This is going to be something a bit different from what I’ve written for the Berry before. It’s a case of opposites. Where I’ve stuck to brand, spankin’ new game releases and kept to what I feel is a short, objective view of what I’m playing, this time I’ll be looking at the long-standing Tomb Raider franchise in a subjective light, starting at its modest beginnings back in 1996 and continuing on to its most recent release in 2018. I’ll be pulling quotes from developers and other articles about the games and weaving them into my own experiences with each.
Exploration is a running theme with the Tomb Raider games, and I’ll be diving into them along with you. As of the time of writing these very words, I’ve not played any of these games save the original 1996 release and the 2013 reboot. High points, pitfalls, and games long unplayed await. Let’s get started!
When Core Design were first planning out the original Tomb Raider, they came from a desire to do more with the new power offered by the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. Until this point it had not been possible to create a fully three- dimensional game with the level of detail, animation, and environments Core were hoping to achieve. While Super Mario 64 beat Tomb Raider to market by roughly three months and has gameplay that arguably holds up better to modern gaming standards, there are a few things which garnered my respect for Tomb Raider playing it here in 2022.
Nintendo employed a few dozen people to work on Mario 64 compared to Tomb Raider’s six. Six! Releasing a triple-A title today only to watch the credits blink on screen for a matter of seconds would be laughable, but it’s simply a matter of how the development process has changed since then.
Daryl Baxter’s book, The Making of Tomb Raider, details how the development team was influenced by the cinematic platformers of their day when transitioning the sub-genre to the third dimension. Try watching gameplay footage from cinematic platformers such as Prince of Persia or Another World, and compare their grounded movements to Tomb Raider’s. Their gameplay tropes and styles of bouncing around the world feel entirely different to Mario and his ilk. I’ve spent more than a few hours thinking about how it would look if the gameplay roles were reversed, with Mario taking up the mantle of the cinematic platformer and Tomb Raider molding itself using the mood set by Mario’s games. Try as I might, I just can’t get the two damn concepts to gel. I think what creates this vast schism between these two sub-genres of platformers is threefold.
First, the levels. They create an entirely different ambience and feeling to Mario’s games. Triple-A trappings of modern games such as signposting and obvious sight lines are absent here in Tomb Raider. While the levels you’ll traverse are clearly more primitive than modern games, they give the impression that they simply do not care whether or not anyone is around to explore them. Turn off the game, and they’ll keep on existing.
Next, the soundscape. Nathan McCree’s score, though totaling only a handful of minutes of music for a twelve-hour experience, is some of my favorite video game music of that generation. Somehow, I don’t see his work discussed all too often. McCree hadn’t seen concept footage of the game when he composed the soundtrack. Rather, he only knew at a very basic level what the game was about and the kind of environments the player would run around in. The game uses these tracks only when encountering a set piece, maybe only one or two a level. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I played the game late at night, shooting down enemies, only to come to a low-stakes bit and get caught in a moment of self-reflection when the music swelled up again. That’s where the game soared the highest for me, and these are the moments I remember most about Tomb Raider. Otherwise the soundscape is all ambience and the chittering of foes hoping to make you their lunch. While the music provided a wonderful sense of mystique, it’s the quiet which gave me welcome sensations of isolation. Each corner you turn could just as much be a trap as it could a treasure, and the music sure as hell won’t give anything away.
Lastly, there’s Lara herself. The main character is what most people remember about the franchise. Even non-gamers recognize her thanks to the movie tie-ins starring Angelina Jolie or Alicia Vikander as our hero. Lara Croft is undeniably one of the most recognizable video game protagonists, and is one of the earliest “realistic” heroes the medium has. Lara is not an alien. Her proportions are— though exaggerated—distinctly human. She doesn’t come from a fictional land, she hails from London, England. Many gamers will start nodding their head after hearing her name, waiting for their turn to contribute to the conversation. Usually they’ll say something along the lines of “Oh yeah, I played all those early games, and Lara was my first real crush,” or “Gee, I sure could have done without the blatant sexism of those early games.”
It’s a fine line to draw, but I think that the first Tomb Raider doesn’t cross into sexist territory in the slightest. Toby Gard created Lara and provided her initial appearance and design. In Toby’s own words, “The idea was to create a female character who was a heroine, you know, cool, collected, in control, that sort of thing.” With that, I’d say that Toby succeeded. In the scant few cutscenes where Lara actually talks—as the game takes place with next to nobody around—she gives off the vibe of having done this all before. This adventure is just another job for her so she might as well get in a few sly cracks in while she’s doing her thing. The one time the game comes close to crossing the line is the taunt directed squarely at the player after completing the tutorial. After emerging from a pool Lara comments that she better take off these wet clothes right before you get booted back to the main menu. Cheeky, indeed.
