Over the course of the last three Tomb Raider games, I have seen Lara Croft impaled on a spike. Watched a tree branch jut through her jaw. Seen her writhe in pain as her stomach is pierced by a metal bar. Watched her pelvis get obliterated under the weight of several boulders.
These gruesome death scenes that play just before you get a “game over” have been part of the Tomb Raider DNA since 1996, when watching her rag-doll body crumple into a messy pile after a botched jump was just part of the experience.
But while the franchise has changed a lot in its many sequels and reboots — sometimes for the better, with Lara having more realistic proportions; and sometimes for the worse, with actual tomb raiding becoming optional content alongside endless murder — these death sequences are one thing that have stayed the same.
And with all the advancements in tech — did you know there’s a real-time physics simulation dedicated to rendering Lara’s ponytail? — these scenes have become so realistic that they’ve almost tipped into being creepy torture porn.
I never quite got why Tomb Raider has kept up this torture porny death animation thing… pic.twitter.com/6fCRV4iww5— Mark Brown (@britishgaming) October 23, 2018
Now, I’m not a prude. I’m down for protagonists’ violent death animations that crop up in games like Dead Space 2, where Isaac can be stabbed in the eye if you balls up a particular minigame. And Resident Evil 4, where Leon’s head can be lopped clean off by a madman with a chainsaw.
And they’re horrible, and I’ll wince like the baby that I am, but they totally make sense, and I wouldn’t call for them to be toned down. These are horror games, after all, and they come from a lineage of horror movies where gruesome violence and bloody giblets and organs flopping out all over the place are a genre expectation.
The Tomb Raider games, however, are far more action adventure and obviously inspired by the Uncharted games — games that don’t feel the need to show Nathan Drake’s bloody corpse writhing in agony on a rusty spike after you screw up a jump.
Now, okay, this most recent Tomb Raider trilogy did start a bit more grisly, I’ll admit. The first game, from 2013, kicks off with Lara hanging upside down from a rope. And when she frees herself, she falls down and gets a bit of rebar through her gut. Yowch. She then almost freezes to death before she finds a campfire, and almost starves to death before she kills a deer.
But this has always felt a bit flat to me, because this is all just thematic trappings on an otherwise standard shooter. This isn’t some survival sim; there’s no hunger meter. There are generous checkpoints. And Lara has more ammo than Walmart, so you’re rarely scrounging for bullets.
The theme is writing checks that the design can’t cash, creating an incongruous mix between gameplay and narrative. And those grisly death scenes — followed by an immediate return to the action from just 10 seconds previous — are the most jarring reminder of all that Tomb Raider is trying to be way more hardcore than it really is.
And it’s especially obvious in Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where the survival theme is removed completely. Lara is now a merciless killing machine, who leaps out from bushes brandishing a machete and strings enemies up in trees with her bow. She’s the apex predator now, and yet the designers are still finding new ways to break and bloody her.
When I tweeted about this issue, and how I’m uneasy about these death animations sticking around, I got a number of interesting counter-arguments. Those grisly deaths, said some tweeters, should make you not want Lara to die. A sort of psychological trick to make you play better.
But, uh, not dying is kind of the whole point of the game. I don’t want to die, because I want to get to the next part of the game.
And besides, these death animations don’t crop up in the combat — where Lara has a health bar (of sorts), and so you get a number of chances to make mistakes and can claw your way back from the brink of death if you play better. They just appear in the platforming sections, where a single wrong button press can be the difference between life and death.
Plus, highly viewed YouTube compilations of Lara’s deaths suggest that they might actually have the opposite effect for a certain subset gamers, who will actively try to kill Lara to see all of her unique death animations. Gotta catch ‘em all.
I also got told that these death animations really sell your failure and tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you screwed up and that you need to be better. But there are plenty of ways to achieve this without resorting to graphic violence.
Look to the Batman Arkham games, where the game-over screen sees a villain, like The Joker or The Penguin, mock Batman. This should make you want to try again and wipe that smug look off their faces.
One of the antagonists mocks your skills. You want to get back into the game to wipe that smug grin off of their face! pic.twitter.com/ilKUNkDqJe— Mark Brown (@britishgaming) October 5, 2018
Other games show you the consequence for messing up. Like in Majora’s Mask, where you get to see the moon crash into Termina and wipe out the townsfolk. You get to see, plainly, why you need to brush yourself off and keep playing.
Other games still show friendly characters lamenting to your death, from Metal Gear Solid characters yelling “Snaaaaake!” over the codec system, to Elena in Uncharted crying out, “Oh god, no, Nate!” It’s a stark reminder that you’re letting your pals down if you don’t try again.
Friendly characters react to your death. You’re leaving your friends behind - get back in there and try harder! pic.twitter.com/G1lI0yLSF3— Mark Brown (@britishgaming) October 5, 2018
Player death is certainly a weird thing for designers to reconcile. In most games, it’s a bizarre break of the fourth wall: a reminder that the actual turn of events will see Lara Croft narrowly avoid death at every turn, and that your screw-ups are just a non-canonical, “what-could-have-happened” dream sequence of sorts. They don’t make much sense. One game did find a way to explain it, however.
The narrator makes a mistake. Whoops, your death wasn’t part of the story. Try again. pic.twitter.com/Tnoou87ds0— Mark Brown (@britishgaming) October 5, 2018
But there’s loads of ways to make failure feel unwelcome, and no one says you need to show your hero’s bones shoot out of her shins to do it.
Failure doesn’t need a cinematic
Of course, the most effective way to handle this is often through gameplay. No one wants to die in Dark Souls, and every death is a kick in the gut.
But not because you see your character torn to pieces. In fact, deaths in the Souls games are mostly bloodless affairs that simply see your hero slump down in defeat. It’s because you’ve just lost loads of progress and are close to losing loads of souls. That hurts way more than seeing a character’s esophagus get friendly with a tree branch.
Now, the thing I haven’t mentioned in all of this is that, yes, these grisly death scenes are especially weird because Lara Croft is a woman.
She’s every bit as powerful, resourceful and agile as her male counterparts, but where Nathan Drake and Master Chief and Agent 47 and Solid Snake and Kratos and Link and Gordon Freeman simply get knocked off, Lara Croft needs to be beaten up, bloodied, impaled and garroted for all to see.
And when these animations are made by a majority-male development crew, for a majority-male audience, under the shadow of all sorts of nasty tropes that see women suffer on screen, it’s understandable why so many people feel uneasy about these scenes.
There’s also that awkward quote from Tomb Raider 2013’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg, who said, when asked by Kotaku whether it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist, “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ You start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”
Ultimately, this is probably just a case of developers making the wrong call about which things need to be part of Tomb Raider DNA and which don’t. The devs decided that Lara doesn’t need to find medkits anymore, her boobs can’t be drawn with a ruler anymore, and she no longer moves like a tank ... but perhaps these grisly death animations should also be forgotten? Especially when there are also so many better ways to get the same information across.