By Nathan Grayson on June 12th, 2012 at 6:00 pm.
Tomb Raider‘s demo made me realize something: it’d be a stretch to call what we do in games killing. I mean, yeah, we’re probably the only medium that can (and frequently does) tout multiple physics systems specifically capable of calculating the way bullet-perforated brain bits dance majestically through the air. But really, all we’re doing is knocking down hyper-detailed action figures. We pull the trigger or aim the bow or bury the shank in a fertile bed of neckflesh, and they go down. Then we move on to the next faceless thug, rinse our knives, and repeat.
The Tomb Raider scene I sat in on during E3 really struck me because it didn’t let Lara cut people (or animals) down and then continue gleefully on her way. Death is messy and scary and awful. While the Nathan Drakes and Persian Princes of the world slay 300 people and then sweep corpses under a rug with a dumb joke, Lara – intentionally or not – sticks around for her victims’ final moments. I guess what I’m saying is, I sympathized with an irredeemable, cold-blooded murderer and, er, some random deer. They died scared and spittle-soaked and alone, and I really didn’t feel good about that.
The demo picked up immediately after last year’s E3 showcase, with Lara emerging from a mysterious cave onto a mysterious island of mysterious mysteries. She even continued to nurse a gaping side wound, a rather difficult-to-ignore reminder of the nasty fall (broken by a jagged metal pipe – hooray!) that kicked off her impromptu vacation to crazy land.
The deer, then, represented her first premeditated kill. She’d just acquired a bow – after leaping between, falling, and nearly falling from, like, a billion different jabbingly, scratchingly, stabbingly high places – and realized she needed to eat. So, from a player standpoint, the whole thing was almost callous, essentially taking the form of a bow-and-arrow tutorial. The deer daintily hopped into view from the island’s cool morning mists, and our presenter greeted it with two thudding arrows to the chest.
That’s when the first Unusual Thing happened: Lara approached the once-lithe creature’s quivering body, only to hear agonized wheezes. And, glassy though they were, its eyes were anything but peaceful. Every fiber of the deer’s being was gripped by panic and fear. Sure, it was necessary, and yeah, it was just an animal, but Lara was forced to watch like, well, a deer in the headlights as the life left this thing’s body. Understandably, she couldn’t help but burst out sobbing.
In a medium obsessed with rah-rah-rah violence, it might be easy to confuse those tears with weakness. Executive producer Ron Rosenberg, however, stresses that this is the beginning of a progression – not a defanging of one of gaming’s formative female leads.
“It all goes to trying the story we wanted to tell,” he explained. “And at the center of it is this character of Lara who is inexperienced. But she does have this certain [fierce] core in her. So we put her through these crucible of experiences. You see Lara’s character changing, right? That’s a formative moment in her career. So we’re telling that origin story. For me personally, I’m a fan of comic books. Especially as a kid, I always wanted to know ‘What’s the origin of Batman?’ And I think we’ve captured a little bit of that in this game.”
The second death, meanwhile, came right at the end of the demo – after a few admittedly convoluted events involving other survivors from Lara’s group (one took Lara’s best friend hostage, etc) and suggestions of supernatural presences on the island – and was perhaps among the most impactful I personally have ever experienced in a game. This time around, the victim was far less helpless than some dumbstruck deer, and honestly, he wasn’t even really a victim. As the leader of a gang of scavengers, this ugly heap of man, body hair, and scar tissue had no qualms with executing a band of hapless survivors his group had come across and – for some reason – setting a large portion of the forest on fire.
After taking a cringe-inducing beating herself, Lara fled. She hid in the claustrophobic remains of an old wooden shack, but the scavenger leader had little trouble rediscovering her trail. Gun in hand, he pinned her against a wall and began to caress her with a sweaty, salivating lust. Panicking, Lara (via quick QTEs) bit him as he leaned close and then kneed him below the belt. Seconds later, they were kicking and scrambling, surrounded by the sweltering orange of a burning forest.
Seconds after that, a gunshot rang. The scavenger fell backward, left side of his face masked in a thick, sticky syrup of fresh blood. But his eyes are what really caught my attention. They were so wide it felt like they were sucking me in – so overwhelmed by terror and shock and pain and rage and sadness. I felt incredibly uncomfortable staring into them, but it was all I could do. He was a monster, a nameless villain, and probably a rapist, but part of me wanted to hug him because, well, he was seconds away from awful, awful death. After what felt like hours, he finally choked out his last breath. Lara immediately fell to her hands and knees retching. She’d have probably vomited too, but well, she hadn’t exactly been eating much lately.
She took a human life. Once again, it was necessary, but that moment – I have to imagine – outweighed a thousand sudden falls or grisly steps into rusty bear traps. And according to Rosenberg, that’s the tipping point.
“In that particular scene, she literally becomes a cornered animal,” he explained. “We didn’t want to make it a gratuitous scene, but we wanted to show that character progression and talk about what you’d do if you were put in that extreme situation.”
“Certainly, I’ve killed hundreds of guys in videogames,” he admitted. “I don’t think twice about it. But in that particular moment, I feel it. And I’ve demoed it a bunch of times now. I’ve heard people gasp. I’ve seen people walk out of the theater with tears in their eyes. That’s the thing that I’m super excited about. We’re doing something that’s special. I mean, it’s a little bit risky in some ways. We’re forging into new emotional territories.”
It really, honestly stuck with me, too, which is why I was disconcerted to hear that another demo – which debuted during Microsoft’s press conference – featured Lara unloading arrows into gun-toting baddies like a mix between Robin Hood and the apocalypse. And let’s not forget a grand explosion or two. And yet, I suppose there’s a grain of authenticity mixed in there somewhere. After all, it makes sense that – to survive in a truly hostile environment – you’d have no choice but to become a killer.
“It definitely escalates, and I think she does become a little desensitized to it,” said Rosenberg. “We do try to be sensitive with how we deal with that stuff. We talk about it all the time. And we always have to weigh the balance between the story we want to tell and making a great game that people are going to have fun playing. We’re not willing to let go of either of those things. Certainly, our game isn’t going to be a movie.”
So then, while other games leave us scratching our heads about how ordinary “good guys” suddenly muster the stomach to headshot a couple hundred human beings, Tomb Raider’s aiming to at least explain the progression a little better. As for the sensitivity of which Rosenberg speaks, the jury’s still out. On the death front, I’m certainly interested in connecting the dots between my behind-closed-doors demo and the Microsoft conference’s late-game action-splosion, but – even early on – I couldn’t help but notice a few gleefully up-close-and-personal camera shots that ended up quite suggestively raiding Lara’s tank top.
That in mind, Tomb Raider could very well end up as a jumble of new and old. Emotionally-charged death versus mindless, explosive action. Tooth-and-nail survival versus ruthless domination. And, of course, smart character development versus unnecessary (and honestly, moment-killing) cleavage shots. Maybe, though – hopefully, in fact – not all of those things will end up at odds with each other. Perhaps Lara’s progression from cold, fearful victim to strong, self-reliant survivor will occur gradually and believably. Rosenberg, unfortunately, couldn’t provide me with an in-game exact timetable. He did, however, emphasize that an XP-based ability unlock system would evolve Lara at a measured pace – adding abilities like arrow retrieval and the object highlighting Survival Instinct system to her arsenal.
If nothing else, however, Tomb Raider provided me with a couple of my most memorable moments of E3. So, dismal failure or success beyond all expectations, I’m still expecting intriguing things from this one. Either way, I know I’ll stick with it until the bitter end.