Imagine the star of an action franchise full of daring stunts, adrenaline-rushing shootouts, and quippy dialogue that ensures viewers want her to succeed in her quest. After all, she’s the hero, with noble goals in service of the greater good, and we have no reason to doubt her intentions.
But what if she was actually the story’s villain? One that not everyone in the audience or even the creators could see? The writing almost acts like it’s beginning to realize this with the way it initially characterizes the villain and his reaction to her, but by the end the action hero has redeemed herself by defeating the villain.
As someone who grew up with Tomb Raider, I was excited to try the rebooted series that began in 2013, but the first two entries were surprisingly poor when it came to the aspect of games I usually care most about: the story. In Tomb Raider, it’s difficult to feel attached to any of the characters when they’re never really introduced to us and suddenly die. Rise of the Tomb Raider gives us a bit more of a backstory, but ultimately the game still left me wanting.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, begins differently than its predecessors. You aren’t in a remote location all alone surrounded only by people that want to kill you; you’re in a bustling part of Cozumel, Mexico celebrating Día de los Muertos. You can walk around with Lara Croft’s best friend, Jonah (Earl Baylon), have a couple casual NPC conversations, and take in some sights.
This game seems to take more interest in surrounding characters with a cool option in the settings that I’ve never seen before in a game called Voice Over Immersion. You can either have everyone speak their native tongue (like Spanish in Cozumel) or in the language you’re playing the game in. As a language buff and someone who knows Spanish, being able to hear them speak naturally was an appreciated option, but what would then ruin the immersion was when Lara would respond in English and everyone would always understand her and vice versa.
Lara Croft is supposed to be a world traveler and you do have to actually improve your language abilities in Russian, Ancient Greek, and other languages for her to read and interpret things, so why doesn’t she speak some languages here? I don’t expect her to have a perfect accent, but they could’ve had her try. I know suspension of disbelief is key in video games, but as someone who has encountered plenty of people unable to communicate with me unless I know their language, this felt too jarring. Especially when we go to remote locations where locals speak languages like Mam and Maya and should be much less likely to perfectly understand English.
Of course, once an ancient mystical relic is mentioned, the story goes back to focusing on what Tomb Raider games are all about. As Lara often does, we follow Trinity, a military cult that was introduced in prior games which has long been after ancient artifacts it can use to remake the world. But in an interesting subversion, Dr. Dominguez (Carlos Leal), the story’s villainous leader of Trinity, doesn’t seem to be all that bad at first glance.
As we walked among the festivities in Cozumel, we saw him encouraging little boys to have fun and talking to abuelitas who gift him food. It’s clear he is a part of this community and this community is a part of him. When we finally have a face to face with him shortly after, he tells Lara that by trying to beat Trinity to the artifact she has triggered the apocalypse, and he’s right. By taking something she had no claim to, this English woman quickly wrecks the town, leaving hundreds (or more) dead, floating lifelessly in tsunami waters as buildings collapse before our eyes.
It was easier in the prior two games to feel distance when killing others or invading other lands. Tomb Raider took place on an isolated island no one could get to without dying and was full of classically evil cultists. Rise of the Tomb Raider was in the Siberian tundra, with the Soviets who had previously been there long dead. You didn’t really have to face the consequences of your actions, nor were the consequences so monumental and obvious as they are here. You could even root for Lara sometimes, but how can we support her obsession and impulsivity when it leads to so many innocents dying?
We have never seen such death and destruction so clearly in a Tomb Raider game before. As Lara climbs a burning building to escape the tsunami, a child cries before falling to their death: “¡No me quiero caer, por favor! ¡Mamá! ¿Dónde estás?” We can’t help but ask why Lara didn’t leave what wasn’t hers alone. She visited a country to which she has no ties to steal something she had no right to, and without understanding the consequences it would unleash so long as it would lead to Trinity’s defeat.
With so many corpses and ruins left in her wake, the first thing Lara mentions to Jonah is that Trinity got what they wanted and her father’s memory will never be redeemed. What she’s seeing is traumatic and maybe she’s trying to push it down rather than dealing with it, but obsessively focusing on her concerns is cold. She says that Dr. Dominguez wants to remake the world free of sin and weakness, but with all the wreckage around them, how can one blame him?
Lara comes from an incredibly posh upbringing where she never wanted for any material things, only parents. We see this in a flashback where she has an incredibly large playground in the form of a classic “pirate boat” with the longest slide I’ve ever seen. Her father is a Lord, after all, and has essentially turned his manor into a museum, with countless priceless artifacts stolen from around the world for nobody outside of the family to see.
In the midst of that tsunami, Jonah, the archetypal gentle giant, raises his voice at her, something we have never heard him do before. He yells that not everything is about her, and they have a chance to do good right here and now before they go save the world, but Lara can’t see past her ambitions and father’s shame. This game shies away much less from the problems Lara causes, but I was hoping for this to be more of an explicit conclusion and moral of the story for her.
As she continues chasing Trinity to find the other artifact needed, she stumbles upon a hidden civilization, Paititi. Here she meets the Rebel Queen Unuratu (Patricia Velasquez, my favorite performance in the game). From her, we find out Dr. Dominguez’s real name is Amaru; he is from Paititi too, and her brother-in-law. Once again, a colonial force took a young boy that they would be able to use down the line, even giving him a more Spanish-sounding name (and toward the end, we overhear Trinity on walkie-talkies describing how they’re only using Dr. Dominguez). Unuratu’s faction has been fighting his, the Cultists, and now must find both artifacts first to prevent Trinity from destroying the world.
As we progress through the game, we work alongside Unuratu and the Rebels, but always at the back of your mind is how Lara Croft, some random woman from England, could be the only one who seems capable of helping them. Other Paititians have tried and failed where she does not. Eventually, Unuratu is killed (something I’m still mad about), and Lara becomes the Chosen One, and we have to wonder even more: Why her? How her? At one point Jonah even tries to do something risky and when he fails, she asks how he could do something so dangerous, and he replies: “It would’ve worked if I was you.” And we all know this is true! That is how the protagonists of most franchises work.
As we race to beat Amaru before he can destroy the world in the cleansing, we unite with the Yaaxil, Paititian protector goddesses that Lara at first believes are “creatures,” not humans of any sort. Their leader, the Crimson Fire, as Unuratu called her, was meant to work with Unuratu but since she’s dead, Lara takes her place, and I wonder again: how is this allowed? How does the Crimson Fire believe that Lara really is the other half she has been waiting for?
Because this is a video game, we defeat Amaru right before he can complete the ritual, and now we have the power of the deity, Kukulkan. He begs us to take care of Paititi, and we know everything he did was for Paititi, even when twisted and corrupted by Trinity, but again, why Lara? The two closest leaders Paititi had who were inextricably linked to their communities lay dead, and Lara Croft is their savior? It is a conclusion that I cannot make sense of no matter how much I think about it.
The only real conclusion that could be drawn from what the material is attempting to engage with is to not have the game at all. Lara is a thief, she steals ancient artifacts from cultures and countries that are not her own; she is a murderer, though sometimes in self-defense, but she has slaughtered massive numbers of people, mystical creatures, and endangered species; and has desecrated so many places that the locals in this one had to beg her not to break anything (and she still did because that’s what needs to happen to move the plot forward!). Even the name of the series, Tomb Raider, illustrates how her existence is about crossing those boundaries: a raider is defined as an attacker, specifically one that goes into enemy territory to attack the enemy. Lara has always been defined as the enemy aggressor, and it’s impossible to separate that from everything she has done.