On Rise of the Tomb Raider’s fascinating narrative design

I went into Rise of the Tomb Raider with a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I loved Tomb Raider a lot; it was a fascinating, excellent reboot of a franchise that, until then, I didn’t have a whole lot of care for. A follow-up comic series, written by the great Gail Simone and Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett further sealed the deal. On the other, some comments from game director Brian Horton in the lead up to Rise’s release – particularly surrounding Lara Croft’s apparent PTSD, and the game’s complete sidelining of Sam Nishimura – made me worried about the direction the sequel would go.

If you asked me five hours into Rise, I’d have told you that I was unimpressed; that it seemed like everything I loved about Tomb Raider had been cast aside in favour of turning Lara into a stoic space marine, lest she be seen as weak for having, shudder, feelings. On a purely mechanical level, Rise takes everything that worked in Tomb Raider and runs with it, making small but noteworthy improvements to a foundation that is rock solid – somewhat ironically, given terra firma’s tendency to give way beneath Lara’s feet. But from a narrative perspective, at least for the first half of the game or so, Rise left me feeling empty, frustrated, and almost betrayed.

Then everything clicked into place. I started to see where this story was taking me, and, more importantly, why that seemingly hollow first act was anything but, and was, in fact, vital for what would follow. Lara’s almost robotic disposition, and the almost complete shuttering of the few characters that made it out of Tomb Raider alive, made sense, and served as an important framework for the beautiful, captivating, harrowing redemption story that is Rise of the Tomb Raider’s second half.

Halfway through, I was ready to call Rise a near-perfect action-adventure game – one brimming with adventure, exploration and combat that complement each other beautifully, and some of the best level design I’ve seen in 20 odd years of gaming – but one held back by a shallow and unremarkable story. By the end, despite Rise hitting every other note so flawlessly, it’s that selfsame story that will stick with me, standing out as one of the best tales I’ve witnessed in a year that’s also brought us the likes of Tales from the Borderlands, Mad Max: Fury Road, iZombie, and Jem and the Holograms, to name but a few.

And so, I want to look closer at the writing and narrative design, specifically, of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Which means spoilers, spoilers, spoilers throughout the rest of this review. If you don’t want the story spoiled, might I suggest Lucy O’Brien’s excellent spoiler-free review, or Phil Kollar’s; even if I disagree with the latter’s comments on the story, what he says about the moment-to-moment in Rise is on point. Better yet, just go out and buy the game – and an Xbox One to play it on, if you’re in a position to do so. You won’t regret it.

With that out of the way…

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On Shaky Moral Ground

Rise of the Tomb Raider opens with a decidedly Tomb Raider-esque scene – Lara Croft and Jonah Maiava scaling a perilous cliff in Siberia, before an avalanche separates them, leaving Lara cold and alone. A flashback then shows what’s brought them to this inhospitable place: Lara is searching for the secret of immortality, something her late father, Richard Croft, was sure he was on to, turning him from an esteemed archaeologist to a laughing stock in the eyes of the scholarly community.

There was a time when Lara didn’t believe her father, just like everyone else, but that was before the events of Tomb Raider, when she witnessed the impossible with her own eyes. Now she believes him, and has made proving him right and clearing his name her obsession, and one for which she’s ready and willing to face no end dangers. Her search brings her face to face with bears, mountain lions, violent weather, and perhaps most dangerous of all, a shadowy organisation called Trinity that have their own designs on the immortality-giving Divine Source.

It’s a story that follows a similar trajectory to Tomb Raider (I’ll go into this later on), but the fundamental difference lies in Lara’s motivations. In Tomb Raider, she was thrust into a life-or-death situation and forced to learn to survive; even if she indirectly prompted the events of that game by planning a research trip to Yamatai, she could not have predicted what would actually happen and in all likelihood, would have avoided the trip had she known what was in store.

In Rise, Lara, driven by her obsession, has consciously made a decision to put herself back in that kind of situation. She knows she’s interfering in the plans of a powerful, dangerous organisation; she knows that she’s headed to an unforgiving landscape; she knows that she’s dealing with powers behind her ken; and still she chooses to go forth. Not to save a loved one (even though she might see it as that), as was a common theme throughout Tomb Raider, but for much more selfish reasons – to prove herself to her dead father by clearing his name, no matter the cost.

