A Defence Of The Tomb Raider Reboot & Dead Parents As Motivation

I recently began playing Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, an updated version of the 2013 reboot. It has been well over half a decade since I have played the original game, so there was a cool balance of rediscovering a gem of the past generation, now in crystal-clear HD.

While the new games brought a different gameplay experience and a fresh-faced Lara Croft to the players, it reused a critical element of the previous reboot games story; Lara Croft’s parents are dead, and they are her motivation for her tomb raiding journey.

The dead parent trope is nothing new in pop culture, used in everything from Batman to Star Wars, Harry Potter and yes, Tomb Raider. This was seen as a contentious choice by Crystal Dynamics and narrative writer Rhianna Pratchett (alongside Jill Murray and Jason Dozois for Shadow), with the majority of the audience saying that it took away Lara’s agency, removing a strong part of her character.

And…I don’t agree. Now that we’ve had three years to see the entire trilogy, I believe the dead parents trope was a fantastic stroke of creative work.

Papa Can You Hear Me? – The Tomb Raider Reboot & Lara’s Dead Parents; A Defence

The original Tomb Raider games rarely acknowledged Lara Croft’s parents. We learn a little bit from her biography in the game manual for the first TR; how they arranged a marriage for her, but when she found a love of exploring and grave robbing, they disowned her, cutting her off from their lives.

It’s an interesting quirk of the original character; rather than running around tombs because of her parents legacy, she is breaking out for herself, being whoever she wants to be and rejecting the life that was laid out for her.

The only time her parents are ever seen in-game is at the start of Tomb Raider: Chronicles, where they attend the memorial service of their daughter, who is presumed dead in Egypt.

This all changed with the Tomb Raider movie in 2001, where Lara’s dead father was an archeologist, leaving clues for Lara to follow in his footsteps when he died searching for a powerful artefact. This carried over into the initial reboot series in 2006, with Lara looking for clues about her mother’s disappearance in Legend and Underworld, and following her father’s clues to an artefact in Anniversary.

This continued into the second reboot, with the few differences. Instead of disappearing, Lara’s mother died during a plane crash. In the first reboot, Lara’s father was killed by one of his enemies, but in the new reboot, her father was suspected of committing suicide, until it was proven it was staged.

Lara’s memorial service in Tomb Raider: Chronicles. This is the only time her parents appear in-person in the original Classic series. (Source: tombraiderforums.com)

When Lara’s parents are mentioned for the first time in TR 2013, Lara is notably dismissive of her father. At this point in her journey she has seen her father waste away, leaving her to essentially grow up on her own. He then commits suicide, with Lara discovering his body in his office. She’s not angry at him, but there is a bitterness and a feeling of wanting to separate herself from the Croft name and legacy.

Near the start of the game, Lara and the head archeologist Dr. Whitman start talking about the legendary Queen Himiko. Lara is playful but dismissive about Whitman’s theories, jokingly comparing him to their air-headed documentarian Sam. When Whitman continues talking about mystical and shamanistic powers Himiko was believed to have, Lara replies,

“You sound like my father.”

Unlike her previous jokey comments, in which comical sighs, suppressed chuckles and sarcasm can be heard, Lara’s remark about her father is cold, devoid of the previous infections of humour.

It’s not only when she is with others that her disdain for her father can be heard. After she flees the Stormguard Monastery and the monstrous Oni, Lara reprimands herself in her journal entry, saying,

“Shit, just listen to yourself, Lara. You sounds like dad.”

She continues, but her tone becomes softer.

“It’s like they’re the remnants of some lost civilisation. Okay, now you really sound like dad.”

For the first time she is starting to believe her father’s crazy theories, the ones that drove him away from her. She has lost her father to these ideas, and only now she realises that they might be true. Despite seeing that he might have been right, Lara doesn’t want to be like her father. This can be seen when Lara’s mentor, Roth, tells her he sees her father in her, and Lara replies that she,

…[isn’t] that type of Croft.”

But now she finds herself drawn to the space where her father used to be, finally seeing things from his point of view. As seen in the final scene of TR 2013, Lara says,

“For years I resented my father, doubted him like the rest. But he was right about so much. I just wish I could tell him that now.”

She is finally coming around to being in line with her father. She continues,

“There are so many mysteries that I once dismissed as mere stories. But the line between our myths and truth is fragile and blurry. I need to find answers…I must understand.”

It’s this last line that forms the crux of the entire trilogy. She’s doubted her father for so long, but now has evidence that he was right. She wants to fix the space between them, even though it would do nothing, essentially repairing the bond with a ghost.

In both 2013 and RotTR, the campfires are host to Lara monologuing about her father, their relationship, and Lara trying to understand a man that she had previously written off (Source: stripes.com).

The rest of the series continues with this in mind. Lara is following her father’s footsteps, following his clues and his research, but the emotion behind it gives it added weight, giving it more layers, with Lara adding her own spin on it.