I’d be remiss to ignore the advertisements for Tomb Raider and how Lara as a personality was used in those days to market everything from hatchbacks to energy drinks. The idea of a video game character shilling for real-world products is somewhat common today. There are plenty of real-world crossovers with games now, for example Sam “Porter” Bridges chugging Monster Energy drinks in Death Stranding, along with tons and tons of supermarket snacks lining the shelves plastered with promos for whatever shooting game is currently in vogue. But let’s look back to the marketing of the late 90’s, where game consoles were still colloquially called “Nintendos” and games were still seen as a geeky hobby, not the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. The idea of video game cross-promotion was unprecedented for the time. And here comes Lara Croft, shilling for the Sci-Fi channel and the Nokia N-Gage. Toby Gard hated these sort of bastardizations of his character and the “Sex Sells” marketing approach taken with Lara. Looking back on some of these ads, I can see precisely what he’s talking about. Advertisers have her posing mostly nude and in all sorts of poses in service of…what? Her own game and a few products which marketing companies felt were acceptable to slap her body on? The result is a blatant cheapening of her character, one of a few decisions which drove Toby Gard to leave Core and one which ultimately set positive depictions of women in video games backwards as much as the original game had pushed them forwards.
Okay, so the marketing is slimy, but how’s the game? On the whole it’s great, but approaching it in 2022 means that the game aged about as well as one could expect from a platforming pioneer. Tomb Raider’s gameplay systems only allow for specific movements and methods of interaction. You’re not quite in control of the game, instead adhering to a strict grid system. It handles like software in a way that is hard to describe without getting your hands on it first. These issues were fixed in the next installment, but here in Tomb Raider you live and die by the cubes of grass and sand and rock. The entire game world is placed on a grid. You’ll see square blocks attempt to disguise themselves as natural environments such as cliffs and dunes. The entirety of the core gameplay loop centers on this system and the systems of animations Lara is bound to. She only jumps at certain points during her running or walking animations and will use hops and turns to position herself for longer jumps. The act of moving Lara can be clumsy, but her presentation is graceful. Mastering the mechanics of Lara’s motions is challenging but essential.
When you first start the game, you’ll find it helpful to visit the tutorial level in Lara’s mansion. Lara excuses the crates in her front hall with the explanation that she just moved in a few days ago, and the movers haven’t been around yet to finish dropping off her things. It’s a simple and fun justification to litter the main hall with a whole heap of boxes and let the player grasp how Lara moves in line with the grid. Admittedly, the grid makes lining up jumps easier. You’ll jump exactly the same distance every time, and being able to set yourself up on a ledge for an easily replicable leap proves itself a boon.
As I started the game proper and progressed through the levels, the cracks in the dated design started to appear much like the seams in the low-resolution textures. They became glaring and elicited many four-letter words when things went so very wrong. The camera in particular is worth picking a bone over. Fights are usually settled at a distance, with Lara’s guns keeping the enemies a few yards away. But when they do happen to get close (which they will), the camera turns into a spinning mess. Lara twists her arms all over the place in an attempt to keep up with the wolves eager to make her their next meal. It’s best to try and back away, though even that becomes tricky when the direction you jump in changes by the second. I often found myself trying to backflip away from a threat only for the camera to shift just before the jump, sending Lara into a wall and right into the jaws of a predator.
It’s frustrating to be sure, but the more time spent with the game, the more its crunchiness and oddities become second nature. Tomb Raider is over 25 years old and a very early example of a three-dimensional platformer. Some dated elements are bound to bubble to the surface. I’m just glad that they’re relatively easy to deal with.
The plot itself took a huge backseat to the core gameplay for me, and frankly I’m not one to complain about that. It plays out like a B-tier B-movie plot at best. Tomb Raider uses an adequate, pulpy framework, but it’s hardly what I’d consider the forefront of storytelling in games, even at the time. Most point-and- click adventure games of the day had it beat by a good margin. Compare this storyline to that of the Indiana Jones point-and-click adventure game, Fate of Atlantis. That game had smarter story content and plot development, but writing for action titles like Tomb Raider was not what it is today. Read the scant paragraphs of text in the early DOOM games for a good example.
