The Mistaken ‘Inconsistency’ of Lara Croft (2013-?)
Jokes at the expense of a property arguably taking itself too seriously are funny, sometimes even necessary. However sometimes taking too many cheap shops can rob an audience of a chance to enjoy a deceptively nuanced story and character. This is the case with Lara Croft’s struggles in Tomb Raider (2013).
The current Tomb Raider continuity, Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider, is enjoying great critical success. Their core game play is more solid than other contenders in the genre, such as the floaty gun mechanics of Uncharted. The worlds are actually explorable rather than the usual linearity seen in the genre. The games also revel in thrilling uses of gore and horror. Whilst there are still shades of Colonialism in the narrative (as there is with any Indiana Jones styled text) it is less atrocious than others in the genre.
‘But Uncharted has great characters and dialogue’ I hear you say! ‘Meanwhile Tomb Raider has Lara Croft crying about killing a man before killing hundreds without complaint.’ I first of all disagree with that interpretation and also believe the characterisation of Lara Croft to be well rounded. Admittedly the supporting characters leave a lot to be desired. However the narratives of Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider emphasise loneliness and survival in the wilderness. So the only way to flesh out supporting characters is to give them more screen time and thus undercut the overall intention of the story.
The initial elephant in the room with developing a more grounded Tomb Raider franchise is that the original Lara Croft from the two previous continuities is terrible. She is half a fake ‘strong female character‘ and half a masturbatory aid for thirteen year olds. Thus the newest continuity decided to start with an origin story and a very different Lara. It’s fairly simple. Lara Croft is a twenty-one year old archaeology graduate. She has some combat training, but none in practice. This is her first adventure involving gunfights, but she has climbed mountains before. Her father was an explorer known for daring deeds but also being emotionally distant and calculating. In various pieces of expository dialogue Lara reveals she doesn’t believe she can be like her late father or be as emotionally detached as him. It is clearly established that part of her wishes to be the sort of woman that would impress him, but the other part of her wishes to be nothing like him.
Then Lara’s little naval outing leads to a shipwreck on an island (called Yamatai) of implied cannibals. About forty minutes in the game she is forced to kill a man who is trying to throttle her. During this scene she is incredibly upset and scared. However that is only whilst the man is throttling her. What people misinterpret here is that she is upset about killing (rather than being throttled) and thus misinterpret the following events in the same vein. Immediately after this she finds a gun and shoots her way through a few more men and shows little remorse. This is the basis for the belief that the games lack consistent characterisation. However following these moments she has a conversation with her surrogate father figure, Roth, and states she is not upset because of killing people, but because she’s surprised how little it has affected her. This is her arc: I believed myself innocent and moral, but I actually find it very easy to kill people when my own life is at risk. The rest of the game is Lara coming to terms with this mindset of wanting seemingly disparate things and where that leads her next.
If you’ve finished the game you know that she eventually becomes a cold-blooded killer, although a caring humanitarian around her friends. This is not a contradiction but a woman lying to herself and her friends about her inner life. She does not want to be her father and in many ways believed herself better than him for her imagined ‘weaknesses’. It is indeed a shame that so many people missed this (frankly uncomplicated) nuance of her character and the story.
This brings us to Rise of the Tomb Raider. At the outset she is suffering from PTSD, her name and her father’s name have been trashed due to her claims of supernatural events on Yamatai. A mysterious organisation called ‘Trinity’ is covering up magical and supernatural happenings across the globe. The game deftly establishes that Lara is coping with these problems by throwing herself into more dangerous adventures. This helps distract from her PTSD, which is shown to come from near scrapes with death rather than killing. This coping mechanism has clearly developed into a danger addiction, that she is using the threat of dealing with Trinity, to justify servicing. She is terrified of being harmed by Trinity and the only way to knows how to avoid feelings of threat is to shoot people. That gives her relief, not simply backing off and leaving Trinity alone for safety.
At the climax of the narrative she discovers that Trinity faked her father’s suicide (which is slowly revealed during the game, perhaps explaining her mixed reactions to a bad parent) and that their conspiracy is much scarier and wider ranging than she imagined. Rather than seeming scared of this revelation, she is in fact incredibly relieved. I believe this relief is two-fold: obviously it redeems her father in her eyes somewhat, but it also gives her a compelling reason or excuse to continue seeking danger and violence. This is in spite of her recklessness leading directly to the deaths of numerous innocents in Rise, a fact she even directly addresses. Yet she still leaps at a chance for further adventures given the even the most vague of selfish personal motivations. I cannot wait to see where the third instalment takes this idea. I hope it continues to revel in Lara’s misguided motivations, danger addiction and ultimately her mixture of selfishness and selflessness.
As a final note I’d like to address how the game play itself addresses this growth. There has been some criticism that Lara laments killing (albeit reservedly) and yet the game rewards ‘her’ for doing so because she gains XP. I feel that that this argument has forgotten that a character in a piece of media does not share intentions or beliefs with the audience or player. You (the player) may get an achievement or trophy (depending on your console of choice) for an act of violence, but Lara does not. Gaining XP for head shots is not a celebration of death, but rather a natural extension of her learning to fight through experience. It’s as though they’re called EXPERIENCE POINTS. I don’t like maths, but if you sit me down and make me do sums I’ll probably get better at maths. That doesn’t contradict the fact that I still dislike maths. In fact I find the gameplay and growth of Lara’s ability directly supplements the narrative.
When you first start playing Lara is a bit rubbish (as a recent University graduate with no combat experience would be) and so is the player as they learn the controls. As a player and a character you both go through the adventure of learning to kill a deer with a bow and arrow all the way to the end of the second game, where you fight (with relative kick-ass ease) an undead army in their well-populated city whilst trebuchets fire explosive rocks at you. That growth feels entirely natural and earned. This combination of the story character and game ability growth invests one into Lara more than starting with all the bells and whistles ever would. The player and Lara overcome problems and emerge feeling awesome and victorious together.
If seeing the games this way interests you, play them, and/or if you’re already on the same page as me I thoroughly recommend the comic book series written by Gail Simone and later Rhianna Pratchett (who wrote the games too).