Lara and Nathan: How complex characters make good stories
Analyzing Lara Croft and Nathan Drake to see why complex character motivations draw us into a story.
Take two games which are more alike in all ways than they are different: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and the 2013 redux Tomb Raider. Both are AAA titles within long-established franchises: A Thief’s End being the fourth Uncharted chapter, and the 2013 Tomb Raider being the tenth released in its canon. Both did very well on the market, selling close to 8.5 million copies apiece (Uncharted 4 did that in its first year). Their subject matter and structure are remarkably similar, being linear, action-adventure, third-person 3D platformers with a singular protagonist in the business of treasure hunting. (For those of you who have somehow never heard of either of these titles, think Indiana Jones.) In Uncharted, that protagonist is Nathan Drake. Tomb Raider has the famous Lara Croft.
Both franchises share a lot of game design and structure. A heavy, linear narrative is told in large part through cutscenes, and is broken up by shootouts, mild puzzle solving, and traversing gorgeous 3D terrain. Players can expect stealth challenges, melee fights, and lots and lots of parkour.
But something about these two titles is qualitatively different. I played both of these games for the first time last summer. I finished Tomb Raider (2013) exhilarated: as the credits rolled I was already looking up the next installment. As the final scene of Uncharted 4 dissolved I could only sit quietly, reflecting. The story of the game had moved me. The moments during the game remained with me. Even as I played, I knew: this story was freakin’ fantastic.
So how did they do it? What was it about the narrative of Uncharted 4 that gripped in a way that Tomb Raider (2013) simply didn’t match?
I started by studying the structure of each game. I skimmed the “game movie” of each title on YouTube, lingering for hours over repeated viewings of some of the most poignant scenes. I jotted down every plot point or storytelling element I felt was worth notice. I noted devastating betrayal plot points, artful backstory exposition, effective foreshadowing, among a host of other notes, while studying Uncharted 4. I plan on expanding on all that I’ve found in a later post.
The real forceful comparison kept floating to the top of my attention: the principal character. Nathan captured my attention and interest in a way that Lara simply did not. Why?
Let’s compare the arc of their stories within the game (spoilers alert!):
Nathan: Uncharted 4 begins with Nathan Drake in a sort-of retirement that seems to have come too early. Having left behind his life of treasure-hunting, he now dives salvage and lives with his wife and former partner-in-(literal)-crime Elena. The arrival of a brother that he thought was dead calls him back for one final job. Over the course of this final adventure he learns what is really important and takes a crucial step towards true fulfillment with his family.
Lara: Tomb Raider (2013) brings us to the beginnings of Lara’s life as an adventurer. She is at sea with a small crew on a treasure-hunting expedition when a storm leaves them shipwrecked on a hostile island. Lara must quickly learn confidence and brutality to survive and then save the lives of her crew. She begins the game shivering and afraid, and ends it with a new commitment to adventure and whatever that might bring.
Lara’s arc is straightforward and obvious. She starts in the center of a horror movie: shipwrecked, alone, and held captive by an unknown, brutal assailant. We know that she is afraid and unsure of herself by her shivering, whimpering, and in the little pep talks she gives herself every time she attempts a physical maneuver: “I can do this!” In her first conversation with another member of her crew, she cries and says: “it was all so horrible… and this is all my fault!” then “please, come and get me!” The older male mentor over the radio replies with: “I have to stay here… but you can do this Lara!”
Her initial objective is to rescue herself by reuniting with her crew. Every objective following that is a smaller mission within that same goal, and they all are assigned out of need: Someone’s got to get the transmitter to the radio tower. I can’t do it, so it’s got to be you, Lara. She is reluctant, at first, to take these on (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”), but she does so out of pure survival necessity. Have you heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Yeah, it’s the bottom two rungs.
With each mission completed, her confidence grows. We can tell because she’s no longer crying, or saying “I can’t do this!” while crying, and her objective changes definitively from saving her own skin to saving all of her friends. About a third of the way through the game, Lara gets a transmission from a shivering, whimpering female crewmember kidnapped somewhere else on the island. It is her call to kick ass and be a hero. A bit after that, and she starts shouting something new at her enemies: “That’s right! Run, you bastards! I’m coming for you all!” We are witnessing a new Lara Croft.
The rest of the game has her saving her friends in a bunch of different ways and coming into her own as a historian and puzzle-solver. As you might imagine (or as I gave away in the synopsis above), she saves the day. The game ends with her relishing the thought of future adventures.
The pitch is compelling: a young woman with an appetite for adventure gets thrown into dangerous, supernatural circumstances and comes out a badass! This is an awesome sentiment, and I should hope that it is evident through the rest of my own work that I am behind the premise 100%. I only wish that she had more personality than a communion wafer.
That’s right, I said it. In Tomb Raider (2013), Lara Croft is super boring.
After analyzing her narrative arc, the answer as to why that is lies in her character’s motivations.
Survival. (The obvious one)
Altruism/heroism: caring for the life of her friends.
A desire for adventure perhaps? We learn in the opening monologue (“A famous explorer once said: the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are. I had finally set out to make my mark. To find adventure. But instead, adventure found me.”) and in a few convenient video-tape flashback sequences, that this was a factor for Lara, but overall it seems a pale motivation in comparison to the first two listed here.
Perhaps a father issue of some sort? I found very few references to this within the game, but this epilogue was dropped rather confusingly in: “I’ve been so blind. So naive. For years I resented my father, doubted him, like the rest. But he was right about so much. I just wish I could tell him that now.”
So that’s it? Surviving, being a hero, and some vague stuff about wanting to adventure and do good by her dad?
Story can do so much better.
To prove it, it’s time to return to Uncharted 4. I summed up Lara’s character arc in three paragraphs, but to do the same for this title would be an injustice. For this post I will have to summarize without citing discrete examples, and you’ll have to take my word for it, or play or watch the game yourself.
Through a flexible timeline that ricochets back and forth between the distant past, the recent past, the present, and the future; through all of the narrative devices I mentioned up top and promise I will go into further depth with in the future; and through every character being a richly woven bundle of refreshing, flawed humanity; through all of this we get Nathan’s motivations. These are the four that I can name, in no particular order:
The death of his mother at a young age and his call to finish her life’s work.
His brother as his only family, and his guilt at his brother’s “death” years later.
His love of Elena and his fear of losing her.
His inability to live a “normal” life, and his buried desire for adventure.
Every single plot point and turning point in the game is informed by every single one of these motivations. Oftentimes they work against each other, one working to the detriment of some other. This means Nathan makes colossal mistakes. He hurts people. This also means that the heartbreaking betrayals within the narrative feel inevitable.
To have all of these deep seated motivations is to be human. It is a source of conflict that is compelling because any human can relate. It is good storytelling.
That is what I wish for for Lara: more! Perhaps the writers could give her an obsessive desire to impress her mentor, as a result of his substitution as a father figure. Or a secret, unrequited romantic longing that Lara holds for another member of the crew. Maybe a darker, self-centered drive for egoic recognition? That’s the kind of stuff that keeps us engaged then unsettles us even after the credits roll.