Rise of the Tomb Raider, or, History: Friend of Frenemy?

riseofthetombraider

Brr, brrrrr y’all.

Throughout the course of Rise of the Tomb Raider, the latest entry in the Tomb Raider series, archaeological adventurer Lara Croft has to learn all kinds of badass things to survive the harsh, unforgiving Siberian tundra. By the end of the game playing as Croft had me feeling like an expert Katniss-AF marksman and an acrobat who flows through the environment like a force of nature. The games’ controls will have you moving through gorgeous environments like the wind at some points, and scrambling to beat the life out of an armed-to-the-teeth mercenary the next, keeping you invested in each moment whether Croft is in complete control of her surroundings or hanging on for dear life. The engrossing gameplay, coupled with returning actress Camilla Luddington’s performance, make stepping into the role of Lara Croft a delight, something I’d forgotten you could feel in a video game somewhere between Dark Souls III and No Man’s Sky.

Though it’s the bow and arrow shooting, shotgun reloading, mountain climbing lessons Lara learns that make the game so fun, the narrative of Rise of the Tomb Raider really only demands Lara and the other factions in her orbit learn one thing: be mindful of your interactions with history.

A band of mercenaries, Trinity, find themselves obsessed with history and its promises of undiscovered glory and power.

The tundra’s indigenous population and their leader, Jacob, find themselves at once afraid of history and responsible for the guardianship of it.

Croft herself is out to rewrite history. To correct it. To legitimize it for the sake of her late father, who history has warped and distorted into a raving lunatic for his insistence upon the existence of the same mysterious power Trinity now seeks.

It’s a particularly fitting focus for the Tomb Raider franchise. 2016 marks the franchises 20th anniversary. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s predecessor, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, did some heavy sifting and sorting of the franchise’s own antiquated, over-sexualized history. And of course, there’s the whole Lara Croft being an archaeologist/adventurer thing. It’s easy to forgive Lara for not understanding the detriments of clinging to the past when every other step offers up a collectible artifact for her to exam and assess. The juxtaposition between Lara’s archaeological pursuits and personal shortcomings adds a welcomed depth to a protagonist who, five years ago, was arguably defined by her appearance.

That juxtaposition is central to Rise of the Tomb Raider’s narrative, which makes a point of differentiating between healthy analysis and haunting obsession. On one hand, while titularly tomb raiding Lara might gleam a hint as to how to proceed from some old journal stuffed in a corner, on the other hand Lara might let herself be swallowed by oblivion in the pursuit of justifying her own personal history.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is fun as hell, and its examination of our relationships with history adds that certain Je ne sais quoi to lighting a bear on fire with a flaming arrow.

 

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More Like Womb Raider, or, Flaming Arrow Headshots Know No Gender Bro

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a lady!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a lady!

I never played Tomb Raider when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure I thought it was porn. I can’t imagine why – it was just a game with a protagonist that was essentially a pair of boobs with legs and an interesting rumor about a naked cheat code. Turns out that pair of boobs was named Lara Croft, and my early adopted opinions of the character were certainly left intact when she was portrayed by Angelina Jolie in two feature films. I guess I’m an Anniston man.

Fast forward ten years and you can imagine my surprise when the rebooted Tomb Raider and its revamped iteration of Croft started to seem like a decent game with a character worth investing in. Stellar reviews aside, my interest in the game was really brought to a boil when I saw the cover and the pair of things I took notice of were a broken arm and a bow.

Video games aren’t sexist. At least so far as I’m concerned. That would imply an active belief that women are inferior to men which at the end of the day I feel you’d be hard pressed to argue. Video games aren’t sexist. By and large they just don’t give a shit about women.

Queue pin drop.

Video games are an industry with a perceived consumer base consisting entirely of twenty-something white males. It’s a misconception that leads to a glorification of white dudes (see Far Cry 3) and a bastardization of everyone else in most major video game releases. But hey, this is all coming from a twenty-something white guy who plays video games, so, grain of salt included.