In Tomb Raider, Lara’s initial employer, a businesswoman named Jacqueline Natla, hires her to find a part of the Scion, an Atlantean artifact which supposedly contains powers beyond the creator himself. Lara agrees, but once she finds out that her employer intends to use the artifacts to raise an army of Atlantis, decides to seek out the remaining parts for herself. There’s honestly not much more to say about the story other than it turns out that Natla was an Atlantean all along, as if her name being a partial anagram for Atlantis didn’t spell it out enough.
The enemies themselves are of more note to me, consisting mostly of wild animals in the first three-quarters of the game, only switching to the supernatural in the final quarter. What I found most interesting was the thought process behind choosing animals as enemies. While you do fight humans, their numbers can be counted on one hand. Toby Gard gave a 1998 interview at Gamasutra and rationalized the abundance of animals as foes in Tomb Raider. His reasoning was, “I’m also not keen on just mindlessly killing humans in games anyway. So it had to be dangerous animals. The problem is that any animal that’s dangerous to humans we’ve already hunted to near extinction. Maybe we should have use non-endangered, harmless animals. Then you’d be asking me, ‘Why was Lara shooting all those nice Bunnies and Squirrels?’ You just can’t win can you?”
I feel that Toby’s got it wrong here. I’ve got way, way fewer problems killing humans in video games than I do animals. To me, animals (especially feral ones) are unshackled from malicious concepts that people frequently struggle with. Animals are unable to experience concepts like envy and revenge. Those are, to our best knowledge, human emotions and the absence of those emotions in animals removes them from any callousness I feel towards my fellow man. Put a fake gun in my digital hand. Odds are I’ll point it towards the human bearing down on me first.
Of course, this is all just my personal opinion against Toby’s. Admittedly Tomb Raider would not possess nearly the same amount of charm or elicit the wonderful sense of isolation it has if the number of human and animal enemies were swapped. Even the design of the beasts have a charisma to them. The lions in particular stick out to me, all teeth and simple polygons stacked together with only the slightest care for how the whole thing would look up close. It has the same appeal that many other early 3D games have in that the hardware has just enough power to give a presence to the giant T-Rex in the Lost Valley level as it runs Lara down.
You read correctly, I did say T-Rex. The game was designed with an intentional wildness to it, the product of a small team trapped together in a small office building in Derby, UK shooting ideas off one another with “why not?” being the typical answer. Of the human enemies Lara faces in the game, the most memorable to me was one known as the Skateboard Kid. He’s a dual machine gun-wielding dude on a skateboard who fights you in his own mini skatepark while quoting Taxi Driver. I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately I’m not. Where much of the game felt thoughtful (and I’m even willing to forgive the T-Rex) the Skateboard Kid bends suspension of disbelief a little too much for my taste. He’s a tough bastard too—his Uzis ripped me to shreds on a number of tries before I finally got him.
The game even managed to sneak a jump scare in on me when two mummified centaurs burst to life with a loud crash towards the end of Tomb of Tihocan. Even on my second play through, when I knew it was coming, they still made me jump a little in my seat. The animals give way to shambling Atlantean horrors in the final act. They’re terrifying to behold and tough endgame monsters to boot, able to catch Lara off-guard around blind corners with bounding leaps. Add to that the fleshy walls of the final levels and unnerving ambience—sort of a droning baseline which sounds like it could’ve reached through my headphones and grabbed my ear if it wanted to. Textures for the flesh came from medical journals, so actual pictures of tissue were plastered to the floors and ceilings in these later levels. The result is a surprisingly tense atmosphere, one which I hadn’t expected during the first hour when Lara took out a pack of wolves with dual pistols, the cinematic score underlying her gunshots in a very feminine-macho (or femacho, if you will) fashion.
What aren’t so tense though, are the final few moments of the game. After you face Natla in her semi-Atlantean form, you’re left to ponder your next movements. The sound of the cavern you’re in crumbling around you makes you think that the entire place could come down at any moment and you need to get hustling, but to where? Then you spot the hole high up in the wall. You navigate a few tall pillars doubling back on themselves as you ascend towards the breach —nothing you haven’t done before. The platforms are no trickier to reach than they were in the middle portions of the game. You finally make it up to the hole, slide down a ramp…and you see the standard end-of-level screen. After pressing a button to continue, the final minute-long cutscene plays followed by credits. You did it!
