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Tomb Raider’s story does nothing amazing: A cult led by a charismatic leader wants to sacrifice a human or two so that they can escape the island of Yamatai. They commit other brutal acts along the way, but that comes with the territory of crazy cults. Then our protagonist, Lara Croft, washes ashore and tells them that they’re doing it wrong. Violence ensues. Nothing special here. Predictable, in fact. I called so many plot points in this game that I should’ve started a drinking game with myself.
But I love predictable only if it serves a greater purpose, and predictable and simple was exactly what Tomb Raider needed for the sake of creating a grand, beautiful presentation.
I’m a huge supporter of “excuse stories.” No huge, unexpected twists. No mountain list of characters who you have to follow and remember like in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. Just easy-to-follow story. Here’s why excuse stories are good: They sacrifice a wonderful plot for a deeper purpose. For Tomb Raider, that meaning involves watching Croft grow from a university student to a survivor. If Croft was the experienced tomb raider we all know and love (or love to hate), and this story, the story of fighting crazy cultists on a mysterious island, was all writer Rhianna Pratchett could muster, there would be reason to complain.
But Tomb Raider has more going for it. It’s about the island and Croft’s development; both have a profound effect on one another. Yamatai is time warped: a mix of ancient Japan, World War II, and the 1980s. Croft is a modern girl who, in true modern fashion, mucks up everything the island has going for it, and the island repays Croft for every little secret she uncovers. The repayments are brutal: The men on the island have no problem throwing Croft off a cliff, snapping her neck, or hanging her upside down to ruthlessly impale her.
For some, this may be a problem — young girl versus dirty, old men. There’s commentary here on the male to female protagonist ratio in the video game industry, or something like that, but I’m not convinced if that argument ever sprouts. These men — Mathias, the cult leader included — are misguided servants to the Sun Queen. In a way, Croft fights the Sun Queen herself, and the men are hapless victims of her diabolical will.
In either case, the purpose reigns supreme: These men — these falling buildings and cliffs and malfunctioning parachutes — are dumbbells. They add muscles to Croft, physically and mentally, especially mentally as throughout the game Croft gets bolder and angrier, crying to her enemies, “You can’t stop me, you bastards!” It’s one of the more inspiring moments of the game, where she guns down a castle full of cultists for her sake and the sake of her friends. Like Rambo. Only better.
“Can” and “can’t.” Croft says these words constantly, but they’re appropriate for the story’s goals. She has the ability to overcome her obstacles (thank God for Roth, her mentor). At one point, though, will there come a time when she won’t have the ability to overcome? This question drives the tension and drama of Tomb Raider. In all situations, the answer is yes, she can. Croft comes into the game rather skilled — unusual given her age and personality, but even so, Croft still has difficulties. Her abilities only go so far, and on an island this broken and busted, there’s a great deal of luck or coincidence at work. Croft really gets lucky in the beginning, for example, when she frees herself from the first trap of the game — that arrow could have had her face written on its blade, but it settled for his side instead. Yes, Croft transforms by the end, but we know it’s not entirely by her own will. Other forces influence her success, and we should realize this fact.
The excuse story has no other purpose than to ground Lara in as much reality as players are willing to believe. We need a vulnerable hero, one who doesn’t have her stuff together and who’s trying to figure out what she is doing because we are in the same position. So the excuse story informs us that, yes, humans are weak and clueless, yet through obstacles, they still come out all right. And for someone who has screwed up in more than a few ways, that message gives much encouragement for our future.
Tomb Raider’s perfection stems from an average story and an imperfect heroine. I could ask for nothing more.