Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be spelunking into the dark and sordid past of Tomb Raider. Kidding! Well, about the “dark and sordid” piece. We’re totally covering Tomb Raider. As ever, year of release refers to the North American publication.
British video game studio Core Design was formed in 1988 by a set of staff members who had left Gremlin Graphics (developer of 1985’s Gauntlet). Toby Gard joined the studio in 1994 and quickly took the lead on the six-person team developing the first Tomb Raider title. Though the game was originally intended to star a male protagonist, Gard decided early in development that a strong female character would be more appealing to gamers who had grown bored with the parade of male avatars in the medium. With this broad outline, and inspiration from the beloved Indiana Jones franchise, Tomb Raider was born.
Tomb Raider (1996)
Tomb Raider launched on the SEGA Saturn in European markets during October 1996, and was then published on PlayStation, Saturn and Windows platforms internationally one month later. The game was an instant success, becoming a much-discussed topic over the 1996 holiday season.
Most of the attention was on the lead character, as games up to this point had tended to feature little sex appeal within their target male audience. Polygonal graphics had made more realistic depictions of humans possible, and publisher Eidos Interactive had capitalized on the opportunity for titillation by hiring model Nathalie Cook to portray Tomb Raider protagonist Lara Croft at media events; disappointingly, Eidos had even requested the inclusion of a nude code in the game’s programming, but Gard had steadfastly refused to implement it. His inspirations for Lara’s design had been rapper Neneh Cherry and comic book character Tank Girl, so overt sexualization flew in the face of his approach to the character’s identity. Gard had already caved to pressure requesting that he modify the character’s ethnic background – she was originally a Latina named Laura Cruz before the studio was told that an Anglo origin would sell better – and he was unwilling to further modify his original concept.
More important than pandering to young men, if less controversial, was the rise of Lara Croft as one of the medium’s first major female avatars. In a format with limited narrative opportunities, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, women had often been relegated to the role of damsel; players typically took on the role of a male hero saving this archetypical figure. Much of this, in addition to representing broader patriarchal storytelling tropes, hinged on assumptions that game enthusiasts were young men who would relate more easily to a male protagonist. With Lara Croft, Core Design fired an opening shot in the battle for representation within the gaming medium. Lara Croft would appeal to gamers who were seeking a charismatic lead character who looked and sounded more like them.
Characters aside, the game itself is an interesting iteration on third-person shooters. Along with several other major titles in the mid-’90s, Tomb Raider was a pioneer in 3D game design. Earlier third-person action-adventure games had been controlled from either a bird’s-eye view perspective, as with Metal Gear (1987), or from a side-scrolling perspective, as with Contra (1987). Gunplay as a game mechanic needed clear lines of fire, and 2D visual design facilitated this through easy indications of where the player could expect projectiles to move. Evolving into a three-dimensional space made this less clear; targets might now move along x, y, or z axes and reliable rules would need to be established by developers brave enough to stake out a claim in untested waters.
The primary way that Core Design handled this dilemma was similar to the approach taken by Naughty Dog in Crash Bandicoot (1996). Rather than open up environments in the way that Nintendo would do with Super Mario 64 (1996) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), level design in Tomb Raider is actually still gridded. It offers the illusion of three dimensions while still grounding its architecture in the mechanical traditions of top-down 16-bit games. Enemies are automatically targeted based on their proximity to Lara, avoiding the question of how players would assess and eliminate threats in an environment with three axes rather than the two historically encountered by action game players. In the absence of more robust targeting mechanics – these would only achieve mainstream acceptance after the release of Mega Man Legends in 1997 and Ocarina of Time in 1998 – Tomb Raider’s aim assistance stands out as one of Core Design’s more elegant design choices.
While firearms and enemies were present, however, the bulk of Tomb Raider’s playtime is taken up with solving puzzles and navigating platform-based challenges in a 3D space. Crash Bandicoot had forged a path based on the simple mascot platformer mechanics of the 16-bit era, translated to a grid-based 3D space, but Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 took the more acrobatic route of less-popular 2D platformers like Prince of Persia (1989). Momentum was a key factor, permitting jumps to distant platforms only if enough of a lead approach was available. Lara Croft, like Mario, can hang from ledges if she misses them slightly, again reducing the barrier to entry for new players unfamiliar with platforming (or for the even larger pool of players who had not yet played a 3D game). As in the case of Crash Bandicoot and other platformers aside from those published on the Nintendo 64, players only have access to four direction buttons so full 3D movement is not possible.
