Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Tomb Raider Debate: Was it Necessary to Change Lara Croft's Biography?

I wrote this article at the request of Katie Fleming, who regular readers will know as the provider of all the Tomb Raider screenshots on this blog. Katie also writes Tomb Raider stories, and has been running her site for over 11 years. You can learn more about it here.

Being a fan isn't always easy. Alongside the great things that come with it is the occasional sense that you're in a one-sided relationship. As attentive as many developers/artists/writers/etc are to their fanbases, they can't possibly take each individual fan's needs into account. So when a large decision is made, it's inevitable that whilst a proportion of the fanbase welcome it, others are bound to be disappointed.

Back in 2006, Tomb Raider fans around the world fired up the long-awaited Tomb Raider: Legend, the first game by American studio Crystal Dynamics after they acquired the series from British studio Core Design. Anticipation was high across the community because of the incredible reviews the game had been getting. The PlayStation 2 version currently holds an 82 on Metacritic, placing it only just behind the first two games in the series (91 and 85 respectively). Yet whilst the elegant controls, beautiful graphics and bug-free gameplay no doubt account for its warm critical reception, the fan response was starkly divided.

In December 2010, Katie Fleming surveyed the Tomb Raider fan community, and discovered that Legend was both the second favourite and the second least favourite game across the fanbase. This discrepancy seems rather mysterious, until you take into account the fan effect. You see, when they rebooted the series with Legend, developers Crystal Dynamics did away with the biography that had served Lara for the ten years she'd spent with her founders Core, and wrote a new one.

Rather than explain the changes myself, I implore you to watch the following video, from Katie's Video Blog. In it, she outlines the changes between the two biographies, and asks fans to offer up their opinions as to whether the changes were truly necessary. It is these responses which form the backbone of this article. Although the debate is of course about Tomb Raider, as I read the comments I soon realised that it addresses wider questions of fandom, and why we become attached to characters like Lara.

In general, the fan responses to the question - was Crystal Dynamics' change of biography necessary? - were mixed. To get the ball rolling, here's a positive, yet cautious response comes from imperialflagship:

I think it was necessary to create a new timeline for Lara, for the simple fact that she would seriously have been getting on a bit had Crystal's story been taken up after Core's. That said, I am sure most Lara fans prefer the original, although the market clearly required a change.

Flagship makes a couple of very valid points. Firstly, that Lara's original date of birth, February 14th 1968, would put her in her early forties if it still held true today. The second is that the influence of market forces was possibly a factor for the change. Marluxia150 (no link, sorry) concurs:

I think at this point in the game industry, players are looking a lot more for a good, complex, emotional story. Games (like the new one called RAGE) suffer greatly in reviews from critics who don't find good, moving stories. So I give Crystal props for bringing more depth into the franchise's story. Did I necessarily like it? No. (Again in CORE Lara voice.) I think while trying to make Tomb Raider more realistic, the story wasn't that great, but they tried. ;)

Marluxia150 has put a finger on why being a fan can get difficult. Although we love Lara as a character, that doesn't mean the market will, and much as Lara's custodians want to do us justice, they also need to sell games. So if it's a choice between appeasing the desires of the fans and getting good reviews that will shift games, it's understandable if they choose the latter.

A different - and, as Katie herself points out - far more common viewpoint is that the changes, or at least their extent, were unnecessary. Let's hear from Jianlibao.

I think it wasn't necessary to change Lara's bio - especially considering both points you made on the details of her education and her survival in the Himalayas. I felt Crystal's Lara was a bit of a stock character, with her background being somewhat half-baked compared to Core's. But I'm sure I'm biased, having grown up with the classics :)

Again, there are two points here. One is that the changes possibly had a detrimental effect on Lara herself, changing her into a "stock character". Indeed, the Lara of the Crystal years is a softened character whose singular nature can easily be attributed to a traumatic event in her past, whilst her Core predecessor was a dark and mysterious individual who was more anti-heroine than heroine.

The second point is that as a fan, Jianlibao admits to being biased, which we need to remember as we consider the rest of the responses. As Katie herself points out, those who believe the extent of the changes to be unnecessary far outweigh those who disagree, because followers of Katie's Vlog are Tomb Raider fans. It would be interesting to see what the response would be from a heap of impartial gamers. I don't know how you'd get the answer out of them though. Cookies?

However, beyond the questions of necessity lies another question altogether, one that hinges less on fan allegiance: Which of the two stories has more intrinsic worth? DinoSlipKnot, who started raiding in the Crystal Dynamics era, makes a strong case for their version of events:

I really like the CD biography. Yeah, my first game was Legend, sue me. I'm playing some classics, still am, and those are great games, no doubt. But, regarding the bigraphy, CoreLara was like a Terminator, realised she isn't alive if she's not traveling alone. CoreLara was an icon, but she seemed unreachable, while CD Lara's still an icon, but has the feel that ordinary people can reach their dreams if they have the will...

