Has YOUR film, TV or game series fallen on hard times? Written yourself into a corner?
Have you released a disastrous, buggy title to terrible reviews and mediocre sales?
The reboot procedure has a knack to it: timing and execution are absolutely crucial. Get it right and you’ll please your existing fans while also snagging a whole new audience. Get it wrong, however, and you risk destroying everything you had built up to that point.
The Resident Evil series is perhaps the benchmark example of everything a gaming reboot should be. When Resident Evil 4‘s release build was revealed, I was sceptical. ‘This is so different’, was my first thought. ‘This isn’t Resident Evil‘. ‘It will never work’.
But then I played it. How wrong I was. Resident Evil 4 was a huge success and had a massive impact on the genre and gaming in general. Shinji Mikami had not lost his passion for the series he had created; he simply recognised that change was necessary for the series to not only survive, but to thrive.
The audience wasn’t asked to forget everything they knew about the RE universe – only what we knew about ‘survival horror’. Our investment in the series was protected: this was merely a new chapter.
It’s undeniable, even if you didn’t love the departure from ‘pure’ survival horror. Bold and innovative, RE4 saved the series. It regularly shows up on ‘best game of all time‘ articles and had a massive impact on the gaming landscape. Its gameplay is still aped to this day: every game with over-the-shoulder aiming owes it a massive debt.
It was the right time to reboot the series, and it was executed superbly.
How I wish the same could be said of our beloved Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft has been through a lot in the 21 years we’ve known her. Sadly, she has become less and less relevant with each passing year. Once a trail-blazer, Tomb Raider has become one of the most derivative gaming series on the market today, blindly following the crowd and failing to innovate.
Flash back to the late 1990s. Sales had declined. The creative team was burned-out. Change was needed if Lara was going to claw her way out from being buried alive at the conclusion of the fourth game in the series. With Angel of Darkness in 2003, Core Design sought to reinvigorate a series by introducing a handful of modest changes to the tried and tested formula.
To say it shook-up the Tomb Raider universe is an understatement: it left it in ruins.
Now, we can all find something to love about AOD. We can respect what the team were trying to do and sympathise with the pressures they were facing, but ultimately the game destroyed the series I knew and loved. Not simply because AOD was badly made, but because it led to the poorly executed ‘soft’ reboot of the series.
When Crystal Dynamics was announced as the studio taking the helm for this series, I was absolutely over the moon. With Soul Reaver, CD had built on the universe established in Silicone Knights‘ title Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen. To this day, it remains one of my favourite stories in gaming. Fantastically acted and directed, it was an outstanding technical achievement on ageing hardware which utterly blew my mind.
Despite the original universe not being their creation, CD showed a respect for the source material as well as a passion for creating something new – both sadly lacking when it came to rebooting Tomb Raider in 2006. And – as Werner Von Croy would remind us – “disrespect is the route to carelessness”.
Bearing only a passing resemblance to the character we knew, Lara (and chums) had a ‘short, sharp thrill ride’ in Tomb Raider: Legend. While ‘forget everything you know about Tomb Raider‘ was the line used by Darrell Gallagher, the then Head of Crystal Dynamics in 2010, it could well have been applied to their entire treatment of the series.
Angel of Darkness? Didn’t happen. ‘Fair enough’ some may say. But The Last Revelation? Adventures? The Dagger? The original? Lara herself?? Crystal Dynamics tore up the book and started over. It’s a sure-fire way to make an audience feel slighted: they have spent years investing in the series, caring about the world and its characters, but then suddenly this universe doesn’t exist anymore.
With such drastic action taken, you would think to find something fantastically different with Legend, right?
While the controls were relaxed and the tone of the game was remarkably more jovial than before, nothing of real substance or innovation was introduced. CD had merely scrapped those parts of the series they found unpalatable. Some critics declared Legend a ‘return to form’ but, Keeley Hawes’ phenomenal performance aside, I found the title sterile and bland. Basic. Safe.
