The latest Tomb Raider games have all relied on Lara Croft’s misery for much of their drama; this is a hero who gets beaten up in multiple ways throughout each game and usually dies a graphic death whenever you make a mistake. But Shadow of the Tomb Raider goes a step further by focusing often on a very particular kind of torture, and if you’re uncomfortable with tight spaces, you might want to sit the game out completely.
Every Tomb Raider game plays with how tight it can get underground, and those previous games have all spiked my claustrophobia in a delightfully limited way, like watching a scary movie with a friend. Having a game tweak a phobia can be fun, as long as things don’t go too far and it taps so deeply into the fear that you have to take a break. Reader, I’ve had to take more than one break while playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
The scene above isn’t a death scene, by the way. It’s just one of the many times in the game that Croft has to navigate through an incredibly tight space while also being underwater. It’s the second part that makes these scenes borderline unbearable for anyone who is claustrophobic.
These moments are so effective at conveying panic because they strip away the one effective means you have of dealing with claustrophobia. If you find yourself panicking in a tight space, the best way to get through it is to relax your muscles, close your eyes and take a number of slow, long breaths. I’ve been to a few caves around Ohio and have even followed a few VR developers underground for a story in Iceland. Facing your fears is healthy, and being mindful of your anxiety as it rises and taking steps to calm it down is a skill that can help in just about every area of your life.
But you can’t stop and take a deep breath when you’re underwater. You can’t take a moment to calm yourself down. The clock is already running; if you don’t keep moving in a calm and purposeful manner, you’re dead. There is no way to take a moment and figure out your next move. Croft is able to exert herself while holding her breath much longer than the average human, but these scenes are still horrific every time they pop up. They tip the scale from “exciting” to “I’m going to take a five-minute break to remind myself I’m not actually dying.”
And this was very much by design.
“We really tried to make it so you weren’t spending a ton of time underwater but enough time that when you did have to go underwater, it shouldn’t feel good,” Rich Briggs, senior brand director at Crystal Dynamics, told VentureBeat. “We wanted it to feel like a survival situation. We wanted it to feel very claustrophobic at times, wondering if you were going to make it through that tunnel. That was modeled after some research we did. We looked at the cenotes down in Mexico, this tunnel system where people had to leave their oxygen behind to squeeze through these very narrow tunnels.”
You can watch the real-life version of this — although of course, unlike Croft, these divers have external air — in the video below. I couldn’t get through it, but you’re free to give it a shot.
I’m not trying to say this is a bad thing — the marketing materials all sell Shadow of the Tomb Raider as an intense game — but it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into. (And, if you decide to go in, how quickly you’re going to need to find your way out before you drown.)