The Tomb Raider series has taken us all over the world in the past two decades (!). We’ve crawled through the snow-capped mountains of Peru, raced through the streets and sewers or Paris, and explored the underwater ruins of Niflheim, to name a mere few. And while each title in the core series has become more visually and technically impressive, the most recent titles are failing to capture what it means to play a Tomb Raider game.
In his 2007 blog post, Ubisoft Creative Director Clint Hocking lamented the divorce of narrative and gameplay in 2K Games’ BioShock. He called the phenomenon where a game’s mechanics contradict the game’s story “ludonarrative dissonance” and explained the adverse effects this can have on a gamer’s experience.
In his example with BioShock, the game’s narrative is built on the concept of Rand’s Objectivism – which basically suggests that people act on their own free will to achieve happiness. But in the game, despite there existing multiple factions in Rapture, an underwater utopia where the story takes place, the player is forced to align with a character named Atlas, giving up their free will for the sake of the developers telling a streamlined narrative.
This same ludonarrative dissonance plagues the Tomb Raider series, as well. And although Lara Croft’s most recent incarnation achieves many series highs, these achievements distract from the game’s fundamental problems that make it unfit for its native medium.
Why Cutscenes Don’t Work
Award-winning journalist Tom Bissell discussed ludonarrative dissonance in his 2010 book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, and he made the case that games, too often, try to be movies. Movies are linear experiences – stories that have already been authored from beginning to end, whereas video games let the player be the author. A game gives players a set of tools – or mechanics – and lets them loose in a world to create their own experiences. The experiences that come from this are referred to as “emergent gameplay”, a tool that is unique only to the video game medium. This is where a game’s power is at, and where a game’s story should come from.
The fatal flaw in games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, then, is that despite presenting compelling worlds, rampant cutscenes and mission beacons are constantly funneling you through a film-like narrative broken up with some “game”, instead of taking advantage of the medium and letting players experience the story on their own time and in their own way.
This is especially offensive in Rise of the Tomb Raider, considering exploration is a critical component to its identity, next to combat and puzzle-solving. The game’s story embraces a filmic three-act structure and is told mostly in cutscenes at specific points in the game. It’s during these cutscenes where the game world’s biggest secrets are spoon-fed to players at the end of a mission beacon.
If Rise of the Tomb Raider is all about exploration, but the story’s biggest beats are always delivered in cutscenes that are not impacted by the player, does the narrative, then, not contradict the gameplay? Is that not the definition of ludonarrative dissonance?
There’s a similar critique to be made about the in-game documents that players track down which flesh out the main narrative as well as the game world by contributing character monologues and historical sub-plots, respectively. The dissonance occurs because it doesn’t make sense for important characters to leave personal journal entries or voice memos scattered around the world. To the player, this comes off as “too convenient”, and ultimately, it’s a distraction from the story Crystal Dynamics is trying to tell.
There is a place for cinematics in video games, and recent title Quantum Break illustrates how. In that game, players make critical narrative decisions at junctions in the story that completely impact their later experiences. The story gives agency to the player – it’s dynamic, and it embraces the video game medium’s unique mechanic of play.
Exploration and the Souls Series
Arguably, the classic Tomb Raider titles, despite their graphical and technical inferiority to recent entries in the series, handled exploration much better then than now. Players would begin each level with no direction, scarce resources, and no idea what enemies lurked around the corner. In a sense, it’s no different from the popular Souls series.
The Souls series thrusts players nigh unwillingly into a vicious game world with virtually no direction. Instead, players are forced to elucidate the story in each game themselves through careful observation of the environments, weapon descriptions, and subtle details learned through conversations with NPCs. A player could, ultimately, beat the game without the knowledge of key events that occurred in that world, but when they do piece together the complex lore, it’s because they worked for it – they earned it on their own agency.
A movie tells, and a game lets you discover.
Additionally, the Souls series is notorious for hiding entire areas from casual players. During my playthrough of the original Dark Souls, I recall one experience where I was walking down a winding path, and when an enemy blindsided me, forcing me off a cliff, it was not game over as I’d expected. On the contrary, I landed in an entirely secret area.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s mission objectives demand that you visit every region of the game’s world when the game wants you to. Nothing ever truly feels “stumbled upon” or “discovered”. Take, for example, the game’s optional tombs. There are ten or so scattered throughout the game world, and they are mechanically designed to challenge the player. Contradictory to that design, though, when you walk near the area of a “secret” tomb, you’re notified that its entrance is nearby via chimes and an on-screen prompt. The game doesn’t make you work for it, it tells you where to look (in obnoxious, loudspeaker fashion).
