In a previous article, I made the argument for replaying more recent "old" games—meaning the ones from last year or a few years ago, not just the ones from your childhood. I feel like we miss out on a lot of wonderful gameplay if we only stick with either what's brand new or what's so old it's retro. There are so many wonderful worlds to explore that are in between!
That being said, I’m no different from many gamers of my generation: I’m a sucker for remakes. I have the remastered versions of the Spryo trilogy, the Crash Bandicoot trilogy, and Shadow of the Colossus all on Playstation, and I've even the new version of Katamari Damacy on my Switch. (Pokemon Snap is coming out in a few days too!) There’s nothing wrong with loving these games; my argument is only that you don’t need to wait until games are this old to go back and enjoy something you’ve already played.
All of that being said, I’d kill for an opportunity to replay the early Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft has been an idol of mine since the first time I sat on the floor of my friend’s bedroom and controlled her polygon-addled body. Though those scenes look like little more than a loose collection of pixels now, I remember Lara diving into a swimming pool as my mom stood behind me watching, and, when Lara’s head broke the surface of the water and she took two big, deep breaths and treaded water, paddling backward a few strokes as she got her bearings, my mom shuddered and said, “It’s so realistic. I can’t handle it.”
And it did feel realistic. And despite what Ron Rosenberg, producer of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot says about how "when people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," when I played, I felt like I was Lara. I was this badass lady who could jump and climb and shoot and explore and collect. I can still hear the few mysterious notes that chimed when I picked up those little relics and found hidden medi packs. I dreamed about Lara’s adventures—which in my head became my adventures—and my friend and I always wanted more. We argued about where “secret-secret” statues were scattered throughout different levels and made up convoluted hoops to jump through in order to collect the uncollectible. We knew there really were secrets in the game, and we had the play guides to tell us exactly where they were and collected them all, but our hunger for adventure couldn’t be sated. We were sure there were more, secret secrets to be found. The unattainable loot born of our little-kid imaginations I remember best was in Tomb Raider II at the Great Wall: “You have to almost drown right here, then a door will open up. I promise!” my friend told me, and we died over and over and over, passing the controller back and forth between us with every new load screen, trying to find that non-existent passageway as a tiger paced the pool’s perimeter above us.
The real takeaway is, though, that we loved the games—and of course Lara herself—so much that we yearned to make them our own in every possible way, and there's certainly a magic in that that few other games have managed to capture for me since.
Like Lara, I was an adventurer. As a young girl in Arkansas, my spare time not in front of the TV was often spent in the woods around my house, keeping an eye out for snakes and snapping turtles, looking for places to climb, new areas to explore and, yes, treasure. Sure, the booty I brought home was quartz crystals and maybe an interestingly shaped stick or especially cool rock, but once I was introduced to Lara Croft, the my wanderings changed from those of a buck-toothed country girl traipsing through the pine forest just beyond her backyard to the adventures of a daredevil explorer, able to conquer anything.
But I have yet to find a great way to replay those games without an old Playstation (I do still have the discs, but not the console—that is if they’re even still readable). So when I saw the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot on Steam, I figured what the heck. Why not? It’s not like we’re getting remastered versions of the old ones any time soon anyway.
Tomb Raider I Lara and reboot Lara
My first impressions were mostly positive. If my mom thought those early Tomb Raider games were realistic, she wouldn’t know how to handle this one. Even though the game’s already “old,” I have a hard time differentiating between cut scenes and gameplay, and the character makes natural movements that make her feel even more real, like steadying herself along a rock wall when I have to cross a narrow path with a sheer drop to one side. The controls are intuitive despite the fact that this is my first time controlling Lara with a keyboard, and the kills are just as satisfying as back in the day.
The story confused me, though. Not because the new game did anything wrong, but because I didn’t realize that this Lara was essentially a completely different person from the Lara of my childhood. (I suppose the word "reboot" should have been my first clue, huh?) First of all, in this game, Lara is so young. It feels at odds with the mansion, hedge maze, and ATV course-owning Lara of the first three games I was so familiar with. While I was busy doing obstacle courses, racing to make it to that secret door under the stairs before it closed, and completing four-wheeler time trials (and, most importantly, while I was busy locking the butler in the walk-in freezer—a favorite pastime of my friend's and mine), I was picturing a Lara who was much older. Not as old as my mom, maybe, but definitely not as young as the rebooted Lara, and it was weird to see her portrayed as someone so wet behind the ears.
(As an aside, the Lara from the old games was apparently born in 1968, so she actually isn't that far in age from my mom. Weird. But the Lara of this reboot was born in 1992, which makes her younger than me now. Double weird.)
