Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book

Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art BookRise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book by Andy McVittie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This absolutely beautiful book managed to make me feel surprisingly guilty.

I loved Rise of the Tomb Raider; it’s a worthy sequel to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot (which I also loved). This book is, as you might expect, a collection of concept art and design documents that led to the creation of the game’s characters and environments.

The reason why this beautiful book made me feel so guilty is because it shows you just how much care and detail went into the environments and backgrounds that I cruised through as I jumped from one ledge to another on my way through the game. I love the Tomb Raider games and I get totally immersed in the world when I play . . . and yet I never spare more than a passing glance at the lovingly crafted ruins, relics, and other pieces that artists worked to create. There’s a page about a few chalices and other Byzantine relics that talks about how much realism the art team tried to create, but this chalice isn’t part of the plot (as chalices are wont to be). It’s just a nice looking ancient cup. I probably ran past it at top speed without ever noticing.

I play games to be immersed, but when that immersion happens, I give the credit to the writers who created the story and the actors who brought the characters to life. Maybe I spare a thought for the programmers who actually built the thing and maybe, maaaybe I think about the art team when I appreciate a well crafted character model or a pretty forest. But when you see just how much care, just how much craft and attention to detail goes into all of this, even a little cup that’s just a setting detail, it makes you appreciate how absolutely spoiled gamers are when it comes to our digital worlds. There’s an entire world of art around every moment and for the most part, we just treat it as window dressing as we focus on the shoot-shoots and the booms.

If you’ve played Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recommend picking up this book from your local library and paging through it, giving the artists a few moments’ consideration for all the work they did. We appreciated it, even if we were running by their work too quickly to notice.

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Review: Tomb Raider Volume 3: Queen of Serpents

Tomb Raider Volume 3: Queen of SerpentsTomb Raider Volume 3: Queen of Serpents by Rhianna Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to be impressed with the comic series since Rhianna Pratchett took over the writing. It should come as no surprise, as she’s the main writer for the new Tomb Raider games, so it makes sense she keeps the storytelling smooth and seamless between graphic novel and game.

I like that this volume focuses on the deteriorating relationship between Lara and the “normal world” as a result of her experiences. One of the best moments of the 2013 Tomb Raider game was Lara’s horrified reaction to her first human kill; it was a deeply traumatizing and emotional moment and an excellent piece of storytelling. Eventually, the needs of the game mean you’re mowing down enemy mooks with all the concern of a video game character (which is to say, none), but that’s the result of it being an action game.

Here we see that Lara’s experiences continue to evolve her as a character. She’s trying to stay connected to the normal world despite the fact that she’s done and seen things that make her more and more removed from it. It sets things up nicely for why she’s continued to, ah, tomb raid and put herself in dangerous situations despite no longer being trapped on the island from the first game.

A very solid read for anyone hungry for more adventures with Lara. If you have a chance to read this one before going into Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recommend it, but even if you’ve already played Rise, Queen of Serpents is a fun, well written graphic novel that manages to have some surprising emotional depth. I quite enjoyed it.

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Review: Tomb Raider Volume Two: Secrets and Lies

Tomb Raider Volume 2: Secrets and LiesTomb Raider Volume 2: Secrets and Lies by Rhianna Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book makes me glad that I stuck with the Tomb Raider comic series. After a rocky start in the first volume, things are looking up with a story that does an excellent job of setting the scene for “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” It’s nice to get away from Yamatai and all the plot tangles that storyline created (even if Yamatai was an excellent plot for the first game). The characterization of Lara here is top notch and the sub-plot with Lara acting in a play at Jonah’s request nicely shows how she’s falling out of sync with “normal life.”

My only major quibble was the Trinity operative who was sent to kill Lara, but sort of falls for her instead? To take as an apprentice? It’s somewhat odd, even though I know it fits into the larger storyline that at least a few members of Trinity want to recruit her, considering how effective she is.

Otherwise, this is a great, enjoyable book. I’m glad that the series found its footing and I’m looking forward to the next volume.

