I recently started replaying the Tomb Raider reboot from 2013, and, like the first go around, I am enjoying myself. The environs are beautifully designed, the combat is intense and aggressive, and this version of Lara is one of my favorite interpretations of the character. All of these characteristics are a net positive over the incessant notifications, play hints, and button prompts, which I still wish I could disable, the regenerating health that has always bothered me, and Lara’s death animations that seem to linger a few moments too long. However, I have one issue with this reimagining that makes me long for the classic Tomb Raider games (read: the first two). Traversal was part of the challenge.
The first two Tomb Raider games hold a special place in my gaming history. I spent many an hour playing through the varied locales and combat challenges of these games. The music of the first game is seared into my mind, such that I can play it through my mind at any given moment. Not too long ago, I revisited Tomb Raider II, and through all the nostalgic feelings and poorly aged tank-controls, one design element stands out as something I have been missing in contemporary game design. Doing anything required pressing, and often holding a button. In classic Tomb Raider, in order to grab onto a ledge the player has to press the “action” button (usually “X”). To keep hold of the ledge you have to keep that “X” button held down, or Lara will release her grip and fall into whatever waits beneath her (which was rarely anything pleasant).
Performing a Backflip
Climbing, jumping, and grabbing are a significant portion of traversal (a style of play called Platforming) in in the classic Tomb Raider games. It fed into the puzzle design and created several segments of palm-sweating tension, as getting from place to place was part of the challenge. Hanging from a ledge, then performing a backflip to reach a platform behind Lara requires a finesse and timing not found in current platform games. In order to do the described action, the player would have to hold down the “action” button, to maintain their grip on the ledge, press the directional button for where they want Lara to jump, then quickly move their thumb from “action” to the “jump” button (“□”) to make Lara do a backflip. Frequently, this process is performed while Ms. Croft is suspended over spikes, lava, or a lethal height. If all buttons were pressed with correct timing, Lara would land safely on the desired platform, and the player may be able to set the controller down for a second and wipe the sweat from their hands. However, the above maneuver could become more complex if the platform is just too far away for the back flip alone to get Lara there.
Tomb Raider II introduced the idea of Lara rolling in midair to change direction. If the player presses the “roll” button (“O”) in the midst of a forward or backward jump, Lara will tumble around to face the opposite direction. This move changed both combat and puzzle design. Applied to the “backflip from hanging” situation from the previous paragraph, the maneuver becomes more challenging. Remember: for this example, the backflip alone will not get Lara onto the ledge. She’ll need to be able to grab onto the ledge after doing the backflip. From holding down “action” to hang from ledge, the player presses the directional button toward the sought-after platform, “jump” to perform the backflip, “roll” to change direction, and finally “action” again to grab the platform. Then maybe press the up directional button to pull Lara up on top of the platform, if possible.
On the controller the sequence looks like this:
Hold X > →+□ > O > press and hold X > ↑
That process requires five button presses to jump from the ledge to the platform and a sixth to climb up, if possible. Despite how complicated it sounds, this method of traversal is exciting and rewarding. The multiple inputs aid in the immersion of the game, as the finger gymnastics necessary to perform each action mirrors the actual gymnastics that Lara performs on screen.
Contemporary games have moved away from making running, jumping, climbing, and holding on part of the gameplay challenge to make traversal simpler and easier. In most of these games, climbing and scaling feels no more complex than walking, which is fine provided the games challenge the player in other ways. Platforming is intrinsic to several current games and franchises, but the developers have predominantly reduced the gameplay challenge of their platforming to the point where it is no more challenging than making the character walk around. The first two Tomb Raider games made platforming part of the puzzle. Getting from one spot to another was just as challenging as fighting. I miss the tension of a running jump and the excitement of pressing “action” to grab the ledge.
Franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, and the Tomb Raider reboot have done away with pressing a button to hold onto climbable objects. While the player-character hangs from a ledge, the player can set down the controller, go to the bathroom, and come back to find the character still hanging on despite the lack of player input. Many character actions are automated in these games. The assassins of Assassin’s Creed will crouch of their own volition in contextual situations, and Lara will do the same in Tomb Raider (2013). She will also light torches herself and automatically grab any and all grabbable ledges if the player has her walk over one. In the original games, the player would have to press for Lara to lower herself down from a ledge then another button to hold on.
For Better Immersion
I believe these automated processes were implemented for the convenience of both the players and game designers, but the result creates a distance between the player and the player-character. When I play Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, and Tomb Raider (2013) I feel the disconnect. I want to be Nathan Drake. I want to be Edward Kenway. And I definitely want to be Lara Croft. Instead the automated processes of these games make me feel like I am someone working with the characters. I am giving them direction, but they are still independent beings. This breaks the immersion of the game experience. Tomb Raider (2013) make me Lara’s companion, where the original games let me be Lara.
This disconnect between player and avatar is used to great effect in Spec Ops: The Line because that game is partially about the main character fighting against his conscience (which is the player). The game is about the player-avatar disconnect, but the other games I have described are not. Their avatars act without player input for convenience, as full 1 to 1 (or close) control was not their design priority. And that is fine.
I am not a game designer, so far be it from me to tell game developers how to do their jobs. But I do miss the control schemes of the old Tomb Raider games. For me, they deepen immersion and make every jump, grab, and climb exciting. I am not saying that I want to do away with the current Tomb Raider games; I am really hoping to catch up to Rise of the Tomb Raider at some point. But in the wide world of video games, there is plenty of room for game where traversal is challenging instead of convenient.