Apparently ‘safe’ was exactly what publisher Eidos was hoping for, because the next title was announced as a remake of the original Tomb Raider, to be released in 2007. Was this a late attempt to placate those fans who were annoyed at the new direction? Or perhaps it was part of a power-play to beat Core Design’s developers – who were in the process of creating their own remake – to the punch? Having already taken a wrecking ball to the series’ lore, Crystal Dynamics were now frantically cobbling it back together using their new ideas as an adhesive. So bereft of ideas was Crystal Dynamics that their Anniversary title attempted to absorb the original Tomb Raider into their newly established canon.
Lip-service was paid to the classic titles in the form of books dotted around Lara’s home. Some fans seized upon the opportunity to declare these Easter Eggs proof that this had been the same timeline all along: Crystal hadn’t thrown everything out – they had just added additional flavour! (Just like when The Last Revelation introduced the character of Werner Von Croy to Lara’s childhood).
The character of Lara – the linchpin of the series – had been completely changed. Her backstory and motivations were entirely different: suddenly transformed from fresh and unique into typical, clichéd Hollywood fare.
While some improvements had been made over the original (now dated) title, the characters of Lara and Natla were certainly not among them. I can (and will!) write a whole piece on the issues with the narrative of Anniversary, but just to make a point:
Lara declares that she only plays for sport in the opening cutscene, as in the original, while in reality she actually seeks only to follow in her father’s footsteps. Lara takes the job to find The Atlantean Scion, not for sport, but because her father believed that it was somehow integral to finding his wife. I didn’t like the introduction of the family drama in Legend, so I certainly wasn’t keen on such things polluting the legacy of the pre-reboot series.
Natla became a one-dimensional and unsympathetic villain. In the original, we knew very little about Jacqueline, but there is one moment in a cutscene where Tihocan informs her that her ‘new breed’ has been reduced to a ‘slaughter heap’. Her subtle reaction tells us far more about the character than any of the dialogue in the game. Remake Natla? Why, all she needed was a moustache to twirl, so nuanced was her characterisation and ‘everything must burn‘ motivation! To bring back this under-cooked villain for a second title in Underworld (2008) was a travesty.
And what of Underworld? Much like AOD years before, it was an under-cooked buggy mess. Most importantly, for the third game in a row, Crystal Dynamics did nothing interesting with the property.
The reboot had failed.
Although it had been the right time for a refresh, the narrative execution was below par. You can’t simply retcon the series, then backtrack to prop up your new half-baked story. But hey, why bother trying to fix your mistakes when you can just pretend they didn’t happen? Why else was it necessary for Crystal Dynamics to announce a second reboot of the series only FOUR YEARS after their first Tomb Raider title?
And here we are now, nearly 8 years on.
Much to my shock, the latest ‘Lara Croft’ – whiny tones, forced-British accent and constant pep talks included – has proved popular enough to have featured in two games with a Hollywood film on the way. Yet the newest title, supposedly ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘, looks to have been given to a different developer. Could this signal another shift in the series? Another reboot? It’s hard to imagine a different path forward, given the history.
Personally, I’d advise the following:
* Find your Mikami-san: someone with passion for the original character and series’ ethos to helm the new game, but who is unafraid to take risks and go in a completely new direction.
* Don’t continue to ‘take inspiration’ from Uncharted. Chloe Frazer is frankly out Lara-ing Lara. You don’t want your heroine to pale by comparison.
* Bring back Lara as a grown woman who is sure of who she is. There are now so many different ‘Laras’ that it’s hard know (or care) who she is anymore. Going through the same journey of discovery over and over is one of the things that has made the series so stale.
* Ditch the family issues. They aren’t compelling. They were never compelling.
There remains a bigger problem, however; all of these reboots serve only to dilute the Lara Croft character and the Tomb Raider brand, making it harder and harder to care about and invest in the series. Square Enix will need to tread very carefully here and get this right.
I do have hope, however naive that may be. In the meantime, I’ll just need to get my fix from the DOX and TR3 fan remakes while I wait for the true Lara to emerge from under the pyramid where Core left her.
With any luck, she’ll emerge feeling stronger, now.
The Trouble with Reboots by Matt Taylor / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://wp.me/p3gLnV-ku.