The narrative is relatively straightforward. Drawing inspiration from Indiana Jones, it puts the player in the shoes of bold young archaeologist Lara Croft on a globe-spanning adventure to recover a series of artifacts. Along the way, Lara visits Egypt, Atlantis and other locales while battling the nefarious Natla Technologies and, eventually, genetically engineered mutants. It’s not overly complex, but it does establish the thrilling mixture of modern-day intrigue and mysterious ancient civilizations that the series would return to over the following decades. Most importantly, it characterizes Lara as a level-headed adventurer who is always up to the challenge of some new foe.
With such instant popularity, it came as no surprise when the game inspired an entire franchise. Creator Toby Gard, however, departed Core Design in 1997 over frustrations with how Eidos Interactive wanted to market and develop the Lara Croft character. An expanded re-release on PC in 1998, featuring four new levels to explore, would not involve him. It would be ten years before Gard returned to the franchise, first for Tomb Raider Legend (2006) and then Tomb Raider Anniversary a year later. The latter is a remake featuring an entirely new gameplay engine with significantly upgraded visuals; unsurprisingly, it would be be criticized for level designs not originally built to accommodate the acrobatic control that players had come to expect over the intervening decade. Additionally, some portions of the original game in which the player had controlled Lara Croft were rebuilt to instead be quick-time-event sequences. In keeping with broader industry trends, it seems that the rough gameplay edges had been sanded off to offer the player a more cinematic experience.
Tomb Raider 2 (1997)
Sony had watched the rise of Lara Croft closely and, between the first and second games in the Tomb Raider franchise, established a deal with Eidos Interactive to release the next two games for the PlayStation and PC alone; PC enthusiasts were considered a very different market than console owners, so this effectively gave Sony control over one of the most exciting new intellectual properties of the 1990s. Lara’s creator, Toby Gard, had made a clean break with his character, but much of the original team stuck around to develop a sequel. Given the debut’s critical and commercial dominance, it is unsurprisingly that Core Design opted to iterate only slightly on its flagship series.
The game is visually almost identical to its predecessor with a few key updates. Lara has received a new model with a higher polygon count, permitting more detail. Costume changes also now occur in each chapter based upon the environment. Finally, the improvement in character model detail includes a ponytail that bounces dynamically. This may seem a frivolous feature, but it actually foreshadows a broader emphasis on hair physics during the late 2000s.
Lara has access to all of her actions from the previous title, though a handful of new actions and weapons have been added. Lara can now climb and drive vehicles, offering more potential for the devious puzzles that tested player brains in the first game. The inclusion of an entire series of levels set in a sunken ship also necessitates the addition of a spear gun to Lara’s arsenal. Croft Manor is reintroduced to players after having appeared as a tutorial in the first game, functioning mechanically as a space to safely explore Lara’s moveset (much like Peach’s Castle Grounds in Super Mario 64). In addition, it serves the narrative, foregrounding Lara’s background as the wealthy heir of a famous archaeologist. This time, the grounds surrounding the manor are accessible to players for the first time.
Dynamic lighting has been added, enhancing the atmosphere of the game’s four new locales. These include the Great Wall of China, a mansion in Venice, the aforementioned sunken ship, and a Tibetan monastery. Though the new level designs feature more open layouts and outdoor areas than the first game had, crumbling edifices and the titular tombs ensure that the player must manage his or her inventory wisely, lest Lara find herself stranded in a dark area with no flares. This is an exciting evolution on the less adaptive levels of Tomb Raider, though it would prove to be a more controversial feature in Tomb Raider III.
Puzzles are, sadly, less prominent in Tomb Raider II. The improvement of lighting and opening up of the game’s architecture pushed the possibility of including more set-pieces featuring enemies to defeat. An increase in the number of foes wielding firearms is a bit of a misstep, given the combat system’s emphasis on blasting the nearest enemy, but it is difficult to imagine wider areas not requiring a greater variety of long-distance dangers.
Narratively, the game is strikingly similar to Core Design’s first Tomb Raider. The action centers on a mystical artifact called the Dagger of Xian, which is being sought both by Lara and the Fiama Nera, a shadowy cult that worships the MacGuffin. Historical figures are pulled into the tale – Chinese Emperor Qin ShiHuang is said to have drawn power from the Dagger – and, as would become a running trope, Lara must stop the item from falling into the wrong hands to avoid a worldwide cataclysm. The Venetian Mafia even manages to get in on the action!
