TR6: In which I assert that Lara Croft resembles Jessica Fletcher

In the lower depths of the secret research complex under Prague — like Amnesia, this game largely equates progress with downward motion — Lara runs into Kurtis again, and again he constrains and disempowers her, trapping her in an airlock to keep her from causing any more trouble than she already has. And he has something of a point: Lara’s ingress involved shutting off the power to the security systems, which were also the systems keeping the monsters under control. She’s literally meddling in things she doesn’t understand, and for the first time in her life someone is effectively holding her accountable for her actions. It still bodes ill for their budding relationship, though. I can’t imagine Lara Croft accepting someone who keeps trying to control her like this.

While Lara’s stashed, player control shifts to Kurtis. It’s a move that reminds me of the seasons of Murder, She Wrote where they experimented with protagonists other than Jessica Fletcher: it feels a little wrong, but it’s really not all that objectively different. The main effect is that it takes away the opportunity to ogle Lara, and thus makes me aware of the extent to which I was doing so: not a lot, as my attention is generally on the game’s challenges, but every once in a while. The sorcerous powers that Kurtis displayed in his first appearance are disappointingly limited to cinematics, and beyond player control. Early on, there’s a bit where he uses his “Far See” power to get a keycode from a post-it on the other side of a locked door, and afterward I kept thinking “I wish I could Far See right now. That would be nice.” It’s like they designed a special mechanic for the character and then didn’t get around to actually implementing it.

The really peculiar part is that we don’t really know what Kurtis is trying to accomplish. We’re just piloting him forward in the hope that he knows as much about what’s going on as he seems to. He seems to be a good guy, at least to the extent that he’s fighting the bad guys. He’s probably with the Lux Veritatis, the secret guardians of forbidden knowledge who have been battling dark alchemists for centuries. That would make him the enemy of Lara’s enemy, but not her friend. This is a pattern we’ve seen as far back as Tomb Raider II: You have two warring sides, one dedicated to securing and protecting a dangerous power, one that wants to seize that power for themselves and exploit it. Then Lara Croft enters the picture. Now there are three sides.

TR5: The Objectification of the Heroine

I remember when it was at least a little bit ambiguous. I remember seeing an article (probably in a print magazine — this was the 90s) with a title like “Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” And really, there has always been a good argument for the former, if you look at just the story. Lara is highly capable, self-sufficient, and confident enough to simply go for whatever she personally wants, no matter how well-guarded. The only man in her life is a doddering butler, seen in the Croft Manor tutorial levels in the second and third games. And by all reports, the developers weren’t even really going for sexy at first. They simply had the idea “Hey, what if we made the hero a woman? That would really help the game stand out, wouldn’t it?” and then made a character model that would make her gender obvious even under a severely restricted polygon count.

But the public reaction was what it was, particularly among gamerdom’s sexist lout contingent. Looking at old Usenet discussions can give the impression that Lara’s sex appeal was the game’s only notable feature, despite its innovations as a game, and the limitations of the graphics. The first “nude patch” that I was aware of was for Tomb Raider — for all I know, it may well have been the first ever. As I mentioned in my last post, the control that the game gives the player over Lara’s body seems to encourage objectification (although I can’t quite pinpoint why this effect doesn’t seem as strong in other games that offer a similar degree of control).

If sex appeal was what got people’s attention, the designers were quite willing to pander to it: the second game teased the player with a shower scene, and its ad campaign pitched it as “where the boys are”. No one asked “Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” any more. The answer was clear. It wasn’t as dire as certain other games I could mention, but it was setting the precedent for them. We’re too early for “jiggle physics”, but Lara’s breasts were the main beneficiaries of increases in polygon count over the series. By Chronicles, they’re more detailed than most characters’ faces.

The fourth game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, featured a playable flashback sequence to Lara’s youth as a pigtailed teenager. I remember hearing about this and naively thinking “Huh, they’re showing her as a kid? Maybe they’re trying to make her less of a sex object and more of a human being.” But in fact teen Lara is buxom beyond her years, and still objectified — she’s merely young enough for the objectification to be a measure or two creepier than usual. The game actually takes some advantage of this: when Lara’s older male mentor Von Croy takes her to the ruins alone, the implied skeeziness does a lot to prepare the player for his transformation into a bad guy. In effect, Von Croy is used as a vessel for the player’s impure thoughts.

Teen Lara shows up again in the third chapter of Chronicles, where, driven by curiosity, she sneaks onto a boat to a demon-haunted isle. Von Croy isn’t around, and her relation to the priest investigating the site seems a lot more savory, because he didn’t bring her there on purpose and, unlike Von Croy, is at least somewhat concerned for her safety. And yet the game first takes care to almost show young Lara taking her shirt off, and I’m honestly a little disappointed in it for that. We had been doing so well at not being overtly creepy up to that point. I’m really going to have to take a look at Rhianna Pratchett’s take on the character after we’re done here, to get the taste out of my mouth.