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Review: Tomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the Witch

Tomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the WitchTomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the Witch by Gail Simone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot is one of my favorite games. I loved the revised Lara Croft character and I loved the focus on gritty survivalism. There was a bit of mysticism in the game, but it’s fairly subtle, certainly more so than the previous Tomb Raider incarnations. It’s an amazing game and easily the best reboot I’ve ever seen for a character as popular as Lara Croft is.

“Season of the Witch” serves as a sort of inter-quel story set between the events of Tomb Raider 2013 and the new game “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” In this story, Lara and the other survivors of the Endurance are trying to get on with their lives after their horrifying experience on the island of Yamatai. Unfortunately, weird things are happening which draw them back to the island.

The plot, unfortunately, is the biggest problem here. A story about trying to cope with the events of the island could have been pretty cool, but instead we’re drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the Solarii (the antagonists from the game). Wait, why is there a conspiracy about the Solarii? These business suit types are worshippers of Matthias? How is that possible? Based on the game, Matthias was a survivor who was trapped on Yamatai and formed the Solarii as an island cult so he could break free of its supernatural power. The game made it pretty clear that nobody had ever escaped from Yamatai prior to the events of the game. So where did these conspiracy guys come from? How did they know about the events of the island? Why would they worship a guy who, according to the game’s depiction, was really just a sort of feral survivor?

I appreciated how much the story tried not to be obviously supernatural, and the various things that occur are all suggested to be trickery, coincidence, or other artifice. Unfortunately, I could not wrap my mind around the idea that the homeless psycho who was the game’s antagonist was worshiped by a secret cabal. I also felt like “returning to the island” wasn’t really all that compelling.

Despite all that, it’s great getting to see Lara interact with the crew of Endurance more. It helps build on those relationships and makes her connections feel more meaningful. Overall, it’s a decent book with good characters but some deep plot and world building problems. It’s a good read if you’re really hungry for more Tomb Raider stories, especially since it’ll be a few years until the next game (presumably).

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Video Game Heroines In 2013: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Seems like 2013 was a pretty good year for video game heroines. We saw Lara Croft go from being the quintessential video game pin-up character to something resembling a real human woman. Compare:


What’s better about the new Lara Croft? Where to start? She’s wearing actual clothes. She’s wearing pants, which, you know, makes sense for an adventurer. Her proportions are realistic! There’s still a sexy vibe about the new Lara, but that’s not the point of her new character. Her design speaks to the kind of athleticism you’d expect from someone who goes on adventurers and climbs and hikes and all that. In short, while she may have sex appeal, she’s definitely not a sex object anymore.

I think this is a step in the right direction for video game heroines. It’s a sign of progress! We’re moving in the right direction, at long last. We’re finally recognizing that 45% of gamers (at least) don’t have a Y-chromosome. 2013 has been a great year in this regard!

And then this happened:

Meet Quiet, the new protagonist for the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5:



Underwear? Check.

Prominently displayed cleavage? Check.

Impractically sexy clothing damage? Check.

I can’t think of anything else to say about her character based on this design. She has the same distant, snarky expression of the Lara Croft from the previous decade, the one that says, don’t worry, I won’t be ruining the sex appeal by showing any actual emotion like fear, anger, or determination.

True, this is only concept art and her actual personality might be very different in the final game. On the other hand, I think you can tell a lot by looking just at the concept art. Let’s compare Quiet to 2013 Lara.


Aside from the fact that she’s basically in her underwear, we can see that Quiet’s leggings are torn in several places. Is this supposed to suggest that she’s been through a harrowing survival experience? Maybe, but if so, the fact that everything else about her appearance is flawless suggests that actually, she just likes to wear leggings with big holes in them. She doesn’t look like a warrior. The gun-belt doesn’t communicate anything of the sort; if anything, it just sends the entire design further in male fantasy land. Chicks with guns + underwear = hot.

With the two character designs side by side, you can really see the difference. Lara looks like she’s been through a survival experience. She’s covered in dirt and grime, with several makeshift bandages here and there. Her clothes are torn, but not in a way that’s strategically sexy. Is she still unrealistically beautiful for someone in a life-and-death situation? Yes, absolutely. In “real life,” she’d likely be a lot worse off. But we’re talking about video game protagonists here; male and female alike are allowed to have the “attractive” attribute, as long as that’s not the primary attribute for the character. As soon as you have a character parading around in their lingerie instead of actual clothing, you’ve sacrificed characterization for sex appeal.