Tomb Raider II was almost as commercially successful as its predecessor. Critically, it is generally considered the superior of the series’ first two games. An expansion would be released in 1999 for the PC edition featuring a handful of new levels, but no remake would be produced (as of 2018). Happily, ports would be developed over the following twenty years and the game can still be easily accessed for most modern hardware, including mobile devices, through digital marketplaces.
Tomb Raider III (1998)
With Tomb Raider III, the cracks had begun to show in this seemingly unstoppable franchise. Eidos Interactive had established an annual cycle for Tomb Raider releases, which placed a significant strain on Core Design’s artists and programmers. That turnaround time may have been more reasonable before the 32-bit era, but the complexity of 3D polygonal design made maintaining a reliable level of quality and innovation impossible with less than one year to develop a game. Even the original Tomb Raider, the shortest and simplest of Lara Croft’s adventures so far, had taken eighteen months to produce.
Still, Core Design came through with Tomb Raider III in time for 1998’s holiday season. Little had changed in the level design, though difficulty is set higher through the inclusion of more dark spaces and more hazards standing between the player and his or her objective. Even the opening area is dangerous, prompting many players to lose patience with the game in its early hours. While the game is quite challenging, its level design is intended to represent a return to the puzzle-heavy gameplay of Tomb Raider rather than Tomb Raider II‘s greater emphasis on combat.
The visual design of Tomb Raider III is an ambitious attempt at enhancement within the confines of a quickly aging game engine, however. Core Design opted to eliminate as many hard edges as possible, in an attempt to make environments look more natural and less gridded, though this had the effect of making navigable terrain less clear. Their initial approach to gridded areas, it seems, had been the right path to take.
As series inspiration Indiana Jones would do a decade later, Tomb Raider’s plot takes a hard turn into interstellar elements with its third entry. The game begins in familiar enough settings, as Lara attempts to recover crystal artifacts in India and the South Pacific, before shifting gears for a chapter set in the United States’ Area 51; naturally, an alien ship is discovered. The MacGuffin for this adventure is a set of crystalline tools derived from a meteorite which crashed in Antarctica millions of years prior to the game’s event. As ever, a sinister organization led by an evil figure – in this case RX Tech and Dr. Willard – must be stopped from harnessing the aforementioned artifacts for their nefarious purposes.
With regard to the development of Lara Croft, Toby Gard’s concerns about Eidos Interactive’s handling of the character would prove sadly prescient – Lara Croft would be heavily sexualized in marketing materials between the second and third game, even ending up on non-gaming magazine covers and advertisements for other products. By 1999, this had gone so far that Eidos would actually be suing to keep the character’s likeness out of Playboy Magazine. The complexity of Lara Croft as a powerful lead character who also titillated male audiences would remain a challenging theme for the series to navigate as its popularity rose.
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999)
The Last Revelation marks the end of Eidos Interactive’s exclusivity to Sony console hardware, and is consequently the most significant evolution of the series since its debut three years earlier. Stalwart SEGA fans could now play a new Tomb Raider game on the Dreamcast, which boasted appreciably better visual capabilities than the aging PlayStation (on which the new game was simultaneously published). Still, it remains very much of a piece with what had come before.
Visually, Lara Croft’s model has undergone a redesign even more significant than the one it received in Tomb Raider II. Rather than focusing on overall polygon counts, Core Design opted to make the character more believable by improving her joint flexibility. Level design is visually updated too, maintaining the level of detail and dynamic lighting from Tomb Raider III but applying it to a more constrained environment.
The setting, in a radical reinvention, is confined entirely to one country after a prologue set in Cambodia. Lara, in pursuit of her mentor, visits Egypt and explores ancient tombs in earnest. This is a return to the series’ roots, of course, as open-air environments are eschewed for subterranean labyrinths, but is also an improvement on the more basic gridded structures of the original game’s world. The Egyptian tomb structure allows for the improvements to level design in the intervening years to harmonize nicely with the claustrophobic setting for which the underlying Tomb Raider engine was designed.
Aiming and gunplay also underwent a redesign. Lara could now manually aim, and a laser pointer could be affixed to some of her weapons. This permits the enhancement not only of combat, but also of the puzzles. Taking a cue from Ocarina of Time, released one year earlier, the ability to manually aim allows the inclusion of projectile-oriented puzzle sequences in which a fixed point must be targeted by the player. It’s a small innovation, but one that would help make The Last Revelation the most exciting Tomb Raider game in two years.
