Frequency is an issue that many videogames fail to solve. Is something fun or interesting if you do it multiple times in one hour? What about if that frequency is extended to ten hours? It could be as the mechanics may be well built enough that repetition will not harm the game. Tomb Raider (2013) was generally criticized for having Lara constantly kill people, turning a, well, tomb raiding game into a guns blazing action game. However, I don’t believe that is the most egregious aspect of the series transformation. It is disappointing that firefights take precedent over exploration, which the series was known for, but, in the game’s defense, the action is generally better than it has been in any other Tomb Raider game (except for possibly the criminally underrated Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light). Nevertheless, frequency is a major problem of Tomb Raider. After playing Tomb Raider once, I noticed two particular gameplay devices occur so much that I had to play a game I moderately enjoyed again just to be able to count the amount of times they happened. 32 and 11, in a roughly ten hour game: Lara falling from unstable ground and Lara running through fire, respectively. By occurring so many times, these devices undermine both the story and gameplay, turning a mechanically sound game into a repetitious one.
Before continuing, I will describe what I count as Lara falling and being part of fire. The falling device occurs anytime Lara is on unstable ground and falls through the floor. This includes rocks breaking with causing her to slide, boards breaking, and explosions making her have to latch onto something to not fall. Lara in fire occurs anytime that she ran through fire, such as a burning building. If these instances generally occurred one after the other rapidly, I only counted it as one even if it is technically not the case. For instance, if Lara fell through one board, almost regained her footing and then fell immediately, it is only one occurrence in my count. Because of this method, the numbers are probably not accurate; they actually might be higher. Due to the numbers, these devices happen anywhere from 1-3 times an hour (to be clear, I got around 80% of everything in the game in ten hours, so occurrences per hour are also not completely accurate to anyone else’s playthrough). Also keep in mind that the two devices are not mutually exclusive, sometimes they happen in tandem as frequently as they happen apart.
Now these numbers do not come anywhere near the body count of the game, so why did these two gameplay devices in particular feel more repetitive than any other? Mainly because they give poor context to both story and gameplay.
The tenseness of the story is undermined due to these two repetitious gameplay segments. The game employs a survival narrative with cutscenes that portray Lara as vulnerable. Many gaming critics wrote on their opinion of the game’s survival narrative not matching Lara’s prowess on the battlefield. However, it seems that most critics tended to critique Lara’s killing mechanic undermining the cutscenes where she is severely distraught about her first murder, only to kill everyone else without much hardship later. While her murderous transformation seemed rather rapid, I believe that this is really not that preposterous compared to the other perplexing aspect of her: superhuman strength. For example, upon the first time that true movement is granted to the player, Lara has to jump across two ledges on a Cliffside. Not only does she do it with ease, she essentially jumps higher and farther than anyone in the history of man on her first attempt. Lara is immediately a superior human being before the true island dangers present themselves. This prowess ties into both the falling and fire mechanic because it never feels that Lara is ever in any real danger when the game presents these events as obstacles meant to be triumphed. The first time control is taken from the player and she falls down a ravine is a powerful moment. It makes nothing on the island feel safe, even simple ground is tenuous. But then it happens again. Another time, again after that. She falls off another object, hits the ground then gets up and kicks ass again. She’s amazing, it feels like she has been jumping over cliffs and being an incredible tomb raiding survivalist her whole life. Except this is an origin story; she is supposed to be a neophyte, not Superman. The mechanics sabotage both the surprise of having to catch yourself falling and the idea that Lara is a novice that needs to build her strength due to their frequency. She’s invincible, why would the player feel tense when she brushes off dangers as if they are nothing constantly? Making these moments sparse in the game would make these instances more substantive because it would feel that Lara actually accomplished something by the end of it; if the occurrences happen too frequently, an exciting moment that should feel dangerous merely becomes a rote process as it does not meaningfully affect the character. By their frequency, Lara is not a survivalist that has to be wary of her environment, fire and falling are merely minor obstacles that somewhat impede her superhuman abilities.
