Ever since its early teases (sorry, “leaks”), I’ve been very skeptical about the upcoming Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I love Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider dearly, so the thought of a new game that has the involvement of neither Crystal Dynamics nor Rhianna Pratchett is troubling. The announcement of Eidos Montreal leading development on Shadow raised even more red flags for me, because I really haven’t liked anything that that studio has put out. Sure, they did some additional work on the first two games, so they’re not strangers to the franchise, but Crystal Dynamics led the creative vision for those games, and everything that Eidos Montreal has taken lead on—the Thief reboot, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—has left me underwhelmed.
Last week’s big reveal of the first trailer for Shadow didn’t help matters, with its focus on all the things that this reboot series should be moving away from: “grittiness” in lieu of character development, tedious combat, and excessive, graphic violence. The first two games were certainly dark, arguably to a point of excess, but that was always balanced out by genuine humanity and even moments of brevity. They were gritty games, but that grittiness was part of something bigger, but Shadow‘s marketing at Eidos Montreal’s history makes me wonder whether that will be the same case here.
Then there’s this whole notion of a “Mayan apocalypse”, which is the most cringeworthy turn of phrase since “mechanical apartheid”. What we see in the trailer is yet another appropriation of Mayan history with a focus on human sacrifice, stripped of any cultural or historical context and simply used for shock value. It’s offensive, it’s played out, and it’s just so tiresome.
We also learned that Jill Murray is the lead writer on Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and that’s great, great news indeed.
Murray’s may not be a household name, but she’s one of the best writers in the game industry right now. She was a co-writer on the excellent (and heavily underrated) Assassins Creed: Liberation, she also worked on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and she was the lead writer on Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry. She was the lead writer on Minority Media’s VR dinosaur adventure Time Machine VR, a game with unexpectedly good storytelling, and she also wrote for Bloom Digital’s queer romance visual novel LongStory—which I must admit I haven’t played, but, by all accounts, it’s a very good game. Murray did some additional writing for Moon Hunters, which is a beautiful game in every regard, and she even worked on the ill-fated LawBreakers.
Her standout work, though, is Frima Studios’ Fated: The Silent Oath. Despite middling reviews, Fated still sticks in my mind as one of the best VR games we’ve seen yet, and the writing and narrative design is a huge factor in that. Limited to gestures for communication—in part because of the control scheme, and in part because your character, Ulfer, is mute—Fated builds relationships between the player and characters in a way that no other game has, and delivers on that with a beautiful story about a families struggles as they try to flee the wrath of the Norse giants. As an emotionally charged, narrative-focused adventure game that explores the nuances of love and family, it’s sublime.
To know that someone as skilled and talented as Jill Murray is leading the charge on Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s writing fills me with hope. It’ll still be an overly “gritty” adventure that puts more focus on combat and violence than any Tomb Raider game ought to—the cult of AAA saleability leaves little room for anything else—but with Murray in the writer’s seat, maybe that’ll be balance out with some lightness and magic. If anyone can set Shadow back on the right course, it’s Jill Murray. Let’s hope she’s given enough freedom to do that.