It hasn’t always been smooth raiding for Lara Croft over the years; her more recent entries in the Tomb Raider series ranging from mediocre to downright poor. This is until the simply titled Tomb Raider was released in 2013 and reinvented our heroine entirely, giving us a stellar action-adventure game to play and not to mention being heralded as one of the greatest video games of the last console generation. The game managed to stand out because for the first time in the series we could relate to our reserved relic enthusiast turned hard as nails survivor, because we were invited to see how she became the woman we’ve known for years now. Unlike similar games such as Uncharted this was no glorified adventure but a tale of hardship and struggle. However, while the game play itself provides an exciting adventure, has Lara herself gained from this reinvention, or has she lost part of the identity that made her a video game icon?
Going back to 1996, when gaming was making the uneasy transition from 2D to 3D, female protagonists weren’t unheard of (Samus Aran’s dramatic reveal in 1986 is worth noting) but they were rare to find outside of an ensemble cast. Furthermore sprites didn’t quite capture the human form, with the main signifier between male and female being the latter had long hair; women may have been present but the female form was nowhere in sight. Thus we begin Tomb Raider and besides a short intro cinematic that only shows glimpses of the protagonist we’re suddenly thrust onto the side of a mountain with the full female form before our eyes. We don’t really know how she became this explorer but it’s not long before we’re raiding tombs, dual-pistols blazing, taking down wild animals (even dinosaurs), and we realise we don’t need that information; by this point we already know if we believe in her as a heroine. Whether she’s viewed as a negative example of objectification or a positive icon of empowerment, whatever the verdict Lara is able to continue on through these tombs, fearless of what she faces and unconcerned about any critics after her blood. By giving us fewer details about the identity of this “Tomb Raider”, we were able to decide ourselves how we received her, and in effect giving her more empowerment because she wasn’t fazed by what anybody would think about her, she was free to be whoever we wished.
Now we come back to her rebirth in 2013 and all of a sudden somehow Lara doesn’t seem so free to dismiss what we think of her. This is a younger Lara that is evident, one whose softer features do not seem as cold as her predecessor. She’s also not as skilled as we’ve known her to be, with almost none of the acrobatic skills and far less opportunities for puzzle solving; this entry is definitely all about survival… Therefore we can accept her evident inexperience because at this stage she has yet to fulfil the legacy of her previous 17 year gaming career. Perhaps we must simply believe Lara just has yet to become who we expect her to be; perhaps the 1996 Croft will develop over time.
Then again despite Lara’s impressive ability to survive against the odds, this reinvention seems to pose the question as to where, and more specifically who, she has received her instincts from. She is most certainly a Croft, just like her father… Of course this could be simply her genes kicking in (god forbid she got any survival instincts from her mother) but then it requires her surrogate father Roth to make her believe in these instincts. Thus Lara is almost given permission to do whatever she needs to on the island, because her two fathers condone her actions and give her the strength to believe in herself. This seems very unlike how we received the original “Tomb Raider”; back then we didn’t need the support of men to believe in her abilities, she seemed to have success off the back of her own shoulders. This aspect of her identity is thus spoilt because now her development is through the sanctioning of the men in her life, rather than leaving us to believe it came within her own self. The only consolation is that she outlives these men and therefore the future is hers to decide. These male relationship overall come as a double-edged sword for this new Lara, as while she owes her survival to the men in her life, she at the same time she does something the old Lara would never consider doing; accepting help from the people she loves. Like with the original Lara, how we respond to this aspect of her character depends on how we interpret her as individuals, but there is something less empowering at work here and it’ll take another entry in the series before we can decide whether this Lara has what it takes to shrug off her critics.
However regardless of where her strength comes from, the ending of the game hints at an even darker aspect of her character. When she returns from her showdown with Mathias and the Sun Queen, Jonah asks her what went down on the mountain to which Lara responds with a dark look and swiftly changes the subject. When we consider the fact that Jonah believes in the supernatural and seems to have a sixth sense when something is amiss or in chaos, this little interaction between them reveals that indeed there are no heroes in this reinvention, only a mentally unhinged and brutally beaten woman who can never return to a normal life. This is a totally new aspect to her character that has never been witnessed before; we must now consider that the cool, calm and collected adventurer may no longer be in control of her own sanity. One thing is for certain at the end of Tomb Raider, there is no going back for Lara Croft, and somehow she has to become the woman she was created to be, or fall completely into darkness.
Therefore we cannot know to what extent the character of Lara Croft has changed. This darker reinvention may have shown glimpses of the woman we’ve known for years but at the speedily dealt with conclusion of the game one thing is clear, Lara still has a long way to go before she becomes the “Tomb Raider” of old. Thus perhaps Rise of the Tomb Raider truly is the most appropriate title to follow her latest outing, because at the minute the jury is out on who this reinvented Lara Croft is to become and whether she will step up to the legacy before her.