Shadow of the Tomb Raider was never designed to be a co-op. But over the last few days, my fiancee and I have gone back to an old habit of ours that’s making lockdown all the more bearable: turning singleplayer adventures into shared, pass-the-controller co-op experiences.
We’ve both grown up with games and have plenty of franchises we love: I grew up with games like Red Alert, Civilization and Counter-Strike, while my fiancée had a SEGA and fell in love with the original Tomb Raider. As times have gone on, it’s a lot more Fallout, Slay the Spire, Stardew Valley, sometimes some shared Overwatch — you get the picture.
But earlier in our relationship, especially when we’d first moved in together, sometimes we’d want to share something together on the couch. It wasn’t couch co-op or local multiplayer games that we loved most though: it was playing through a singleplayer story as a couple.
We’re not the first to do this, obviously. A large part of Until Dawn’s success, and the direction of many narrative adventures ever since, has been the realisation that people enjoy good stories together. It seems obvious, when written down — after all, watching something at the movies is basically the same principle minus the interactive element.
Games took much longer to come to that realisation. Even after streaming was well and truly established, many singleplayer games never really adapted to take advantage of that shared experience. And I can understand why: something like The Last of Us 2 is built as pure escapism. It loses some of its power the more people become involved. Some sections of the game I wouldn’t want other people to view anyway; I still don’t know why that zebra scene was in the game, and I sure as hell wouldn’t ask other people to experience it.
But many singleplayer adventures have stories that are immeasurably improved with company. The Uncharted series is effectively an interactive love letter to the Indiana Jones series. Uncharted 2 and 3, for comparison, has over 3 hours of cut scenes. Uncharted 4 has more than 6. That’s tantamount to watching a TV series. Plus, playing Uncharted as a couple has the added benefit of temporarily making us forget about Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, an egregious crime for a family that grew up loving history, libraries and Junior.
How we organise our playthroughs depends on the game in question. For the Uncharted series, it made sense to split it up by chapters. Uncharted 4 has 24 in total (epilogue and prologue included), and there’s more swapping available if you break the action up between various cutscenes, mini-boss fights, boss fights or set pieces.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where there’s missions and various challenge tombs, the controller goes back and forth more often. Sometimes it’ll be after Lara repeatedly falls, with our joint powers having struggled to see the next bit of “jump here” white paint splashed on a rock somewhere. Sometimes it’ll just be to divide a challenge tomb up: I take the first half, my fiancée works through the second part, maybe while I get drinks for us both.
Video games have the natural benefit of being longer than a lot of TV series, and in Shadow‘s case, it also harks back to a classic bit of nostalgia. Lara Croft was an exceptionally powerful icon in the mid ’90s, not just as a role icon but also within video games. Tomb Raider was a huge technical accomplishment in its day with its enormous 3D environments, a killer orchestral soundtrack and plenty of fantastic setpieces, the T-Rex chief among them.
And since my fiancée and I had spoken about playing through the modern Tomb Raider games together, it made sense to revisit Shadow of the Tomb Raider in lockdown. We’d hoped to play Rise of the Tomb Raider, but Shadow was all I had access to on the PS5. It’s not a terminal crime to play Shadow first. While we’re enjoying the story, what’s really making the experience is the way both of us can drop in and drop out of gameplay. We make decisions together on what skills to get, which challenge tombs to explore first. I’d probably transform Lara into more of a combat specialist; my fiancée favours scavenging, allowing for faster weapon and inventory upgrades.
It’s a good combination, and more over, it’s a great distraction. The little things, like Lara wandering off so Jonah can flirt with one of the tribal villagers, are funnier with friends. And the destruction of Lara’s mythos is definitely better shared. Shadow of the Tomb Raider focuses heavily on Lara coming to terms with the practical implications of her tomb raiding, like the small tribes suffering collateral damage from her decisions. Lara has grown up, and there’s a particular joy in indulging nostalgia while exploring the beloved heroine’s newfound complexity together.
We’ll continue working our way through as the Sydney lockdown continues. We’re both gamers, and the joint pass-the-controller experience gives more joy than sitting through another algorithm-suggested TV series where we’re checking our phones. The only question is: what happens when Shadow of the Tomb Raider is finished? My partner is a big Twin Peaks fan, so maybe it’s a good time to revisit Control.