This is the flipside of Jianlibao's argument, that by filling in the blanks, Crystal Dynamics turned Lara into a richer, more believable character. It's true that such characters populate almost every superhero movie released in the last decade - starting with Sam Raimi's sensitive Spider-Man in 2002 - but this is because people new to a franchise often demand a kind of realism and believability that old hands either don't want, or have learned to live without. Old hands like Phasetastic, who says:

It wasn't necessary to change so much. Everything CD added to it with all the parents story just felt so cliche. Step by step CD are turning Lara from a massive icon of video games to a non-descript generic hero. Chipping away at her attitude, heritage, style, sexuality etc to create a less and less exciting character.

So, by trying to explain too much, have Crystal Dynamics detracted from what made Lara so exciting in the first place? It's not a question it's possibly to answer objectively, and if the responses to the video tell us nothing else, it's that your opinion will depend on when you started playing.

Although I received Katie's request once I'd finished last week's article about Final Fantasy X, I soon realised that there are more than a few overlapping themes. My love of the modern Final Fantasy X is similar to a Crystal Dynamics fan's appreciation for the 21st-century Lara, despite the howling of the old-timers who have been around since the mid 1990s and remember playing Final Fantasy VII or Tomb Raider II for the first time.

And yet it must be said that it's the classic fans who end up feeling a loss when something changes. In particular, it's a loss felt by lovers of the much maligned Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. Despite its bug-ridden gameplay and occasionally odd design choices, the game was narratively ambitious, and made a good stab of imagining Core's heroine adrift in the real world. If you're interested, I've written a review here, but all you need to know now is that it was originally planned to be the first in a trilogy. I for one was devastated when Core lost the franchise, if only for that reason. Let's hear from Marluxia150 again, responding to a claim that Crystal Dynamics had to move the story onwards:

But don't you think that Angel of Darkness was a step forward for the franchise? [...] And Legend might have shown a more emotional Lara, but AoD accomplished the same feat as well. I disagree that it was necessary to create a new bio for Lara.

Huh. I guess Angel's amnesiac fugitive just wasn't the right kind of "emotional".

Is a lament for Core's lost trilogy the same as a dislike for Crystal Dynamics' re-invention? Should it be? Would we rather there have been no more Tomb Raider games after Core's demise? If the Crystal Dynamics games had been bad, quite possibly, but they have been great, and in the case of Anniversary and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, truly excellent.

It's difficult for an old fan to answer. For what it's worth, here's my view. Do I like the changes? In Legend, no, I didn't. I thought Lara's new-found was at odds with her trigger-happy nature. And the focus on her past not only removed the mystery from the character, but diverted attention away from Tomb Raider's heart, the raiding of tombs. afonie agrees:

When talking about the games, imo the biggest mistake that Crystal Dynamics made is that they focused too much on Lara's family drama instead of tomb raiding and adventures. When I play Core's TR games, I don't really care if Lara's parents are alive or not, because the story is not about that, it's about having fun on adventures.

The mysterious heroine of Core's games with her outrageous past and ambiguous motivations had been replaced, as I saw it, with someone at once more open, more normal and less interesting.

But then I played Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and all of a sudden I wasn't so sure. "To understand your present, you have to go back to your past," says Lara in the trailer for what turned out to be an astonishingly original yet reverently faithful remake of the original Tomb Raider.

The thing was, of course, that the "past" Lara refers to is not the one laid out in the original game. No, it's a different past, re-written to tie in the the character and events of Legend (and later Underworld), one which recasts Lara's gung-ho treasure-hunting as a more human search for self.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary shows us Lara's first human kill in a shocking and affecting way, and tries to imagine how a real woman from a privileged background would become a solitary treasure-seeker with a self-destructive lust for doomsday devices. In doing so, it had to rewrite the history of a beloved character, but whatever you think of the changes, there's no denying that the story the game told was gripping.

So do I think Crystal Dynamics' story was, on the whole, good? Yes, I can push my ardent fandom aside for a moment and say that it was. Do I think the changes the developer made to Lara's biography were necessary? Maybe.

The thing is, I want more Tomb Raider. There's no other game which combines physical interaction with an environment, large-scale exploration and puzzle-solving in the way Tomb Raider does. For all its numerous faults, the series is nevertheless an untouchable champion in its own field, and although Crystal Dynamics haven't quite replicated Core's winning formula, they understand the series' appeal and they know how to design the kind of levels that Tomb Raider fans want to get lost in (though a few more of them per game wouldn't go amiss, Underworld devs). And if they need a new Lara to make that work, well, I guess a new biography is necessary. It's a view shared by evocdriver81, who says:

I love Tomb Raider so much that in the grand scheme of things that I feel that these changes are minor versus canceling the franchise. Overall I think Crystal Dynamics has done a good job keeping the franchise alive while staying true to it. I see the bio as a minor change.