While no full expansions were released for Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation as they had been for earlier series entries, likely due to the game already being an unprecedented forty hours in length, one amusing post-launch update did occur. In a decidedly unexpected tie-in, The Times of London partnered with Core Design to release a standalone level mixing Lara Croft’s most recent adventure with the newspaper’s early 20th Century Egyptian expeditions, which had resulted in the uncovering of Tutankhamen’s tomb. A contemporary newspaper editor named Sir Peter Stothard even makes a cameo appearance in polygonal form.
Unfortunately, the stress had not ceased at Core Design during the development of The Last Revelation. Still held to an annual release schedule by publisher Eidos Interactive in spite of the need to keep up with evolutions in the console market as the 32-bit generation was phased out, the studio was growing resentful of their most famous character. In a bid to reduce the strain on their professional and personal lives, a small team of programmers at Core Design decided to kill Lara off at the climax of her fourth adventure. By the time that the studio’s leadership was aware of this, production was too far along to alter the narrative. The game concludes with Lara buried and presumed dead in an Egyptian tomb, an appropriately thrilling ending to the tale of Lara Croft.
Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000)
Of course, market forces being what they are, nothing could stop the series’ progress in spite of increasingly mixed reviews. Core Design was assigned to develop a game built from the ground up for the 128-bit generation of console hardware (while its best showing was on the next-gen SEGA Dreamcast, The Last Revelation was still built on an engine designed for 32-bit hardware). Sales for the series had remained strong so far, but working up a new engine would inevitably take time; fears that a loss of momentum could tank the series’ profits led Core Design to develop an interim title to tide fans over until the true next-generation successor.
Sadly, Tomb Raider Chronicles would be the critical and commercial disappointment that tends to result from contractual obligations. The plot is barely coherent, a cobbled-together tapestry of cut content and concepts from earlier games. The framing device is a set of stories told by Lara’s friends after the memorial service which followed her death in The Last Revelation. In a fashion modeled on Tomb Raiders II and III, each of the four chapters is set in a different location – these include Rome, a submarine on the ocean floor, an Irish island, and a high-tech facility owned by Lara’s former mentor and antagonist from The Last Revelation, Werner von Troy. Unlike the earlier games, these short adventures are not linked by an overarching story.
The gameplay and visuals are largely unchanged, aside from a handful of new acrobatic techniques usable in certain circumstances. The weapon loadout, like the level structure, harkens back to Tomb Raider III: gone is the laser-directed crossbow from The Last Revelation, replaced by the submachine gun from earlier games. This reflects the reduction in puzzle and combat details between the fourth and fifth titles.
The most interesting feature of the game was only available to players on the Mac and PC platforms. A level editor had been included, offering fans the ability to generate their own levels and adventures for the first time. This was, in fact, a version of the tool used to create the entirety of The Last Revelation, and fans were thrilled with it. Thanks to a fairly open architecture, the software has been supported by the wider community over the following seventeen years, receiving updates as recently as 2017.
Still selling 1,500,000 copies when released for the PlayStation, Dreamcast, Mac and PC in 2000, Tomb Raider Chronicles was not a commercial disaster. It did sell worse than any other preceding series entry, however, and the critical response was the poorest in the franchise’s history. Even so, the worst for Lara Croft was yet to come.
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (2003)
Angel of Darkness was a critical next step for Core Design in the evolution of their Tomb Raider property, and the studio stumbled badly. The game was published in 2003 on PC and PlayStation 2, a full year after its planned release date. Even this additional time had not resulted in a polished product, however, and the critics were harsh. Aside from a couple of portable spinoffs, the Tomb Raider series had been absent from public view for three years following five years of annual releases, so fan anticipation had been high for the franchise’s next entry.
So what, specifically, had gone wrong with Angel of Darkness? Fans were unhappy with the sloppy camera performance, an uninspired narrative, and controls which were too similar to the antiquated ones from the series’ earlier games. Rather than revisiting the anthology format of Chronicles, Angel of Darkness did indeed move the series forward after the apparent death of Lara in The Last Revelation; bafflingly, though, the developers did not bother to explain how Lara had survived her burial in an Egyptian tomb. The setting is split between Paris and Prague, as Lara seeks to clear her name following an allegation that she murdered her former mentor.
