Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lara Croft and the steady hand of death

Tomb Raider is easily my most conflicting game this year so far. Don’t get me wrong, the controls are precise, the transition from the old blocky grid-like movement to modern free form running is great, and the visual fidelity is outstanding, especially with TressFX enabled. But there’s one small section of Tomb Raider I’ve gone back and forth on, changing my mind whether it’s executed poorly, or its subtle nuances make everything fit together.

About an hour or so into Tomb Raider, the islanders capture Lara. When other survivors attempt to escape they are shot and killed, spurring Lara to hide, but she is quickly found. Lara fights back her attacker, falling to the ground and rustling for his gun before eventually grabbing it and shooting, killing him. Lara breaks down crying, screaming, “Oh god,” as she realizes she just killed another human being. The scene takes its time to emphasize how traumatic this experience is, and how difficult it is to be in a life-or-death situation.

Comparing this scene to the rest of game, though, seems like night and day. While her number isn’t as high as Nathan Drake’s from the Uncharted series, Lara does spend a decent amount of time gunning down enemies, blowing up barrels, and jabbing arrows in necks. I’ve read countless articles about how Lara is a mass murderer, leaving a trail of blood behind her as she climbs her way to the top of the island. As I finished Tomb Raider, I tended to agree them. Between her unlockable weapon finishers and extra experience point gains for headshots, the latter part of Tomb Raider is less survival and more cover shooter.

Despite that, it felt like Crystal Dynamics and writer Rhianna Pratchett nailed the vibe they were going for, the kill-or-be-killed attitude fueling Lara to save her friends and escape the island. When I originally sat down to write my thoughts, I wanted to compare it seeing a dead body for the first time. Interviews with police officers and other emergency services have stated over and over they never forget the first body they saw. Twisted Metal and God of War creator David Jaffe talked about the first dead body he saw during high school on the Giant Bomb E3 Day One podcast. Recently my brother saw his first dead body on the side of the road, surrounded by police and medical personnel, on a trip to Las Vegas. It’s something that sticks with you. I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to know the first dead body you saw was the result of your doing, and how that can weigh on you, making Lara’s drive to escape alive by any means necessary more intense.

But there was something that didn’t sit right with me, even as the credits rolled and the words, “A survivor is born,” scrolled across the screen. It didn’t feel jarring to transition from victim to the survivor Lara was supposed to be. Something happened that made it feel appropriate and justified. I went back and started a new game, escaping from the cave again, crawling my way up the abandoned plane, making a fire, hunting deer, all over again.

I came to the same scene again where Lara makes her first kill, and as she composes herself, she stuffs the empty gun into her belt. After climbing a few stairs past burning buildings, Lara spots a magazine of bullets, but before she can grab it, a flaming arrow whizzes past her from one of the islanders, forcing her to take cover behind some crates. Lara scrambles to grab the magazine, fumbling as she inserts into the pistol, calling out to the islanders to leave her alone. There’s no music except the sound of the crackling, burning buildings and light rain. She’s breathing heavy and her hands are shaking; she’s scared. As they get closer to where she’s hiding, Lara stands up, pointing the pistol at them and fires. Her arms are still shaking as her aim wavers, hitting the ground and other crates before hitting one of the attackers while the other ducks behind the crates.

Lara Croft isn’t Rambo. She doesn’t have pinpoint accuracy or an endless supply of bullets. She might have a higher bodycount in Tomb Raider than any one of her other games combined, but in the context, in the survive-or-perish situation she’s in, it makes sense. Her transition isn’t instantaneous, and her eventual acceptance of what she has to comes with repeated self-assurance. When she says to herself, “You can do this Lara,” over and over again it’s not because she can’t physical do it, it’s because she doesn’t want to, but knows she has to. It doesn’t matter whether it’s reality or a videogame, it’s what I hope any of us would do if we were in similar circumstances.

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