Rise of the Tomb Raider tries so hard to be accessible to every type of player that it forgets what a Tomb Raider game is about in the first place.
I attribute this sentiment to the Survival Instinct feature. When players activate Survival Instinct, the world turns monochrome, and important items light up (enemies in combat or puzzle elements in optional tombs). This feature, although 100 percent optional to the player, completely betrays what it means to solve puzzles. Puzzles are supposed to be head-scratchers, and using Survival Instinct reduces the challenge of these spaces from complex mechanical systems to elementary hidden word puzzles.
But players are never required to use Survival Instinct, so it’s acceptable then, right?
If you’re trying to solve a puzzle, and you know that a press of a button might help you solve the puzzle in seconds, simply knowing that you have that option draws you out of the immersive experience.
You become half-focused on solving the puzzle, while the other half of your consciousness is debating on whether or not you should use the assist. This detracts from your ability to solve the puzzle in the first place.
Survival Instinct is another demonstration of ludonarrative dissonance. The game wants you to feel smart, but it will do the work for you if you let it. That’s no different than Dark Souls having an auto-fight-boss feature – it eliminates the mechanics of play.
Some Things Are Done Right
Criticisms aside, I want to add to this critique some of the ways in which Crystal Dynamics have actively avoided ludonarrative dissonance in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Surprisingly, one way they do this is by brutally killing Lara Croft.
Many reviews of the rebooted Tomb Raider (2013) criticized the game’s violent death animations, which include nothing short of stabbing, drowning, electrocution, and impalement. They were so shunned that I didn’t foresee them being included in the sequel. But when they were, I thought about why Crystal Dynamics refused to change something that seemed so inconsequential, and I realized it was more important to the game’s design than it first appeared.
Rise of the Tomb Raider and its predecessor both carry overt themes of survival, and in a survival situation, there needs to be high stakes of death or consequence. The problem then in some games is that there is no consequence to death (eg. Uncharted, Fallout 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, etc.). If you die, oh well, because you’ll start again at a checkpoint.
But death animations as brutal as those in Rise of the Tomb Raider are uncomfortable to watch, so much so that it makes me not want to die even more. These death scenes, therefore, are Crystal’s semi-solution to the dissonance that occurs in a game where a player can die and must restart with no consequence to the narrative. Could it be better? Probably. Some games have already explored similar solutions, such as the Infinity Blade series, in which when the player dies, they are reborn as their descendant, which gives the game narrative consent to force players back to the beginning.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Thoughtful Combat Design
Combat has always been a core component to the Tomb Raider series – so much so that Lara’s dual pistols are as signature to her character as Indiana’s whip or Thor’s hammer. But does combat have a place in a game that’s about unraveling mysteries in the ruins of ancient civilizations?
Not typically, but in this case, yes.
In early titles, the biggest threat players faced came from natural predators such as crocodiles, tigers, sharks… and those pesky little monkeys in Tomb Raider III. But as the games progressed, enemies were more frequently human, and the games’ stories suffered from being unable, due to technical limitations, to have Lara mourn over a body she just dropped or to have a quick time event make killing an enemy feel intimate and personal.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is not restricted by the same limitations, and Crystal Dynamics has been able to avoid the ludonarrative dissonance of putting combat in a game about exploration and archaeology by constructing both the game’s narrative and mechanics on a theme of survival. It wouldn’t make much sense for a professionally trained archaeologist to be throwing Molotov cocktails around a sunken ruin, or unloading a quiver of explosive arrows in an ancient tomb. But because the player’s character is motivated by survival, allowing players to engage in combat in places where an archaeologist otherwise wouldn’t, becomes (mostly) justified.
What’s more, unlike in Tomb Raider (2013), players now have the option to take a non-lethal approach to combat. The game introduces mechanics that allow you to completely sneak past enemies in some areas, which reinforces Lara as a smart, resourceful character while also opening up new gameplay opportunities for the players.
(The same sequence shown above can be completely stealthed, too.)
There are still places where the combat mechanics betray the story. (For example, why can you kill the chickens in the Remnant village while you’re trying to help the Remnant?) But Rise of the Tomb Raider does a respectable job justifying combat engagements in these ancient spaces.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of my favorite games, but it embraces a status quo about what a game traditionally looks like instead of asking fundamental questions about what makes it a game in the first place. And much like Lara’s global escapades, the issue of ludonarrative dissonance applies to games across the entire industry. As gamers, we need to stop accepting games for just delivering more graphically impressive, cinematic experiences – instead, we need to start looking critically at these titles and asking if games are embracing what make them, inherently, games.