Because, let’s be honest: you know what’s really fucking useful when you’re fighting or surviving in the jungle?


Pants have pockets on them. Hell, even shorts have them. You know what doesn’t have any pockets? Bikinis with ripped lingerie leggings. Huh, imagine that.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that when I look at Quiet, my first thought is “stripper.” When I look at Lara, my first thought is “survivor.” I’m not a woman, so I can’t say which character design would give me a feeling of female empowerment, but I do know which image is more heroic to me. I know which character I’d want my daughter to look up to.

Regardless of hypothetical scenarios, I know which kind of character I enjoy and appreciate more. Evidently, that taste isn’t mainstream yet. I thought we’d come further along than this. Alas.

More About Tombs And The Raiding Thereof

Still working my way through the new Tomb Raider. Actually, that’s not an accurate description; it would be more apt to say that I am savoring my way through this game. I’m taking it slowly, playing only a few hours each day. This is not because the game does not hold my interest and is in every way analogous to not wanting to finish your favorite book, because then the story is over. I’ve never had this happen to me before.

Usually, when a game hooks me, I’m in a rush to play it, to get through it, to just immerse myself in it the way a more sane person might take an immersion bath or something. Otherwise, the game is enjoyable but not all-consuming, and so I take my time with the game at a leisurely pace unaffected by overwhelming affection. Or I take my time because the game is fucking Skyrim and you can play every day for six months and still have things to do. Ahem.

Tomb Raider has created a new paradigm; a game so engaging that I’m forcing myself to not play it to draw out the experience. The other thing that’s very interesting to me about this game is the level of identification I’m feeling towards this incarnation of Lara Croft. There are a few reasons why this is cause for reflection.

I make no secret about the fact that, when given a choice, I tend to play female characters more often than male characters. Although this is not a universal tendency, if you would look back at my recent playing list, it would look something like this:

  • Fable III: Female Character (you don’t really get to specify your character more than that)
  • Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: Female Dark Elf Archmage
  • Skyrim: Male Dark Elf Archmage
  • Mass Effect 3: Male Commander Shepard (this was a continuation of the saved character I began back in Mass Effect 1 when it was released in 2007).
  • Dragon Age 2: Female Mage Hawke
  • Divinity 2: Female Dragon Knight
  • World of WarCraft: Female Blood Elf Paladin, Female Night Elf Druid, Female Night Elf Priest, Female Draenei Hunter, Male Undead Warlock

Looking at that list is personally revealing in several other ways as well, namely that I also tend to like dark elves and mages of one sort or another.

Anyway, you get the idea. Skyrim is really the only game where I never had a female character, not counting Mass Effect 3, which imported your earlier save game. Otherwise, I tend to create female protagonists when given the option. This tendency extends outside of games, as well: the protagonists for both of the novels I’m working on at the moment are female as well. My superficial theory is that this has something to do with the fact that most protagonists are male anyway, so this is my small effort towards balancing things out.

However, I’ve never really taken the time to perform an in-depth psychoanalysis of why I do this. I know that the stereotyped answer for a man playing a woman in a game is the tired “if I’m going to stare at a butt for twenty hours, I want it to be a nice butt.” That one is so tired, I think it’s actually deceased. It was a product of its time, back when most players (for better or worse) assumed that you played a character that matched your real-life gender. Anybody that did otherwise was an aberration in the nascent online gaming culture.

I don’t think it’s about titillation via pixels at this point.  I had to go digging for it, but I think this post from Tycho of Penny Arcade really sum up my own feelings about why a male player would prefer a female character:

I’ve made it pretty clear that I tend to play women in Bioware games . . . It reminds me of when I first saw Samus Aran’s face in Metroid: Prime, my face, flashed inside the visor, saw my eyes, which were her eyes, blinking at the brightness.  These are truly alien experiences for me, and I’m exposed to them and enriched by them because I didn’t have to fill out some questionnaire before playing the game to make it aware of my sacred boundaries.