In Rise it is mentioned during her therapy sessions that she’s been reading through her dad’s research. Lara responds,

“There’s so much in my head, but I don’t have the connections…”

Later on during one of the campfire sequences she says,

“I think about Dad every day. For years I was so angry with him. For losing himself in his work, for chasing what I thought were fairytales. I keep telling myself that I was young…that I couldn’t understand. But I still lost him. And now…for some reason, I feel more connected to him than I ever did when he was alive. He never got this far, but I know he’s with me…but he’s gone now. I’m the only one who knew he was right.”

She’s actively trying to repair the bond they had. It’s a broken connection between father and daughter, first of hatred, now of fascination. It makes sense after the first adventure that Lara would throw herself into his work, his research, in order to better understand him and feel close to him, having so long ago tried to separate herself from his legacy.

That’s not to say that Lara is totally forgiving of her father. Throughout Rise Lara listens to tapes that her father made for her. One of these is a tape that he made for her when she was at school. She’s angry that he left her alone, saying,

“I know your work was important, but it didn’t feel like it at the time.”

She falls back on humour and sarcasm to deflect the dark thoughts in her mind, saying,

“Still, it taught me independence, how to look after myself. Important lessons as it turns out.”

The parents storyline culminates at the end of Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. Lara has the power to reshape the world however she wants, using the artefact of the game. Despite the myriad of problems in the world that she could fix, she stops for a moment and thinks of one selfish act. She travels back in time, possibly thinking of rectifying the past, of saving her parents and having a normal childhood.

She travels to a half-remembered memory when she was young, when her mother and father were still alive, when they were having a picnic in the Croft Manor gardens. For the past two games she has been angry at her father, for burying himself away in his research, for neglecting Lara. She understands his reasoning, but does not agree that it was the right thing to do. This is why this memory is important.

Lara travelling back to a childhood memory in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and finally putting the memory of her parents to rest. (Source: bloggingwithdragons.com).

This memory heals Lara, showing her that her father did in fact care for her and wasn’t the unloving neglectful monster that she thought him to be. It was obvious that her father loved her, as can be heard in the tapes that she listens to during Rise. But that love was only one-way; Lara was still dismissive of him during the time of Rise. It is only during this last moment when the bond is finally connected.

It is a beautiful melancholic arc that only hits when Lara is at the end of her journey. With the bond repaired she returns to the present, but holds that memory close at heart, filling her room at Croft Manor with items to remind herself of her parents.

So while detractors may sniff at Lara’s dead parents being used as a motivating factor instead of giving the heroine her own reasons to gallivant around the world, I maintain that this was an interesting inversion of the idea. It was cool to see Lara’s initial anger change over the course of three games, subtly morphing as Lara finds more and more ways to connect with the memory of her parents.

It was a great trilogy, backed by a powerful and personal story of growth and change, of Lara learning about herself and her family, seeing with fresh eyes someone she had previously written off.

It’s a nice arc, one that ends with Lara finally putting the demons of her past to rest, giving her a clear canvas to move onto.

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Banner Photo Source: gamebyte.com/deviantart (@danytatu)

Tomb Raider’s St Francis’ Folly & Intention In Level Design

Level design is one of the fundamental building blocks of creating a game; it is the world that we inhabit. We can all think of great games with some excellent level design and all in different ways.

Some games use their design to aid you with traversal through a single path; Faith’s “Runner’s Vision” in Mirror’s Edge guiding the way through colour, or scratched/worn down walls in Prince Of Persia showing you can wall run are two that come to mind.

In a similar vein, other games allow a wide range of possibilities from a single starting point. Metroid and Castlevania have an almost exclusive hold over this type of design (so much that “Metroidvania” is a portmanteau in gaming culture). Newer titles such as Hitman and Ratchet And Clank also deliver this type of world. You may not be able to reach all the nooks and crannies until you have gone away and learnt new skills.

Other games use their level design to bring their worlds to life. Bioshock’s flooded and rusting hallways, blossoming gardens and…everything about Fort Frolic perfectly paints the dying embers of a Galtian wonderland. Remember Me’s narrative snakes around its levels, with the Bastille Lake and St. Michel Rotunda amplifying the narrative beats that occur in those levels. The hidden tombstones in Modern Warfare 2’s “Contingency” highlight a possible cultural heritage of the area.

Today I wanted to write about a level that encompasses all three types of design, to varying degrees. That level is “St Francis’ Folly” from the Tomb Raider series. “St Francis’ Folly” is a level in the first TR game, meaning that it was remade in Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider Anniversary. So I wanted to talk about the two in tandem, because even though they are the same level, the way they differ gives a different tone to each level.