A handful of major gameplay iterations are present. The most revolutionary, if the least-likely to be encountered due to its presence only in the game’s back half, is the ability to play as Lara’s colleague Kurtis. Following on some minor steps towards innovation in The Last Revelation, level design is significantly less linear than earlier titles. This is intended to open up the player’s options for navigating the game world, but largely results in a lack of clear direction. Lara now has the ability to converse with NPCs – a feature insisted upon by Eidos Interactive based on recent trends in successful competing adventure titles – but this is inconsistently implemented and largely serves as window dressing for a plot still driven by action sequences.
These action sequences, unfortunately, are riddled with bugs and glitches. The Core Design team had ballooned from twelve to one hundred employees during development on the new game, and the lack of communication or structure was a key factor in the game’s poor design. Interviews with the staff suggest that there was little accountability for specific pieces of the project, so entire sections or elements like camera design would remain untouched for lengthy periods even after issues were identified. Rather than emphasize the strengths of the series and iterate on what Core Design had learned over the preceding seven years, Eidos Interactive had mandated lengthy dialogue sequences and the inclusion of choices, few of which ever made it to the final build of the game; Core Design had been rushed in the lead-up to release, so vast swaths of the levels are empty, devoid of sequences that had been planned but cut prior to shipping due to lack of time for debugging. The team had also spent virtually all of its three-year development cycle on the PlayStation 2 version, clumsily grafting on a barely playable PC control scheme in the final month before release and alienating long-time fans of the series’ PC ports.
In the end, the game was a failure. It is a cosmetic upgrade on the titles developed using the old Tomb Raider engine, but in every other way it lacks the polish of even the series’ most-rushed 32-bit titles. 2,500,000 million copies were purchased, but this still proved to be a commercial disappointment for Eidos Interactive given the long hours and inflated staff size. Worse still, Angel of Darkness was savaged by the press, suggesting that Tomb Raider had passed its prime and may not be fit for the next generation of hardware.
With this in mind, Eidos Interactive pulled its support from Core Design and offered development responsibilities to US studio Crystal Dynamics. Core Design had created the iconic character and her series, but was now seen as a troubled studio that lacked the expertise to make use of the larger resources required to develop 21st Century AAA games. This move, while painful for the staff involved, would be a critical step in revitalizing the series in the decade ahead. Still, it is hard not to mourn the passing of the torch from Core Design, which would be closed in 2010.
Tomb Raider Legend (2006)
American studio Crystal Dynamics, based in California, had gained notoriety during the late 1990s for its work on the Gex and Legacy of Kain franchises. Neither of those offered an indication of how the studio might handle the Tomb Raider property, and fans wondered whether the new studio would remain faithful to the series’ history or take it in a radically different direction. The result was somewhere between those extremes.
In order to ensure that it served the iconic character well, particularly in light of recent criticism concerning her overexposure in the media, Crystal Dynamics brought on original creator Toby Gard as a consultant. In fact, his role evolved to include programming, animation and character creation for additions to the cast.
That expanded cast represents the most immediately noticeable departure for the game, as Lara is no longer a lone adventurer; she is supported by two assistants, Alister and Zip. The former is a historical analyst, offering commentary on the background of artifacts and locations encountered throughout the adventure. The latter is a tech expert who helps Lara with mechanical puzzles. Both are primarily heard but not seen, as they banter back and forth with Lara via headset. Zip had actually been featured briefly in Tomb Raider Chronicles, but his role in Tomb Raider Legend is much more prominent.
The game engine itself has gone through another overhaul, and the buggy infrastructure of Angel of Darkness has been abandoned. The new engine permits more fluid acrobatic moves and eliminates the gridded landscape which had persisted throughout the PlayStation era and even into the sixth console generation. That said, the combat and action still adhere closely to the template established by earlier adventures. Crystal Dynamics clearly intended to retain old fans while smoothing out some of the series’ more antiquated elements.
With regard to narrative, Crystal Dynamics also stuck to a tried and true blend of the supernatural with the globe-trotting modern thriller. Lara’s backstory is shaded in more extensively, placing the plot’s focus squarely on Lara’s relationship with her mother, believed to have died following a plane crash early in Lara’s life, and her recently-deceased friend Amanda. Of course, it is quickly discovered that neither of these figures died; Amanda becomes the story’s antagonist and much of the quest is spent hunting down Lara’s missing mother. Along with this, Bolivia, Tokyo, Nepal, Kazakhstan and England all appear as settings on Lara’s simultaneous journey to find and eventually reforge Excalibur.
