Tomb Raider is easily one of my favorite games. I love its use of cinematics. I love the mechanics. And I love the way the first few hours unfold. And I love how death is framed.
The game matters because it makes death matter. Well, at least the first one.
The entire game takes place on the island of Yamatai. The island is inhabited by an obsessed and violent cult that worships the ancient Queen Himiko, who was the leader of the civilization that once ruled the island. But that’s the backstory. Here’s what happens to Lara specifically.
Lara is on a research ship that set out to find the island of Yamatai. The ship wrecks into the island, and she and her crew are attacked by the Himiko cult. Lara is kidnapped, but she is able to escape. Eventually, her captors learn she has escaped and they try to track her down. One man in particular, Vladimir, is leading the others to find her.
Vladimir finds Lara hiding in a small shack, and he pulls her out into the open. He pins her down on the ground, and they begin fighting over a pistol. Eventually, Lara overpowers him and is able to get a shot off that kills Vladimir.
In that moment, Lara is panicked. The game's mechanics reflect that. In order to survive, you have to shake your joystick back and forth violently and time a button press to defend yourself and counter. The camera gets closer and closer as the struggle continues and then, suddenly, it’s over.
This first kill is formative. It is hardening. It is an acceptance of what she will have to do to survive this place. And the game takes the time to explore that emotion. Here’s the entire sequence.
Because this is a video game, Lara has to go on to kill an endless stream of bad guys. She snipes them with arrows, shoots them with shotguns, brutally attacks them with a climbing axe, and shoots barrels of gasoline that explode and burn her enemies. But this first kill is referenced throughout the game. NPCs will shout “You killed Vladimir!” as they attack you. (There’s a shorter cutscene where you run into Vladimir’s brother, and boy he’s pissed.)
In this context, all of that makes sense. A line has been crossed, and a thousand deaths is no worse than one. Logically, that doesn’t make sense, but emotionally for this character it does.
What matters is the developers and writers took the time to let the player experience this along with Lara. She didn’t begin as a killer. She had to become a killer so that she and her comrades wouldn’t be killed, and that context changes everything. It sets Tomb Raider apart from other adventure and FPS games where death and violence are the assumption. In this game, it isn’t the assumption until it became necessary. Lara’s aptitude for combat is merely another avenue for her to showcase her ability to excel and adapt to any situation, just as is her ability to climb, craft, and discover everything else in this world.
The gameplay is overwhelmingly combat focused, but occasionally, the game’s mechanics and camera work combine to create powerful experiences like this. Those are Tomb Raider’s finest moments.