Rebooting Empire: Unpacking the Baggage of “Tomb Raider”

During the first gameplay trailer for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest installment in the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise, the swashbuckling exploration and globe-trekking the series has been synonymous with is left on the shelf in favor of a darker, more mature tone. In the trailer, various characters place a lot of blame on Lara Croft, our archaeological protagonist, for unleashing a ‘cleansing’ in Central America when she takes a Mayan artifact from its resting place to protect it from more nefarious looters. When I initially saw this trailer, I was somewhat impressed this was the narrative they were going to adopt, one where the inherently imperialistic goals of a “tomb raider” are questioned and criticized, a narrative that would hopefully complicate Lara’s profession and provide some personal growth to the character. Unfortunately, based on some newer marketing materials, some of the core criticisms of the Tomb Raider character can still be made, leading me to be wary of the team’s ability to tell the story they presented in their initial pitch. Given the release of this new game in a couple of weeks, and the fact that the Tomb Raider reboot turns five years old, I decided to revisit 2013’s Tomb Raider (via the Playstation 4’s Definitive Edition re-release) in order to analyze how the rebooted series contends with the imperialist baggage of the original games.

The initial run of the Tomb Raider games essentially mirrored the boilerplate adventure fantasy of series like Indiana Jones or Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels, but filtered through the lens of discerning male tastes by giving Lara Croft buxom and exaggerated body proportions. Much like its lineage in the pulp adventure thriller, there wasn’t much critical engagement in the imperialist nature of Lara’s missions as she fought against wild animals, ancient indigenous civilizations, and supernatural foes in order to collect treasure. Generally, the games had a fantastical supernatural bent to them, for example, exploring Atlantis or tracking down alien alloys, but one of the main appeals of the game was seeing which exotic locations Lara would navigate to fully unravel the mysteries of the world. Globetrotting makes for entertaining media, but it serves a purpose for normalizing imperialist projects by depicting the rest of the world as playground for Western adventurers. Further, Lara’s chosen profession of archaeologist carries a similar baggage. In her excellent analysis of the Tomb Raider games, Dr. Kristin M.S. Bezio outlines how traditional archaeology serves an imperialist framework, stating “the work of archaeology is thus to take the unknown, mythic, or mysterious and delineate it, defining and bounding it into certainty” through a Western lens that is unable to fully examine the artifacts in their whole cultural context. The Western archaeologist thus becomes the authority on artifacts and practices without necessarily consulting the actual cultural record, instead relying on the work of other non-native archaeologists to situate the artifact in the separate academic context. Granted, the original Tomb Raider games were never archaeology simulators and Lara’s profession was a slim pretext to explain why she is shooting dinosaurs or navigating caves, but the trope of adventuring academic as conqueror is a persistent one that appears in the series again and again.

In 2013’s Tomb Raider, the rebooted Lara Croft has received a much more tasteful makeover compared to her earlier appearances. In this origin story, Lara is not a pin-up girl globetrotter, but a fresh off the campus archaeologist, sidestepping the original sex object conception of the character. Instead of a protagonist filtered through stylish espionage and swashbuckling, this iteration of Lara is posited as the survivalist response to Uncharted’s Nathan Drake; a woman thrown into a horrorshow, having to develop killer survival instincts to stay alive, and getting caked in dirt and blood while she does it. Further, Lara isn’t the solitary adventurer in this game, as she cultivates and develops several relationships with her stranded crewmates over the course of the plot, a definite contrast to the disposable side characters in the original games. Ultimately, Lara is updated in a way that is more palatable to the expanded base of gamers, revising her legacy as an object of male fantasies in order to turn her into a more ‘serious’ and grounded character.

The framing and setting of the game has also received a somewhat contemporary update. In the game begins with Lara as a crew member on an archaeological expedition to the mythical island of Yamatai, off the coast of Japan. Upon encountering rough seas in the Dragon’s Triangle, the expedition is shipwrecked on Yamatai, finding themselves trapped with the Solarii Brotherhood, a death cult of stranded men obsessed with the legend of Himiko, the mythical ruler of the island. Making the ambiguously Western men of the Solarii Brotherhood the main antagonists of the game reframes the central conflict not as one of outside conqueror versus the indigenous inhabitants, but instead pits survivor against the paramilitary regime that does not fully understand the supernatural dangers of the island. This shift in conflict makes the main action of the game less overtly imperialistic, but Rezio argues that the component pieces of a colonial conquest are still there, noting, “Lara still must conquer both ‘primitives’ (Solarii) and wild island (Himiko [as an extension of] Yamatai) in order to return to civilization.”