The game ended up being highly successful. It sold more than any recent Tomb Raider title, reminding players why they had fallen in love with Lara Croft and the series in the first place. Elements which players enjoyed had been retained – Lara’s personality, appearance and the series’ characteristic blend of historical mysteries with modern conspiracies – while the creaky control scheme and rigidly constructed level design had been left behind. Production would quickly begin on a remake of the original Tomb Raider, which also proved a critical and commercial success upon its release in 2007.
Tomb Raider Underworld (2008)
Eidos Interactive was still seeking annual releases, though this was more doable with a large Crystal Dynamics staff and a modern game engine. The two year development period of Tomb Raider Legend permitted quicker turnaround time on Tomb Raider Anniversary (2007), which had the advantage of being a remake, but the studio somehow developed an entirely new engine for Tomb Raider Underworld in 2008. This should have been the kind of overly ambitious goal that results in buggy fiascos like Angel of Darkness, but Crystal Dynamics was up to the task.
Underworld was perhaps the studio’s most critically successful game yet, even if the commercial performance fell short of Eidos Interactive’s expectations. The new engine took full advantage of the processing power in Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware, delivering uncharacteristically vast environments and more robust physics-based puzzles than Tomb Raider fans had previously encountered.
To prove the viability of this new, ambitious take on Lara Croft, Crystal Dynamics opens the game with the descent of its iconic character through the ocean and into underwater ruins. In past titles, this may have been an unplayable cinematic sequence, but the player was entirely in command of Lara on this new outing. In spite of the larger areas, careful level design makes navigation and exploration simple. Non-linearity is no longer the problem that it had been in Angel of Darkness. Even the dreaded specter of underwater swimming controls was handled deftly by the development team, resulting in a control scheme that placed the focus on puzzle solving rather than clumsy navigation.
Toby Gard returned to the series once again, and his influence is reflected in the heavier emphasis on Lara’s character development. The plot is a direct sequel to Tomb Raider Legend, resolving the issue of Lara’s missing mother and even offering dramatic story beats for sidekicks Alister and Zip. The game even opens with the total annihilation of Croft Manor in an explosion; it’s hard to offer a more dramatic farewell to the past than that, as the structure had featured as a key series location since its debut entry over a decade earlier.
While much of the overhaul made to the series in its new engine is cosmetic and structural, a handful of significant new gameplay elements have also been added. The environment is designed to be more adaptable, with rain-slick ledges making traversal more challenging than dry paths. Interaction is higher as well, so Lara’s new grappling hook can interact realistically with the physical architecture and items in the game world; the planning process for this was humorously called “What Could Lara Do,” or WCLD. Finally, melee combat is heavily integrated into battle sequences. The game is broadly designed to eliminate events in which the player loses control through story scenes or QTEs, so more robust action and fight controls were a necessity.
Though Underworld is largely successful, a handful of small issues are still present. Ports to the PlayStation 2 and Wii were full of bugs, and the basic building blocks of the game – responsive camera, reactive level design – were dramatically curtailed by the previous generation’s technical limitations. At the same time, the narrative came under fire for being simultaneously convoluted and thin. This is a bit surprising, given the involvement of Toby Gard as writer for the project, but it may reflect long-term structural issues with the baggage of Lara Croft as a character; the contemporary Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008), also the latest entry in a long-running saga, was beset by similar narrative problems.
Additionally, the long-simmering issue of Lara Croft’s sexualization and her heterosexual male audience is curiously handled in Underworld. With Gard back on the development team and Crystal Dynamics’ history of emphasizing the character’s personality and physical capabilities over her role in titillating audiences, players could be forgiven for assuming that the new game would continue to move away from the overt sexualization which had characterized the character in the late 1990s. In fact, this is partly true – in a nod to the increasing role of choice in the medium throughout the 2000s, players have the opportunity to choose Lara’s wardrobe for the first time. At the outset of each stage, the player can opt for a sensible outfit based on the setting or a more revealing one, based on his or her preferences. This seems to be an effective way to thread the needle between catering to the male gaze and enforcing Gard’s vision for the character, though it would be abandoned entirely in the next entry.
Tomb Raider (2013)
In 2009, Eidos Interactive was bought by Square Enix and renamed Square Enix Europe. With a change in leadership, changes to the Tomb Raider series were inevitable. Happily, Crystal Dynamics retained control of development even through this transitional period. It split its staff into two teams: one worked on a spinoff to be discussed below, and the other team started development on a complete series reboot. Lara’s story had experienced a soft reboot with 2006’s Tomb Raider Legend, but Tomb Raider Anniversary established this continuity as being fundamentally similar to the original Core Design interpretation. The new Tomb Raider would instead represent a complete reinvention of the franchise.
