Tomb Raider (2013): A masterclass in Ludonarrative Disonance

Tomb Raider (2013): A masterclass in Ludonarrative Disonance

Look up Ludonarrative Dissonance on the internet, and one of the first results you’ll find is from Wikipedia. On it, it defines the term as follows:

“Ludonarrative dissonance is the conflict between a video game ’s narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay.”

So why, 9 years after the game was released, have I decided to bring this term up so long after Tomb Raider (2013)’s release?

Because Tomb Raider (2013) is the perfect game to introduce any gamer, no matter the background, into this term, and how games can feel disjointed, or even not make sense at all.

Throughout this video essay I’m going to show you the ways in which Tomb Raider’s plot points are only skin deep, and how you, as a games developer or writer, can get around these issues.

It’s been on my list of games to play for an age now, but Tomb Raider (2013) always took a back seat of games I must play next due to what I heard about it around its release.
Whilst successful, memories of the media coverage conjure up words like “uncharted clone” or “graphically pretty”, which, at the time, just didn’t interest me.
So, 9 years later, in the weird and whacky year that is 2022, I finally sat down and decided to play the game. What did I come away with after 15 hours of 100%ing the game? Continue watching to find out.

Tomb Raiders Past

Given that Lara Croft is one of the most iconic gaming characters to have come out in the last 50 years of the medium, for many he dark years almost put an end to her. After the success of Tomb Raider 1-3, Lara stumbled a bit, with many of the sequels reviewing badly, and never keeping up with the market trends.
Tomb Raider Underworld, released in 2008 for the Xbox 360 and PS3, saw to it that something had to change. After highs of the previous years, Underworld sold way below expectations, and developers Crystal Dynamics had to change tack.

Going back to basics meant that Crystal Dynamics could reinvent the series – no longer was Lara a headstrong Tomb Raider that feared nothing and shot down everything with ease, Lara was now a nobody, fresh out of university and learning the ropes of exploration.
This new angle of the character must have been a breath of fresh air for many back in 2013, with the character having almost 20 years of one image, reinventing her must have felt new and great for many players. But how does it feel in 2022, 9 years after its initial release?

The Game

From a gameplay perspective, yeah, Tomb Raider 2013 stands up pretty well. It has great pacing, with lots of downtime to explore and figure out ways through open sections of the map, whilst also having a lot of action to keep you engaged for long stretches of time.
It’s a fairly linear experience, with a large campaign taking around 10-12 hours to complete if you don’t spend any time looking for collectibles, and another few hours on top of that if you do.
You’ll soon realise how the games pacing goes along. I’ll summarise it as so:
* Action scene which forces you to move to a new area (e.g. exploding building requiring you escape, sliding down waterfall)
* Large open area to explore, with collectibles hidden throughout and enemies
* Cutscene of bad guys doing something
* Bad guys see you, you do a massive firefight, then move on to another action scene where you’re forced out of the area and into a new map, repeating it all over again.

  • Action/Cinematic Scene
  • Exploration of new area
  • Story Section
  • Fighting bad guys
  • Repeat

This can get quite repetitive, but thanks to the game’s 12-15 hour run time it doesn’t, and truth be told you’ll be entertained for most of it.
I even spent quite a bit of time fast travelling back and forth between sections of the island to get all the collectibles in the end.

In addition to the game, there are meta quests players may want to participate in whilst they navigate the game. These quests are any of the following:

  • Collectibles
  • Gear levelling up
  • Lara levelling up

Almost everything you do in the game feeds back into these three systems – with collectibles giving Lara XP to give her new skills, which can range from more efficient killing techniques (e.g. weapon executions), to collectibles being marked on the map and when sensing.

All of these systems, from the story, to the gameplay, to the progression system, all accumulates to make it feel like you’re constantly making progress,. This is cool whilst you’re playing the campaign, but it all comes at a cost.

My Issue? The superficiality

Tomb Raider 2013 is extremely superficial.

This isn’t unique to Tomb Raider, many games are superficial because they’re a visual medium, showing is better than telling after all.

The issue is that everything in Tomb Raider is only surface level. Lara gets impaled by a piece of metal? No worries, not going to change the gameplay in any meaningful way. A main character that Lara is close to dies? Who cares? You’ve known this person for 5 minutes and have no idea who they are. Spooky caves with lots of corpses and blood? Where did all the bodies come from if the island is basically lost and impossible to get too?

Every action, every scene, every event is meant to feel big, deep, and have consequences, but they never do. They all clash, with you being told something is meant to be bad, but two seconds later the opposite happens.

I can give 3 examples of this, which will go into mild spoilers, but will get the point across.

  1. Lara is injured many times throughout the game, in ways that would kill a normal person. Each time these injuries happen, the game properly pushes how painful this is, with camera angles and screams from Lara trying to convey the traumatic experience she’s going through. The issue is, two seconds later when you regain control of Lara, you’re then able to climb, shoot, and do anything you like no different than before.
  2. There are many characters that are apparently close to Lara that perish throughout the story. I say apparently, because other than 2 minutes on the intro, we never see these characters again, so when they die the game makes a big deal of it, but you, as the player, just shrug it off and cannot find a reason as to why we should care about this persons death.
  3. Throughout the campaign Lara is constantly put into situations where she needs to go through piles of dead bodies, with one section having her literally dive into a pool of blood. The issue is, the campaign makes it clear that the island is both hard to find, but also impossible to escape, meaning it makes no sense as to where all these bodies came from.

Taken by themselves, each time you encounter one of these issues it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when taken as a whole (and trust me, by the end of the game, it’ll really be in your face how hypocritical the game is), you can’t shake the feeling that they could have made Tomb Raider so much more consistent.

It’s probably the only issue I have with the game, but it’s so major it genuinely takes me away from saying this is a must play game, to a “meh, it was alright”.

It’s as if the developers had a bunch of cool ideas, but never actually thought about whether they gelled well together, or whether they even made sense for the consistency of the game.

All of these issues I’ve laid out in this section didn’t even have to be issues! Gamer’s brains are used to suspending disbelief in order to play a game; we learn the rules of the world, and that becomes our framework for how this game’s world (and rules) work. This example just literally came off the top of my head, but hear me out:
At the beginning of the game, Lara has managed to escape some people that have captured her, and finds herself alone, in the forest, freezing and wanting food.
The game makes a big deal of this, explaining how you need to hunt animals for food and xp, and that the warmth of the campfire is essential for Lara’s survival.
The issue is, this is literally forgotten two minutes later, and this mechanic of killing animals, or finding warmth, never, ever happens again, or is even essential. Lara will climb snow covered mountains, be in massive windstorms, swim in the ocean, and never once be cold again.
This didn’t even need to be an issue – take the first part out of the campaign of Lara freezing and the player having to find warmth, and that’s it, done, the player will accept that Lara’s lack of clothes are fine – they’re just her costume for the rest of the game.


So, 9 years later, is Tomb Raider worth a play?

Sure – if you reckon you’re the kind of gamer that is able to switch their brain off and go along for the ride then you can’t go wrong with Tomb Raider. 9 Years later it’s graphics still holds up well, and whilst its story isn’t anything to shout home about, you’ll find it an enjoyable romp that does the job. Pick it up for a fiver and you really can’t go wrong, just don’t go expecting some masterpiece – hopefully the sequels to this qualm any issues I have.

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