Tomb Raider's New Lara Croft Shows Story Matters

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When the new installment of the popular Tomb Raider video game series hit stores last week, players were introduced to a new version of the iconic character of Lara Croft. Since the original game's debut in 1996, the estimable Ms. Croft has transcended the gaming world to become a pop culture superhero -- Angelina Jolie and all that.

But in the new game, the designers have flipped the script and recast Lara as a 21-year-old rookie archeologist. The game begins with Lara shipwrecked on a mysterious island where she must scavenge for food, fashion her own weapons and learn the job's bloodier aspects on the fly. Lara is so green, in fact, that she gets physically sick after her first violent encounter.

It's a bold reinvention of a franchise character long associated with lethal, icy competence. It's also a very deliberate move on the part of the game designers to point the series in a new direction.

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Like many big-budget console game titles, the new Tomb Raider places a premium on classic narrative virtues we associate with books and films -- story, atmosphere and character development.

Susan Arendt, Editor-in-Chief of the online gaming culture magazine The Escapist, says the character reinvention was a canny move on the part of the designers.

"The thing about the Tomb Raider games of yore, Lara Croft started out as perfect," Arendt said. "Nothing ever daunted her. She's laughing in the face of danger and doing cartwheels as she's shooting cheetahs. But there's only so much you can do with that. There's really nowhere to go from perfect."

By re-imagining Lara as a scared student fresh from university, the designers encourage players to identify closely with Lara and her predicament. "This is a Lara we haven't seen before," Arendt says.

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The game also uses established cinematic techniques to introduce and then develop the new character.

"By using cut scenes and movie techniques to frame shots, it helps move the story along," Arendt said. "And you cannot underestimate the score; the music. You don't notice it all the time -- it's almost subconscious -- but music absolutely helps set the tone."

Dr. Frank Lee, co-director of Drexel University's Game Design Program, says that the heavily narrative video game is but one approach to game design.

"There are two main camps within gaming," Lee said. "One is what we'll call the narratologist, people that are interested in bringing narrative ideas from other forms, whether it's books or film, into games. Then there's the other side, which is about pure game play and game mechanics. An example of that would be Tetris. There's no narrative in Tetris, but it's a fantastic, purely mechanics-driven game."

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These two approaches represent the ends of a spectrum along which many modern games fall -- particularly in the genres of action adventure and RPGs (role-playing games). Tomb Raider puts a clear emphasis on story and characterization, but it also has strong game mechanics -- the combat, puzzle-solving and platforming elements are much improved from previous games in the series. (I speak from experience -- I lost an entire weekend to this game.)

Lee says the degree to which Tomb Raider is successful as a video game depends on its ability to balance and deliver on both fronts -- story and gaming. But he also says that rebooting the character of the iconic, busty, invulnerable Lara Croft was a smart thing to do in any case.

"There's a historical complaint about Tomb Raider, this dissatisfaction that Lara is this unrealistic person -- certainly, physically that's true," Lee said. "The new character is someone that's more empathetic."