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Everything Lara did in Tomb Raider – killing hundreds of people, pushing herself to the limits of human endurance – she did out of necessity, desperation, or love; in Rise, she’s doing these same things, but out of a frankly selfish obsession with proving herself in the eyes of her father.

This is why, I think, I felt so much of a disconnect in the early parts of the game. Tomb Raider’s Lara was defined by her compassion and fierce love for her friends as much as she was by her resilience in the face of danger; Rise’s obsession-driven Lara is all business, killing all who would get in her way and shunning potential allies.

It’s this that paves the way for her redemption story. A reluctant alliance with an isolated tribe who have guarded the Divine Source for hundreds of years gives her insight into the potential ramifications of her quest, and an escalating conflict with Trinity shows her just how dangerous the artifact could be in the wrong hands. The real turning point, though, is when Jonah, having unexpectedly shown up again, is kidnapped by Trinity. He’s the one truly close friend that Lara has left – everyone else is dead or in jail – and so saving him becomes her focus. Everything else, even her obsessive search for the truth that brought her here in the first place, becomes and afterthought. In the process, she comes to the realization that the best thing she can do for her father is to live her life and carve her own path, and that some secrets are better left hidden.

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Retraced Steps

What puts Lara’s motivations into stark contrast is just how similar the two games are, not just in terms of overall design, but also in the finer details. What I found most interesting was the way environmental progression in Rise mirrors that of Tomb Raider.

After an opening sequence that doubles as a tutorial, Tomb Raider’s Lara finds herself in the Coastal Forest, a rocky, heavily contoured woodland cut through by a river. She encounters deer here – a vital source of food if she’s to survive – and wolves, one of Yamatai’s many natural threats. It’s night, and it’s pouring with rain.

After an opening sequence that doubles as a tutorial, and a scene-setting flashback to Syria, Rise’s Lara finds herself in the Siberian Wilderness, a rocky, heavily contoured woodland cut through by a river. She encounters deer here, as well as other resources involved in this game’s new crafting / survival system, and runs into a bear, one of Siberia’s many natural threats. It’s night, and it’s snowing heavily.

After the Coastal Forest and brief stops in a couple of other zones, Tomb Raider sends you to the Mountain Base, an old, rundown Nazi facility; Rise takes you straight from the Siberian Wildnerness to the first part of the old, rundown Soviet Installation. Then, Tomb Raider goes to the hobbled-together wooden Shanty Town (via the Chasm Monastery), and back to the Mountain Village (which she’d briefly visited earlier), while Rise takes to the second part of the Soviet Installation, an old sawmill that’s more than a little reminiscent of the Shanty Town, before sending you to the Geothermal Valley, this game’s analogue to Tomb Raider’s Mountain Village.

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Next, Tomb Raider takes you underground through the Geothermal Cavern, into the enemy-filled Solarii Fortress (where an important discovery is made), and then out to Shipwreck Beach. For Rise, it’s into the Acropolis and then underground through the enemy-filled Flooded Archives (where an important artifact is found), and then back out to the Geothermal Valley, which has a beach-like area very similar to Shipwreck Beach.

After that, Tomb Raider takes you through another old Nazi facility, the Cliffside Bunker and connected Research Base, where an important character is killed saving Lara’s life. Rise’s next stop is another old Soviet facility, the Research Base, where an important character seemingly dies because of Lara’s inability to save him.

Finally, Tomb Raider heads to its final destination, an ancient monastery home to powerful, undying Samurai-like hordes, where she has her final showdown with the goon-assisted villain atop an icy, circular structure. Rise, meanwhile, heads to its final destination, and ancient, buried city home to powerful, undying Byzantine soldiers, where she has her final showdown with a goon-assisted villain atop an icy, circular structure.

Rise isn’t a shot-for-shot remake of Tomb Raider, and all of this could well just be a coincidence stemming from the game’s sticking to a pretty rigid genre formula. But from where I sit, the similarities  – the overall progression structure, the little details and art direction of each zone, and even in specific scenes like Lara sneaking past marching hordes of undead –  seem like a deliberate attempt to mirror the two games in a way that shines a bright light on Lara’s very different motivations this time around, and her growth as a result of that.

