I promise this will be the last time I write about Tomb Raider. Okay, probably not, but it’s a Good Game, and Good Games tend to bring up a lot of interesting questions. Journey, for instance, is a Good Game, and it asks you what does unconditional love mean to you. Shadow of the Colossus is a Good Game, and it asks you if doing bad things to enable good things is truly good or bad at all. To be fair, bad games make you ask questions, too, like why oh why have you forsaken me god, but that’s not necessarily an interesting question for video games.
The question that Tomb Raider asks is can you divorce the scale of experience in gameplay from that of the narrative. As you are probably well aware of by now, this Tomb Raider is a reboot of the entire franchise. There is a new real life person playing the role of the series protagonist Lara Croft in the fantastically British Camilla Luddington, the raiding of tombs has gone the way of hunting deer, and gun battles with jungle cats have been replaced with stealth kills with a bow and arrow.
This reboot includes the fact that Lara is no longer the gymnastic-enabled, quip-wielding badass from the old games. She is still quite a badass to be sure, but she is also much more inexperienced (it is, after all, her first expedition and boy do things go sideways) and thus much more vulnerable to jarring encounters. This famously includes near-rape, her first murder, and a sizable puncture wound through the entire side of her lower abdomen.
Narratively, this all works. Lara is established in just the way she needs to be: young, naive, and untested. We feel for her even before the real meat of the game begins because we all know how it feels to be in her shoes (or at least relative to what the character used to be and what other video game characters offer). I don’t know if we necessarily want to protect her, but we definitely do pull for her. She, much like all of us, is vulnerable. Her mortality is tangible and authentic and, above all else, breakable.
So when she is chased down like an animal by a bigger animal (metaphorically speaking, though she soon will be running from real animals as well), it’s not hard to sympathize with her because that fear is palpable. When she escapes a collapsing tunnel, we get that sense of urgency because we know that just a single rock could jeopardize her freedom. That three feet of iron she gets through her side is a reminder that she is not unbreakable, that is she not a space marine or tier one operator.
All of that sets the relative scale with which we operate. It is the ruler by which we measure all other circumstances of the game. Because Lara fails to make a jump over an inhumanly sized chasm is because she is supposed to be human, so we set the baseline of the scale. Because she is able to kill but is visible shake over the traumatic experience, we know where the spectrum ends.
But when the gameplay of the game snaps the ruler in half and stabs a pirate in the neck with the jagged stumps, we’re confused. Now that one of the few rules we’ve managed to establish in the game (and make mistake; rules are important, even when they’re just the ones we’ve cooked up in our head) is totally and utterly broken, we don’t know how to feel about subsequent events. It’s like holding a magnet near a compass; our compassion is thrown out of whack—skewed.
Call of Duty, oddly enough, does a rather good job with this marriage of narrative and gameplay scale. Things that kill you in a cutscene—say like at the end of No Russian in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2—kill you in the game, i.e. a headshot. The problem that modern Call of Duty games is that the narrative scale is so huge, we become numb to anything over a certain threshold. One nuke might as well be two nukes or three nukes or a baker’s dozen. One dead playable character might as well be all of them. We don’t know how to judge the impact of major events simply because of the size of the scale.
One skyscraper in the middle of suburbia sticks out because you can tell that, relative to the little two-story houses around it, it is huge. But in the middle of Manhattan, 20 stories is just the same as 30 stories or 40 stories. That’s the problem of narrative scale. The problem with Tomb Raider is relative scale between its presentation of character and plot and its gameplay. It’s as if someone drew lines all over those skyscrapers and turned them into optical illusions. We still have the compass, but we’ve lost magnetic north. And now we’re lost with Lara.