Now, here’s why I’m particular interested in my personal reactions towards inhabiting the character of Lara Croft. For one thing, she’s a gaming icon; up there in the ranks of the Video Game Pantheon with Mario, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, etc. She’s not my character in the same sense that I customized and personalized the various characters in the games I listed above. Usually, I don’t forge the same connection if I haven’t been able to define the character in some way; I loved Halo 4, but I never really felt like I “was” the Master Chief, merely that I was along for the ride.

Consider this remark made by Ron Rosenberg, executive producer for the new Tomb Raider:

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

“They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”

That comment sparked a lot of discussion about the nature of gender roles in gaming, a discussion that really needs to keep happening, but that’s not the point I’m getting at here. The point is that I went into Tomb Raider fully expecting to feel the way Rosenberg explained I would feel: that I wouldn’t really be projecting myself into the character, I’d be trying to protect her, etc. And indeed, if you look at my previous post, I definitely thought I was going to have that “protective” vibe going on.

But as I actually started working my way through the game? I didn’t want to protect Lara, because I saw her as myself. I became her. I stepped into her role and her perspective and subsumed myself in her character. Her fears were my fears. The interesting thing about this immersion was that it wasn’t simply “oh, there’s me, but now I’m a hot chick with a bow and I’m fighting for my life.” It’s not simply an aesthetic thing; if it had been, we’d still be back at the “looking at hot butts” mentality.

Male privilege is one of those things we (males) don’t like to talk about. In fact, my particular demographic (middle class straight white male) doesn’t like to talk about the p-word at all. Confronted by the word privilege, it seems we are destined to retreat from it like a vampire exposed to sunlight, misconstrue it and argue foolishly, or simply bury our heads in the sand and say la la la, can’t hear you.

Privilege is a real thing and it’s a pernicious thing, not because those that have it are morally bankrupt (although some of us are that, too) but because it’s the result of a society that is not not egalitarian towards all of its peoples. Male privilege is, I think, the reason why Rosenberg feels that male gamers will want to “protect” Lara, even those she is the hardened survivor (eventually) with the gun and the climbing axe and the survival instincts and I’m a geek with myopia who works in a library and writes a blog post about video games. Let’s face it: she’s the one who should be protecting me.

Male privilege means that rape isn’t something I spend a lot of time worrying about. Now, don’t get me wrong, I fully acknowledge that male rape is a real and awful thing. However, it’s slightly less of a problem than female rape, considering the fact that roughly 91% of rape victims are female and 99% of rapists are male, according to the Bureau of Justice. That’s just a little bit unbalanced, in my opinion.

I’ve heard mutterings on various posts and things about there being an attempted rape scene in Tomb Raider. I don’t know the specifics, so I’m not sure if that’s a scene that is coming up or it already happened, like in the scene when the guy choked me to death six times before I blew his head off. What I do know is that in the first few hours of Tomb Raider, I was fully immersed in Lara’s character and I was deeply, painfully aware of the fact that I was a woman alone and unarmed on an island filled with brutal men who very much wanted to visit harm upon me. I don’t think I’m projecting some latent personal insecurity here when I say that the early atmosphere in Tomb Raider is one of fear. Part of that fear was that I didn’t know what the crazed men were going to do to me if they caught me. Were they trying to kill me or capture me? If they captured me, what would they do to me?

These were the thoughts that went through my head. It wasn’t that Lara was an extension of me. It is more accurate to say that I became part of her. I was drawn into her world and her struggle in the way that only the very best fiction can do, except that unlike in fiction, I have agency in the story. I can see what happens when I fail.

Lara’s transformation from victim to survivor is powerful. I’m halfway through the game at this point and at this point, Lara is cut and bruised and burned and bloody from countless injuries and attacks. And she keeps pressing on, keeps fighting, keeps struggling to survive. She’s come into her power at this point and more than once, the thugs who once hunted her and instilled such fear are now afraid of her.

It’s a story about empowerment and I’ve been immersed in it every step of the way. Because, at least for the duration of this story, she’s me and I’m her and because of this, I’ve been able to experience her journey in a way that no other medium could ever hope to achieve.