It's not beyond the realms of possibility to see Lara as a (less sexist) James Bond-like character, undergoing re-inventions every few years whenever the story calls for it. After all, she's up for another re-boot next year, and there have already been four voice actors in the games (five if you include the as yet unnamed star of the upcoming game), so why should we be so attached to a backstory? Sure, this would mean that underwhelming games would seep in amongst the great ones, but isn't it worth it?

Alright, you've got me. I don't know. After all, I'm always begging for things to retire with grace rather than limp on into embarrassingly inept old age (see: Red Dwarf, Futurama, The Simpsons etc). But I can't help but feel that games are different. With the continual march of technology powering them forward, they are prevented from remaining locked in a time capsule as the deposits of good material are depleted.

I'm sure Lara would be the first to say that you need to adapt if you want to survive. It's just that unlike the rest of us, Lara exists only for her fans. When we stop believing in her, she disappears. Like Tinker Bell. So although we might feel strongly about which backstory is best, or who we really feel Lara is, what really matters is that we care. The fact that people are still debating the character's backstory 15 years after the release of the original game shows that we clearly do, and I hope it stays that way for many years to come.

Who knows what the future...or the past...will hold.


  1. Great article, and I was thinking about James Bond the entire time and you went and mentioned it at the end :D.

    I think there's nothing wrong with an engaging back/story, but frankly videogame scriptwriting is still at a clichéd sub B-movie level.

    Crystal should maybe either hire better writers or keep the story/cutscenes to a minimum, frankly there's nothing wrong with a funny or tense moment to keep me entertained as a reward for finishing a level, but to fill the game with constant monologue/dialogue or incredibly simplified 'emotional' issues which actually dictate the direction of the game is just a very grating and invasive experience.

    I always quoted and remembered the original Tomb Raider cutscenes, and loved their wonderful idosyncrasy and awkwardness. These new games take themselves far too seriously, they come off as over-earnest attempts at drama or entertainment.

    This is rather obnoxious as it's all clichéd and you constantly feel the game trying to emotionally manipulate you and direct you, and if you notice it then it's already lost most of it's effect.

    The problem is that back/story becomes far too much of an element in the game, and personally that actually detaches me from the game, it detaches me from Lara, as I am no longer being her and moving as her, but just watching an extended interactive cutscene and watching her pull the same surprised face over and over again.

    The Tomb Raider 2012 seems to sadly be a continuation of OTT attempts at drama (if the E3 gameplay is anything to go by) having Lara stumble down linear caves spouting 'I'm scared' every 5 seconds, doing her best MGS3 Solid Snake impersonation every time she gets hurt. It's just trying to be so gritty and serious and dramatic that you'd just end up feeling like you are watching a bad movie.

    I love what they are attempting however, and hope I am proven wrong. But the fundamental issue is that developers generally don't have the skillset yet to create good dramatic games or A-rated entertaining plots, nor are they able to recognise that video games should not strive to be cinematic, but should strive to be what only video games can do, and that is take convincingly you to another world which you love.

  2. Hi Safi,

    I agree about the old Core cutscenes, they always had such wierdly quotable dialogue despite their awkwardness. And I also agree that games shouldn't try to be "cinematic", and that their greatest strength is in creating a world.

    But I disagree that developers just aren't skilled enough to create good dramatic games, just that we're still learning how to work with the medium. I can think of many emotionally involving games, which manage to be moving because their designers understand how to make the medium tell a great story (often, they use the world to do this, thus utilising games' biggest strength).

    On the whole though, I can't say that the Tomb Raider series fulfil such criteria. Though there have been some great characters (I'm actually really fond of Amanda and Kurtis, also Werner, Larson and Sophia - am on first name terms with them all), it's never really been about the plots for me, but the world.

    I'm curious to see how TR 2012 will turn out. I admit that I too approach "scared" Lara with a little trepidation, but is that just because I'm used to The Last Revelation's steely 16-year old?

    And I think you're right in that backstory shouldn't be too important in a game like Tomb Raider. Or if it is, cutscenes aren't really the way to do it. Games which do "the past" well are those which use the environment to tell it, like BioShock or Fallout.

    I miss Lara's house though, that was definitely the best tool the series ever had at telling her story. You learned more about the character from her home than you ever did from the cutscenes.

    Thanks for the comment, I hope you stick around :)

  3. Very interesting. I've never actually played any of the Tomb Raider games but from my experience with retcon's in Star Wars and Halo they can be incredibly frustrating for fans. It feels very much as though a part of the knowledge you have built up has been stolen from you and changed, and generally not for the better. Perhaps it is necessary for Lara, but from my perspective it appears to be laziness on the part of the developer/producer more than anything else.