Lara Croft is, as ever, the focal point of this revision. Chronologically, Tomb Raider (2013) is set at the beginning of Lara’s career. Fresh out of college, she accompanies a doomed expedition to the mysterious Yamatai Island and engages in a life or death struggle to save her friends. Much of the supporting cast is thinly sketched, but Lara’s friend Sam is the strongest of these new additions to the character roster. Lara has a heroic new mentor in this rebooted series as well, rather than the treacherous Werner Von Troy. The update to Lara’s age has consequences on her personality, as she lacks the confidence and authority she commanded in earlier entries; this is overall an exciting new direction for the franchise, as players get to watch her development over time, but it carries its own set of unique challenges.
In particular, the development team emphasized Lara’s vulnerability and the player’s desire to protect her in pre-release coverage. Critics drew attention to the double-standard that this seemed to represent, as male leads in contemporary action-adventure games were not similarly designed to inspire paternalistic instincts in the player. Still, the in-game narrative crafted by writers Susan O’Connor and Rhianna Pratchett (who had formerly worked on Overlord and Mirror’s Edge) would go a long way towards resolving this controversy: in contrast to suggestions by developer Ron Rosenberg prior to the game’s release, no sexual assault imagery was present in Tomb Raider (2013). Happily, Lara is presented not as a vulnerable person in need of protection but rather as a capable adventurer learning how to protect herself and her friends. Virtually none of the highly sexualized imagery remains from Lara Croft’s earlier games and promotional appearances.
The gameplay has undergone a major revision as well. It integrates popular mechanics of the early 2010s, including a skill tree and the ability to heighten senses in a manner similar to the popular Batman: Arkham franchise (2009-2016). With regard to the former, the player is now able to upgrade Lara’s skills and weaponry through a menu-based interface rather than simply needing to adapt their own reflexes over time. This is something of a double-edged sword, as it causes the player to feel underpowered at the adventure’s start with no ability to overcome certain obstacles, but it does carry the abstraction of character development conveyed by RPG leveling systems.
In a rather striking u-turn, QTEs made their return after having been deliberately eschewed in Underworld. These were a point of contention, as they rely on the player paying close attention during otherwise non-interactive events, and can result in grisly death scenes if failed. Another rather amusing, if accurate, criticism is the relative absence of tombs. After a long series of games in which subterranean exploration had been either emphasized or minimized, the newest Tomb Raider seemed to almost entirely abandon the original concept of navigating tombs through solving environmental puzzles. A handful of these areas exist, but they are optional and easily missed by players more eager to engage in the tense narrative.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that a dramatic overhaul was just what the Tomb Raider series needed. Core Design had reached a narrative and mechanical dead-end, while Crystal Dynamics had done their best in the 2000s but were hampered by adherence to antiquated design philosophies. The same studio had now successfully rebooted the series and drawn in a new generation of players who were more familiar with the cover-based or contextual combat of Uncharted (2007) than the quirky platforming of the original Prince of Persia (1989). The next step would be discerning whether this new direction had the momentum to sustain a series of sequels.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015)
Crystal Dynamics rapidly set to work on a sequel to its 2013 triumph, and the results were largely positive. The core mechanics are retained, though player feedback and criticism of the first title in the reboot series led to a handful of small improvements.
QTE sequences have again been cut back in favor of emphasizing scenarios in which the player has full control of Lara Croft. Tombs are more frequent and tie in more closely to the narrative; the subterranean cities of Cappadocia were visited by the development team in order to properly convey these settings. Finally, the cast is slimmed down to its most basic elements in order to foreground the sense of isolation and self-reliance that Lara experiences in her growth from rookie archaeologist to confident adventurer.
Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s narrative, in fact, spills over directly from the preceding adventure. Lara is exploring Siberia seeking the legendary city of Kitezh and pursuing evidence of a shadowy group known as Trinity. This group is tied to the death of Lara’s father, and their exposure would vindicate unsubstantiated claims for which the elder Croft was ridiculed by his colleagues. The city, meanwhile, is said to hold the secret to eternal life.