Sweeping generalizations aside I was pretty excited for Tomb Raider’s potential, after all what are video games but simulations of experiences you are absolutely never going to actually have? With the power of gaming engines and machines today why wouldn’t you want to experience everything you can from every angle you can? I’ve blasted dudes heads off of their necks with shotguns as a wise cracking white dude a hundred times before, so the prospect of blasting dudes heads off with shotguns as a coming-of-age white lady is an interesting new prospect.

My interest in Tomb Raider paid off. Not just because Lara Croft is a fully realized, endearing character, who is absolutely brought to life by voice actress Camilla Luddington, but because the game is fun as hell. The game plays like a current generation “best of” Frankenstein, with the body of Uncharted 4, the arms of Arkham Asylum, the legs of Assassin’s Creed and the wiener of Dead Space, and a taste of open-world and RPG elements. And the head of a lion.

The setting, an island one step closer to my dream of a balls-to-the-wall Jurassic Park game, looks great, if a little dark and drab. I kept waiting for the vibrancy of a tropical forest but the game has its grit in a choke hold. Luckily the environments are still awesome and the playing through them is engaging as Lara shoots and shanks and tumbles her way through one elaborate Rune Goldberg machine after another.

Jump attack!

Jump attack!

Whether I was caught in a bear trap fending off wolves with a bow and arrow or shooting zealots in the godamn face with a flaming arrow with a bow and arrow I was never bored on Lara’s journey – though that had little to do with the journey itself. Tomb Raider’s narrative is a little silly. While Lara’s character arc is certainly fascinating I didn’t really find myself all that invested in the end of the game. Something about a tornado and Pearl Harbor and maybe a mummy lady?

I was equally uninterested in Lara’s friends. There was a fat Hawaiian guy named Jonah who seemed kind of cool in a hackneyed Uncle Tito kind of way, and to UK blokes I could barely understand, and a whiney lady and an angry lady – and that’s about it.

But I never expected Tomb Raider to have the literary prowess of Bioshock and I can forgive it for not exceeding those expectations because Lara Croft is just that baller in this game. Her journey from wayward adventurer to mass murderer is exciting and a lot more paced and convincing than Brody’s in Far Cry 3, which I also enjoyed.

When I first started Tomb Raider I couldn’t help but think I was playing differently because the pixels that represented me in the game were in the shape of a lady. I didn’t trust any dude I came across and I found myself moving particularly carefully through the environment (because I’m a bigot). As I made my way through the second half of the game, however, I found myself pitying the hapless antagonists strewn about the island because I knew something they did not.

I knew that they were being hunted.

While my enemies pissed off cliffs and yammered on about finding “the girl,” I crouched in the shadows contemplating whether or not I should just shoot the guy on the right in the head with an arrow or light him on fire before I scramble the guy on the left’s brains with a pick axe.

By the end of the game Lara is a straight up killer. Lara is a skilled, stealthy survivor. Lara is a badass. And being a badass is unisex. Go figure.

As of three hours before the release of Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider is my 2013 Game of the Year. It’s a great game, and should Tomb Raider sell well enough, which I sincerely hope it does, maybe it’ll prove to the industry that having a well-developed hero that isn’t a white guy isn’t a death sentence, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I’m looking at you Gears of War. You now who likes Baird better than Cole? Nobody.

It’s wishful thinking, but maybe one day the industry will get its head out of its ass and it’ll take me more than one guess to know the gender and ethnic background of 95% of video game protagonists.

Maybe one day.

In the meantime – guys, when did we start letting ladies into video games? Was there a vote? Because I wasn’t there. I’m not saying I would have gone one way or the other but I am saying that I definitely wasn’t part of the decision making process. Again, not choosing sides here but doesn’t it seem a little soon? How long ago did they get the right to vote and now they’re already in video games? I don’t know guys.

I hope you know what you’re doing.