TR5: Von Croy Tower

Here at the fifth episode, Tomb Raider has just acquired some continuity of story, and I have to admit that I’m a little confused about it. Back in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, we saw the 16-year-old Lara Croft delve into a hidden compound under Angkor Watt with her mentor Von Croy, looking for an artifact called the Iris. Things went badly. Lara escaped; Von Croy did not. Years later, Von Croy shows up again, alive but possessed by an evil god, filling the role of main antagonist for the rest of the game.

And now, in the final chapter of Chronicles, Von Croy shows up once more, as head of Von Croy Industries, experimenting with the powers of the Iris in a technological setting. But it’s still a flashback. I had thought that Von Croy was supposed to have been presumed dead until his reappearance in TLR, but this new encounter must have taken place beforehand. Was I simply reading too much into it? What was I supposed to have concluded from the scene of Von Croy caught in a deathtrap as Lara flees?

Maybe I’m expecting too much consistency. There’s certainly a lack of consistency in the world between chapters. For example, the sinks. I mentioned before that the Russian submarine had bathroom sinks made of entire map tiles. The Von Croy tower has bathrooms with custom-modeled sinks that could have been used in the submarine too. Or take the fire extinguishers: in the current chapter, shooting a fire extinguisher causes it to explode with enough force to break through walls, something I might conceivably have guessed if I hadn’t shot at fire extinguishers to no effect in a previous chapter. It all smacks of poor communication between the people responsible for making the different parts. It’s less a single cohesive game than four short games in the same engine packaged together.

One thing chapter 4 does that we’ve seen already: it makes you go weaponless for an extended period. At the beginning of the chapter’s second level, you have to leave your gun behind to pass a security checkpoint, and only get it back very close to the level’s end. This marks the franchise’s foray into stealth mechanics, which it frankly isn’t very good at. There’s a lack of clarity about what makes a guard notice you — did he turn around because I got too close, or because I was making too much noise, or was he just scripted to turn around at that moment as part of his patrol cycle? Chloroform can be found in certain supply closets, but in all but two cases, I found it basically impossible to administer. Fortunately, it’s usually pretty easy to just outrun the guards, or shoot them once you get your gun back.

I sometimes feel like the game overestimates the difficulty of its combat. I guess it’s probably harder on the Playstation, where you can’t save the game at will and thus might have to face several enemies in a row between checkpoints. But there’s one particular sort of enemy, a guard in bulletproof battle armor, that the cutscenes try to set up as an Extremely Difficult Foe, but who can be downed with a single headshot. Headshots aren’t trivial — they require you to aim manually in first-person mode, which is fiddly without any sort of analog input — but it’s still anticlimactic to defeat them so quickly after they’ve been built up as such a threat.

One last thing I’d like to note before signing off for the night. At one point, Lara’s guy-in-a-chair (a new character, appearing only in this chapter, occasionally bantering with Lara over her headset) warns her not to kill a certain technician, because they need to insert keycards simultaneously to open a door. Just approaching him without shooting causes Lara to force him to cooperate at gunpoint, and clock him unconscious afterward. But if you want all the level’s secrets, you have to shoot him instead, forcing your remote helper to open an alternate route with more guards. Without Sinjin, I don’t think I would have ever tried this. If all it did was force you to take a more difficult path, I think I’d regard it as a punishment for the player, indicating that not shooting the technician was the correct approach. But since the difficult path is needed for 100% secrets, it feels more like this is the approach that the game wants me to take, and that seems like it’s saying something about Lara’s character. That she isn’t just callously indifferent about the lives she takes. That she prefers to kill, even when she doesn’t need to, even when it makes things more difficult for her. I think I like her a little less now.

TR5: Adventures with Teen Lara on the Haunted Island

The Teen Lara section of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was a bit like the Teen Indy section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — the one where we see the origin of all of the character’s defining quirks and accoutrements in a surprisingly short span of time. But only a little, because Lara doesn’t have as much to pick up as Indy. We see her scavenge her customary leather backpack from another treasure-seeker’s skeletal remains, and that’s pretty much it. It always seemed a bit forced to me. That backpack isn’t nearly as important a part of Lara Croft’s image as Indy’s panama hat and bullwhip are to his. It’s like the writers wanted to pay homage to Indy, but had to settle for the backpack because they couldn’t think of a really iconic accessory for Lara to acquire. Or at least, nothing other than the twin pistols, with their sexy holster-straps on her bare thighs. Those are pretty iconic, but also unusable in this context. Because the chief distinguishing feature of the Teen Lara section is that she doesn’t have any guns.

The Teen Lara section of Chronicles must happen after that, because Lara has her backpack. But she still doesn’t have a gun. I guess this is why I’ve been thinking about puzzles so much: with gunplay gone, puzzles dominate the experience even more than usual. Curiously, this is also the part where they decided to greatly increase the number of monsters. Rock-throwing imps. Ghosts with swords, invisible until you get close. One section has you navigating a labyrinth, guided by a luminous wisp, while some monster stalks you — possibly a minotaur, but I didn’t really get a good look at it, because hesitating at all lets it get you. Mostly you’re aware of it from the sound of its approaching footsteps. It reminded me a bit of Amnesia, another game that doesn’t give you a weapon and makes you run away from things a lot.

The game’s first rope-swinging bit occurred here, causing me to fail repeatedly until I hit the manual and looked up the controls. (If you simply let go of the rope instead of pressing the jump button, you fall straight down, regardless of what it looks like your momentum should be.) Also, I have some complaints about how the camera behaves here, particularly in the part with the sword ghosts, where you sometimes just don’t have the option to get a good look at where you’re going. Possibly it’s always been this bad, but the sword ghosts make it more noticeable by punishing you for running into them in ways that walls don’t.

But this is also the section with the game’s best inventory puzzle. Understand that most inventory puzzles in any Tomb Raider are trivial — the sort of thing where a wall has a triangular hole, say, and then you find a triangular key. When you find an item, you either have seen where it goes and immediately know it, or you keep exploring until you find where it goes. But here, after an extremely difficult jumping sequence, pursued only because there was no place else to go, I found that the reward for my heroic efforts was a lump of chalk. Chalk? What use was that? Then I remembered some dialogue from the level’s intro cutscene, where Lara mentioned that a book she had found in the previous level showed how to draw protective circles. But again, what use was that? There were some imps nearby, but I couldn’t use the chalk against them. Then I remembered how the very beginning of the level had a pathway blocked by a ghostly rider, and a suspiciously off-color tile on the path he rode. I suppose not everyone would experience this like me, but I was quite pleased to be able, for once, to solve a puzzle in this game by thinking. I haven’t generally been fond of the talking bits in the Tomb Raider series — I think the designers are much better at telling stories visually and non-verbally — but it paid off here.

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.