Tomb Raider, 25th Anniversary

Tomb Raider: Anniversary

I only realized it’s 25 years since Tomb Raider first came out because the games are selling for insanely low prices on Steam. Tomb Raider remains one of my greatest gaming experiences (and the recent movie with Alicia Vikander was, surprisingly to me, quite good).

If I were to make a list of the most significant computer games, Tomb Raider would be on the list. To give you an idea of how compelling it was, it made the Voodoo 3D Graphics Accelerator card a must have for any serious PC gamer. To get an idea of how amazing this is, the Voodoo 3D graphics card cost north of $300 on its own, and it needed another graphics card in order to work (it came with a clumsy short cable for piping the output of the normal card through it).

For that matter, the fact that the original Playstation, alone among gaming consoles, ran Tomb Raider and ran it well (and cost about the same as a Voodoo card) probably helped propel the Playstation to the top spot in the console market (where it was a new entrant against the well-established Sega and Nintendo).

Gamers saw Tomb Raider (they couldn’t play a demo, if they didn’t have the card) and they bought a $300 card and installed it. And they were so happy with it they bought sequels, movie tickets, and so on to this day, when we have an academy award-winning actress playing the role, who took the role after winning the Oscar.

Was Tomb Raider the first 3d game? By no means.

Was it the first 3d game with textures? Again, no.

Was it the first action / platform / puzzle shooter? Uh, no.

Was it the first “Garage Band” type indie game to turn into a massive franchise? No (there was Ultima, Wizardry, MYST, Doom, and on and on).

Was it the last? It seemed for a long time that it would be, but even today a sufficiently innovative game (e.g. MineCraft) or a small agile team that takes advantage of a new market (e.g. Angry Birds and the iPhone) can make it big. That said, it’s hard to think of a franchise as durable as Tomb Raider.

Was it the first action game with a strong female protagonist? In a sense, yes. (There might have been predecessors, but they weren’t huge hits.) But, at the time, she probably drew as much feminist ire for her short shorts and ample bosom as she gained plaudits. Her combination of beauty (for the time!), grace, and athleticism actually make the design of Lara Croft age pretty well, I think.

More importantly Tomb Raider had three things going for it that we take cannot even take for granted today, but which were absolutely revolutionary at the time.

  1. Lara Croft herself was clearly a labor of love. Well voice-acted (when voice-acting was usually awful), beautifully animated, and, this might seem amazing if you look at her now, actually sexy.
  2. It had a complex, organic landscape that was sufficiently complex that (pretty much for the first time) hidden objects, like secret doors or treasure caches, could be hidden simply by tucking them behind a rock or on a hard-to-reach ledge. A lot of puzzles simply consisted of exploring a landscape and then figuring out how to use Lara’s repertoire of abilities to traverse the landscape to where it looked like you needed to go. Terrain became a character in the story.
  3. And these two things were tied together by the integrated physicality of the character and the terrain that made exploring, understanding, and navigating terrain an intrinsic part of the game. When Lara encountered a low obstacle she would adjust to it as she walked over it. Larger obstacles she would climb over with different animations depending on height. When Lara needed to move a block (improbably large) over a pressure plate to solve a puzzle she leaned hard into it, pushed hard and groaned with effort. She picked things up off the ground. When she slid down a slope her feet matched the terrain as she windmilled her arms to keep balance. She could and had to climb up rock faces and over boulders. She could jump into water, swim (and have to hold her breath) and then climb out of the water. Seamlessly.
When Lara jumps, she launches from her current position to her destination and the animation matches. Even today, most games simply “launch” characters into a jump and stairs are treated like ramps.

All of this wasn’t just a nudge ahead of the competition, it was unprecedented. Most animated 3d characters at them time simply cycled animations while gliding around the landscape, which tended to be blocky and rectilinear. The only thing you could do besides glide around like a Dalek was, in some cases, jump. The [undeservedly] legendary GoldenEye was an FPS that didn’t let you jump at all. Golden Eye came out after Tomb Raider on a far more powerful platform. Today, character movement in a game like Elder Scrolls Online (which is better than many) is laughably primitive compared to Tomb Raider in 1996 (you sometimes get stuck on blades of grass, and you can’t interact with the environment in any way beyond walking on it, jumping on it, or falling off it). Even an outstanding modern title that relies strongly on character mobility, like Metal Gear Solid V, only lets you climb in specific places, whereas in Tomb Raider you could climb things it looked like you’d be able to climb.

Even the first Tomb Raider had flourishes to Lara’s animations. Occasionally she would perform a gymnastic maneuver instead of a normal action. When it happened the first time, you’d wonder if you’d imagined it. It’s a flex, not just for the game developers and animators, but by the character herself.

So, in short, Tomb Raider did for character interaction with the environment what no other game before had even attempted, not only did it well but with panache, and few games since have matched. Tomb Raider was to character interaction with terrain what Elite was to 3D, Fallout 2 was to quests, Thief was to stealth, EverQuest was to online multiplayer, or MineCraft was to player-creativity. (I was a bit out of the loop at the time, but I wonder which game really first nailed cover-shooting?) But, unlike most, in many it ways retains its crown (the other reigning champion is probably Thief).

To play Tomb Raider is to lament that virtually every other game, to this day, doesn’t let you climb over shit.