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Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain

The best example of this theme of being blinded by a “righteous” obsession, I think, is in the main villain, Konstantin. At first glance, he seems to be a generic paramilitary bad guy, akin to Uncharted 2’s Lazarevic, but over its course, Rise shows a much more human antagonist than Tomb Raider or any of the Uncharted games. Not only is he not the leader of Trinity, like the game hints at early on, but he’s just using them to his own ends – namely, to find the Divine Source so that he can save his terminally ill sister, Ana. Everything he’s done, everyone he’s killed, has been with the goal of saving the person he loves most in the world.

Sound familiar? Saving loved ones is Lara’s main driver, too, in both Tomb Raider and Rise, even if, in the case of the latter, it’s her justification of something far less noble. Lara and Konstantin have a relationship not unlike Batman and The Joker—they’re different sides of the same coin, and the veil that separates them is one of ideals and circumstance. Had Bruce Wayne not had the support of Alfred and WayneTech’s bottomless coffers, he could just as likely have grown into The Joker himself; had Lara Croft met Trinity and Konstantin in a situation that didn’t involve them trying to kill her, she would quite plausibly have joined them in her quest to prove her father right.

As it turns out, the catalyst for Konstantin’s religious fervour that drove his search for the Divine Source – the sudden bleeding of his hands, symbolic of Christ, convincing him that he was chosen by God for this purpose – was masterminded by his sister, Ana. There was nothing divine about Konstantin’s bleeding at all; Ana just stabbed him in his sleep to set things in motion. In this, she serves as a mirror to Lara’s obsession, her selfishness, and the shadow of her father – the latter also being signified in the fact that Ana was romantically involved with Richard Croft, and was something like a step-mother to Lara.

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Just Get Violent

The Konstantin / Lara parallel also makes for a response to one oft-mentioned criticism of Tomb Raider – despite that game making such a big deal of her killing a deer for the first time, Lara goes very quickly from that to killing hundreds of people without batting an eyelid. A necessity, sure, but the ease with which she did it was disconcerting and felt out of character, especially early on.

In Rise, Lara is a more ruthless killer than ever, but Konstantin offers an interesting insight into why that is. He believes, wholly and absolutely, that what he’s doing is right, to the point that any soiling of his hands is justified. Lara is similarly driven by obsession, and so even if we prefer to think of her as a noble hero, the reality – especially at the start of the game – is that she’ll chase her goal by any means necessary.

My concern around this is that, as the game goes on, Lara gets better and better at killing thanks to the game’s upgrade systems, even as she’s finding herself and regaining her humanity. Crystal Dynamics have made a big deal about players having the freedom to approach combat as they please, to the point of avoiding it altogether in many instances, but in practice, a lethal approach is both easier and more rewarding, both in terms of audiovisual feedback and experience points.

This only becomes more true as you progress, regularly unlocking new tools and upgrades to make you Lara a more efficient and creative killer, but rarely do you get anything that helps you avoid combat. Lara is an accomplished sneaker right from the outset, and mechanically, this is one of the best stealth games I’ve ever played, but there’s a missed opportunity here to sell Lara’s growth as a character by gradually shifting the focus from killing to avoidance.

The one noteworthy exception comes right at the end of the game. After you’ve defeated Konstantin in battle,  he reveals that Trinity killed Lara’s father, you’re given a choice – kill him, exactly the same way as you’ve executed so many others, or walk away. It’s the kind of moral dilemma that’s shoehorned into so many games in the name of “player agency”, but in Rise, it makes sense. What would Lara, as you’ve come to know her over the course of the adventure, do in this situation? Would she walk away, or would she let her obsession with “saving” her father manifest in the form of revenge? Importantly, this has no impact whatsoever on the plot; either Lara kills Konstantin, or he dies under a collapsing ruin. There are no diverging consequences to sway your response to your own actions. It’s just you and your conscience.

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Digging Through the Rubble

For all its grandiosity and cinematic excess, Rise of the Tomb Raider is, at its core, a personal story, and so its important that the game bring the player along for the ride. An excellent script and wonderful performances certainly come into play here, but it’s the environmental storytelling that really drives this home. There’s an abundance of collectibles to find throughout the game’s world, but the process of finding them gives you a chance to just absorb the world. Immaculate level design teases you off the beaten track, but without inundating you with Things To Do, and so you stumble upon things that tell you about this world and the people that inhabit it. A pile of skeletons and broken weaponry spins a tale of an ancient battle; fields of pumpkins and an abundance of squirrels and hares paints a picture of prosperous village life tucked away in one of the most remote places in the world; the crumbling ruins of Kitezh are a solemn image of a once-great city that’s fallen from grace.

