Experienced Points: Lara’s Damsel in Distress

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Apr 2, 2013

Filed under: Column 52 comments


My column this week is a rant about Samantha, the damsel in distress of the new Tomb Raider game.

It was really temping to contrast Samantha with Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite, but I was afraid of doing cross-game comparisons that would likely get sidetracked into a frustrating “game X is superior to game Y” debate and confuse rather than illuminate the issue.

My other major issue with the new Tomb Raider is it fondness for cutscene incompetence. Just about every cutscene involves Lara doing something really stupid or reckless. The writers also LOVE the use of off-screen space to poof in bad guys. There’s more than one situation where Lara seems be be alone, then a cutscene happens and someone punches her unconscious from just offscreen.

Having all of your cutscenes deliver setbacks by having the player character perpetrate awful blunders is a great way to make the player hate either the writer or their avatar. I realize these problems are nothing new to videogames, but they are problems that really grate on me because they seem to be the offspring of laziness and bad habits.


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52 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Lara’s Damsel in Distress

  1. rofltehcat says:

    The cutscenes could be worse: Quicktime events. :D

    I’d like to discuss one point someone brought up on the Escapist:
    Would making Sam a child make the plot better?

    She could probably be the child of one of the expedition members (who dies, leaving Sam as Lara’s responsibility, I know cliché). Most of her quirks, stupidity and even her adoration of Lara could be explained that way.

    To make the player actually want to rescue her, a tutorial area on the ship would have been great. It is a small space with not much to do (mind I haven’t played the game yet) in which you play with her, get to know her a bit better etc.

    1. I think that would just shift it to “Some annoying kid is going to die!” It might make sense as the character is currently written, but it wouldn’t be any less of a cheap plot move. The basic problem is that Samantha is a badly written character that the writers give littler reason to care for her, and the first step to fixing that problem is doing a better job developing the character.

      1. guy says:

        Well, it would be less annoying for a kid to be unable to get themselves out of trouble. You’d still need a reason to care, but no one would object to a kid being too terrified of having a weapon pointed at them to help with the escape.

    2. Miguel says:

      Oh, there are Quick Time Events a-plenty in the game, don’t you worry, and they’re awfully unforgiving. On top of being awful, period.

      1. Klay F. says:

        Not to mention they use that godawful thing that AssCreed 1/2 did where instead of proper key/button prompts, they use some symbol that only partially relates to the action you are supposed to perform, and you are supposed to magically divine what the game wants you to do, only here its even worse, as you might press a button, and Lara knees an attacker in the groin, then 5 seconds later, the same button will have her bite the same attacker’s ear off.

        1. tengokujin says:

          I failed the Russian choker because I didn’t realize that the exclamation point meant melee.

          Three times.

          Before I went to look at the keybinds.

          1. False Prophet says:

            Guilty as well. Also, I don’t know if something’s wrong with my keyboard (and it’s a pretty good mechanical FPS Corsair keyboard), but I had a lot of trouble getting QTEs to register. I had to plug in a gaming pad just to get past QTEs, then switch back to keyboard and mouse for combat.

      2. Daemian Lucifer says:

        And theres really no need for most of them.

    3. I never really got annoyed by quicktime events until I first played The Force Unleashed. I was several bosses into the game, already annoyed that I had to execute combos to finish off an enemy when I’d be just as happy to bash their skulls in with normal attacks. Instead, I had to switch to Mortal Kombat with force powers.

      But the one that got me really irritated was on a swamp planet. I was technically using an exploit against some dude riding a huge monster. If I stayed far enough from him, he wouldn’t aggro, but I could still force-throw things at him and take down his health. Except at one point he stopped taking damage. I couldn’t figure it out until I realized that (1) he was a boss and that (2) his “must die in a cool way” armor kicked in, keeping him from harm unless I was willing to rush in and play a bad game of Simon Says if I wanted to progress.

      That, coupled with the writing, made me put it down and find more constructive things to do.

      1. PhotoRob says:

        ‘”must die in a cool way” armor’

        I vote we make this an official game phrase.

        I’m going to try to work it into gaming conversations whenever I can. :)

        (Gah! I keep forgetting the checkbox. Maybe I really am a spammer and never realized it?)

      2. Mephane says:

        Wait, we are already past April 1st. So this is a real thing? You need to perform a quicktime event just to finish of a foe that is effectively already beaten? Now I am quite happy that when the game was on sale the last time, I decided not to pick it up.

