Perusing Pixels is a photo diary of my expedition through the Tomb Raider series. Use the links to the right to find a particular game or level, or see below for the latest post.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Technological Limits Can Be Good

A lot of criticism for Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider games centre around the lack of explorable areas and scenery. Especially in Tomb Raider Legend, the climbable walls and ledges stuck out pretty obviously against the non-interactive scenery, which was pretty to look at but ultimately useless.

I think the level of exploration in CD's games compared to Core Design's comes down to the way the games were built. In Legend and beyond, interactable objects were placed onto the scenery so Lara had means to make her way around. In the original Tomb Raiders, interactable objects were the scenery. Lara was designed to be able to climb, run and walk on blocks that were then used to the make up the levels. Slap any texture on them, but Lara could still hoist herself onto it if it was low enough. So, while the original game is technologically insuperior to Legend, it still manages to win in the explorability stakes. If you can see the top of something in Tomb Raider, chances are you'll be able to get on to it (whether it will be useful or not). And there was always that chance the Core would have left something a click too low and you'd be able to explore things they never even wanted you to see.

Another technological constraint in Tomb Raider is the draw distance, which means that the game cannot draw things after a certain distance away from Lara. For example, when she ventures into a large room, whatever is on the other end of it is slowly unveiled the closer Lara gets. Not very realistic (and it's a rare affliction in new games), but this little blip can create a whole lot of atmosphere. Take, for example, my recent excursion in virtual Peru:

 TR1_03_Draw1[4] TR1_03_Draw2[4] TR1_03_Draw3[4]

When you enter the room, you have no clue about the big temple that lays on the other end. Moving forward unveils what awaits you one piece at a time, kind of like a strip-tease powered by pressing the up key. It draws you on into the level, and into places you might otherwise be afraid to go (and for good reason too; there's usually some sorts of scary animal primed to eat you).

All in all, I don't think improved games technology wins everything. There are some things in Tomb Raider that work better because of flaws. St. Francis Folly wouldn't be the same if the draw distance could stretch to the floor.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

City of Vilcabamba

As a young girl playing Tomb Raider for the first time, it took me a while to summon up the courage to play this level. I had watched my cousin play it on his PS1, and it just looked a tad too frightening for me to try. I mean, there are two bears in this level.
This time around, I just about managed to steady my nerves to make my way through this small, plant-infested city.
(And I discovered on Wikipedia that Vilcabamba was a real Incan city, and the last to crumble to the invading Spaniards in 1572. Just in case you wanted to know.)

This is the start of the level. Nothing much to say about it, really, except that it’s apparently inherited the colour-scheme of the last level.



The whole four-dog-attack that occurs the minute you venture through the big stone doors is one of this things that put me off playing this level as a child. Four dogs…and no ability to flip over mid-jump! Even today, it was a nightmare. I actually had to use a health-pack. Yes. On the second level.

This is another scary moment (and occurs only seconds after the dog-attack). A bear! The most ferocious animal encountered so far, and this time he’s not stuck down a pit.

A secret in the level includes a small pool watched over by four stone snakes. I kept expecting them to turn into real snakes, but they seem content to sit there grinning.

Skulking around Vilcabamba, I stumbled across this rather foreboding corridor. Even in this playthrough, it took a while to summon up the courage to venture down it. I was right to worry, too; a angry wolf catapults itself at you the moment you reach the end.

Some random Incan artefacts scattered around Vilcabamba. I was relieved that the impaled animal skin did not become animate and start chasing me around on its makeshift stick-legs.

Is it any wonder it took me months to pluck up the courage to play this level? The ‘wall of skulls’ motif is quite common in the city and makes you wonder if the Incan’s method of construction wasn’t just a little too macabre.

Strangely enough, it was this moveable block that was my most vivid memory of watching my cousin play the game. I think it was the holes on it with what looked like dried blood underneath. I imagined some poor soul being chained to thing thing, having to push and pull it all day long, for no readily apparent reason.

The second ‘main’ area of Vilcabamba scares up some sorts of temple, with sombre-looking stone guards guarding the steps. As Tomb Raider buildings go, this one isn’t that impressive to be honest.

This trap inside the temple could only have been creepier if there had been blood on the axes and possibly a dead wolf impaled on one end. Something about sharp objects in Tomb Raider has always terrified and depressed me. I suppose the idea of Lara slowly bleeding to death deep in some tomb isn’t really a pleasant image.

