‘Tomb Raider’ is the game that introduced us to iconic archaeologist and explorer Lara Croft. It allowed us to adventure in a 3-D world for the first time and featured incredibly immersive and atmospheric environments, the likes of which one had never been able to experience before. The year was 1996, and upon its release my local gaming store was previewing a demo of the first couple of levels. They looked amazing and I couldn’t wait to start exploring the long-forgotten ruins and tombs.
After getting familiar with Lara Croft’s mansion during a short tutorial, I loaded up the main story. Following a cutscene depicting an atomic bomb test in Los Alamos, we are transported to present day Calcutta, to find our heroine relaxing in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel—where the quest line is briefly introduced by one of her rival tomb raiders, Larson.
After that we embark upon the first part of our adventure—the search for the lost tomb of Qualopec, and the fragment of the legendary Scion artifact it is rumoured to contain. A cutscene shows snowy mountainous terrain, and a long shot of Lara and her guide making their way along a ridge high in the Peruvian Andes. The accompanying music is fantastic; it is foreboding, and at points reminiscent of the deep orchestral score from the movie, Where Eagles Dare.
Lara activates a mechanism to open a pair of ancient stone doors set into the mountain’s rock face, whereupon her guide is viciously attacked and killed by the wolves that emerge from within. She checks his pulse, resigns herself to the fact that she must go it alone, and steps into the mountain’s interior. Suddenly, the massive doors close behind her with a thud, and in an instant, she finds herself completely isolated—cut off from the outside world. With only her trusty dual pistols and compass to rely on, she steels herself for whatever may lie ahead. It was from precisely this point that I, the player, became hooked.
In contrast to the violence of the wolf attack and ferociousness of the weather, the quietness of the opening sections of gameplay create a superb sense of isolation and loneliness. Despite ‘Tomb Raider’ being over two decades old, very few games have come close to it in creating the feeling of being alone in a previously undiscovered place.
In part, this can be accredited to the sound design and lack of constant background music, which is used very sparingly in the game, and is largely reserved for dramatic moments of combat and the discovery of new and particularly mysterious areas. Use in the former situations creates a strong sense of tension and in the latter, an almost tangible feeling of wonder.
‘Tomb Raider’s’ audio mostly consists of ambient atmospheric background sounds, such as the dripping of water, which gives everything we hear extra weight. Just listening to the rhythmic cadence of Lara’s footsteps as she walks, runs, and jumps through the deserted cavernous interiors of the places she visits, highlights how utterly alone she is in the hidden depths of her arenas of adventure.
When the music does kick in, it does so with the best of timing. On entering the colosseum, in the level of the same name, we are greeted with a haunting track that suits the situation so well that it thoroughly immerses the player in the moment. It is easy to imagine citizens of a once-thriving civilization having spent countless hours watching long-forgotten barbaric games—only for it all to have fallen into oblivion, lost to the sands of time—memories of its existence vanished over the aeons, until it was rediscovered at that very moment in time by Lara Croft.
There are other notable examples of how the game uses its musical timing to heighten the sense of escapism and awe, such as when the player enters a room containing a statue of King Midas during their exploration of the ‘Palace Midas’ level, and upon the discovery of a giant underground sphinx in the ‘Sanctuary of the Scion’.
At other points along our grand adventure, music is used almost violently to force a feeling of panic and urgency onto the player. This usually happens after there has been a long period of quietness. In the opening ‘Caves’ level, our first combat experience with wolves during actual gameplay takes place suddenly, and the accompanying music is tumultuous. Moreover, the equally abrupt return to silence at the end of the encounter serves as a powerful contrast, as the player catches their breath before cautiously moving on to whatever other unknown challenges await.
There can be no doubt that ‘Tomb Raider’ would not feel like half the escape and immersive adventure it does without the superb choice and masterful implementation of sound throughout the game. The original PC version did not include the musical tracks that the Playstation software did and having them makes a big difference. However, if one wishes to play through the game on a PC these days, the good news is that it has long since been possible to download and install the audio files to ensure the more complete experience.
The levels in the game are large and often spread out over sizeable areas. This provides that all-important sense of exploration, which is often lost in games that disguise their linearity less well. Boundaries feel natural and mostly consist of walls, floors, ceilings, and rockfall. This feels credible because all of the in-game locations are set underground or inside tombs, temples, or natural geological formations such as mountains. The only visible areas in the game that are unreachable are so because Lara is not physically able to jump so far or so high.
The game’s lack of objects and scarcity of intricately detailed decoration are unavoidable consequences of the limitations of the technology available at the time it was made, but that can result in the player using their imagination more. In modern games, the level of detail is sometimes on par with that of real life. One is placed into a very specific setting and narrative with everything so well expressed that it leaves almost no room for the player to use their imagination to enhance the gaming experience. In some cases, for example, ‘Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’, stories and characters are so deeply developed that they approach the complexity of those of films.
