And it’s good.
I’m having of lot of fun with the story so far, which involves Lara and her crewmates getting stranded on an isolated island that’s constantly battered by freak storms which make it impossible to leave. Lara, who is a total adventure newbie in this installment, gets separated from everyone else and slowly discovers that the island is overrun with a cult of madmen, the Solarii, who worship the Sun Queen Himiko, the ancient ruler of the lost city of Yamatai. The leader of the Solarii is a guy named Mathias who’s been stuck on the island for several decades recruiting castaways from the numerous shipwrecks and plane crashes that the island has claimed. For very mystical reasons, Mathias only recruits men to his cult and uses any women he captures as sacrifices to the Sun Queen.
Yeah, it’s a little icky, but there’s some interesting subtext going on in this set up.
Though I haven’t finished the game yet, what I’m noticing is that there’s a bit of a dichotomy in the game’s attitude towards Lara as a protagonist. In multiple action set pieces, Lara gets handily abused by the environment, nearly dying at pretty much every turn and getting severely injured quite a bit (her very first harrowing escape in the game’s introductory level involves Lara freeing herself from a snare and falling about two stories onto a piece of debris that pierces her side). At the same time that Lara’s receiving all this environmental abuse, she’s also constantly harried by the Solarii. The difference with this threat is that while Lara’s initially frightened and at a severe disadvantage dealing with all these crazy men, she quickly develops an arsenal and array of skills that make her more than capable of fighting off hordes of them single-handed. It’s a pretty baldly displayed power fantasy where Lara becomes so adept at dispatching the Solarii that they come to fear facing her (several fight sequences that pit Lara against crowds of Solarii have a break halfway through where you can hear the men panicking that she’s killing all of them after they had the advantage of trapping her in an enclosed space). Where I am in my current playthrough, this is best exemplified by a sequence where Lara acquires a grenade launcher for her rifle, and she sends Solarii soldiers scattering while yelling at them to “Run, you bastards!”
Perhaps most gratifying in all of this is that while Lara has access to a shotgun, a rifle, and a pistol, her signature weapon is just a bow and arrow (I find it so satisfying to route the Solarii without ever pulling out a firearm).
Still, all the power plays seem at odds with the narrative, as all the environmental hazards continue to drive home that Lara is in over her head. It strikes me as kind of jarring because I get a sort of Final Girl vibe from how Lara’s portrayed (I’ve lost count of the number of times she performs a harrowing escape that leaves her battered and bleeding and covered in all kinds of filth) in cutscenes, which doesn’t match the Buffy-style power fantasy playing out in the levels. It’s like the developers wanted to do the typical “the player must feel awesome because adventure!” but couldn’t reconcile that with their narrative imperative to make Lara feel vulnerable, and I’m left wondering if that discord in story and gameplay is a gendered problem here.
Tonally and mechanically, Tomb Raider reminds me a lot of the Uncharted series, except for how the protagonists are treated. Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are both archeological treasure hunters who often get thrust into dangerous, kind of supernatural situations, but their treatment in their respective stories is so different. Nate has his introspective moments, and he gets abused a lot too, but he’s generally treated like a happy-go-lucky adventurer who’s been through this crap before, and he’ll live to go through it again, no big deal. Even accounting for the narrative reboot in this installment of Tomb Raider, Lara doesn’t get the same sort of treatment. She always has to be daunted by whatever crazy task that she’s supposed to do next, and it’s imperative that the player never forget just how much this ordeal involves her suffering to survive and save her friends.
Some of this difference in tone can be attributed to the two series being developed by different studios with different narrative aims (Uncharted wants to feel like old school Indiana Jones while the Tomb Raider reboot’s definitely going for a more gritty take on archeological adventure), but I don’t think that’s quite enough to explain why Lara’s treated so much more harshly. I think a sizable part of the difference is that because Lara is a woman, it’s not enough to just drop the player into a power fantasy starring her; she has to earn her badass credentials (and at the same time, never seem too badass).
So playing the game’s been a weird experience so far. I love the subtext of a woman fighting back against a bunch of misogynist jerks and being the biggest threat to their way of life that they’ve ever encountered, and I find the gameplay highly satisfying; I just can’t help but feel like the developers were holding back from letting Lara be as powerful narratively as she obviously is mechanically. Of course, I’ve not yet finished the game, so there may be a nice payoff at the end, but until I see if that’s the case I’m still going to be playing with a sense of disjointedness between what I’m being told about Lara and what I’m seeing her do.