The most striking aspect of the X15 gameplay demo for Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t the traps or the tombs or even the shooting, though the game does seem to excel in all of the areas you’d expect. The mechanics for the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot were perfectly sound and Rise seems to be more of the same. The guns are appropriately shoot-y and the tombs are appropriately tomb-y.
No, the thing that catches my attention is a simple animation. After climbing out of a pool of water, Lara reaches back and fixes her ponytail, and then she does it again after she falls into another pool of water later in the level. The action does not have any mechanical significance or noticeable impact on gameplay. It’s just a practical, human reaction, one of the many small adjustments that people make every day while walking down the street or sitting at their desks.
“We like Lara to be a plausible character, so if she jumps in the water and her hair gets wet, we’ll actually see her wring the water out of her hair,” said Philippe Therien, the Elite Combat Designer for Rise of the Tomb Raider. “If she swallows a little water, she’ll cough. We try to make her act as a real person. She’ll warm her hands by campfires when she walks by. Things like that.”
It’s the sort of minor detail that you’d never think to include unless you’d spent many hours studying movement, and it immediately makes the game more grounded and somehow more plausible because humans do quirky things like wringing the water out of their hair whenever it gets wet. Lara becomes more relatable without saying a word or suffering any trauma.
Based on the short demo, it’s unclear how indicative that approach is for the rest of the game, but it does give cause for optimism. The 2013 reboot was a deliberate attempt to make Lara less of a cartoon, shrinking her cup size and surrounding her with a cast of actual human beings. For the most part it was effective. The story was still implausible in an action movie kind of way, but Lara no longer felt like a mascot from the 90s, jumping into the modern era as the leading lady of a blockbuster.
Rise of the Tomb Raider seems to be a continuation of that process. The tombs that Lara visits contain markings in a strange language that Lara won’t be able to interpret until she’s studied more of them. It’s a bit of academic flavor that indicates that Lara is more than a crack shot and an ace spelunker. She’s a person who does her homework, a trait that adds legitimacy to her endeavor.
Rise also seeks to build a logical narrative continuity. The lack of tombs was one of the most frequent criticisms of the reboot, and while Crystal Dynamics has listened to the feedback, Therien insists that that was always the plan and his response makes a certain amount of sense.
“We had to establish her as a survivor, then we establish Lara as a tomb raider. We’re just following the natural progression,” he said, suggesting that Lara’s tomb raiding follows directly from the events of the previous game.
“Lara has a lot of questions after the last adventure. She’s exposed to the supernatural. She realizes that tomb raiding is how she’s going to find answers.”
And sure, why not? I’d be curious after coming face to face with a murderous island cult and a literal sun goddess and Lara’s not finding those answers on Wikipedia. At the very least, the developers stated a desire to make Lara a more believable character, and the demo indicates that they’ve made an effort to follow through on that objective.
That’s not to say that the demo is without problems. Tomb Raider struggled to reconcile its newfound pragmatism with its more exploitative elements. The reboot (deservedly) attracted criticism for its unthinking portrayal of sexualized violence, and while Lara survives the X15 demo, I was assured that Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the extremely violent death animations that have long been a hallmark of the franchise.
“Tomb raiding is dangerous. If you miss a jump, you miss a step, if you don’t disarm a trap properly, things can happen to Lara,” said Therien. “It’s something that we like to equate with ancient, dangerous, abandoned places. That’s back, of course.”
At one level, I can’t really argue the point. Tomb raiding probably is dangerous, and bad things will happen to you if you fall off a cliff onto a jagged pile of rocks. Even so, it’s a prime example of placing accuracy over consistency and tone. While over-the-top violence is the entire point of a stylized game like Mortal Kombat, it’s usually out of place in the action genre, where heroes are beaten but seldom broken. The power fantasy works because we get to see ordinary people overcome extraordinary circumstances, and we like to imagine that we could do the same.
That’s why the violence in the 2013 Tomb Raider felt so weirdly discordant. It was an intrusion from an entirely different genre, like someone spliced Final Destination into The Avengers. It may have been ‘realistic,’ but the gleeful body trauma just didn’t fit with the story of empowerment that the game was supposed to be telling. Whereas Nathan Drake’s suffering is rarely depicted in any detail, watching Lara get repeatedly impaled encourages the player to view the protagonist as a person that things happen to instead of a person we’d want to be.
It essentially turns the Rise of the Tomb Raider demo into a tale of two animations. If wringing out her hair is indicative of Lara’s humanity and helps establish her as a person with agency and desires, then the death animations are a reminder that she’s still a plaything in the hands of men. It undercuts the effort to make Lara more relatable. How can Lara retain any authority when the game insists on treating her like a disposable ragdoll that can be put through anything for our viewing pleasure?
In truth, I’m probably overstating the severity of the inconsistency. I enjoyed the 2013 Tomb Raider and I’m looking forward to the follow-up. If you’re playing through the game as intended then the death animations are infrequent, mere hiccups in an otherwise awesome adventure. At the same time, they feel increasingly unnecessary, especially after seeing the efforts that Crystal Dynamics has taken to make Lara more believable. It’s worth remembering that odd relics from the past need to be discarded when they’re at odds with your intended purpose.