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Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s ‘Immersion Mode’ is a big missed opportunity

The characters speak different languages, but they’re rarely given opportunities to say something

Shadow of the Tomb Raider - Jonah and Lara at Dia de los Muertos celebration Eidos Montreal, Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes numerous attempts to improve upon the series’ nastier habits. We’ll dig into the story’s misguided conclusion once the game is broadly available, but in the meantime, let’s talk about the game’s Immersion Mode. I think it helps to know how it works (or really, doesn’t work) before you play.

Looking back at interviews from the game’s press cycle, it seems the creators may have misunderstood their own mode from the beginning. Here’s how Crystal Dynamics brand director Rich Briggs described the feature to GameSpot at E3: “You will hear Spanish when you go into certain hubs. You will hear everyone talking to you in Yucatan Maya when you go into the hidden city. So the idea is that the player can not actually know what’s going on and not know what people are saying, if they want that level of immersion.”

But that’s not what we got with the final version. With Immersion Mode turned on, background characters speak in their native language. The trouble, as we mentioned in our review, is that in this game Lara only speaks English. And somehow, every character understands Lara and Lara understands every language. It leads to bizarre scenes in which Lara, masquerading as a local, gives a password to a tomb’s guard — in English. And none of the guards find this unusual. They let her through!

There are a number of obvious ways in which developer Eidos Montreal could’ve implemented the mode better. Learning languages has always been a part of the modern Tomb Raider trilogy, so conversations could have been prevented until Lara learned the local dialect, similar to languages and conversations in No Man’s Sky. Or, as Dia Lacina explained in Waypoint’s review, “That this game would feature an ‘immersive language’ option where Spanish, Quechua, and Yucatec would be spoken by NPCs, and Lara Croft would finally have to wrestle with her actions—it gave me hope. Not much, but a glimmer.”

While Shadow of the Tomb Raider recognizes that different cultures speak different languages, the Immersion Mode doesn’t dig deeper than that. The dialogue never grapples with the fact that these people have very different ideas, beliefs and needs. They’re just NPCs planted to give Croft a message, now in a different language.

The mode should do the opposite of what Briggs describes. It should make it easier to understand people, to learn from them. After all, what’s to be gained from players intentionally not understanding the cultures Lara Croft is rampaging through with pickax and shotgun? Practically nothing. The point of this mode can be experienced in a single statement: If people speak a language you don’t understand, then you don’t understand them. Even this would work if Lara also couldn’t understand these people — if it played to her ego and entitlement, her stubborn and wrong assumption that she doesn’t need to know a people in order to save them.

Instead, Immersion Mode, despite its potential, often hobbles the experience, making it complex where it needn’t be, and superficial where it should be deeper.