        1. Yeah. You usually had to beat them into submission using whatever attacks and combo strings you wanted, and at the end (later bosses even had these mid-battle) your foe would be kind of staggered or you’d be poised to attack and then somewhere on the screen you’d see a picture of one of your controller buttons appear. Then another and another depending on how “hard” the boss was. It was like my game got swapped out for Dragon’s Lair.

          Even worse, if you failed to hit them in the right order and with the proper timing, the bad guy would throw you off or push you away, and regain enough health to keep fighting for a while. Lather, rinse, repeat, rage.

          This is why there are some games I just say “the heck with it. I’ll watch the cutscenes on YouTube.”

        2. Dreadjaws says:

          This is far worse in Spider-Man 3. You need to perform a quicktime event which is different every time and if you don’t do it correctly the boss regains energy.

  2. Paul Spooner says:

    Having not played the game, I was unaware of the terrible walking whining macguffin.
    Having read the article, I couldn’t agree more.

    1. tengokujin says:

      At some point, I just gave up on Sam being anything but a really pointless McGuffin.

      No, it’s a tale about Lara’s desire to get off this island alive, and there happens to be a cult leader with cult people in all the places I need to go that are preventing me from investigating properly.

      Sam, who? LA DE LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.

  3. SKD says:

    Yeah, the cutscenes were such cheese for putting the player in their predesignated place

  4. Jamas Enright says:

    Just had a moment of dissonance seeing that banner Shamus versus the Shamus icon… might be time to update some of those icons?

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Are you suggesting sans-shamus formatting?

    2. rofltehcat says:

      I also like the “old”… “new”? … bearded! Shamus better, tbh :D

    3. tzeneth says:

      I noticed that a while ago. Wondered if someone else would comment on it.

    4. What’s worse is that the rest of the cast look nothing like their sketches, except for maybe Josh.

      I mean, Chris doesn’t even wear glasses, much less a visor.

  5. Klay F. says:

    The cutscene incompetence doesn’t really bother me anymore, unless its really egregious (*waves at Assassin’s Creed 3*), but what bothers me more about Tomb Raider is that they use said cutscene incompetence as an excuse to just further hurl abuse at Lara, then claim character development. It rung extremely lazy and hollow to me.

    I realize I’m probably in the minority on this, but just as Nathan Drake’s insufferable smugness doesn’t make him likable, having Lara constantly falling off things for no reason doesn’t make her likable either. All I’m saying is that a little moderation is nice now and then.

    1. Ciennas says:

      I personally vote that laziest cutscene capture would go to Fable, in the prison. Further compounding how frustrating it was is the fact that there is literally no point to this; None. If they wanted to work the silly joke about being forcibly tortured via poetry bit, there are like four or five other places to have worked it so that my emminent badass du jour does not suddenly soil his pants when I’m not looking at him.

      Cutscene Incompetence is the epitome of lazy writing, unless they went out of the way to demonstrate that the character is not very skilled at whatever activity is going on.

      A protip on that front: it had better not be combat competence in a game where your primary form of interaction with the world is by violence and combat, unless you’re not controlling the combat monster. Maybe as mission control.

    2. Hydralysk says:

      It does get a bit ridiculous. I think it the whole “Lara is hurt and alone” shtick could’ve worked, if toned down a bit, but she never shows any lasting injuries.

      She gets impaled by a piece of rebar and pulls it out, but the gaping chest wound is then completely forgotten about for half the plot and doesn’t impede her.

      At one point Lara tells Roth “You need morphine” and I couldn’t help but yell at her “You have a hole in your gut Lara and you’re jumping around, YOU NEED THE MORPHINE MORE THAN HE DOES!”

      1. MrGuy says:


        I get that games want to show characters getting hurt to humanize them and make them less invincible than they tend to feel when you play them. I get that they ALSO want to NOT permanently impair the player character’s ability to navigate the world. But sometimes you just can’t have both.

        Running and jumping with an injury like Lara’s is like expecting her to jump around with a broken leg. She should by rights pass out and bleed to death halfway through the next level. Jumping around is the worst thing she can do with that injury – even if she had stitches (which she needs), she’d break them open immediately.

        Note to developers – trying to humanize characters by showing us in a cutscene they’re capable of feeling pain only works if you don’t spend the rest of the friggin’ game trying to prove to us that they DON’T feel that pain.

  6. Dev Null says:

    Idiot. Game Y is clearly the superior title.

    1. Gruhunchously says:

      Really? Are you seriously trying to say that Game Y is better than Game X? God, I just can never understand how Developer Z attracts such loyalty from their sycophantic fanboys.