TR5: Controls and Verbs

Much has been written about Lara Croft as a character, but when you’re playing her games, you relate to her more as a vehicle. You become intimately familiar with how she handles, what her turning radius is and so forth. She doesn’t exercise judgment of her own, or make much effort at interpreting your commands in reasonable ways according to context, like a more complex and modern videogame hero would. She just responds to the controls in a rather complicated but consistent way, even if that means running into walls or off cliffs. I speculate that this is part of what made her so popular as a sex symbol: the absolute control that the player has over her body.

Let’s take a moment to describe those controls.

First and most obviously, you’ve got the arrow keys or D-pad for moving around, tank-wise: up to run forward, down to hop back, left and right to turn. If Lara is climbing a wall, all four directions move instead of turning. If she’s swimming underwater, all four directions turn instead of moving. Holding down the shift key or R1 button turns the running into walking, and the turning into a shuffling side-step. I remember thinking, back in the day, that the use of a walk button was a minor stroke of genius. At the time, most games that featured both walking and running would make walking the default and give you a run button, but the makers of Tomb Raider understood that the player would want to run most of the time, and only shift down to a walk when care or precision was required. Nowadays, of course, you’d get the same effect by controlling movement with an analog joystick: the player will move the joystick all the way to the edge unless there’s some reason not to. But the target platforms for the first Tomb Raider were the original Playstation and MS-DOS, neither of which had analog joysticks out of the box.

There are two other buttons that I think of as the main controls: the jump button and the action button. The jump button jumps, obviously, but there are a few non-obvious ways to apply it, like leaping sideways or doing backflips by pressing jump in combination with the direction keys. The action button does various contextual actions like opening doors, pulling levers, inserting a gem from Lara’s inventory into a similarly-shaped socket, and pushing enormous stone blocks, but its single most frequent use is as the grab-onto-ledge button. The specific combination move of doing a running jump across a gap and then pressing the action button in midair to grab onto the ledge on the other side is basically the definitive Tomb Raider action and crucial to the feel of the game, even if it did basically steal it from Prince of Persia.

There is no shoot button. Instead, there’s a button that draws or holsters Lara’s guns, and while they’re drawn, the action button fires them — indeed, holding it down fires them repeatedly. Thus, having guns in her hands prevents her from pulling levers or grabbing onto ledges, although she can still run around and jump while firing. (Jumping around a lot while firing is often the best way to avoid being hit.) Gunplay is one of the few occasions where Lara actually displays a little ability to act without the player’s input: when there’s an enemy in sight, she’ll automatically extend her arms to point her weapons at it. Sometimes this is the first indication the player sees that there’s an enemy around. (Usually there’s a music cue as well, though.)

There’s a button that does a quick forward dive and roll that makes Lara face the opposite way. Chronicles doesn’t really seem to want you to use it, but inherited it from previous games. I personally like being able to turn around quickly, so I’ve bound it to a more convenient key than the default. It can also be executed by pressing the up and down keys simultaneously, which must not have been possible on the Playstation controller. There are buttons specifically for side-stepping, but I’ve always done that via walk mode. And there’s a look button, which you hold down to use the sole directional controls to move the camera instead of Lara. This comes in handy fairly frequently, but it’s another thing that would be handled differently on a modern two-stick controller. And that’s basically it for the controls inherited from the original Tomb Raider.

But each sequel has added its own complications. Tomb Raider 2 added a key just for lighting and dropping flares, and that’s still around, although I have yet to use it deliberately. TR2 also added climbable walls/ladders to the world model. Climbing is accomplished by holding down the action button while in front of a climbable wall — just like drawing your guns, it’s something that occupies Lara’s hands. Climbing also adds some new combo moves, like jump+roll+action to jump backwards off the ladder you’re on, flip in midair, and grab onto another ladder that was behind you. I haven’t yet seen opportunities for such trickery in Chronicles, but TR2 did it a lot.

Tomb Raider 3 added the ability to “monkey-swing” on overhead bars, which works basically like climbing but on the underside. It also introduced two completely new movement modes, crawling and sprinting, each with its own modifier button that you had to hold down. Sprinting is faster than running, but only in shortish bursts, and prevents Lara from jumping — pressing the jump button while sprinting makes her do a forward roll instead. Crawling has been a lot more useful than sprinting so far in Chronicles, probably because, as I’ve noted, the emphasis is more on exploration than action.

The fourth game didn’t add any more buttons — good thing, too, as things were starting to get unwieldy. The new actions it added used the established controls in ways you can probably predict. Those actions: climbing poles, swinging on ropes, and tightrope walking. The only one of these things I’ve seen used in Chronicles is the tightrope walking, which is just about the least interesting thing you can do. It basically turns traversing a gap into a slow QTE sequence where you have to periodically press a button to make Lara regain her balance. And remember, there’s no analog controls here, so it’s not a matter of faltering because you pushed the stick a little too far to the left or right.

What does Chronicles add? Surprisingly, it looks like it doesn’t add anything, at least as far as controlling Lara goes. The only new thing you can do is combining items in the inventory menu, and even that’s been severely limited in its use. I suppose it’s another sign that the devs had lost interest, but it’s probably just as well. The game isn’t even taking full advantage of the verbs it’s got. The whole system is due for a reboot at this point.