Spoiler Warning: I mention plot points in Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid in this entry. If you haven’t gotten around to playing either of those yet, you may want to just read the capsule review at the bottom.
“Vilcabamba” is a really fun word to say. Say it a few times and you’ll see what I mean. It also sounds like a delicious new flavor of Bubble Yum to me for some reason. This level really made me want gum.
These first few levels are going to get some of the longest write ups, both because they’re some of the most memorable, and they’re simply the ones I’ve played the most over the years. Like a lot of people, often I would pop in my TR disc and just play through the game up until somewhere around Tomb of Qualopec, and then move on, my tomb-raiding craving sated. I have played through the game in it’s entirety several times, but I’ve played through these first three or four levels way more times than any of the subsequent ones.
In the case of City of Vilcabamba, there’s a lot to talk about: The wolf ambush that begins the level, the completely optional underwater pathway, the three(!) secret rooms, the contrast between the simple architecture of the village square versus the grand architecture of the temple area, etc. However, I’m going to go in depth about NONE of those things in favor of A RELIGIOUS TOMB RAIDING EXPERIENCE. You’ll see.
Every once in a while in a game you get a moment where you really understand the feeling that the developers have been trying the whole game to put across to you; Any decent game will communicate the developer’s intentions to a certain extent, but great games often have one or more moments that crystallize the essence of the game.
For lack of a better term, I tend to call these video-game religious experiences, but while I originally was using the term jokingly, it’s not really as silly as it sounds. The traditional idea of a religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a God, or creator received by a normal person, a denizen of the world: A video game religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a creator, the creator of the game (and humans are at their most divine when they create their own worlds) to a normal person– a denizen of their fictional domain.
I’m an agnostic with no religious agenda, so if any of this is making you uncomfortable, don’t be: My point here is more about the potential for the creator of a game to move you, not about religion. If you don’t want to consider the religious parallel, just think of it as a moving experience.
Some examples of this phenomenon that I’ve found: In Final Fantasy X, when you’re on the road to Zanarkand after Tidus has finished telling his story (and you’re finally in the present), and everyone bands together to protect Yuna one last time, because the time is coming when they know they’ll never be able to protect her again; they don’t want to go forward, they want to stay on that journey forever, but they keep pushing forward, towards the dead world of Zanarkand, while the beautiful version of the main theme– Someday the Dream will End— plays in the background, fading slowly to the battle hymn of Zanarkand while the sky darkens and fills with pyreflies, the souls of the dead. In the original Metal Gear Solid, at the very end Naomi makes peace with Snake, and herself, as the sterile environment of the Shadow Moses nuclear facility is traded for beautiful footage of the Alaskan countryside– Snake is a creature of technology and war, like Shadow Moses, but when we see the snowy mountains and the wolves, we feel happy for him, because we know he’s going home. Even if just for a little while, he can have peace. And in Tomb Raider, there’s the suspended pathway in City of Vilcabamba.
I mentioned in the Caves write-up that music is used very sparingly in Tomb Raider, and scenes like this are the big payoff for that creative choice. Toward the end of the level, as Lara ascends a tower of broken platforms in what was once a beautiful temple, we hear Lara’s theme for the first time in the game. It plays in the menu, but it’s in this instance that we really pay attention to it. It’s a surprisingly sad, mellow song– the opposite of what you’d expect if your only exposure to Lara was through the movies, or even the more recent games. It’s a song that makes you think of lost beauty, and quiet reflection, and more than anything, being alone. It’s the sound of patience, and persistence: it’s the siren’s song of a puzzle you need to solve. If you have a copy of PS1 TR, you can put the disc into your computer and listen to it like a soundtrack, and see what I mean.
If Lara were in a lot of danger, with the kind of locked-door traps and spiked pits and stuff that start to pop up with increasing frequency later, Lara’s theme would seem out of place –it’s not a song of peril. But in this puzzle, there’s a safety net: the broken platforms are suspended, on both towers, over a pool of water. Even if Lara falls from on high, the water catches her harmlessly. Lara has to struggle to get to the top, but the tomb doesn’t really want her to fall. In one sense, she’s an invader– she’s “raiding” the premises– but this obstacle was not put in place to kill her. This was a city that was once alive, and though it’s been devastated by war, or famine, or disease, and it can never go back to that time when it was teeming with life, it can save this one lonely visitor, just this once. It will never let Lara in without making her work for it, but as long as she puts forth the effort, she’s allowed.
In this game, Lara and the tomb are always opposed to one another, as rivals, but never enemies: It’s not a battle, but a dialogue with the past, between this one mysterious woman and an even more mysterious place. In short, no matter how hard she fights, Lara is never trying to conquer the tomb; she’s trying to prove her worth. She’s trying to prove that she’s strong enough to be allowed inside. It’s not a battle, it’s courtship. Yes, there is a sexual reading there if you go in for that sort of thing, but honestly, that’s not what it’s really about.
And all of this is put across in about five seconds of gameplay: Lara ascends, the music plays, Lara falls, the water catches Lara and immediately, tirelessly, she begins to ascend again. Sometimes people say that Tomb Raider has a feminist message because Lara is a tough chick who carries guns, and I think that’s pretty much nonsense: if there is a hidden social message in TR, it’s a humanist one. Lara is the one we admire, as opposed to Larson or Pierre, not because she’s female, but because she’s the one who strives to understand. She’s the one who’s learned to read the hieroglyphics, she’s the one who won’t tolerate ruins being littered. If you come with arrogance and violence, you truly are a “raider”; Lara is a raider in name only. She’s not entirely there of her own free will: She can never resist exploring, because if she doesn’t, she may never find the source of that voice that’s singing her name.
Completely aside from all of this, this part of the game has a personal resonance to me. When I was young, and TR was the first game I ever played in it’s entirety– I’d played Mario at friends’ houses, but this was the first game I ever played at home, on my own console–I spent a long time on this level. I was still clumsy with the controller, I fell into the water a lot, and I got very frustrated. But I kept at it, because games were still exciting to me, every game was like new uncharted territory in a wonderful fantasyland, and I couldn’t wait to see the next level. Now when I play, I know the level like the back of my hand and I don’t fall at all, but I don’t feel that excitement anymore, because I know what’s ahead, and no game will ever excite me in the same way. I don’t fall in the water and I complete the level, but I can never go back to that time.
This entry is probably too close to literary analysis for a lot of people, and if you’ve been completely soured on the whole subject by pompous, overblown academic writing, I can’t really blame you. I’m attempting to describe what that tiny lump in my throat is when I play this part of the level. I don’t think about any of this consciously while I play, but this is what happens when I try to articulate that feeling. I pass this part of the level, I collect my thoughts, I pull a few switches, and I celebrate the beauty of discovery, the unknown. I plunder the last of the secret rooms, and I take a final swim. On some level, I mourn the loss of my childhood.
And then there’s another fucking bear.
Need I say it? The suspended pathway in the temple. Additionally, the fact that there’s a whole underwater labyrinth that’s completely optional to the main course of the level is pretty awesome. I like levels that give you places to explore that are off the beaten path.
Worst: FUCKING BEARS.
Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5: Still simple compared to the later levels, but it’s a beautiful simplicity.