      1. rofltehcat says:

        How can both of you disregard game Z from 10 years ago?!? Play the classics before even trying to analyze games like all of us video game veterans have!
        Character L had much more personality back then than in game X or any character in game Y!

        1. MrGuy says:

          Pfft. Why is it that everyone who talks about games only feels the need to talk about the big name Latin Alphabet characters?

          If you want to play a REAL game, Game µ is WAY better than all three. You’ve probably never even heard of it.

          1. Fleaman says:

            Meh. Not as Ю as the original books.

  7. Hal says:

    I had the same problem with DX:HR. Too many instances where you’d ignore everything the player learned in cutscenes.

  8. JPH says:

    I think the reason for the issue that you call ‘cutscene incompetence’ is because the ‘gameplay’ of most games is designed so that you, the player, have to overcome every obstacle. This makes sense; a game, traditionally speaking, is a series of challenges.

    This means that cutscenes are the only opportunity for the player character to make any mistakes that affect the plot, and if the player character never makes any mistakes, he or she can seem like a Mary Sue. Chris brought up this exact problem with Half-Life.

    It’s a legitimate issue that I’m not sure there’s one easy solution to. Some devs shove the character mistakes into cutscenes, which cause some people (like you) to resent the characters or the writers. Some devs resort to the Supposed To Lose Fight, but that can be clunky and ham-fisted and it only works in certain kinds of games.

    I feel like a whole article could be written about this.

    1. Shamus says:

      Rather than make the player have a case of the stupids, I’d say it’s way better to have the bad guys do something smart.

      You charge in and the bad guys pop out of crates, or drop in from above, or otherwise behave as though they’ve sprung a trap and not just walked up to you en masse while you were busy drooling on yourself.

      1. Alexander The 1st says:

        The enemies in Tomb Raider *do* do smart things like shine spotlights at you and come from out of cover.

        The do it in gameplay though, where you have the assault rifle or something that evens the odds.

        Cutscenes are the only place Legolas can’t roll a critical hit against Gollum.

        Admittedly sometimes they go overboard, but it’s either don’t let the player derail the plot, or let the player be Gordon Freeman.

    2. guy says:

      Capture in a cutscene seems like something that should not give writers as much trouble as it does. Just have wildly overwhelming force show up, like two entire platoons of soldiers at once, so there’s no question in anyone’s mind that it would be impossible to fight their way out of it.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        The problem is when the game does pit you against an army of enemies because MOAR IS BETR!!But really,less enemies that are competent would keep the pressure on you just as much,and make being captured by dozen enemies more plausible.

    3. Dreadjaws says:

      I suggest you go to TV Tropes to find more about Cutscene Incompetence (it’s not a term that Shamus coined, as you seem to believe). Trust me, there are hundreds of better ways to handle these situations. Cutscene Incompetence is nothing but the product of bad writing.

  9. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I disagree with you completely about sam*,but I get where you are coming from.And I also get why.It ties in to what I said about tomb raider numerous times before:It is chock full of fantasy elements that every time they try to throw in something believable in,it yanks you out.

    Imagine yourself stranded on an island full of murderous zealots.Would you be the one immediately grabbing a weapon,scaling some cliffs and mowing down dudes,or would you be the useless one for the first few days?If beside a man with a spear ready to stab you at a moment notice,would you fight,or would you whimper?Yeah,most regular people would act just like sam.And that has no place in this fantasy world of tomb raider.

    Also,if you were to compare elizabeth to samantha,youd also have to compare booker to lara,and there bioshock would lose.

    *Besides the “empty shell admiring lara” thing.That we are in agreement with.

  10. Carnadan says:

    You linked tvtropes in the column Shamus, you really should warn people about dangerous stuff like that.

  11. Humanoid says:

    After all this time, I still get up to the end of page one of the article and think “Huh, this column ended abruptly.”

  12. MrGuy says:

    Realize this isn’t really “on topic” for this post, but…

    I call “next” on behalf of Bioshock Infinite for Spoilerification.

    It allows the Spoiler Warning crew to compare a title to its sequels/predecessors (always a fan favorite). It has an interesting world to critique. It’s got a lot of very technically interesting graphics for Shamus to go on and on about. It has some significant plot twists to love/hate. It has plenty of stuff lying around for Josh to scarf down. Best of all, Shamus can make System Shock II references until we all die of alcohol poisoning.

    Oh, yeah, plus it’s a pretty awesome game. So it’s got that going for it. Which is nice.

