Welcome back to Survivor Reborn. Today I’d like to ask you: What if we had never met Lara Croft? Could Tomb Raider have succeeded with a different protagonist? Controversially, I believe that Tomb Raider could survive without Lara. Join me as I explore another timeline in which we never met the Queen of Gaming.
An amazing, yet often overlooked, piece of information that has been floating around for a few years is that, during early development, Lara used to be a man named Fletcher Christian. But what would have happened if he hadn’t later been changed into Lara Croft? Of course, we can only speculate from hereon in, but let’s just think about the repercussions for a bit.
The fact that Lara was female likely only served to make her stand out in (what was then) an ocean of playable male gaming characters. The decision to make Lara’s gender female likely rested on the belief that they (Core Design) would be besieged by lawsuits from Lucasarts and the Indiana Jones team.
However, Tomb Raider’s 3D technology was original, and players’ minds were blown away by the 3D environments, graphics, and gameplay. Had we actually got “Tomb Raider featuring Fletcher Christian” but with the same story and gameplay, then there’s a massive chance it would still have been the outstanding – and game-changing – product we all know and love.
I loved Lara, don’t get me wrong – but I very strongly believe that the gameplay was just as important, if not more so, than Lara the character. In many ways, I believe that Tomb Raider transcends Lara Croft. Why? Because we only really got to know Lara during cutscenes and FMVs. Other than that, Lara was an avatar; we merely projected ourselves into her shoes in order to play the game and explore its environments.
When we pressed the look button, it was so that we – the players – got to see what was over a ledge. We were the visitors to that world, and Lara was, fundamentally, the vehicle we drove around in. I loved jumping over gaping drops. I loved finding artefacts. I loved leaping off waterfalls, being chased by dinosaurs, raiding tombs.
As the player, I was the one in these outstanding environments. Sure, I loved the moves, the big jumps, the acrobatic method of exploring, but these things were not exclusive to Lara; they could just have easily have been assigned to the character of Fletcher Christian, and I’d have been just as immersed in the gameplay as I was with Miss Croft.
Now, let’s look further down the line. Had our hypothetical Fletcher Christian-based series progressed in exactly the same way as Lara Croft’s did, then we would have likely had a badass Fletcher in the games, and a more sexualised version used for marketing purposes. When it came to the first movie in 2001, that’s when trouble could’ve started. Had the series been constantly referred to as an Indiana Jones knock-off, then a movie adaptation could have experienced a few problems.
Regardless of these problems, let’s continue by imagining that a movie adaptation had happened, been relatively successful, and a few years later was followed by its own Angel of Darkness scenario. Crystal Dynamics then acquired the rights to develop future Tomb Raider titles. Since everyone already knows that story well enough, I’m going to look at it from another P.O.V.
Between 2003 and 2006, there was no new Tomb Raider game, and into that vacuum stepped the Uncharted series. In 2007, Nathan Drake, a male treasure hunter, stepped into the gaming chasm left in the absence of Lara Croft, and took up the mantle of Playstation’s King of Adventure. Uncharted instantly drew comparisons to Tomb Raider. But with large and fairly linear environments to traverse, treasures strewn around the levels, and a duck-and-cover method of combat, it had a fair number of subtle differences beyond the genre of “adventure” that linked the two series.
Interestingly enough, Amy Hennig, creator of Uncharted and Nathan Drake, was a gaming director at Crystal Dynamics up until 2003. If Fletcher Christian had been in Lara’s shoes all along, then who knows what might have happened? Unfortunately, Crystal Dynamics turned down Amy’s offer to take over the Tomb Raider series, but when Crystal was given developmental control over Tomb Raider, then perhaps all of Amy’s ideas for Nate and Uncharted would instead have been used for Lara. The gameplay similarities between the Uncharted series and the 2013 Tomb Raider Reboot series are certainly striking.
On that note, let’s get back to the present reality and the Reboot series. Aside from the abilities of running, jumping, and climbing, the fundamental gameplay mechanics of the series have changed considerably. Gone are finding keys. Gone are the switches. Long gone is the interaction of manual grab. Combat has changed greatly, too – from the emphasis being placed on very offensive and acrobatic attacking, to very grounded, defensive, duck-and-cover. Then we have the new incarnation of Lara Croft herself, who is fundamentally and deliberately different from the person she originally was (see ’20 Years of Tomb Raider’ for more details). This current version has been accepted, en masse, as being Lara Croft.
Unfortunately, many fans share the point of view that the series has lost its fundamental sense of originality. Because of the publishing gap between 2003-2006, and the rise of the treasure-hunter Nathan Drake, the rebooted Tomb Raider games have tapped into the current gaming zeitgeist in order to borrow modern gaming trends and (re)gain its popularity. The new Reboot is such a pick-and-mix of other series and gameplay styles that, no matter how fluid and fun people find them, the series is almost unrecognisable from its own roots.
Contrary to the opinion I stated at the at the start of this article, if the series has changed so much then perhaps it is the case that Lara Croft herself has transcended the gameplay. If consumers are so willing to accept a new, entirely rebuilt version of Lara, then perhaps she really is more important than the gameplay and the act of ‘Tomb Raiding’. However, the series’ gameplay has also changed radically from its roots; whether or not the original style of gameplay was more important than Lara is not something we will ever know – and inevitably comes down to individual opinion.
However, there are other games still being made today that successfully evoke the spirit of classic Tomb Raider gameplay – the most recent of which is Japan Studio’s The Last Guardian. We play as a nameless character (an avatar) through whom we explore a haunting world; this is very similar to how we used to enjoy playing Tomb Raider with Lara Croft as our avatar. The Last Guardian features vast temples to explore, together with very little sense of narrative direction, sporadic enemy encounters, an overwhelming feeling of isolation, wonderful, interactive platform-oriented environments, and relaxed animations that show a real human effort. All of these things fit nicely within a game in which a sense of urgency is a rare occurrence (and that’s before you even get to the push-block puzzles and find the switch gameplay!) In many ways, it works very nicely as a modern-classic Tomb Raider game. It goes without saying that the ‘switch and block’ gameplay for the spin-off game Lara Croft GO was also wildly popular with fans.
In conclusion, we can acknowledge that, for as long as Tomb Raider endures, it will continue to change and adapt to new gaming trends and audiences. Of course, risks may need to be taken to recapture an original approach to the series, and I personally believe it will happen one day. Like James Bond and Doctor Who, each new era brings change. I highly doubt we’ve seen the last Tomb Raider reboot. I suspect that ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ is all written and gameplay decided upon; however, now that Rhianna Pratchett has departed as one of the writing team, Crystal Dynamics has hired a new game director for Tomb Raider – Ian Milham. Perhaps we could be looking at the next big shake-up for the series with this upcoming fourth title.
How do you feel in terms of Lara Croft vs Tomb Raider? Has one aspect of the series stood out for you as being more important than anything else? Let us know in the comments, or come on over to the Survivor Reborn forums and talk with us there!
Article written by Chris Jones
Image credits: The male Lara Croft: ‘Nathan Thomas’ by http://ulysses0302.deviantart.com/
Additional imagery by Core Design, Crystal Dynamics, Japan Studio
Lara Croft VS Tomb Raider by Chris Jones / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.