While narrative conflicting with a character’s actions is a worthwhile critique, many fantastic games have this problem and are not much worse for it; it just means gameplay usually takes precedence over story. Nevertheless, I feel that gameplay is generally hampered by the two frequent frameworks that guide Lara’s actions. Tomb Raider is identifiable as the “Set-Piece” game, where plot is reliant on levels crafted to form a specific contextual experience for gameplay; in other words, designed, not emergent. For example, this happens constantly in the Uncharted series, such as the player having to use Drake’s athleticism to overcome odds such as jumping car to car and having to fight his way through a sinking ship. In Tomb Raider’s case, having Lara shoot people inside a burning building gives new context to the gameplay, instantly adding emotion and making the story dire; as does falling from unstable ground causing the player to adapt to a new area. However, as I shown with the numbers, the game generously relies on these particular set pieces; only two forms of context. Because of the lack of variety, the impetus of the gameplay has to rely on the shooting. While the shooting is generally good, it does not have much depth. Most enemies are the same throughout the game, about four different types (bow and arrow, melee, regular, and armored enemies), and the player merely has five weapons to fight back. Also, only a few enemies need more thought than just wait in cover and shoot until they fall. By employing two kinds of set-pieces, the game really hits home how repetitive the player’s actions are. Ennui sets in, as there is nothing particularly new to look forward to, except shooting some men. The set pieces start to cause diminishing returns, as the excitement lessens and loses its luster by repeating an action constantly. Basically, gameplay is not a matter of looking forward to shoot people in a different framework, it is a matter of when am I going to have to get up and fight people in a burning building again.
Additionally, part of the problem with the frequency of gameplay is that it highlights the general uselessness of the other part of the game: exploration. The game is set-up into two parts: the thrilling action set-pieces and Lara exploring the island to find some supplies that increase her experience points. The latter is meant to augment the former, giving extra tools and upgrades to help Lara deal with the game’s obstacles. However, exploring offer’s no real benefit. Lara can find supplies that give her combat upgrades, but it is not really necessary to proceed in the game; she can get enough upgrades to complete the game without any more superfluous work. The reason being is that the upgrades do not alter what has been done or will keep happening in the game: Lara is going to fall or run through fire and added benefits to damage or clip increases are not going to change that. Exploration is a tedious exercise that may slightly deviate the gameplay from just shooting people, but it contains no story or does not really change the fact that the player will have to eventually deal with the same framework over and over again; it is still a 32 and 11 game. It is just added work to complement the repetition. Nevertheless, Lara has a few interesting traversal gadgets (such as her rope arrows and that device that makes every rope a makeshift zipline). Plenty of labor went into the game to give Lara various tools for exploration, yet these tools are typically just used as a Super Metroid barrier of entry; you have to find the right equipment to be able to reach a different part of the map. When Lara is falling and sliding down some ravine, she isn’t using any tools except a shotgun to blast some wood in her way. When she is escaping fire, Lara isn’t using anything except her incredible athleticism. This causes some of the interesting tools at her disposal to just be cheap exploration mechanics in a game where exploration is merely used as achievement points between the action; a disposable mechanic for a timewaster. By the designers focusing all of their efforts on repetitious set-pieces, the rest of their labor feels useless to the dramatic portion of the game, which is not affected by Lara’s impressive tools. The player is given so many options to traverse their environment, yet it is never used in the base portion of the game which is shooting people until they die. By either changing the context or allowing players more tools to deal with whatever obstacle disrupts their path, the game would alleviate the diminishing returns concept by increasing variety beyond merely finding some crates for a few XP points.
The problem with frequency in a game is that the developers have to rely on the player’s feelings towards how well they think the gameplay works. If the gameplay is compelling no matter how often it is employed, the player will not be bothered. Nevertheless, a game should not be just reliant on good gameplay alone. Games like Doom are not merely memorable because they have shooting mechanics that work; they are memorable because Doom gave sufficient context for the gameplay. Doom achieved this through interesting maze-like level design. Uncharted 2 does it through constantly unique set-pieces. Red Dead Redemption does it through each little side story that puts Marston’s acts in a new framework. Without sufficient context, the gameplay merely becomes a repetitious affair that will become tiresome after a spell. Tomb Raider relies far too much on the player’s goodwill towards the gameplay. By framing the game within two contexts that happen repeatedly, the game loses any sense of real dramatic progression as the player will just get ready for the same occurrence to happen again and again. It starts to become a game of numbers, checking a line on a piece of paper to record when the next repetitious action occurs takes precedence over the gameplay present. A game 32-11 instead of Tomb Raider, if you will.