Haha, the surprise switch that doesn’t do what it looks like it will do. It still works to this very day, when I was demonstrating it to my fianc√©, who said “it obviously opens that door” and “that’s the trouble with this game, it’s too easy” (says the man who can’t complete Tomb Raider Legend). Well, I proved him wrong! He was so angry and ashamed that he continued to iron and watch Dragon’s Den.

Another comment made on the Tomb Raider Anniversary commentary is that the animals look cute, and the bears in particular look like teddies. Well then, there is something inherently creepy about a cute teddy bear with a row of razor-sharp teeth that he keeps bearing. This picture illustrates my point.

I took this picture to illustrate the invisible-key animation that all Tomb Raiders up to TR5 included. However, I uploaded it because it looks like Lara is giving herself an spur-of-the-moment breast examination.

And that’s the end of Vilcabamba. Only managed two secrets this time, but never mind. I’m not trying to unlock a secret level or anything.

Thursday, 9 July 2009


Being the first level of the first Tomb Raider game, Caves is, unsurprisingly, the first 'real' level I ever played. Actually, for a while, it was the only level I ever played; unable to cope with the idea of the four wolves waiting for me at the start of level 2 (not to mention the dinosaurs in level 3), I felt safer staying within the familiar territory of the caves.

On to the game. We're in Peru, and after a thrilling FMV wherein Peter Andre is mauled by to death and Lara puts down a pack of wolves in the most kick-arse way possible, the level begins with Lara (and the player) on the wrong side of a pair of ancient automatic doors.

Ooh, the wolftracks. Not so much foreshadowing as...aftershadowing? Either way, this is the starting location of the Caves, and not much to look at unless you're really into rocks and snow. Pressing on, and we come to the first possible way to die; the shooting arrow trap, a staple in Incan burglary alarms. Get on the wrong side of these bad boys and you'll be dead in twenty minutes.


Difficult though they are to make out in this picture, Lara has come face-to-face with her first enemy, the humble bat. These animals are easily to take out and their basic attack (which appears to be sitting on Lara's head and spinning around) does little damage. However, they do like to put in an appearance when we're up on ledges teetering over a 100ft drop.

I include this hole in the ceiling for nostalgia. As a ten-year-old child, I did not quite understand the digital limitations of video games and assumed that everywhere you could see, you could go. I spent a few weeks trying to work out how the hell I would be able to get up there.


This is the Bridges room. Toby Gard (who Eidos always trot out appease like he's the god of Tomb Raider, completing ignoring the fact that there were five other people involved in it's development) said - and I quote the Anniversary commentary - " I was kind of pushing for us to simply just skip this room on the remake because it wasn't particularly significant", which just goes to show how much he knows. Particularly significant? This is the first room the player is introduced the enemy that is actually frightening to encounter (bats aren't frightening, they're irritating). And although you can snipe them off from the bridges, you get the distinct impression you won't always be afforded that luxury.


The bridges room is also home to this guy, a pained-looking skeleton wrapped in gold string. He looks out-of-place next to the snow-streaked stone, but I don't recall him popping in the Egyptian levels later on. I'm going to keep an eye out, though.

The bear is the scariest enemies in the Caves, but thankfully he can't jump that high. Instead, he prowls around below, running for cover every time you take a pop at him. I always found it quite creepy when the bear rears up onto his back legs, it reminds me of the one in Back To The Future III.

This rather intricate texture awaits those who find the level's third and final secret. Back in the day when I was such a bad gamer I couldn't even get myself through the Caves, I used to spend ages in this room trying to work out how it could be opened. Ha.

Here is the lever switch that I finally stumbled upon after months in first-level limbo (when I was ten, not in this play-through). I don't think I even saw it, I was just running along the wall pressing "action" until Lara finally latched on to something. Maybe I couldn't see it through all the greenery(!).

Ah, collapsible floors. Why did the ancient Peruvians always build poor flooring above spike-pits? Thankfully, there are no spike pits in this level, just a quick drop down to the next room.

Finished! Yes, I appreciate how rubbish my time is, but I just about managed to get all three secrets.