Anyway, the Lara Croft I grew up with (at least in my mind) was never vulnerable. She had a handle on every situation, a trick up each sleeve, and a gun in every holster. She could take on goons, dogs, tigers, and piranhas; she could captain speed boats and outrun boulders. Regardless of how you feel about the movie, when Angelina Jolie was cast for her, I saw that strong, badass lady and thought “perfect.” This reboot Lara, though, doesn't fit that same aesthetic. Reboot Lara strikes me as much less confident, though certainly able to adapt and overcome, even if she falters a few times on the way. But that makes sense for this younger and less experienced version of the game's hero.
The original timeline Lara had supportive parents who were very involved in her life as well as encouraging when it came to her love of archaeology. Meanwhile, reboot Lara has a father who chooses work over her time and time again and a mother who dies in a plane crash. (Interestingly, in the original timeline, it’s Lara who was in a plane crash, and surviving alone is what ignited the fire in her for solo adventuring.) She seems almost tragic, and that doesn't mesh with the Lara in my memories at all. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine anything being done to Lara. Rather, she met everything head-on and left her mark on whatever situation she found herself in. No part of her was passive or caught off guard. Alternatively, this Lara starts her journey (at least the playable part of it) wrapped in a cocoon and abandoned, something already having been done to her off screen before we even get to get into the game. And, understandably, she is always looking to find her companions. This constant reaching out for others is decidedly human, and at the same time feels so totally unlike the independent Lara I knew as a kid.
That all being said, this game is a nice way to fill out Lara’s story in my mind. It’s a little startling but also interesting to see her flawed, at times trapped and bested, and, perhaps most shockingly, vulnerable, rather than the perfect long-jumping, wolf-and-dinosaur-downing machine of my memories. Even though I was the one back in the day who aimed our weapons at foes and timed all her jumps and dives and solved all the puzzles, pushing that huge stone there and pulling this lever here in order to dodge Thor’s lightning or tiptoe beneath the Sword of Damocles, it always felt like Lara was the smart one, the talented one, and the one who would get us through, whether or not it was my fingers on the controls. This game is different. It feels like this time, Lara needs me.
At first, I thought that was a product of age or how the world has shaped me as a person, but apparently it was the aim for the game all along. Rather than players imagining themselves as Lara, Ron Rosenberg was going for giving the player a feeling of guardianship. When characters play this version of Lara, he says, "they're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'" Despite the implications that a female lead can't be relatable and must instead be rescuable, the Lara of the reboot is a Lara who feels more real. She feels more like a capable friend rather than an untouchable agent with all the right moves.
Rhianna Pratchett, gaming writer who did the story for this reboot along with the 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider, talked about these choices in a New York Times article. “We wanted to show a character who was frightened and unsure, which was something that’s not often shown in video games,” she explained. And, while some have decried this young Lara who is vulnerable and still learning her craft as sexist in its own way, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, a professor of game studies at Staffordshire University, posits that “If it wasn’t for [this] reboot, Lara probably would have died a lonely, sexist death.” She surmises that Lara's legacy would have remained rather one dimensional and that “people would have gone: Remember the dark days when we had that weird woman with the gigantic breasts?” Despite the fact that many young female gamers like me were excited to play as a badass woman protagonist regardless, and saw her as more than just her cup size, I can, of course, see what she means.
I still love Lara and love playing as her, but with this reboot, the mood has shifted, as have the stakes. Before, a failure was mine, because in my head, the old Lara knew the way, and I clearly just wasn’t taking her to the right places. But now it feels like Lara needs my help, and we’re figuring it all out together. She’s gone from all-knowing guide I plugged myself into to more like an equal partner, and it’s a different kind of experience all together, but not an unpleasant one. Reboot Lara is less self-assured but is still strong and capable and ready to meet the challenges that she's dealt. In some ways, playing as her still scratches that nostalgia itch, but it’s also its own brand new thing, just with a familiar player leading the stage, and I like it.
Playing the reboot, I don’t get the same racing heart I did back in the day when a goon with a bat suddenly occupied the ledge I just landed on or an angry doberman ran around the corner at me, but Tomb Raider was the first game I played with such realistic dangers, and it’s hard to recreate that experience. (There’s also not an equal to the save-then-swan-dive-off-a-high-cliff-before-quitting-the-game of the versions of yore either. Did everyone do that, by the way, or were my friend and I particularly messed up kids?) But the important stuff is certainly still there, and the story and the realism shine. I’m excited to help Lara navigate through this new world and bring us both where she wants us to go. In a way, she is and isn’t the same woman from my childhood, but either way, I feel a new friendship forming—or is it a rekindling of an old one? Either way, it’s not exactly what I was looking for, but in a lot of ways, exactly what I needed.
Have you found a new relationship with an old game? Let me know in the comments.
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