The internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?
I was excited to try the original Tomb Raider again for this feature, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. Like plenty of clichés about growing older, I realized it’s true: You can’t ever really recapture something experienced in the joy of youth. Not that I hold Tomb Raider up as a cherished memory and formative experience—rather, my sister and I laugh over our youthful, morbid practice of drowning Lara Croft, again and again.
Yes, my overriding memory of Tomb Raider is making Lara Croft die, repeatedly, in lots of different ways but mostly by drowning. I turned to this pursuit, because the game itself was too advanced for me at the time. I’d send Lara down a familiar hallway, past an entrance I could’ve sworn I’d passed before, and realize I was lost again. To this day, my internal compass is only reliable in consistently letting me down. Before a smartphone with a maps app entered my life, I spent years repeating what happened in those tombs I was supposed to be raiding: getting hopelessly lost.
When this happened in Tomb Raider, I’d turn the game into something else. How, within the confines of the current space I’m stuck in, can I best kill off Lara? This simple exercise resulted in hours of entertainment. My sister/Lara-killing collaborator and I would find the best peaks to jump off, booby traps to trigger, and any nearby bodies of water where we could drown her. Drowning Lara is the strongest memory I have of playing Tomb Raider as a child, and playing again as an adult, it’s not hard to see why. When thrown to her death or impaled with spikes, Lara simply groans and melts to the floor, dead. When she drowns, though, her body wriggles and shudders for several long seconds before she goes. It’s far more fun to force her underwater and trap her than it is to send her off a cliff.
That was true for me as a 7-year-old, anyway. (No, I never tortured small animals.) Some 20 years later, killing Lara isn’t as fun as I remember it. I entered Tomb Raider excited to relive the thrill I got out of it as a child, but that pleasure is gone. These murderous diversions are still entertaining, but it puts a cramp in my overriding objective as an adult playing the game, which is to win. Circling around the same few rooms, looking for my next torture method, is now a waste of time. Drowning Lara sets me back to the beginning of the level, where I have to start over. I resent the delay in reaching the end and the Skinner box rush of endorphins as I close out a chapter and begin again with fresh subterranean secrets to uncover.
Simply put, I don’t have the patience for drowning anymore. As a child I had the leisure time to craft death scenes of almost cinematic proportions, but since I’d become an adult, I’d learned that time is only worth spending if it’s in the pursuit of gains, mostly monetary. In video game terms, that means the accumulation of coins or weapons or skills—whatever the reward for your labor is. With so many modern games’ preoccupation with amassing skills and swag, it’s easy to make a parallel between in-game capitalism and real-world capitalism. In the simpler video game days of 1996, Lara Croft is not yet collecting money or more effective gear (though she will in later iterations). Rather, the point of Lara’s labor is the straightforward progress through the game.
That was lost on me as a kid, but as a 27-year-old, I have fully internalized what Max Weber called the spirit of capitalism: that through hard work and progress I can win. But no one is born believing that a good work ethic is the key to happiness, and 20 years ago I was able to find the joy in getting “stuck”—itself a telling word that signals you should be moving, not pausing to enjoy other, unintended delights a video game provides. In ignoring the goal of Tomb Raider, I enjoyed it in a subversive, “stop and smell the roses” way, where roses were replaced with the practice of creatively killing Lara. Under the game’s “true” objective, and under the ethic of progress for progress’ sake, it was all pointless.
I’m fairly confident that, when my sister and I cheered and high-fived each other every time Lara met her watery end, we weren’t really thinking of the act as a bad or morbid one. If we couldn’t beat the level and get out of our loop, it makes sense that we’d kill Lara to feel like we accomplished something within the game. At least death resets the level, providing an opportunity for a fresh play-through, even if it’ll inevitably end in more drownings.
If I didn’t have this memory of the joy my sister and I felt from drowning Lara, I’d likely enjoy revisiting Tomb Raider a lot more. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the single-minded pursuit of progress through a game. Figuring out how to get from point A to point B is kind of the whole point, and my play-throughs today last a lot longer than they did when I was a child constantly getting stuck. Once, in a level I had never reached as a kid, I traveled to the top of a cliff to throw Lara off it, but instead, I discovered a secret alcove where loot was stashed. I went off the beaten path, deliberately avoiding direct progress, and the game rewarded me for it. It felt like the best end that could’ve come from my adult desire to recreate the silly triumph I’d revel in as a child. I’ll never squeeze the same enjoyment out of killing Lara that I did as a kid, because I’m not a kid anymore. Now I can go off the path to do something else. It’s not quite the same, but it’ll do.