Although many factors contributed directly to the success and popularity of Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot, few would argue that aside from the Uncharted-like mechanics, the impressive story and gorgeous visuals, the real star of the show was Lara herself. The re-imagined Miss Croft was a warrior in the truest sense, emerging victorious time and again with new scars – physical and emotional – and forever forging onwards, determined to survive. The experience on that hellish island galvanised her, dipped her in titanium and hung her out to cure. We saw her grow from an intrepid young girl with a theory to prove, into a hardened killer who would do whatever it took to save her friends and make it off the island alive.
Whether or not she’s a poster-child for young women everywhere is a discussion for another day and a braver man, but the fact is that Lara Croft is not (and never was) your quintessential heroine. For some, watching her endure beatings, stabbings, burnings, attempted rape, getting shot, strung up and dropped off more than one very steep cliff was painful; for others, myself included, it truly felt like watching the birth of a legend. But suddenly she wasn’t really Lara Croft anymore; wasn’t the sassy, wise-cracking adventurer brought to life embarrassingly-well by Angelina Jolie; no longer the highly-trained, supernaturally-skilled gymnast and markswoman we were used to. In fact, she was so far removed from the Tomb Raider we grew up with that it became almost impossible to equate Lara 2013 with Lara 1996. Lara 2013 was never going to be seen cartwheeling around while gunning down tigers with a pair of automatic pistols, was she?
No: Lara 2103 is something else entirely. She’s Lara Croft for the torture-porn generation. She resonates with grown-ups now, because, of course, all those adolescent boys who lost their childhoods drooling over Lara Croft’s square shorts and oddly triangular D-cups are grown-ups now, sort of. But more than that, she has to appeal now not only to the male gamers, but to an increasing number of women who certainly aren’t playing games just to see what it feels like to step into a dude’s shoes and save the damsel in distress. So Lara 2013 is tougher; beautiful still, but more rugged; vulnerable inside, but with a granite exterior. She’s a Lara to root for, to fall in love with, to care about, to feel something for.
So when Crystal Dynamics announced that the inevitable sequel was on the cards, some of us were worried. We’d witnessed the birth of the legend. We’d seen her grow, transform, harden before our eyes like cooling tungsten. How would Crystal Dynamics top that? She’d be a wreck, right? Any normal person would be. She’d be suffering from a dozen or more psychological issues and syndromes and phobias: paranoia, survivor’s guilt, night terrors, insomnia. Surely she’d be in no fit state to raid a fridge, let alone a tomb. There were fears, not entirely unfounded, that Crystal Dynamics would walk the usual path of glossing over such things and leaping straight into the Lara we remember, hard and sassy, sharp-tongued and a little cold-hearted. But if they had done that, it would have robbed Lara 2013 of her victory before she’d truly achieved it.
The new trailer for the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider (unveiled at E3 2014), doesn’t tell us very much about the next adventure, but it tells us enough. We see Lara talking to a shrink, his comments about flashbacks and self-imposed imprisonment interspersed with fast shots of her in mortal danger, leaping across a chasm, being chased by a bear and, interestingly, stealth-killing a single enemy in a cave. The implications are exciting. Could it be that Lara is intentionally placing herself in danger? Has she come away from the island with an addiction to peril? Is she courting death because he feels she needs to prove something, or because she needs to be close to death to feel alive?
Either way, the potential for an even more powerful narrative is strong. I’m just excited that Crystal Dynamics haven’t ignored the trauma caused to Lara as a human being. I want to see her facing her fears again; I want to see her in mortal danger; I want to see her close to death, and driving ever onwards. It’s not about raiding tombs and digging up treasure anymore; it’s about survival. Lara 2013 is the new Rocky, and I want to see her get knocked down again and again, only to rise stronger and more determined each time.
But more than this, it means Rise of the Tomb Raider is going to be another character-driven story. Another slice of Lara’s history. Crystal Dynamics may never be able to seamlessly link old Lara to new Lara, and that’s find by me. The important thing is that, from this early trailer at least, it looks as though they’re focusing on the character, on building her up and fleshing her out. We saw elements of the supernatural in the reboot, so we may one day find ourselves shotgunning T-Rexes again, but I hope not. If this becomes a trilogy (which is almost a certainty provided Earth doesn’t suffer a massive meteor strike), the third game may well show Lara closer to her old self, more balanced and able to take it in her stride.
One thing video games rarely do is show the mental fall-out of forced mass-murder; characters just walk it off like Nathan Drake, cracking wise and smirking for the camera. It’s refreshing to see Crystal Dynamics exploring the darker side, making their protagonist suffer in more ways than the obvious and physical, so that her eventual emergence from the fire is all the more satisfying and deserved. As much as she might deserve one, the last thing we want right now is for Lara Croft to have an easy life.