Note on spoilers: This article references the ending of 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Specific references to Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s ending appear towards the end of this piece, at which point we include a clear spoiler warning.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has many qualities and many faults, but its biggest problem is an absence of Lara Croft. The game stars a protagonist called Lara Croft, but she’s not really there. She’s been replaced by a shell, with a messy amalgam of impulses and short-term desires.
The game’s reviews arrived on Monday, loaded with significant criticism aimed at the story as a whole. Critics rightly point out that the tale loses itself in a maze of its own making, seeking to address the series’ reliance on offensive notions of Western cultural superiority, while nakedly exploiting the very same ideas.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is much the same experience as we’ve played in the previous two series’ outings, released in 2013 and 2015. I explore, climb, swim, fight, dialog, upgrade and repeat. There’s a slightly heavier emphasis on stealth, thus the reference to a “shadow” in the title. As in previous games, it offers pleasing vistas and exciting set-pieces that augment a fast-paced series of missions.
I’d hoped that in this third game in the modern trilogy I might finally see her perplexing personality sharpen in focus. This was the explicit promise made by narrative director Jason Dozois, earlier this year.
He described the game as “Lara’s defining moment, the moment when she becomes the Tomb Raider. It’s the culmination of her journey over the series, and shows how the events of the past adventures have affected her.”
Unfortunately, this game fails to locate Lara Croft, let alone define her. It begins by suggesting a complex, vulnerable, possibly deluded person. But then she enters a muddle of action-adventure silliness and the story loses sight of her character. By the end, she’s more elusive than ever, both literally and figuratively hiding in the shadows.
I want to dig deeper into the story, focusing on protagonist Lara Croft as a character and as a human being.
Lara Croft: The Basic Entity
Every entry in the modern trilogy drives home Lara’s role as the chosen one who will save the world.
The trends starts modestly. In 2013’s franchise reboot Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is a young woman, who finds herself struggling to cope with the demands of meeting her ambitions to be an adventurer-archaeologist. Her survival story — shipwrecked on a dangerous island — allows her to grow into her role, giving her a journey to complete.
The story also alludes to her sense of entitlement, without rigorously exploring this potentially interesting aspect of her character in full. Croft’s ambition and recklessness is the direct cause of multiple deaths, but when she completes her mission, the dead are quickly forgotten. She is eager to be off again, unearthing new secrets, no matter what the cost.
Tomb Raider’s stories are about Croft’s search for some ancient mystery or artifact. She faces enormous peril to gain the prize which is often linked to a godlike power with potential to unleash great harm. Croft’s murderous mayhem is either explicitly or implicitly justified by the presence of some evil organization which is also in pursuit (or in possession) of the sacred thing, and with dastardly plans to use it to bring great harm to the world.
In the first game, the artifact was linked to a power to control the weather. In the second game, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015), Croft travels to Siberia to cheat evil organization Trinity out of gaining power over immortality. Her arc this time begins by dealing with post-traumatic stress from her previous game, and then with familial betrayal and the proof that Trinity murdered her father.
With each adventure, it’s questionable how much her skills as an archaeologist improve, but she definitely becomes a better killer.
Her enemies are either paid mercenaries, murderous cult-fanatics or people who have pledged their lives to protect the thing they are protecting. There are times when they are revealed as human beings, and not merely goons, but these snippets of humanity are largely relegated to documents scattered about or brief conversations between guards who don’t know they’re about to be murdered by the woman eavesdropping on them from a tree.
Croft’s motivations are generally assumed to be noble, because they deny power to evil. But it’s clear from dialog sections, plot devices and flashbacks that she is also driven by personal ambition, and a desire to be as great an archaeologist as her dead father. If I squint, I can convince myself that she is a reluctant hero. She set out to improve the world by following her father’s path, but her journey demanded she become a warrior whose skills are designed to best the most dangerous people in the world. She is, after all, fighting against people who want to mess around with an apocalyptic power.
I’m not saying her violence is justifiable, only that the provided fiction gives her just about enough cover to kill people and still remain a hero. This is normal in superheroes, who almost always exert violence.
So, Lara Croft is a reckless adventurer who is skilled, smart and ambitious. She has a messiah complex and is driven by a sense that only she is able to save the world, a view which is fortified every time she completes some improbably difficult quest.
She believes herself to be a human being, but to all intents and purposes, she is a superhuman who wields as much power as her enemies, plus that little bit more, supplied by the skill and perseverance of the player.
