Hyper Mode: A Critical Look at Games

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Lara Croft kills countless men in the new Tomb Raider game. So why does it feel so wrong to kill an animal? Maddy Myers explains the choices she made in Tomb Raider in the first installment of her new column on videogames.

Why I Didn’t Shoot the Deer: Role-Playing as Lara Croft

Early on in the new Tomb Raider, Lara gets hungry. She has to use a bow that she found on a dead man’s body to kill an animal and eat it. There are no other options.

I make Lara run around the wooded mountain. I hear her complain, see her clutch her stomach in agony. Is she clutching her stomach because she’s hungry? Or because she recently got stabbed in her side after escaping a mysterious captor? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I just want Lara to feel comfortable, if only for a moment. So I run her into the woods.

I realize that the running makes noise, that flailing through brush and breaking sticks might be the reason why I haven’t seen any wildlife. So I slow down. I walk Lara down the edge of a stream. And then I see it.

A deer, poised, about to cross the stream, not twenty yards away. It stares at us. Lara and I stare back. We lift our bow, aim for the head.

The first shot whizzes close by the deer’s left ear. I missed. I hasten to reposition the shot. Somehow, the deer does not move and I hit it this time, right through the neck. I feel my heart racing as Lara runs to the crumpled body. It’s dead, it’s dead, we did it, and yet…

Lara falls to her knees next to the fallen deer; she begins to cry and apologize to it. She does not seem relieved or happy. She’s just…coping. Poor Lara.

We get up from the deer together. I turn Lara around so we can head back to the campsite.

In our path, two more deer emerge from the trees. They stop and stare at us. I feel guilt rise in me as I run past them. Can they see the other deer corpse behind us? Do they know what just happened? Are they afraid? They have antlers; will they attack us?

They do not move. They watch us run by.

As soon as Lara gets to the site, I sit her down and watch her cook the meat over the fire. Too bad she doesn’t have salt and pepper, I think. I guess she’s going to make that venison into jerky and carry it in her backpack. Looks like enough to last several days if she gets stuck here that long. We are going to be okay.

Lara still looks miserable. But she doesn’t complain about hunger for the entire rest of the game. At one point, I get sidetracked by a mushroom-collecting quest; I wonder to myself whether Lara has gone vegetarian midway through the game. I hope she has enough mushroom know-how to tell the poison ones from the safe ones.

I don’t shoot a single other deer for the rest of the game. I don’t shoot the wild boars or the mice or the rabbits, either. I shoot the wolves, who attack on sight, but I leave the rest be.

After the game ends, I look over the achievements and feel confused to see several that make reference to killing animals in the game. Killing animals and looting them does provide Lara “salvage”, and the game implies that she can use this salvage (animal bones and meat?) to supplement her guns and her bow. I collected plenty of salvage from boxes of ammo and gun parts left behind by the cultists on the island; this made sense to me. It never occurred to me to practice target-shooting on a mouse to see what I’d get. It never even occurred to me to kill more deer than the one that I had to. I had no issue leveling up and advancing easily in the game without the extra salvage.

My decision not to kill animals in the game was not the product of a conscious decision on my part. I’ve played Big Buck Hunter while bored in many a bar; I don’t have any real qualms about shooting virtual deer. I didn’t kill any animals because it didn’t seem like Lara wanted to. So, we didn’t. And I didn’t even think about it.

I didn’t even want Lara to have to kill as many people as the game asked me to. After Lara made her first kill, I left her crouched behind cover for a long time, wondering if there might be some other way around the rest of the men with guns ahead of me. Eventually, one came barreling around my cover to shoot at me and I had to defend myself by shooting back and, eventually, killing him. I soon realized that the game would require me to kill dozens and dozens of men. But I didn’t have to kill any mice. So I didn’t.

When I read other reviewers and players talking about the game after I had filed my review, I felt shocked to see so many people describing the disconnect they felt between Lara’s behavior in cut-scenes and their own behavior as players in the game. In the Game Trailers review, the critic says of Lara:

“Lara feels preternaturally skilled at killing, and while she’s clearly emotionally shaken when she’s forced to kill her first animal, subsequent killings treat furry bodies and human skulls like pinatas filled with experience points. When you kill animals not because Lara is hungry but because you’re hungry to level up, or when a precise shot to the head or a brutal execution literally earns you a bonus, the gravity with which the story treats Lara’s character growth becomes a joke.”

Usually experience points and bonuses in a game do feel tasteless, but in this case, Lara spends the game earning the real-life experience that comes with killing. She gets better and better at killing as the story goes on, so experience as a concept makes a kind of literal, chilling sense.

Perhaps it’s because I watch cut-scenes instead of skipping them, or perhaps something about Lara’s plight just so happened to make sense to me, but even during combat sections, I found myself naturally trying to behave as Lara would, as best I could. When I’m playing Gears of War, I ask myself what would Marcus Fenix do. And then I curb stomp a Locust skull. But this game does not star Marcus Fenix. It stars Lara Croft. And Lara Croft has made clear her reluctance to kill any living being, from a mouse to a man. Even later in the game, as she transforms into a bad-ass sharpshooter who hurls back insults at her opponents from behind cover, these insults seem to me to come from a place of anger and frustration rather than triumph: I didn’t want to have to do this. You made me do this.

Many players start Tomb Raider and reel off head-shots like cold-blooded murderers. Not every player waited behind cover as I had, looking for a way out, not wanting to shoot anyone if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Other people recognized the trappings of the game more readily than I had, saw the cover and the men approaching and went ahead and shot everyone in sight…and maybe every deer in the game, too.

That’s all fine. But am I the only player who chose not to shoot the deer, the only person to whom it did not even occur to shoot the deer? Did anyone else run right by, with no thought to the “experience point pinata” factor here? Am I the only one role-playing?

I had some gripes with Tomb Raider—among them, the sheer unrealism of the number of bodies present on the island, both living and dead. How did that many people manage to crash land here? Wouldn’t planes and boats just quit going near that island? And why do I have to kill so many of the people that live around here? Do they all need to attack me, and in droves?

Yes, they do, and Lara does have to kill so many people that it’s not only unrealistic but daunting. And when I say she “has” to kill them, I mean that the other options are to watch Lara be killed, or to turn off the game, neither of which are true choices. But the game does allow some choices, including the not immediately apparent choice to be slightly more pacifistic towards the forest’s wildlife.

I’m relieved that Tomb Raider let me make that choice, even though I didn’t even realize I had made it until after I had finished the game. I’m even relieved, in some ways, that the game drew no attention to this and did not reward me for doing it, because ultimately it was a choice that did not matter…except to me. And to Lara.

I hear video game players often lament that games do not provide them enough choices. Perhaps there are more choices than we think—we just have to try to find them.

Maddy Myers used to write a column about videogames for the recently deceased Boston Phoenix. She now writes a biweekly column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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