BFTP: Tomb Raider
While many important video games are rightfully honoured for their place in the history of the medium (some perhaps a little over-honoured), others fade to varying degrees into the ether of our collective gaming memory.
The early Tomb Raider games are examples of titles that are not completely forgotten but – at least in my experience – are now rarely discussed despite their tremendous impact at the time of their release. The franchise lives on through the recent Square Enix reboots but these have seemingly only added to the erosion of peoples’ recollection of the originals. This muddying of memory is a real shame because back in the awkward early days of polygon-powered video games Lara Croft was on the cutting edge of 3D game design.
In a time when three dimensional gaming was almost completely uncharted territory, when little to no rules had been established for basic tenements like movement and level design, Core Design was making it look easy. Despite having very little history in this area (according to my research it had only released two vehicular combat games in 3D at that time) the small Derby-based studio delivered an incredibly accomplished character-based 3D action-adventure game on its first attempt.
Tomb Raider’s basic premise was simple. The player assumes the role of the wealthy, Queen’s English-speaking adventurer named Lara Croft as she hunts down various historical and/or mythical artefacts. It was ostensibly ‘Indiana Jones: The Game’ but with far more acrobatics and gun fights. The storylines of Tomb Raider and its many direct sequels weren’t particularly great or even easy to understand but that wasn’t really their focus.
The main attraction was the series’ huge fully 3D environments that were, for their time, incredibly captivating and immersive. There were no time limits, no high scores or any other arcadey elements here – the Tomb Raider experience was about exploring sprawling exotic locales, discovering then pilfering their secrets, and avoiding or otherwise surviving their traps and hazards. Accentuating the sense of being in a believable 3D environment was the almost complete lack of traditional music. For the most part the series’ soundtrack consisted of ambient background noise specific to Lara’s environment, plus the sounds of whatever wild animal or hazards were nearby.
Some people did – and still do – take issue with the basic gameplay of the early Tomb Raiders. Lara’s controls were very tank-like and exacting, requiring a lot of patient positioning in order to pull off the required jumps and other manoeuvres. However, this was a time before the analogue stick was widely adopted (the Nintendo 64 had just about released in the US at that time) which would provide an intuitive and fluid way of moving in three dimensions. Considering that developers at the time ostensibly had only directional pads and keyboards to work with it was amazing that the Tomb Raider games played as well as they did. Again, given Core Design’s prior limited experience with 3D games it was extra impressive they managed to deliver what they did on its first try. A particular stroke of genius was how a training mission based in Lara’s mansion was provided, allowing players to get their head around the basic controls of this relatively new type of game at their own pace. Come to think of it, this was probably the earliest example I can remember of an integrated in-game tutorial.
One thing that has definitely stood the test of time about Tomb Raider is its level design. Even playing it in 2016, nearly 20 years since its original release, I was surprised by how smart and intuitive it was. Even though the game’s environments can be huge and rather winding I was rarely ever confused about where to go or what to do next. Despite its penchant for deadly traps and aggressive wild animals, I was almost never unfairly punished either. It takes a deft touch to craft a game that is suitably challenging without being cruel or opaque and, again, especially given the nascent state of polygon 3D gaming this was done incredibly well here.
As previously mentioned, the Tomb Raider games’ plots weren’t particularly great but we can’t skip over the importance of Lara Croft. It’s now 2016 and there still aren’t all that many video games featuring female characters in leading roles. Back in 1996, when the medium was seen as much less broad and (for the most part) targeted only at boys and young men it was pretty much unheard of to have a female protagonist, especially in a Western video game. Though I’ve always taken issue with how Lara was portrayed in marketing and merchandising, in the games themselves she was, for the most part, handled with respect. Not once can I recall a gratuitous scene meant for titillation, nor any commentary on what a woman should or should act or look like. Even the villain in the first game, the mysterious corporate CEO Jacqueline Natla, was also female (though not strictly a human). It was one of the first fictional worlds I can recall experiencing in which gender didn’t seem to be a restricting factor, so Core Design deserves a little extra credit for that alone.
Our collective memory for those early Tomb Raider games may have faded or even been tarnished by the way the franchise was later treated. However, on my recent revisits to them I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I could pick them back up. Yes, the graphics have obviously dated and the preciseness of the controls might flummox some gamers today. Yet overall this pioneering series holds up surprisingly well twenty years hence, at least on PC. Super Mario 64, which also released in 1996, often takes precedence in our discussions of early cornerstones in 3D video games. However, for me at least, Lara Croft deserves to be right up there with Nintendo’s portly plumber.