Tomb Raider II & Atmosphere Through Minimalism

I recently completed Tomb Raider II after four or so months of on/off play. I really enjoyed my time with it and its probably in my top five of the Tomb Raider series.

For a good while now I have been playing with the sound down and a podcast or audiobook playing in the background as something to listen to rather than constant gunfire and explosions. But with Tomb Raider II, a game that I have played before, have the soundtrack on my iPod, and know the cutscene dialogues off by heart, I kept pausing whatever I was listening to on a regular basis just to soak in the world and the atmosphere.

Looking at the game in stills or an off hand look at gameplay doesn’t quite give the same appeal as playing the game and experiencing the atmosphere yourself. Because it is not what is in the game that gives it its special charm; it’s what is left out that creates an atmosphere, and by extension a more captivating world.

How Tomb Raider II’s Spartan Atmosphere Made Me Pause

Tomb Raider II is often at times a bleak and lonely experience. The only people in the world are our eponymous heroine Lara Croft and a whole host of wild animals and monsters ready to ruin our day. In her critique of the series Diane Carr notes that the tombs and temples Lara moves through are, “…emphatically empty…a space that is rarely abbreviated…” (2002, p.172-173), one that we must travel through alone and rely on no one but ourselves for survival. The only accompanying sound on your quest through the world are the constant “dff, dff, dff” of Lara’s footsteps on cold stone.

The musical score is kept to a minimum and only springing into life when the time is right; a tiger leaping forward to bite you is accompanied by a sound meaning “DANGER! (16:21), you enter an expansive cave system and the soundtrack soars into “Be in awe of the space you are in.” (12:12), and when you sit atop a snowmobile, the soundtrack says, “This is cool, so lets add some funky beats as you race off across the snow.” (5:24). They are individual vignettes with most lasting less than a minute and fading in and out at only the most vital moments of gameplay.

In a similar way, cutscenes, whether in-game or pre-rendered, are used sparingly and mainly to bookend “chapters” of the story as we move from one desolate part of the globe to the next. It’s almost a reward, a novelty that is different from the rest of the gameplay. However, I could just watch the cutscenes on YouTube, but it wouldn’t feel the same. I guess some of it may come down to a sense of accomplishment; after being in a frozen wasteland for the better part of an hour and fighting off a horde of yetis, a two-minute respite and full-motion CGI is a feast for the eyes.

This all came to a head in the penultimate level, Floating Islands, a mind-bending level of lava-covered walls, stone statues coming to life, and as the name suggests, floating islands of jade hovering in the middle of a black void. As I made my way through the level staring up at the swirling dark sky with nothing but a quiet rustle of a soundscape to keep me company an odd feeling came over me; a mixture of fear and elation. That in this world, through the atmosphere, I felt completely alone. It was something I hadn’t felt for a long time in games and I weirdly liked it.

So the question to ask is why? Why does this lack of sound, lack of narrative reinforcement, and lack of other characters to bounce off our heroine make me like the game more? We must look at the games that come afterwards where those things are now a constant and see if they rise or fall with these now essential components of game design.

How does post-classic Tomb Raider contrast with the originals in terms of atmosphere?

As memory hardware, graphics, and gameplay have been tweaked over the years a more cinematic experience has taken hold. A constant non-diegetic music plays, the gameplay fades out to cutscene from anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes and back again, and the satisfying “ping!” of the checkpoint indicator chimes every few minutes or so. This is something that the new Tomb Raider games have taken hold of with both hands. And while I love the new games with Tomb Raider: Anniversary being my favourite game of the entire series the new games don’t seem to hold a candle to the creation of atmosphere that the classic series had.

It is not their lack of tombs of temples. Even though there has been a push of some modern levels in the new Tomb Raider’s including Tokyo skyscrapers and Soviet Installations they still have tombs ranking into the double digits. Classic Tomb Raider also had levels in high-tech towers and cities, but they still managed to have an atmosphere; foreboding and eerily empty. The newer games with their constant musical accompaniment, comm-link chats with other characters, and inner monologues seem to lose a bit of that isolation that worked so well for the older games.

Even with the new Endurance Mode in Rise Of The Tomb Raider I never feel truly alone. Endurance pits you as Lara in the middle of the Siberian Wilderness with your body heat rapidly declining and your hunger readily increasing. You have to go through the procedurally generated world trying to find shiny relics and crypts while keeping your stats from falling into critical condition. And even though Lara is on her own she constantly talks to herself. The monologuing is nothing new or revelatory about herself instead it is just constant reinforcement that she is hungry or cold. It started as a gripping sense of isolation which was destroyed by constant audio of, “I’m cold! I’m hungry!”.

Maybe that’s why I love Tomb Raider: Anniversary which is a remake of the first game. It takes away the ancillary characters and leaves Lara to herself and replicates the old style that had been long forgotten. But as I play through the cutscenes start to seep in and the musical chimes play out every few minutes, taking me away from the isolated world and filling it with dialogue and non-diegetic sound. Just like Tomb Raider II I know these cutscenes word-for-word and I love the soundtrack, but its constant playing makes it seem less special. The novelty wears off.

Conclusion

I played through the most recent release Rise Of The Tomb Raider late last year and completed it within a week. A similar thing happened when I first played Tomb Raider 2013, where after getting to grips with the controls I blazed through it in a couple of weeks. Is this a similar symptom? Am I being over-exposed to stimulation which in turn makes me race through the game, hoping to keep the world changing quick enough that I don’t find it stale? Possibly.

Possibly, but not likely.

Because I love the new games. I love the new Lara, whose inner thoughts and monologues give her a more interesting edge than the psychopathic murderess that pop culture knows. I love her interactions with other characters which fill the world with, well…character. I love the music and the way it soars and sweeps and fits in with the location perfectly.

I guess it must be down to exposure to gameplay. After almost twenty years of not playing a classic Tomb Raider, I’m enraptured with its differences; its unique quirks that set it aside from gaming of the present day. One is not better than the other. The market has moved on and the Tomb Raider series has progressed with the times, changing as we have changed ourselves.

While it may have been over two decades since it graced our computer or television screens, it is impressive that something so devoid of life makes me reflect on where the Tomb Raider series is at right now. With the teaser trailer release of Shadow Of The Tomb Raider I tweeted how I didn’t want another hidden civilisation of natives for Lara to find. Was this an early stage of wanting a more isolated main character? Maybe, but isolation would tear apart what I love about this new version of Lara. She calls out for other people to join her even if it is just for a minute. Alex, Roth, Reyes, and Grimm, side-lined and gone. Sam, the sweetheart now lost to the comic book pages. Jonah, ever jovial and dependable. Sofia, the iron-willed warrior queen, and Nadia, the naive but headstrong adventurer. These are people that augment Lara and give me a reason to return.

While I loved the aspect of isolation while I played TR2, I’m happy to leave it behind as a good memory of the fun I had while playing. A fondness of a legacy is not a bad thing, but neither is change. With change we can sometimes forget what came before, but rediscover it and fall in love with a series all over again.

Bibliography

Carr, D. (2002). Chapter 11 – Playing With Lara. In King G. and Krzywinska T. (Ed). Screenplay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces. Wallflower Press, London.

Banner photo source: Engadget.com.

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