Lara's Voice: Shelley Blond

[UPDATE, 14/9/12 – Reader Lula wrote to me with this correction for the following post:

“Just wanted you to know you said in one of your blogs (2009) that Shelley Blond only did the voice for the first Tomb Raider game, and that the sound bites (grunting, groaning, dying, jumping etc.) was done by a member of staff.  To correct you, if I may...she did do all the sound bites too.  My uncle was one of the session engineers for the original game and he confirmed that he worked on the 5 hour session and they used her voice for it all.  Even took her sound bites with her permission and used them on games 2 and 3 as well.  But just sound bites, no dialogue…they asked Shelley for the next games too, but she couldn't do them…”]

Shelley Blond was the first woman to voice Lara Croft. She only stuck around for one game, and according to one of my books (or the internet, I can't remember), Shelley only provided the dialogue; Lara's various grunts and groans and death sounds were voiced by a member of staff.

Short though her stint as Lara was, Shelley was the first and as such created a standard for Lara Croft voice actresses which...well, no, actually, no real rules have ever been set for Lara's voice with the exception of "sound a bit posh". And Shelley doesn't even manage that very well, leaning more towards middle-class suburbian than daughter-of-a-lord, and definately less what-ho-jolly-hockysticks compared to later incarnations (Keeley Hawes, I'm looking at you).

I sound quite harsh here actually, and I don't mean to be. Shelley Blond is my second-favourite Lara, out of the four women that have voiced her (five if you count Angelina Jolie's movie interpretation, which I don't). She's warm and likeable, although at the same time you get the impression that she wouldn't hesitate to pop a bullet through your head if you gave her any lip.

Somebody on the tombraiderchronicles.com forums once said that Lara appears a complete sociopath in this game, killing whatever got in her way in cold-blood and appearing entirely uneffected when people around her died. But I think this is just because the gameplay in Tomb Raider contrasts so harshly with the character in the cutscenes; the one that seems sincerely sorry that you may be inconvinienced by the crates in her hall. Couple them together and you could be forgiven for thinking that Lara's got a personality disorder.

Those who would like to see what the original Lara looks like will have to find the first episode in the third series of Peep Show, which Shelley appears in.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Lara's Home


"Welcome to my home. I'll take you on a guided tour."
Ah, Lara's home. This spacious mansion represents my first experience with Tomb Raider, and with video games in general. While the FMVs played and the ring menu loaded, my first thoughts weren't about the graphics or the sound quality as they might be now; no, my innocent ten-year-old brain was simply impressed that you could go running around her house. I didn't realise this feature was fairly exclusive to Tomb Raider, I thought you could pay all major video game characters a home visit.
So, Lara's Home. According to Lara's biography (and I mean the original one, not the Crystal Dynamics bastardization), Lara resides in a large, Tudor-style mansion located in Surrey which was left to her by an eccentric, corgi-loving aunt. Lara invites you on a "guided tour", by which she means that she will talk your through her usual exercise regime, which involves jumping on crash mats and vaulting over crates.


We start the "tour" in Lara's hideously-carpeted Library, where Lara is gazing out of the window. Nothing much to do in here except marvel at the 3D furniture and make your way down into the Music Room, a large room containing a harp, a piano and a crash mat (one of the harder instruments to learn).

TR1 01 CrashMat


Later instalments in the Tomb Raider series have this room kitted out with a TV and a swish-looking sofa, but back in 1996, Lara made her own entertainment, and invites you to join her as she bounces around on the giant blue cushion.


After leaping about the room for a bit, you can make your way into the main hall. "Sorry about the mess," Lara says. "I'm having some things put into storage and the delivery men haven't been yet. So I've decided to leave the crates scattered haphazardly across the floor to make my journey into the kitchen ten minutes longer and just that little bit more entertaining."
Apparently they had enough carpet left over from furnishing the library to infect the hall with it's eye-scrambling glory. There was even enough to make a rug!


This is Lara's gym. Sales of her travel memoirs must be slow, as Lara is obviously not drawing in enough money to be able to afford gym equipment that advances beyond 'crates with numbers on'. We are talked through the basic climbing techniques; running, jumping, grabbing, and, of course, running-jumping-grabbing.


After completing a circuit around the gym, you can take a dip in Lara's indoor pool, which is overlooked by what looks like a statue of Queen Victoria. I forgot to take a closer look at the statue, so I'm just going to assume that's what it is.

Leaving the pool will prompt Lara to declare "I'd better take off these wet clothes!" Those who get off on blurry skin-coloured pixels will be disappointed to learn that Lara doesn't follow through with this threat. Instead, the game fades to black and we're kicked back to the main menu to start the real adventure.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

"What's a man gotta do to get that kind of attention from you?"

I have decided to play the Tomb Raider games in order and this blog will document my journey through them.