Lara Croft’s personality
Given that she’s a person whose main function is to find lost or hidden things, it’s understandable that her creators made her an orphan. Her quests are framed by personal loss, mainly her father’s but in this third game, also her mother’s and her lost innocence in general.
In the first game, she comes to accept that her father - who she believed killed himself because he was disgraced as a fraud - had been right all along about ancient powers residing in secret tombs. “I need to find answers,” she says at the end of the game, apparently untroubled by the price paid by the lives of, for example, a rescue pilot who’d been called in to save her. Worryingly, she muses that the line between reality and myth is blurred. This line of thinking suggests a person susceptible to delusions.
Her guilt about her father’s death - like the rest of the world, she also believed him to be a crank — is assuaged in Rise of the Tomb Raider when she discovers that he was murdered by the secret, ancient paramilitary organization Trinity. The main antagonist, a man called Konstantin, tells her of the truth of the crime in the game’s final boss fight. She is momentarily enraged, as one might expect, and the player has an option to kill or spare Konstantin (either way, he dies).
She doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in Konstantin’s death, or even responsibility. “Your brother is dead,” she tells his sister and co-conspirator Ana, a few moments after killing him. “This is what Trinity has wrought.” Croft makes no reference to her own actions in his death.
As in the first game, she tells herself that she must continue to find answers, although this time, she is focused on concrete consequences rather than mere intellectual curiosity. She faces the full might of Trinity. “I can make a difference. I can make the right difference,” she says.
The inference is that Trinity can also make a difference, but the wrong difference. Again, this gives Lara carte blanche to create mayhem. It clearly marks out what she wants from the world; to thwart Trinity. And we get a sense of her vital internal need to return to her father by repairing his reputation, and proving his theories to be correct. She does this by following his advice.
She listens to a tape in which he urges her to “make her own mark on this world” and to be “extraordinary.”
This allows us to understand her flaw, which is tunnel vision. She might occasionally question the dogma that she is on the side of the angels, and that the ends justify the means, but she has yet to find a way to escape this notion.
Going into Shadow of the Tomb Raider, this flaw had the potential to mark her out as a fleshed-out character, and not just a wandering avatar.
Losing Lara Croft
All this brings us to my criticism that the character goes missing for most of Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
The problem is partly rooted in her lack of an easily identifiable personality. Video game characters spend most of their time huffing and puffing through extreme danger, with few opportunities to create their own personalities. Croft is no exception, but she’s been given fewer likable traits.
Her game hero peers are often easier to appreciate as likable archetypes. Spider-Man is comically cocky and impetuous, a nod to his youth. Nathan Drake has a sharp, teasing sense of humor, a hard-bitten edge that comes of his profession and life experiences, as well as his position as a male fantasy icon. Clementine is morally centered, but badly damaged. Kratos, like Lara Croft, is a bit serious, and carries a lot of baggage. Yet he is beautifully defined in his most recent game, as a man deeply affected by love and grief, and yet unable to process those emotions.
Croft is flatter and less defined than these examples. She’s earnest, spending a lot of time offering sympathy to troubled secondary characters. This usefully demonstrates her capacity for empathy — commonly viewed as a womanly virtue — while providing more cover for the next round of mass-killings.
Where the Lara of previous decades was sometimes presented as a vessel for male sexual fantasies, she is now, in some ways, another two-dimensional fantasy, the nurturing female ideal, always ready with a supportive gaze, weighty with feeling and understanding.
WARNING: SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER SPOILERS BELOW
This Lara Croft appears caring, but it’s an incomplete kindness. During deep conversations, she is comically eager to get back to speaking about maps, clues, hieroglyphs and whatnot, reminding us of her capacity for intense focus. I don’t believe the joke is on purpose, nor do I believe that we’re supposed to infer that she is only pretending to care about other people, while she yearns to return to the subject at hand.
So, when her best friend Jonah starts talking — apropos of nothing in particular — about his dead brother, Lara can look sympathetic and say a few vaguely meaningful words. But the map is soon spread out before them, and the unfortunate brother forgotten.
At the end of the game, she complains that she “could have had a family” but then switches her attention to planning the defeat of her enemies. She confesses that she’s “making everything worse” but seems broadly satisfied when she’s assured: “You’re not.” As if this answers all her doubts.