This ending is kind of lame. Even the developers weren’t thrilled with this ending—the result of severe crunch rather than a lack of technical knowhow or design misdirection. As one developer said in Baxter’s 2021 book, “Atlantis could have done with a week’s extra work as the ending was a tad anticlimactic and the level design had been rushed.” Game development is challenging. It’s as much about project management as it is building the levels and programming the engine. The sad truth is that just a little bit more time could have resulted in an improved ending. This can also be said about many other titles and their many lacking aspects. It all comes down to time. Games often come down to the wire of their development cycle and frequently don’t quite have enough time to polish everything to a mirror sheen.
Thankfully Tomb Raider managed to perform well enough to garner numerous sequels, movies, books, comics, and a fawning fanbase hungry for more adventuring content. While sequels to the first Tomb Raider followed in 1997 and 1998 respectively, an expansion to the first game released, oddly, between the second and third games. Entitled Unfinished Business, it was very much a footnote in the franchise’s progression to superstardom and one I feel is worth covering if only because it’s the closest I’ve felt to being an adventurer myself. But where Lara has bloody spikes and mercenaries to keep her company, I’m sitting cozily in my chair with a warm beverage steaming away at my side.
While the base game explores a virtual representation of untouched crypts and jungles, Unfinished Business unintentionally builds on that sense exploration in an unexpected way. The game released as a highly niche product, only for PC gamers and coming out well after Tomb Raider II had already launched. Even now, view counts of the expansion on YouTube are a fraction of the main title’s. Commentary is elusive and walkthroughs become scarce. Daryl Baxter’s book doesn’t cover it, and press coverage of the game gives it a mere footnote’s recognition.
Knowing this, Unfinished Business elicited a real sense of vine-hacking adventure before I booted it up. I had a hard time digging up anything about the game in my research into who worked on Unfinished Business. I came up with only three names, one of which apparently worked on a number of other expansions for the franchise, while the other two seem to have only worked on this expansion here. There simply wasn’t much information out there about this game, which added even more to my sense of wonder. When perhaps a few thousand other odd, completionist fellows have bothered to boot this thing up, one takes notice. It sounds strange to talk about a few thousand people as a small number, but in a huge franchise like Tomb Raider spanning many games and reboots, this tiny little side release largely fell through the cracks only for me to fish it up some decades later. I sat down with the game for around three hours, excited to see what odd and strange things I’d be able to write about.
And well, there isn’t much else to say about Tomb Raider: Unfinished Business. It’s a game that ticks the boxes of a typical expansion pack and only barely at that. There are no pre-rendered cutscenes or voice acting, and if you didn’t read the barebones plot in the manual or online you’d likely be lost. Where the plot in Tomb Raider gave the stages a sense of presence, these feel they were slapped together in a back office. There are four levels. The manual explains that two of them are devoted to a new Egyptian temple with a cat motif, and the remaining levels are “expert” reimaginings of the final few Atlantis levels in the base game.
Expansion packs usually exist to challenge players who want an extra helping after they’re done with their first plate. Unfinished Business succeeds here. Compared to the twelve-hour core game, my save game count for the three-hour expansion was roughly half. That’s a lot of saves in such a short period, which shows just how much I had to tiptoe through the expansion, questioning each step I took and every risky jump I was about to gamble on.
The music struck me as a negative throughout the experience. That’s not because the music was bad—it’s all the same wonderful orchestral music from the original game with one slightly remixed track thrown in. The main issue is that the level designers used a heavy hand with the music triggers. Where the songs only played for set pieces like the large statues or expansive coliseum in the core game, you hear Nathan McCree’s score almost at random in the expansion. The short runtime of his score was only exacerbated by its liberal use. His songs played several times over, which robbed them of their impact and turned them into stale, stock tracks you’d hear in an elevator.
To the expansion’s favor, though, the levels show a slightly defter hand with Tomb Raider’s creator tools. Outside, the sky is no longer a black void. Now stars litter the night sky. Animated textures are used to great effect, especially in the Egyptian levels, where rows and rows of cats dash around the walls via a relatively seamless effect. These little flourishes to the levels are a small treat, but beyond that the expansion is just more Tomb Raider content that exists exclusively for those brave enough to hunt down a product not readily available on digital marketplaces and fight through barriers erected by 25 years of operating system quirks.
If you decide to play the first Tomb Raider, take time to brush away the cobwebs and blow the dust off this long-forgotten expansion too. You’ll be treading where very few others have gone before. After exploring the familiar territory of Tomb Raider as well as its lesser-known expansion, I’m eager to see how the franchise will experiment and evolve.