Nevertheless, I want to talk about Tomb Raider - specifically the character of Lara Croft - and I have no option but to do so from the position of being a man. Albeit a man who has written scripts professionally for almost 20 years, and has a bunch of awards and nominations which he can shove in your mouth if you decide to tell him he's wrong about this.
You see, I'm some way into the new game Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third in the Lara origin series which began back in 2013. I've not played enough yet to feel I'm ready to review it, but I've played enough to know this: I don't care for the story, or for Lara Croft. In fact, I actively dislike her. I mean, I hadn't exactly warmed to her murdering ways over the previous two games, but I went into this one with something of an open mind.
Unfortunately, within the first couple of hours of the game, Lara has directly caused a tsunami which has killed thousands of people - including, on-screen, a child - and stabbed a jaguar in the ear with a sharp bit of metal. Alright, the jaguar was trying to eat her, and Lara has always killed animals, but never has it been done on screen so graphically, with the player mashing the square button to shove the blade right into the animal's brain, with a nice spurt of blood.
I mean, what were they thinking?!? In movies the Save the Cat moment is a point early on where the lead character - even if they're otherwise reprehensible people - does something selfless, in order to make them more likeable, so the viewer will buy into their story arc. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider this is replaced with the double whammy of the drown-everyone-and-stab-the-cat-in-the-brain moment.
Worse still, Lara's best friend Jonah even seems to go off her a bit. If secondary characters' responses to our antagonist tell the audience what they should be feeling, then clearly Shadow of the Tomb Raider is telling us that Lara is an unlikeable dick.
My issues with Lara Croft have nothing to do with narrative dissonance. We all know about the huge bodycount she leaves in her wake, and how it jars with the cut-scenes. I don't care about that. Yeah, some of the violence is probably unnecessarily graphic, but it's a video game. Move on.
I'm talking about just who this new Lara is in the eyes of those who've reimagined her.
As originally conceived, Lara Croft was a cypher, a two-dimensional video game adventurer rendered, ironically, in ground-breaking 3D polygons. She no more needed an origin story than Pac-Man does. I mean, I get it... times change. Games are more involved than ever, but I've felt that the Tomb Raider reboot and Rise of The Tomb Raider failed to understand what Tomb Raider was, or represented, or what players enjoyed about those original games.
It was never really about Lara - though admittedly she became the face of gaming in the mid-90s - it was about US going on those adventures.
Instead, we've now had three games in which defining the character - a character who was pretty easy to define in the first place - has become integral to the experience. It's the same complaint I levelled at the recent God of War reboot/sequel/game; everything in Tomb Raider is so serious, so portentous, so heavy, and dour, that it sucks all the air out of the gameplay.
Every time there's a cut-scene - and there are a lot of cut-scenes in Shadow of the Tomb Raider - it's akin to having a laugh down the pub with a bunch of your best mates, until a friend-of-one-of-those-friends turns up unexpectedly, who then goes on to dominate the entire evening by alternating between droning on about their recent holiday to the Bahamas, and whining about their myriad life problems.
Lara Croft is dull, so painfully, achingly, mind-numbingly dull, and she would be even if she didn't repeat the same rote hint phrases over and over again. It makes an otherwise beautiful, and brilliantly constructed, game a chore.
The creators of the Tomb Raider reboot series have talked about wanting to make the games more grounded. Why though?!
It's like what happened with comics back in the late-80s and 90s, in the wake of Watchmen. Everything became dark and gritty, while fundamentally misunderstanding everything that made Watchmen a timeless classic. Dark does not necessarily equate to maturity or intelligent writing, and is too often the go-to for inexperienced or unskilled writers.
Life is not unremittingly bleak. There are moments of lightness and humour, and using those when writing something will make the dramatic moments more impactful. If you give a character like Lara Croft something to live for then you're going to care more when she stands to lose it. All Lara Croft does is suffer, unremittingly, and do bad things. Tomb Raider has become a game painted entirely in broad strokes of black.
"She is confronting the darkness within herself” the game's writer Jill Murray explains excitedly. Indeed, one of the big themes in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is Lara learning that her actions have consequences, that stealing ancient treasures, and murdering people, might not always be a great idea.
Says Murray: "She's really dealing with overcoming her own mistakes. I don't know if you've ever screwed anything up, but that is a really terrible feeling. It can be really hard once you've made a mistake, especially one as large as setting off the apocalypse, to figure out how to move forward, how to make things better, and will you actually make things worse as you continue charging ahead?"
It's an interesting area to explore, but remains a bizarre choice for any game, not least when the actual game part of that game pulls constantly against that choice. Again to use Pac-Man as a weird analogy, is anybody crying out for a reboot where the big yellow mouth-man suffers a breakdown and asks whether he has a right to eat all those ghosts and steal their fruit?
As further evidence that the game's creators don't understand what players want or need is the amount of time they've gone on about its "Immersion Mode". What is this? It basically boils down to the locals speaking in their native language. That's all very noble, and probably took an enormous amount of time and effort to do, but... NOBODY CARES ABOUT THIS. Why are you talking about it so much?!?
Stop overthinking everything!
The bodycount and the action in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is no greater than in the vast majority of games, but the difference is most games don't feel the need to draw attention to it. Uncharted - a series that is both influenced by Tomb Raider and a huge influence on this new trilogy - gets away with it by presenting the player with genuinely likeable characters who are rich, and rounded, and frequently funny.
On the one hand you could argue that there's a certain degree of responsibility displayed by Tomb Raider's decision to make you feel uncomfortable with the violence and the relic-smashing, and not dismissing it with a quip. On the other hand, there's no way through the game without engaging with the murdering and relic-smashing. Instead, you're just made to feel sort of a bit bad about it.
It results in a weirdly passive-aggressive game, where the player is forced to question actions they have to engage with in order to play the game.
In a lot of ways, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and the games which have preceded it, is a product of our time. If Lara Croft has a social media account - a Twitter or a Facebook - she'd be one of those friends you end up muting because all they ever do is post things like "FFS. I am done with some people" and "I know who my real friends are", with Jonah constantly replying "U okAy hun?".
In short, they've made Lara boring and annoying, and - as the premiere female video game character - that's an enormous shame. She isn't strengthened by their desire to deepen who she is, and explore the very idea of a "tomb raider", but weakened in a most profound sense.