Her lack of a centered core is especially noticeable in this game, in comparison to the previous two games, in which she follows a growth arc which manages to hide her generally horizontal personality. In the first game she is portrayed as a naif with a lot to learn. In the second, she’s more admirable and comfortable in her own skin, offering us a sense of satisfaction that she’s an organic character who is capable of change. But by this third game, her growth spurt has run its course, and she lacks a new direction.
Smartly, the first two games worked with a useful cast of secondary characters with whom she could bounce ideas and perspectives. But in the third game, the secondary characters either fade into the background, or fail to show up at all. One character in particular is introduced, and then does almost nothing apart from serve as a special pal for Jonah.
Story endings are notoriously difficult to tie together, especially with game series that are written one-by-one, rather than up-front. To make matters more challenging, the third game was created by a different studio than the first two, with a new set of writers.
Still, there are some obvious ways in which the trilogy has to end. Obviously, Lara gets what she wants most of all, which is to destroy Trinity.
Her inner need to make things right with her dead father is also addressed, though not entirely satisfactorily. Through her victory over Trinity and her attainment of the magical artifact, she is given a brief, spiritual encounter with her parents in some netherworld. She witnesses herself as a girl living the family life she lost.
This on-the-nose scene lacks much in the way of emotional impact. Ultimately it’s just a vision, little more than a dream. We’re supposed to believe that she has returned to her family through this happy moment, but it’s a long stretch.
This deflation is exacerbated by a scene in which Lara seems to sacrifice her life for the greater good, but, no wait, she survives the experience. This has the effect of lauding her as the selfless hero, without exacting any price. I understand why the writers are unable to kill off a commercially successful icon like Lara Croft, but if you’re not willing to do it, then better to not make the suggestion.
This offers up her central flaw of monomania as the best opportunity to give her a satisfying denouement. She can face tough questions about the consequences of heroism which bring her to a place of self-revelation.
Promisingly, the game begins provocatively, with Croft messing with powers she does not understand, and setting off a tsunami. This catastrophe kills hundreds of innocents, including children. When Jonah pledges to help the survivors, Croft just wants to get gone, and be the hero the world needs. At this point, we’re not sure if she’s merely doing what needs to be done, or if she’s incredibly selfish.
As an opening, it creates the gripping possibility that all Croft’s certainties are so much humbug, that she is nothing more than a fanatical marauder, much like the evil people she’s trying to best. She has no real regard for the people or the places she plunders.
As the story progresses, it becomes dispiritingly clear that this dangerous flaw of hers is actually a good thing. The whole tsunami device is a bait and switch that looks like a cheap attempt to lend her gravity that she does not possess.
Croft saves the world, not by confronting her flaws, but by carrying on as normal. At the end of the game she announces she’s retiring to protect the world’s peoples and resources, but it all has a whiff of George W. Bush about it. She is a person responsible for atrocities, who retires to her fancy house to be nice and paint and stuff.
Her icky lack of responsibility is exacerbated by a haughty imperialism, wherever she goes. Croft wanders into familial civil wars and takes on the role of fixer, without permission or invitation. Everyone seems to accept this as the natural orders of things. It smacks of the white man’s burden.
Her assumptions appear to be shared by her creators, who do little to mitigate this outrageous entitlement. Even when she’s saved the day, she decides to hang around and help the locals rebuild their world, which she’s just had a major hand in destroying. But there’s no sense of restitution in her act. She’s just being nice.
So Lara Croft fails to hang together as a convincing human character. She’s nice and selfless, except she’s really not, but that’s okay because she’s doing what needs to be done, which includes mass murder, but sometimes she thinks maybe she’s made the wrong choices, but mostly, no, she’s been right all along.
Like the game itself, she is a series of situations, each one designed mainly to entertain in the here and now, without much thought to a broader view. Her personality is both flat and fractured. She is never allowed to come together in her entirety.
There are those who will argue that Tomb Raider games are just a lot of nonsense and game characters ought not be taken seriously. But I strongly suspect that the writers do not agree. They recognize that Lara Croft is influential and that she exerts cultural power. Which presents the question as to why she seems so lost in this game.
Game development is an intensely hierarchical business, and writers are nowhere near the top of the (haha) pyramid. Usually, when writing in a big game goes awry, the pressure has come from above. At some point, I dare say we’ll find out the inside story of this game.
Lara Croft is an important character. She matters. It grieves me that this game wastes an opportunity to create the layered, sophisticated, troubled and conflicted Lara Croft that she deserves to be.