The underlying imperialism is additionally reinforced through the non-combat gameplay mechanics. Throughout the game, Lara can collect relics of Yamatai in exchange for experience points to level up Lara’s survival abilities. Interestingly, Rezio points out that these relics present an archaeological history of the island that features

“evidence of colonial visitors, including twelfth century Japan, thirteenth and fourteenth century China, Edo Japan, early modern Portugal, nineteenth century Europe and Asia, and twentieth century soldiers and civilians from Japan, Germany, England and the United States,”

giving the impression that Yamatai is a kingdom completely resistant to colonial occupation due to some mystical property. It presents Lara and the player with an interesting intellectual puzzle as these relics from across space and time pile up in your lore screen. However, the intellectual pursuit is gamified with the collection of the relics, giving players a currency in exchange for finding these treasures and listing every unfound relic in a convenient checklist for completionists. This gamification of archaeology creates the scenario where Lara is the only character who is able to see the full picture of the island’s history through her intellect, thus ‘conquering’ the myth and thus, the island of Yamatai. Another notable element of the gameplay comes from the optional tombs peppered through the island. These optional tombs are the only traditional tombs that Lara explores throughout the game, acting as non-combat platforming puzzle detours in between main story beats and gunfights. The tombs are arguably the best-looking portions of the game, rendering dreary ruins and illustrious Buddhist statues with remarkable fidelity. However, the mechanics of the optional tombs discard the pretext of intellectual discovery as the primary motivator for exploration, as every tomb ends with Lara opening a large chest of gold artifacts and players are rewarded “TOMB RAIDED!” pop-up, alongside experience points and currency. Considering how much the game attempts to obfuscate its imperialist foundations, I found this mechanic to be comically jarring, eliciting manic laughter the first few times the UI shouted “TOMB RAIDED!” at me.

As the plot progresses, the true nature of island comes into focus, as Lara discovers that Himiko’s trapped spirit is responsible for the supernatural ruin on the island. When she finds out the Solarii seek to sacrifice her friend to the vengeful spirit, Lara and the remaining crew members repair a boat and make a journey into the center of the island that is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, complete with an off-screen arrow attack. Lara fights her way to Himiko, destroying her remains before the possession ritual is complete. With Himiko’s spirit effectively exorcised from the island, the seas calm and the weather settles, magically transforming the island from a place of strife and hardship to a serene paradise, all while sealing Himiko’s destructive power away for good. In the end, the player is given the opportunity to explore the island free of obstacles and collect any relics they may have missed, turning the island into a playground for players after its mysteries have finally been conquered and tamed. Ultimately, this ending reaffirms the colonial aims of previous Tomb Raider games instead of subverting them, making sure that all the mysteries are solved and the uncharted lands are either buried away or documented for all to see. Sure, there may not be any indigenous residents who are under subjugation in the end, but Yamatai and its mystical residents cease to be a “wild island” that exists only in myth because of Lara’s adventure, despite her best intellectual intentions.

While this new Tomb Raider reboot certainly makes strides in making the series more palatable by shedding its chauvinist roots, the game doesn’t make meaningful attempts to wrestle with its imperial past, which feels like a detriment to this revisioning of the series. In the video game landscape, there certainly is space for a more critical look at the globetrotting adventure narratives like those that are reproduced in games like Sony’s Uncharted series. Unfortunately, Tomb Raider is not the game to do this, despite managing to deliver on the engaging gameplay that Uncharted cannot provide. It’s definitely a disappointment, especially considering how Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to pay more explicit lip service to criticism of the series, without seemingly adjusting gameplay, storytelling, or marketing in a meaningful way. I still enjoyed Tomb Raider quite a bit, but I am mainly left with thoughts of what could’ve been produced with a more critical perspective of the series’ legacy.

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