A Philosophical Reflection on Rise of the Tomb Raider

“As children we question the world around us, we learn, we accept and gradually we lose our capacity to wonder. But some do not. The explorers, the seekers of truth. It is these pioneers who define the future of mankind.”

There are many reasons why I enjoyed Rise of The Tomb Raider so much. One of them is the deep level of familiarity and relatability I came to feel for Lara Croft. It’s not just the eye for detail in her lines and the vivid voice acting; Lara is not just delivering the script to push the plot forwards, she chuckles and grins or her voice climbs an octave when she gets adorably giddy over some historic fact or discovery. And let’s not forget the superb facial animations that really make her come to life.

But what’s even a bigger deal, in the grander scale, is the reason why she is tomb raiding. And why she fights so relentlessly against her adversaries. Through the years this aspect of Lara Croft changed, but it finally starts to take shape into something I can really, truly appreciate. Let’s take a look.

In the original Core Design series, Lady Lara Croft did it merely for sport. In hindsight she was quite a sociopathic thief when you think about it. Ancient artefacts didn’t belong in a museum, according to our heroine, but locked away in her mansion as private collection. Endangered animals were slain, historic sites destroyed and guards and mercenaries gunned down to facilitate her privileged hobby.     

Now I know that some people liked her that way. But I think it’s also a product of its time. Not only a time of more superficial storytelling in games, but also a time of technical limitations that didn’t allow for very fleshed out dialogues and detailed cutscenes.

This changed towards the end of the Core Design era and the first couple of games from new studio Crystal Dynamics. Both tried to implement a more personal story and a deeper reason for Lara to do what she does. Whilst Core Design never got a chance to let their ideas fully materialise, Crystal Dynamics started off in the wrong way with Tomb Raider Legend and an overly sappy story of Lara’s parents and her quest to find them as sole reason for her tomb raiding exploits.

The 2013 reboot did a better job. For a long time games struggled to give a proper, plausible answer to the question “Why do the protagonists do the things they do?” Tomb Raider 2013 didn’t give the be all end all in the matter, but at least made a serious attempt. We see a young, inexperienced Lara who kills to survive and to save her friends. A Lara who is involuntarily put in a situation and is conveyed to react in a way that’s more relatable to the audience.

Also in this year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider we continue to see a more human Lara Croft with doubts and vulnerabilities, someone who is not always in full control and doesn’t do whatever she wants without moral ambiguity.  The situation is slightly different however, in a way that she is now seeking danger by her own accord and is willing to fight to get what she wants. Crystal Dynamics carefully crafts a narrative around it however to avoid Lara’s old reputation of pampered snob with dangerous hobbies. Part of this is her complicated private situation with deceased parents, legal troubles surrounding her inheritance and a set of friends that all have their own complex problems. The other part is pitching her against an enemy evil enough to automatically sympathise with her.

“What are you reading?”

“An article.”

“No shit. What’s it about?”

“It’s about why we are fighting this war.”

“Why are we fighting this war, Janovec?”

“Apparently the Germans are bad.”

“Hey guys, Janovec here is reading an article saying the Germans are bad..! One learns something every day, right?”

This dialogue is from the ninth episode of the legendary miniseries Band of Brothers, about a company from the 101st Airborne Division and their campaign in occupied Europe during the Second World War. 

The episode is appropriately named “Why We Fight” and details the discovery of a German concentration camp in Landsberg. The aforementioned dialogue takes place before the Americans find the (at that point largely unknown) atrocities of the holocaust. The episode wants to remind the viewer that the Second World War was different from many imperialistic conflicts that had and would be fought out before and after the events of the 1940s. One can argue if that was really the case. But it suits the narrative of Band of Brothers: this was something else than “Here’s a gun, now shoot those guys over there because we tell you so” – this was about fighting evil.

Of course the events of Band of Brothers are based on history so we don’t get to pick the motivation of our protagonists. But it’s not a coincidence that the Second World War is a popular choice of historic fiction; it makes for a good clear divide of good and bad and makes it easier to sympathise with the main characters and justify the violence. This fluently translates into non-historical fiction like video games where the antagonists are often Nazi-like autocrats or monstrous savages. Everything not to make us feel conflicted about murdering them.

Rise of the Tomb Raider takes a fairly similar approach by portraying the enemy (the Order of Trinity) as barbaric murderers without any compassion or morale. They kill and terrorize innocent people, take pleasure in murdering and don’t hesitate to stab each other in the back. At first glance it seems a cynical device to make us forgive Lara for the violence she uses, by making her enemies even worse. But as the story progresses, and especially in the very end, we see an interesting turn in her approach. And that brings us back to the question “Why do the protagonists do the things they do?”

At the start of the game Lara wanted to clear her father’s name, prove the world that he was right, and subconsciously also make amends for her troubled relationship with him, by completing his life’s work. But at the end of the game she realises: “I am my own person. I’m not doing this for dad, I’m doing this because I want.”  It’s more than just a hero’s journey, or a coming of age story, it’s a realisation of what a person wants to be.

“As children we question the world around us, we learn, we accept and gradually we lose our capacity to wonder. But some do not. The explorers, the seekers of truth. It is these pioneers who define the future of mankind.”

Philosophers like Rudolf Steiner, Edwin Goodenough and author Jenny Downham explored the concept of change a person goes through every seven years.  What I think we are witnessing is a change in Lara Croft’s outlook on life. The bookish, self conscious teenager Lara that carried the burden of her father’s legacy, is changing in the can-do and determined young adult that wants to do something for the betterment of the world. Because that’s what Lara realises in the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider; she doesn’t want do right by her father, proof her self worth or do cool and dangerous things just for the sake of it. No, Lara wants to continue what she’s doing as an act of justice and vigilance. To stop Trinity and protect those that are being threatened by them.

So can we expect Lara Croft to become some sort of freedom fighter now? A volunteer combatant travelling the world and help the oppressed? It won’t probably go that far, but it surely pitches a different set of motivations for her other than just selfish needs. And that’s something oddly unfamiliar in videogame storytelling. Noble heroes and selfless vigilantes were long considered outdated; too correct to be cool. We had to sit through a long strain of anti-heroes, chaotic good rogue types and reluctant saviours. But perhaps we can allow protagonists to be good again. Not good to a smug and self-righteous degree, but a pragmatic and honest woman who will do what’s right and will go after you if you wrong her.

“The path of the righteous woman is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil being. Blessed is she, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for she is truly her brothers’ keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is Lara Croft when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

 

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