Shadow of the Tomb Raider

The YouTube channel Digital Foundry recently did an analysis of the surprise new-gen upgrade for The Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third and seemingly final entry in this new Tomb Raider reboot series. I suddenly found myself with a strong hankering to play the game. 

So I decided to download the copy I got via my PlayStation Plus subscription and give it whirl. During the opening few moments, after seeing my first death cutscene, I sort of flashed back to my previous time spent with the last two Tomb Raider games, recounting all of the gruesome death sequences I had experienced across both of those titles. It was odd that this was what came flooding back instead of the memory of some cool puzzles or set-pieces, most of which I was struggling to recall at all. 

Then I had a thought: Why did Tomb Raider start to focus so much on these gory and at times discomforting death vignettes? I mean, who would’ve imagined this would be the avenue the series would take between the relatively staid 2008 Tomb Raider Underworld, arguably the last large entry in the franchise before the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot? Because although ragdoll plummets and body crumples were always a part of failure in those earlier entries, It was Tomb Raider (2013) that started showcasing a whole host of awful, awful Lara deaths. 

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

And I certainly wasn’t alone in my quandaries, or in being a little disturbed by these mini snuff films. In a 2018 Polygon article written by Mark Brown, the very title of which was “Tomb Raider’s Grisly Death Animations Are Outdated,” Brown makes a pretty strong case for why these sequences are perhaps unnecessary in this day and age. And without recapping the entire article (which I would suggest reading in its entirety), there was one section that stuck out to me:

This isn’t some survival sim; there’s no hunger meter. There are generous checkpoints. And Lara has more ammo than Walmart, so you’re rarely scrounging for bullets.

The theme is writing checks that the design can’t cash, creating an incongruous mix between gameplay and narrative. And those grisly death scenes — followed by an immediate return to the action from just 10 seconds previous — are the most jarring reminder of all that Tomb Raider is trying to be way more hardcore than it really is.

I tend to agree with this. At least for the first game in this new trilogy, there was a thematic emphasis on Lara’s survival, yet there were no survival elements or imperative that impacted the gameplay. As Lara stood there shivering in the beginning of Tomb Raider, desperately searching for a campfire and food to satiate her hunger, neither were attached to a survival meter; if you just let Lara stand there in the cold, she would just stand there indefinitely. So to say that those elements are necessary to reinforce the realism of her survival, when survival never means anything more than landing a successful jump or killing an impending enemy threat, similar to a game like Uncharted, it seems a bit hollow.

In an interview with Game Informer, Franchise Creative Director Noah Hughes had this to say regarding these now infamous snuff sequences and why they are integral to the Tomb Raider experience:

For us, any of the violent outcomes for failure for the player are just meant to frame the stakes that Lara has in this situation. There are gameplay repercussions to dying that you restart at the checkpoint, but there are also narrative repercussions, which is that this is a hostile world and if Lara falls victim to its traps in a tomb – this is the gruesome end to her story.

Which again, seems a bit hollow.

It is, of course, the developers’ prerogative to determine which features are or aren’t worth including. And for the Tomb Raider developers, these death sequences seem like a priority. But their absolute insistence upon having these cutscenes in an otherwise by-the-book, Teen-rated adventure game almost feels like a cheap stunt to appear edgy, as Mark Brown pointed out in the Polygon article.

This all led me to a reddit comment that I think asks an important question. And if this suggestion were to be implemented, it could allow Crystal Dynamics and all of the fans of these sequences (of which there must be a sizeable amount, judging from the number of death compilations online), as well as proponents of excluding them, to all have their cake and eat it too. They could simply offer a menu toggle to turn those gruesome death animations on or off.

This doesn’t seem like a tall ask, and it would go a long way in ensuring the audience that enjoys third-person action exploration titles could enjoy this title, no matter their tolerance for the death sequences. Again, Tomb Raider has always been more about exploration and discovery rather than Lara Croft’s grim demise at the hands of countless traps and pitfalls. And considering there aren’t slow-mo, close-up, cinematic kill cams when Lara is cut down by a barrage of bullets, it makes the previous statement from Noah Hughes ring more hollow. Because if it is about showing the dire consequences of Lara’s failures, surely that would also carry over to getting shot to death or blown up — shouldn’t these sequences be accompanied by something more akin to the X-ray cam from Sniper Elite instead of just a standard fade to black?

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

I do appreciate that, for some, these death scenes might accomplish what their defenders claim they are intended to do: ramping up the severity, making every jump count, and endearing the player to Lara’s plight. Although, I think the latter should happen naturally through solid writing and character development. But to say that these visceral, gruesome sequences are a necessary element of the franchise? That just doesn’t pass muster with me. We don’t have to watch Nathan Drake get his guts cut out or his head crushed by a boulder to relate to that character. And I root for Nathan, and I want to avoid failure just as much as I do when I’m playing Lara Croft. I mean, not failing is kind of the point of any game, right?

But I also admit that — for as much as I enjoy playing as Lara Croft, a character I’ve basically grown up with — it is my prerogative to decide whether or not to continue to play these games if they continue to include death scenes that I don’t want to have to witness. It would just be a shame as a longtime fan (I was there since day one, mind you) to have to say goodbye to a beloved adventurer solely because the development team seems to prefer showcasing her grim demise in gory detail on an endless loop.

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