All of this is part and parcel with the Tomb Raider franchise, but the way in which the developers express Lara’s character growth is what makes Rise of the Tomb Raider unique. In particular, survival elements take center-stage for the first time in the series’ history. Tomb Raider (2013) had drawn its most significant mechanical influences from Uncharted – a series that was, itself, indebted to Tomb Raider – but the newest entry in Lara Croft’s tale would owe much of its design to survival titles like State of Decay (2013) and The Long Dark (2014). The Siberian wilderness is full of dangers, including animals, human foes, and the harsh weather itself. Consequently, Lara is only able to survive through cautious assessment of her surroundings and crafting items by using resources she finds.
Turning the non-linear world design into an antagonist, in its own way, works to underline the game’s core theme: Lara’s evolution into a powerful, self-reliant figure. It is only through depriving the character (and player) from the more curated elements of past games that their ingenuity and adaptability is able to shine through.
This does carry with it a significant barrier to entry. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s grim tone should be familiar to fans of its direct predecessor, but it stands in stark contrast to earlier series entries. Happily, it has the compensating virtue of improving the rebooted Tomb Raider series’ unique identity and helping to mitigate criticisms that the previous game had been overly derivative of Sony’s Uncharted franchise.
In a surprising twist, the game was initially released as an Xbox One exclusive in 2015. By 2016, however, it was available to players on PlayStation 4 and PC hardware. This left a bad taste in the mouths of loyal Sony fans who hadn’t been denied the debut of a Tomb Raider game since 1996, when the first title premiered on SEGA Saturn shortly ahead of its publication on PlayStation. It has done little to mar longer-term reception to the game, however, and fans now regard it as one of Lara Croft’s most compelling adventures.
More than a few spinoffs have been released in Tomb Raider’s twenty-two year history. The first two were portable titles published on Nintendo’s Game Boy Color in 2000 and 2001. Both are quite similar, designed by Core Design using the same side-scrolling engine. Colors are bright, Lara is extraordinarily well-animated, and level design is varied. In some ways, it stands to reason that a 3D action-adventure game with heavy platforming elements would translate well to a two dimensional space, but the success of these two games is still worth celebrating.
Another portable Tomb Raider was released in 2002 on the Game Boy Advance. Developed by Ubisoft Milan, as Core Design was thoroughly preoccupied by Angel of Darkness, Tomb Raider: The Prophecy represents a bold new direction for the handheld series. Instead of being a platforming game, either 2D or 3D, the GBA spinoff is an isometric action-adventure game focused on puzzles and combat. The rich visuas pushed the GBA hardware to its limits, but critics found that uninspired level design and repetition kept the experience from being enjoyable.
The next spinoff, which was published by Crystal Dynamics on digital marketplaces for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and mobile devices, would be significantly more effective. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010) is a multiplayer-focused arcade-style action game played from an overhead isometric perspective. The addition of a second character, which can be controlled either by a second player or the AI, offers the opportunity for much richer puzzles and more thrilling combat scenarios. Surprisingly, the engine is actually the same one used to develop Tomb Raider Underworld, though that main series entry is played from a much closer perspective. A similar sequel, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, would follow in 2014 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Both games were critically acclaimed and commercially successful, again suggesting that developer Crystal Dynamics could handle the series better than any other studio.
Finally, two releases were published in 2015 on mobile platforms. The first of these, Lara Croft: Relic Run, is a derivative free-to-play endless runner in the style of Imangi Studios’ Temple Run (2011). The second, Lara Croft: GO, is instead an inventive turn-based puzzle game that follows the virtual board-game template established by the previous year’s Hitman: GO. Both puzzle entries in this GO series were developed by Square Enix Montreal, and both received massive critical acclaim despite upending the established mechanics for their respective franchises.
The next step for Lara Croft will be the conclusion of Crystal Dynamics’ reboot trilogy. Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) promises to be another survival-oriented adventure in the vein of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and fans are eagerly awaiting its upcoming release. Despite some growing pains in the early 2000s, Tomb Raider looks to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
What do you think? Which is your favorite Tomb Raider game? How about the coolest boss encountered in the series? (that’s a trick question – it’s obviously the T-rex). Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Next week we’ll be covering the BIT.TRIP/Runner series, so be sure to join the discussion at 9:00 AM EST on Friday, August 24.
Further Reading & Sources on Tomb Raider
- Vox – Why we’ve been arguing about Lara Croft for two decades [text]
- Digital Trends – History of Tomb Raider: Blowing the dust off 17 years of Lara Croft [text]
- PCGamer – The history of Tomb Raider [text]
- Eurogamer – 20 years on, the Tomb Raider story told by the people who were there [text]
- Eurogamer – The history of Tomb Raider