This blog serves as a space for my general musings on games (digital and analog), technology, education and whatever else strikes my fancy. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Being and Becoming Lara Croft

Some members of the game studies community would love to tear me a new one for saying as much, but I think stories are an important part of games. That’s not to say that I think games are “just” stories, that I can necessarily apply the traditional conventions of narrative to understanding games in their entirety, or even that I think all games have or must have a narrative. I am simply arguing that I enjoy a good story in a game and I think they represent one of many useful points of criticism when analyzing some games. Unfortunately, really good stories in games are hard to come by. In my quest to find good ones, I recently decided to play the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by Square Enix. I know, I am way behind and this game is old news by industry standards, but I find it increasingly hard to stay on top of all of the games produced so forgive me for arriving late to the party.

The storyline has a natural appeal for those of that enjoy narrative-centric games. You get an opportunity to play as a much younger Lara Croft who becomes shipwrecked on a mysterious island and forced to survive against cut-throat mercenaries, a hostile environment, and her own insecurities. The story centers on Lara’s becoming the Tomb Raider, and consequently, she doesn't yet possess her trademark brash zeal or combat proficiency.  As the player, we are aware of her destiny. We know what she is to become but the thrill is in taking part in the story of how she gets there.

This “origins” trend has recently gained a great deal of traction across entertainment media including movies and television. Productions such as the Gotham, Hannibal, X-Men: First Class, Maleficent, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seek to explore the origins of beloved stories and characters. George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy perhaps best represents the archetype of origin story as it explored how Darth Vader came to be the quintessential galactic villain. Despite the significant criticism of the work, telling the story fulfilled a need and desire to understand how Vader gave into the dark side of the force. It gave him depth as a character that was lacking in the shortened original trilogy.

The appeal and popularity of the origin genre (for lack of a better term) suggests a great deal about our culture’s increasing demand for in-depth, sophisticated, and complex storytelling. We are no longer satisfied with clean stories that begin and end within the span of sixty minutes or even two hours. We want the story to go on. We want complications. In short, we appreciate the journey as much or more than the destination. The emergence of video games as a mainstream form of entertainment is at least in part responsible for this shift (Jenkins, 2006). Most contemporary video games require anywhere from 40 to 100 hours to complete not including side quests or other play modes. Moreover, many games have begun adopting an “open world” concept to increase player autonomy. These open worlds are modeled after the virtual worlds of MMOs such as World of Warcraft where there games never truly end and the storylines are emergent. The depth that video games offer players has increased consumers’ expectations, forcing television and movie producers to follow suit in order to remain competitive (Jenkins, 2004). The effect is an increased focus on character development and extended storylines that span multiple seasons or movies.

Tomb Raider would seem to have a similar goal. Up until the most recent incarnation, Lara has been a static, albeit beloved character with little depth (Jansz & Martis, 2007). Earlier Tomb Raider stories were shallow, focusing on Lara’s pursuit of an artifact or uncovering some grand conspiracy. Lara herself never evolved or grew as a character. She was never angry, afraid, depressed, or frustrated. In that sense, Angelina Jolie’s depiction of her in the film version of the franchise was dead-on. Jolie played the character with the same flat, uninteresting dimensionality of the video game character. That version of Lara perfectly represents the mythic character who, while powerful and realized, is also too idealized to be relatable (Campbell, 2008; Frye, 1971). The rebooted version of Lara, on the other hand, sought to show a more vulnerable, human character that has flaws and is constantly at odds with her insecurities.

Unfortunately, the gameplay of Tomb Raider fails to live up to the ambitiousness of the narrative goal. The player’s role in the game is reduced to retracing the designer’s storyline by solving puzzles, defeating key enemies, or safely arriving at predetermined locations. The important parts of the story only occur during the cutscenes, which means that gameplay is really just a diversion in between the scenes of a movie. It reveals how little influence the player actually has on the storyline. One might argue that in a game that is about the evolution of a character into a predetermined, fixed destination, it is impossible to allow the player to direct the story. That argument assumes that there is only one “correct” path to arrive at a destination. That is to say, there is only one story about how Lara became the Tomb Raider and the designer’s job is to tell that story. That’s fine if you are making a movie or writing a novel but when you develop a video game, especially one with the cultural capital of Tomb Raider, the player expects to engage in the story in a more meaningful and substantial way


Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library Press

Frye, N. (1971). Anatomy of criticism: Four essays. Princeton, England: Princeton University Press. 

Jansz, J. & Martis, R.G. (2007). The Lara phenomenon: Powerful female characters in video games. Sex Roles, 56, 141-148. 

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2004). The cultural logic of media convergence. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 7(1), 33-43. 

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