In ‘Tomb Raider’ there were several things I particularly appreciated that increased the sense of immersion: the simplicity of the story, the lack of non-playable characters, and the relative emptiness of the explorable areas. Having such bare-bones design meant I was able to enjoy fleshing the game out with my imagination to craft the adventure I wanted. Of course, the sparseness of the gaming areas wouldn’t be as believable if Lara was supposed to be in an inhabited city, but she was in hidden tombs and almost impossible-to-reach locations that nobody else had stepped foot in for years.
One example of how the game led me to use my imagination to create a story comes from the ‘Lost Valley’ level; it involves the discovery of a skeleton lying on a ledge, next to a weapon that I picked up. The dead explorer had a shotgun with them, which by my logic meant they were a relatively recent adventurer. Still being in my youth and with a rather active imagination, I started to investigate possible hypothetical scenarios that might have led to the person’s unfortunate demise. Had they died in a fall having been unable to move because of a broken leg? Had they starved to death or been the victim of something more sinister? I didn’t know, but given the lack of in-game explanation, I enjoyed thinking about it.
A little further on I stumbled upon another skeleton, this time perched on top of a high pile of rocks, and wondered what had caused them to remain in such a strange place. Why hadn’t he or she simply descended into the next valley? After a short time pondering this, I guided Lara down into the valley myself. At first all was eerily quiet in the vast area, which was seemingly devoid of life, until I heard footsteps and a loud shriek. In a rather terrifying string of encounters reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, Lara was promptly set upon by two velociraptors and then attacked by the game’s most infamous enemy—the giant T. rex.
After emerging intact from those adrenaline-pumping battles, I was left alone with the answer to my question; the expired explorer was trapped on the ledge because of the prehistoric horrors prowling around in the lost valley below. Owing to the simplicity of the game, I was able to let my imagination run wild. It also provided me with answers to my wonderings in dramatic and exciting fashion. This is one of the factors that makes ‘Tomb Raider’ so immersive, and reasons that sets it apart from more recent similarly-themed games. I do however realise that not everyone may go as far as I did with trying to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
Looking at the places we visit with Lara, the first three locations in the game consist of archaeological and ancient historical heavyweights. We have Incan Peru, classical Greece, and ancient Egypt to roam around—an adventurer’s paradise indeed!
After growing up on films like Jason and the Argonauts and the Indiana Jones trilogy, it seemed amazing to be able to explore such places digitally. The in-game areas and ruins connected to each civilization feel distinct enough from each other, and despite the limitations of graphical processing power in 1996, civilization-specific visuals were adequately rendered, such as stylised friezes in Greece and hieroglyphic cartouches in Egypt.
The later stages of the game feature a set of hidden mines and a giant pyramid on a lost Atlantean island. The level ‘Natla’s Mines’ takes place in a what feels like a more mundane locale; it includes modern industrial technology and structures, and is comprised of black and rather soulless textures. The last two levels, in the Atlantean pyramid, lean more towards the sci-fi or horror genres than the rest of the game, but each is punctuated by a big confrontation that brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.
From a gameplay standpoint, ‘Tomb Raider’ caters to the player’s taste for adventure by serving up some challenging puzzles and life-threatening situations. The rewards of any adventure must feel as if they have been earned, and this game certainly provides that satisfaction with its requirement for the player to think logically, have flawless timing, and possess a quick trigger finger in order to make it past its many hazards and perils.
The game’s plot sticks to the old tried-and-tested quest formula. Lara must ultimately recover three pieces of the sacred Scion and save the world from destruction by a nefarious villain. Any more written about how it plays out than that would only result in spoiling the experience for people who have yet to complete the game.
The highs and lows of playing through the game now must be kept in perspective. After years of constantly improving graphics, controls, and fluidity, taking on ‘Tomb Raider’ these days can be somewhat of a frustrating and trying experience if you lack the necessary patience. At the time of release, everything about it was state of the art, but now—with more than two decades worth of technical advancement—the pixellated graphics and clumsy controls could prove to be an obstacle to some players’ enjoyment.
Fortunately for PC owners there are several programs that help the original ‘Tomb Raider’ make the most of newer graphics cards and higher native resolutions. Perhaps even more notable is the fact that the game was officially remastered from the ground up in 2007 and released as ‘Tomb Raider: Anniversary’ on various platforms over subsequent years. Balancing a fine line between retaining the atmosphere, isolation, and general feeling of its predecessor and updating the controls and gameplay to fit into a more modern era, on-the-whole, it succeeds very well. It is not an exact copy of the original game; certain areas have been changed to make best use of Lara’s new physical abilities.
It would be impossible for the remake to have the same impact as the original, and since ‘Tomb Raider: Anniversary’ was released other games have surpassed it in both scope and quality. Bearing that in mind, it is certainly worth playing through at least once, if only for the sake of experiencing the nostalgia of the original without the almost archaic graphics and controls. Of course, another option would be to simply play them both—double the escape, double the adventure!
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