In Now Playing PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time. Today Tom tortures poor Winston, again.
I wonder what the elevator pitch was for Tomb Raider circa 1996. “Indiana Jones with guns and a T-Rex”, perhaps. Lara Croft travels all over the world quipping in the Queen's english, unraveling ancient mysteries and killing enough wildlife to incur the wrath of real-world animal rights organisations. She has the extraordinary ability to flip 12 feet into the air sideways and, like Indie, remains relaxed in the face ancient magic that melts people.
There would be little more to discover about Lara Croft in the early games if it wasn't for a humble tutorial mission set in her country mansion. We're supposed to believe that Indiana Jones spends his spare hours living a bookish existence lecturing Archaeology students in Connecticut. Lara Croft prefers to return to her heavily customised (and definitely haunted) mansion to train and entertain. The textures and geometry are primitive, but Lara's mansion is an early example of environmental storytelling that puts distance between Tomb Raider and its closest influences.
I immediately loved the mansion, because to an 11 year old the idea of having an assault course in your lounge is brilliant. Returning now, I appreciate Croft manor even more. The assault course has a practical use—teaching you the jumps and shimmies you need to survive booby-trapped tombs on expedition—but it also shows how dedicated Lara is to her chosen profession. Once you've explored this multi-storey expression of independent wealth you know that she's not raiding tombs for upkeep; she's in it for the excitement and prestige. In later games she even puts a few of these priceless artifacts on display in glass cases for visitors to admire.
The mansion seems quiet when you're exploring, but there are plenty of hints that point to Lara's life as a socialite and a thrill-seeker. She has an entertainment room with a grand piano, a harp, and a large carpeted space that could serve as a ballroom at a pinch. In Tomb Raider 2 Lara hides a switch inside a topiary maze. This opens up a secret passageway to a basement full of treasure she's stolen from dead people. In Tomb Raider 3 the maze becomes a gateway to a quad bike course. The mansion goes far beyond the detail needed to simply teach players the game. It's a playground that reflects Lara's personality in a series that, back then, devoted little time for dialogue, cut scenes and other character-building devices.
Croft Manor changes across the first three games. In Tomb Raider 2 the boxes that form some small jumping puzzles in TR1 can be found in the attic, and the assault course has been moved outside. Lara is attended by Winston the flatulent butler, truly a hero among butlers. He follows Lara everywhere. In the depths of the topiary maze you might hear his gurgling bowels from the other side of a hedge as he finds his way to your side. His slow pathfinding can famously be exploited to lock him in Lara's meat freezer. In Tomb Raider 3's mansion Winston comes prepared for more bullying, dressed in full survival combat gear. Winston's development was part of the ongoing dialogue between developers and fans in the first three games. In search of new secrets, players would always find new ways to break the latest iteration of Croft Manor, using glitches to reach rooftops, balconies, and the top of the outer walls.
The Tomb Raider games moved away from Croft Manor. It became Abbingdon Manor and was burned down in Tomb Raider: Underworld. The 2013 reboot opts for a desperate, survivalist tone and sets the game in a continuous environment far away from the British countryside—perhaps in rebellion against the stupidest excesses of Tomb Raider canon, which featured evil clones of Lara and other nonsense. There's no room for Croft Manor in Lara's new world, and there's no point in the series returning purely for nostalgia's sake. Still, I think it's worth taking a moment to celebrate the enduring memories I'm sure many of us have, of keenly searching for secrets in Lara's big old house. I'll find that ghost one day.