    1. somebodys_kid says:

      I was actually hoping for Tomb Raider since I just bought it and am about to play it…

      1. False Prophet says:

        They should do both. Both games are easily less than 15 hours, probably far less once you know where you’re going/don’t care about collectibles.

    2. MrGuy says:

      Forgot to mention…

      The creators of Bioshock Infinite went out of their way to devise a combination lock mechanism that is used only once in the entire game. This requires you to search for a written door code – the only door code in the entire game. They do this ONLY so they can use the 451 code.

      Game. Set. Shamus.

  13. Eruanno says:

    Cutscene incompetence instantly makes me think of Hitman: Absolution. There are at least two cutscenes where Agent 47 does something INCREDIBLY stupid and incompetent that I would have never ever done if I was in control (which always causes terrible ramifications later).

  14. SteveDJ says:

    Perhaps an approach that a future game could take: Start with the typical, incompetent, idiot sidekick (like a Sam). After the first rescue (or second, if needed), where you the player are now firmly convinced of the stupidity of this individual, then the game takes a nice twist.

    Perhaps you are back at the base, or perhaps in the mountains or something, and this sidekick is being stupid again — perhaps messing around with the crate of ammo, or perhaps walking up to the cliff edge to see the view — and then… BLAM!!! (grenade goes off), or perhaps AAAIIIIEEEE!!! (as the cliff edge gives way).

    No more sidekick. And you the player are OVERJOYED!!! And now the game can continue on with some real intelligence!

    1. MrGuy says:

      I’d actually like the stupid McGuffin sidekick to be ACTUALLY in league with your enemies. The “getting captured” is actually their way to deliver stolen items/secrets to your enemy, as well as tire out your team and waste your resources. Then at the climactic moment of the game’s first act, when you’re confronting the bad guy, you’re utterly stunned when awful MacGuffin sidekick hiding behind you suddenly pulls a gun and levels it at the back of your head. Now THAT’S how to get captured in a cutscene…

      1. Ciennas says:

        Or you could perform a different kind of good twist- the incompetent or inexperienced partner from the start of the game learns to be better in some way. It would form a nice character arc.

        Say, for Sam, it would involve not being a dumb brick who sits there and takes the bad things that happen to her, and developing interests in things besides Lara.

        They could even still fail and set up the same contrivances as before- all they’d have to do to fix all of these problems is show the character trying their best, or at all.

  15. wererogue says:

    “The story would be better if she was just replaced with an inanimate object for the two sides to fight over.”

    That sounds pretty doable as a mod! Somebody get to work!

  16. False Prophet says:

    I’m reminded of the Rev Rant on character empathy. To summarize: in a film or TV show or other non-interactive story, we don’t need to empathize with the distressed damsel (or whoever), we just need to empathize with the hero, and understand that the DiD is important to him/her. That doesn’t work so well in a video game, where we’re controlling the hero, and need a better understanding of why the hero should be risking their neck for this person.

    It’s not that we can’t have Distressed Damsels, it’s that we can no longer treat them as a piece of furniture.

  17. Ravens Cry says:

    While the graphical quality of todays games continues to astound me, and it’s a good thing they are going in a different direction in Tomb Raider, at the same time, I don’t think this is my kind of game. I still play the old Tomb Raider games, pixels, polygons and all, and I think they still have redeeming qualities to them, and not just crude polygonal T&A. Everything was a puzzle. Not just the blocks and sliders, but also combat as Lara was, especially by the standards of bullet sponge shooters like Quake and Doom, quite fragile. You could just scarf medpacks, but they were fairly rare and finding that one ledge where you could shoot with impunity, after a mad dash to goad whatever critter was chasing you was close enough to shoot, to me, very, very satisfying.
    Moreover, the controls were generally elegant without being either too complicated or too simplistic. Yeah, the camera was an [expletive redacted/] and the autoaiming weird, but I think the games still are fun and engaging.

  18. Dreadjaws says:

    Good Lord, how I hate Cutscene Incompetence. It completely takes me out of the game. I no longer want to play as the bumbling idiot who suddenly made an incredibly stupid decision when left to their own whims.

    Although I have to say, while pretty prevalent, the Cutscene Incompetence is not as prevalent here as it is in games like Resident Evil 5 or Red Dead Redemption. Still really bothersome, though: “Hmm… I’m loaded with weapons and I have a clear shot of the evil monk who’s trying to murder my friend by starting the magic soul-transfer ritual. Should I attack now? Not yet… Not yet… Not yet… There! Now that the impenetrable magical force field is activated, looks like the perfect time to attack!”

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