  4. I don't know if it's laziness so much as being painted into a corner. In CD's case they inherited a franchise at a troubled point in its lifespan, and I guess they didn't have too many options with it.

    I'm a huge Star Wars fan, and the retcons really upset me, mainly because they were so unnecessary. They also made the universe smaller. Like *SPOILERS* why did Anakin build 3PO? Clearly that was done so they could have an original trilogy character in the prequels, which pretty muh smashed the fourth wall for me. And it's too much of a co-incidence, making it feel like there were only about 50 people in the galaxy and they all knew each other. That's probably the most stupid, outragous example, but obviously there are others>

    I think it's worse with something like Star Wars becuase the story and the characters and the mythology are central to its very being. I love Tomb Raider (duh), but the story is nowhere near as important as the gameplay. This is interesting, seeing as usually I'm all about the story, but in Lara's case, it's always been slightly too flimsy for me to really engage with it. Like Safi says, the old cutscenes, with their stilted dialogue and amusing kiss-off lines were great fun in a hammy, British way. They had a certain 90s charm because to be released now, they'd have to be a lot slicker.

    I was annoyed by Legend, but mainly because the whole experience felt so watered down, gameplay, character, universe, everything. But to CDs credit, they've pushed the franchise forward, and been spectacularly innovative with Guardian of Light, which was very brave (an isoetric co-op puzzler).

    Where can I get Halo 1? You talk about it so much, it really must be time I play it.

  5. I think with Star Wars that it is such a vast universe with all the books and comics etc that it is pretty hard not to have some sort of retcon going on, the way they did the first three movies was pretty dreadful though. Why not just introduce some new characters and if you decide you want to have the old ones them have them in a cameo rather than being so central to it, otherwise as you say it looks like there are 50 people in the whole place.

    I have never actually played the original Halo funnily enough, although I have read the books which deal with it. I believe you can still get it on PC or they are bringing out a Halo: Anniversary edition which will feature the original campaign in both old and new graphics, presumably it will be Xbox only. I will be getting it myself as soon as I can figure out a way to get it shipped to HK from the UK!

  6. There's an interesting post on Wookiepedia about the Star Wars canon, and how only the films are truly canonical, and (technically) free from ret-cons. I think what makes episodes 1-3 so bad is that if you think about it, there aren't actually any ret-cons, i.e. "new" continuities that actually contradict the original 4-6. No, they just found the blanks (the unspoken mysteries) that made the original films so engaging and filled them in with over-explanations and co-incidenced.

    And yes, they should have had new characters and then have C3P0 have a walk-on part or something. They should really have tried to give 1-3 an identity of their own rather than shoehorn everything in to the original films. But then they mght not have sold as many toys.

    I hope there is an anniversary edition of Halo, I will definitely be playing that. I'm so happy that classic games are coming out for XBOX and PSN. I think that playstation is slightly ahead here, perhaps because Soncy Computer Entertainment have so many exclusives. I'm so happy about the range of HD Classics, and the range of PS1 titles available on the PSN.

    It's also interesting for "new" fans of a series who came in in the last 5 years to see why series became so successful. You can get Tomb Raiders 1-5 on the PSN, for example.

  7. New CD biography is a mess.
    They tried to mix the movies character and the result was a completely new one.
    It is more realistic, as the new games are becoming in terms of graphics and playability.
    Back in the early days, videogames were just that, video-games.Not movies, not novels.And there was no need for realistic plots or realistic jumps (remember when Lara was able to jump almost 4 feet vertically)
    Lara was an intrepid rebel-daughter femenine powerful woman.
    Now she is a traumatized fearful posh girl.
    For me Lara Croft adventures ended in Egypt (TR4)

    1. Maybe there was no need for those things then, but perhaps there is a need these days for the game to have them these days?

      I understand your misgivings, and I myself yearn for a character with the supernatural abilities of old Lara, but I must admit to absolutely loving the weight and reality of the new one. It's amazing that for all the gritty realism we supposedly have in games, this is the first character that feels really human to control. When she jumps, she hits the ground with a thud.

      Video games are still video games (not movies or novels), they tell stories in a different way to those things. That said, I do think you have a point in that few AAA adventure games these days really focus on original gameplay or (shudder) multiplayer. I do really miss the puzzles and focus on exploration of the earlier games, but I understand why, for the series to continue, it had to come to an end.

      Thank you for your comment.

  8. I think we should make a petitory on to persuade crystal Dynamics to come back to the original lara corft and background, I mean, The mature, Darker and Deadly Lara and of course her old manor with the maze and quad track!!!