. Let’s put in 50,000 of them.”
Next: The Cistern, where I can’t even make a bacteriological infection joke because Scott Lee’s been there already.
(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.)