And then of course, there are the collectibles themselves, most of which are little snippets of narrative. They tell the story of how Kitezh came to be, and of how Trinity has been pursuing The Prophet – who watches over the Divine Source – for centuries. They take some of the nameless grunts that you kill by the hundred and turn them into something more, offering a humanising glimpse into how they came to be part of Trinity – and in some cases, their desire to break free. They offer yet more characterisation to the likes of Konstantin, Ana, and Jacob.

There’s a new language-learning system tied into the collectibles, too; certain discoveries will increase Lara’s proficiency in Greek, Mongolian, or Russian, allowing her to decipher monoliths that reveal the location of yet more collectibles. Frankly, it’s a rather shallow system that’s doesn’t come close to what it could offer, or Crystal Dynamics’ pre-release hype around it, but it does one important thing – it serves as a reminder that Lara Croft doesn’t know everything. She’s smart, she’s well-versed in archaeology, but she’s not all-knowing. There are questions she can’t answer.

This is something I’d really love to see brought into the treasure collectibles. You’ll find old artifacts from bygone eras, and somehow Lara Croft is able to easily identify every one of them, regardless of source. Yes, she’s an archaeological expert, but there must be gaps in her knowledge; she must be better versed in some civilisations than others. It’d be refreshing to find things that Lara simply can’t identify – hell, it could form the basis of an interesting new game system around researching these finds.

And finally, there are now sidequests. Every now and then, Lara will be able to help the Remnants (the people living in Sibera, protecting the Divine Source) with some task or another. These mostly amount to fetch-quests, but their context makes them interesting; they’re a chance to speak to other characters, learn about their lifestyle, and about their struggles with Trinity. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about these quests, but they’re another tool with which to paint the framework for the main plot, to draw you in and make you care not just about Lara, but about this world.

Lara warms herself in front of a campfire as she looks outward into the cold, Siberian night.

What Could Have Been

For all its narrative successes, I’m still bitter about the way Sam was written out of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and of its reluctance to explore PTSD even after the first trailer hinted so strongly that this was the direction. What’s here works, and it works damn well, but there is still a sense of disconnect with Tomb Raider and the Simone / Pratchett comic series.

Lara went through some incredibly traumatic stuff on Yamatai, and her post-traumatic stress was a theme throughout the comics. This could well be a driver of her obsession with the Divine Source, but this is something that’s never touched on. That she would go through this whole adventure and never have another episode is dubious, and I think that actually exploring this would have only strengthened the ideas that Rise entertains. It also would have been significant to see a big-time action hero dealing with this kind of affliction, being burdened by it, and overcoming it.

As for the complete erasure of everyone in Lara’s life aside from her father, Jonah, and Ana, well that just doesn’t make sense. As obsessed as she is with her goal, it’s odd that she’d never even think about her best friend, who’s in prison for very out-of-character violent behaviour. It’s odd that she’d never reminisce about Yamatai, and the people she lost there. These are all things that are part of her, for better or worse, and they make her human. For a story that’s about Lara finding her humanity, it’s bizarre that none of this seems to factor in. A simple fireside reflection or two to think about anyone other than her father, especially towards the end of the game when she’s finally breaking free of that obsession, would have tied up those lose ends to some degree, and again, would have strengthened the ideas that Rise entertains.

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Even with these 3,500-odd words, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Rise of the Tomb Raider’s narrative. There’s so much else to it that I’m not really qualified to talk about – the religious themes, the bond between Lara and her father and how that relates to Rhianna Pratchett’s bond with hers, the historical elements.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fantastic, near-flawless action-adventure game that other games will be mimicking for years to come (I sincerely hope we get a Vikings Tomb Raider-like out of this). It does so many things so well, but despite what a lot of people are saying, I think its the story that’s Rise’s strongest asset.


Rise of the Tomb Raider is developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Microsoft Studios / Square Enix, and is available now for Xbox One and Xbox 360, with PC and PlayStation 4 version to follow next year.

A consumer download version of the game was supplied by Xbox NZ for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.