There was a lot of fuss over Tomb Raider when it was first announced. This reboot of the long-lived platforming series not only promised to change the character of protagonist Lara Croft herself, but the gameplay and themes as well. No longer the iconic stereotype of the femme fatale sex object of the Playstation era, this Lara was promised to be a more grounded character, who would go through legitimate hardship and who would have less hilarious proportions.
Controversy sparked when it was learned that early on in the game, Lara would be beaten, bruised, battered, and nearly molested. Naturally, many critics didn't think this was a very girl-powery move by the developers, which led to all kinds of arguments and complaints.
Oddly enough, as far as I have seen, nearly all of those arguments and complaints stopped when the game launched.
I recently got my hands on Tomb Raider, never having played any of the previous games, and I found it to be a thematically solid piece of work, with Lara Croft basically being on the Ripley (Aliens) tier of woman warriors.
The game begins with Lara on a ship called The Endurance, a name which makes the central themes of the game (survival and coming of age) apparent right off the bat. The passengers consist of Lara herself, a quick-tempered archaeologist she is going on an expedition with, a few people around Lara's age who have come to film it, and a small crew of her father's loyal old friends. They are searching for the lost city of Yamatai, which legend says was ruled by the Sun Queen, a woman who ruled fairly, punished ruthlessly, and is said to have been able to call and command powerful storms by her will. All is going well, when a storm appears suddenly, tearing the boat apart and sinking it in no time. Everyone makes it out of the wreckage, but they are stranded on an island off the coast of Japan in the Dragon's Triangle, an area of the Pacific Ocean with as much mystery to it as the Bermuda Triangle once did.
“Sacrifice is a choice you make, loss is a choice made for you.”
--Roth, (Tomb Raider)
Much later in the game, Lara discovers that they have found Yamatai, and that the storms come suddenly as anyone approaches the island, be it by plane or boat, and very deliberately target and wrecks the vehicle, stranding its crew on the island 100% of the time. Afterwards, the storms disappear as quickly as they came. Discovering the Sun Queen's tomb, Lara finds murals painted on the walls that describe a ceremony meant for choosing the Sun Queen's successor. The order of the ceremony is as follows: Pilgrimage to the Island, represented by a picture of a woman arriving by boat to the stormy isle, Trial by Fire, represented by a woman engulfed in flame, and Transfer of Power, which is represented by the Sun Queen pouring a waterfall over the woman. The villain, Mathias, a man who has lived on the island for thirty years, kidnaps many of Lara's friends, believing her friend Sam to be the Successor.
Video of the discovery of the paintings, filmed by HailMetalFan.
The storm throws Lara into the purgatory that is the island of Yamatai. This storm introduces the first major symbol of the game: water, which symbolizes loss. Crawling onto the beach and ripped from normalcy, Lara is immediately struck on the back of the head and knocked out. Lara Croft has made her pilgrimage to the island.
|The pilgrimage is the first step in the Sun Queen's ascension ceremony.|
|The successor must be engulfed in flame.|
Fire is a symbol of of everything Lara does have control over. Lara takes control of her situation and her own survival with fire the same way ancient human beings first fought the cold and storms with it. She survives by setting herself on fire, and builds a campfire to keep warm in the storm that comes after her escape from the cave, starting her fight with the forces trying to kill her.
Lara uses the power of fire throughout the game. She uses torches, campfires, explosive barrels of fuel, flammable gas, firearms, and flaming arrows as tools to aid in her survival. One powerful example of this is the first time she is forced to kill.
Trying to sneak through a fire-lit camp of cultists who would immediately kill or sacrifice her to the spirit of the Sun Queen if they found her, Lara is caught by one of them, who runs his hand down her side. She pushes him away, but he attempts to strangle her. Unable to wrestle him off of her, she pulls the gun from his holster. He struggles to take it back and kill her, and she is forces to shoot him through the forehead.
Burned, battered, and forced to commit murder, Lara begins to cry.
Roth, an adventurer, old friend of Lara's father, and Wise Old Man character (the archetypical guide,) calms her down over a two-way radio and assures her that she has done the right thing. The bulk of the gameplay occurs after this scene, where Lara solves a lot of puzzles, climbs a lot of things, and is forced to kill more would-be murderers until she arrives at the top of the mountain to save her friends.
Eventually, Lara discovers the tomb of the Sun Queen, as I mentioned earlier. It is on a part of the mountain where the weather is completely nuts. There's snow, which shouldn't happen according to her, and wild sandstorms just outside of the tomb itself. She makes her way through the winds to another building, where she tries to reason with the cultists who find her, but they refuse to negotiate. All of them believe that if she dies and Sam is taken as the new Sun Queen, they will all escape. In order to escape the building, Lara finds a way to destroy the support beams holding up a large bell so that it can fall through the floor and create a way out. With these beams damaged, the wind rips the building apart and blows Lara over the edge of the new hole in the floor. She lands on a small island in an underground lake.
|Lara's character climax. She emerges from this cave as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.|
Note the parallels between the camera shot and the painting. The sun rays representing the Sun Queen, the water that pours from the light, the water surrounding the woman in each, and the darkness in the background. This is some really great stuff, here. It's rare that we see direction like this in a game, especially one that's part of a franchise, where the "art" of a game is usually sacrificed for the sake of gameplay. As I've said, though, I find this game to be very solid in terms of its narrative and its themes.
There's still another quarter of the game left to wrap things up, with more fire and more water and more survival, but now Lara knows who she is, and that is a warrior, a survivor. She follows the hero's journey very closely, and I've referenced it a few times. She even falls into a true Underworld, an underground prison with plenty of bones and meat and rivers of red and men driven mad by their time on the island, who are locked in cells. The entire place is damp and dripping with water, and of course Lara is required to use the power of fire in order to set off explosions and escape it. This chapter of the game is even titled "The Pit." There is a lot of debate among players, though, about whether or not Lara Croft is a hero.
She saved her friends and was tested over and over again, but whether or not the cultists were unmerciful and unwilling to negotiate, could anyone who has killed so many be called a hero? I'd say if you're comparing her to the kinds of heroes you'd study in an English class, like Beowulf or Gilgamesh or those other old models, then you'd have to say yes.
This debate marks a really important movement in video games these past few years.
Games are making us question our own actions now. Games like the first Bioshock in 2007 were on the right track, putting scripted choices in the game that led to different endings. In Tomb Raider, you can play the game sticking your climbing ax into every enemy's face because you think it's fun and exciting. You can play by setting enemies on fire or trying to sneak by and shooting only when they shoot first. No matter what you do, it always leads to the same ending. The game doesn't tell you anymore if you were "good" or "bad," a "paragon" or a "renegade..." You have to question how your influence on this narrative reflects on you as a person.
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