How “St Francis’ Folly”’s Meaning Changes Through Different Level Design

“St Francis’ Folly” is probably one of the most recognisable and memorable of the original Tomb Raider levels. Jason Botta, creative director for Tomb Raider Anniversary ranked the level second only to the “Lost Valley”, (mainly because the latter had a T-Rex) (2:14).

“St Francis’ Folly” is a really good example of a jump in a difficulty spike. The first four levels of TR1 are spent getting you used to the controls. You’ve done a bit of swimming, a bit of climbing, running, jumping, and most of it is forgiving. If you miss a jump, you just climb back to the spot and try again. “St Francis’ Folly” does not give you that privilege. If you mess up, you will most likely die. It’s really easy to die because the whole point of the level is being REALLY HIGH UP. The structure is so tall in the original game you can’t see the bottom; the draw distance fades to black.

Toby Gard, designer for the original Tomb Raider and Anniversary, stated the goal for the area;

“…It’s quite common that game designers even when they have a 3D vertical space that they can play with, they tend to sort of end up making long, flat things anyway. So that particular area from the original game was just sort of let’s go as vertical as we possibly can…” (2:55).

The level is virtually unchanged from game to game, only with a few trickier challenge rooms for TRA’s more nimble Lara and appropriately named rooms (TR1 had “Neptune” and “Thor” in a tomb in Greece).

The major change to the level is the opening just before the vertical room, so let’s jump back a bit and discuss that section.

Let’s Rewind To The Beginning

The openings of the level are again, very similar. All the designers really had to do was update the climbing and traversal mechanics and it was pretty much set.

But the main difference is GETTING to the vertical room and where in relation it is to the rest of the level. Lets start with TR1.

The start of the level introduces the vertical aspect, in a safe-ish way. You jump from pillar to pillar, working your way around the room. You have some fun with pressure plates and open the big door at the other end of the room. However, this does not lead to the next stage. It is another room with a switch.

The door is in fact above the entrance where you came in. You have to use the previously mentioned pillars to jump up into the rafters, before sliding down into a flooded tunnel and eventually finding the way out, into the vertical room.

Now onto TRA. 

The level starts off pretty much the same. You have a pressure plate that needs to be weighted down, which opens the big door at the far side of the room. You jump between the pillars to get into the rafters to secure the weight for the pressure plate, move it to the ground floor and proceed through the big door.

Then you proceed down a long, long corridor and into the vertical room.

So What?

This is such as small change, but for me it changes the meaning behind the whole set of Greek levels.

All levels in both Tomb Raider and Anniversary are built on top of each other. It is historically accurate; invaders have built on top of previous religious sites and settlements as an attempt to exert their dominance. It’s also thematically relevant, as the “origin” tombs are supposed to be hidden away, kept secret from the world.

But the opening for the first section of the Greek levels in Tomb Raider changes this meaning. In TR1, the vertical room (and by extension, the rest of the subterranean settlements) is hidden back the way you came. It takes a little more thought to figure out where you have to go. And even if you get that far you then have to survive an underwater current and a very hungry crocodile. It feels like a secret entrance to an underground network, somewhere hidden away so that grave robbers can’t just waltz in.

Tomb Raider Anniversary by comparison doesn’t feel like the entrance to a secret tomb, hidden away beneath 4000 years of history. It’s a straight line from the start of the level, the big door beckoning you forward. It feels more like the door to a vault (which is a rather good way of keeping people out). However, a vault-type opening indicates there is something precious behind it, giving grave robbers the incentive to break through rather than giving up because the entrance is hidden away.

Conclusion

It was only recently after playing the two games in comparison that I saw this minute difference. And it only really makes much of an impact if you are interested in the lore or the narrative of the world of Tomb Raider, but that distinction was big enough for me.

In terms of the original and Anniversary, there are more changes that are made for thematic reasons. “Sanctuary Of The Scion”, the final level of the Egyptian section of the game is one that springs to mind. In the original game you come out of the side of the temple, with your prize unceremoniously placed to your left.

In Anniversary, the sanctuary is at the end of a long corridor with a large gate blocking your entrance. You have to use the other two pieces of the Scion (the artifact Lara is searching for) to open up the gate. Thematically this makes much more sense that finding it on a pedestal, as it is the final piece of the artifact that has been locked away for safety.

Another one is the very first level, “Mountain Caves”. The finale of the level is once again, a large door, but to get to it you have to “run the gauntlet” of darts being shot at you. In TR1, you appear on in the corner of the room, an unglamorous (and not death defying) entrance to a hidden civilization.

The point I’m trying to make is the subtle differences between the two games. It’s almost like a translation error; giving us the same work but just off somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I love both version of “St Francis’ Folly”, but their thematic difference makes the original feel more “believable”, even in a game about mutants from Atlantis.

It’s a small change, but it manages to change the tone of the level for me. That’s how important level design is in creating the feel of a world.

That’s not a new observation, but it was very interesting to see it in action.

 

Banner Photo Source: gametripper.co.uk.