Of the recent Tomb Raider trilogy, I’ve now played the first and third – Tomb Raider (2013), and Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018). I wrote about Tomb Raider when I played it a couple years back, just focusing on a little technical detail that I quite liked. But today, I want to look at Shadow through a narrative lens. I sort of have to acknowledge that in doing so, I haven’t actually played the second game, so it’s possible that there’s some brilliant narrative whatever in there that totally changes the meaning of the third game and makes me look like a big dumb idiot. I suspect there’s not, but you know, just on the offchance, be a little mindful of that as you’re reading through.
I should also note that the creative team behind Shadow and the wider Tomb Raider trilogy obviously put a bunch of thought into the narrative. Reading through interviews, it’s interesting to see these guys talking about the theme of descent. Lara goes through a series of physical descents that all match her emotional descent. These are obviously guys who are thinking actively about theme and storytelling. However, for me personally, the game never really coheres. The developers talk big about dealing with the colonial implications of Lara Croft, International Artifact Thief, but the game is still fundamentally about a white woman saving the world on behalf of a bunch of indigenous people. The climax of the game has the indigenous villain, close to death, begging Lara to protect Paititi (the fictional South American indigenous culture portrayed in the game). And she does. She goes off and saves the tribe and saves the world and whatever whatever. The developers try to complicate that image by having her do some bad stuff along the way – for instance, she accidentally causes a bunch of earthquakes and shit that kill a whole bunch of people (we’ll get to that in a minute). But she feels bad about it for a bit, and then basically just kinda gets on with her life. The game as a whole is more concerned with her tears and hand-wringing than with the trauma and devastation left in her wake.
So a pretty clear swing and a miss, for me, but I respect that they’re at least trying to think about colonialism and character development and all the rest of it. It’s not something that happens frequently. We’ll check back in at the end of the decade and see if the industry’s any better about it. Anyway: today I want to zoom in a little more on that earthquake thing. Here’s the basic setup: Lara is after an artifact, racing against the evil treasure hunters. They’re all in the same city, everyone’s getting close, and then Lara swoops in and grabs it – aha! She’s immediately captured, and the big bad informs her that by taking the dagger and not having the requisite magic box, she’s initiated the apocalypse. A tsunami sweeps through the area, and Lara escapes, minus the knife, but feeling guilty for causing the tsunami and killing a whole bunch of people, including a child who dies right in front of you by falling into a fire.
Okay – so, basic themes here. The idea that Lara has caused A Bad Thing is kinda interesting. It’s not particularly revolutionary, but we’ll take it. I’m not a hundred percent sold on the way this sequence is framed: it’s meant to be Lara’s haste and ignorance creating a big problem, but the scene where you find out what she’s done is pretty clumsily structured. Firstly, the enemy treasure hunters (Trinity) were also moving to take the knife. If they’d taken it, the tsunami would’ve happened anyway, so it rings false for the villains to condemn Lara for something they would have initiated themselves. However, if the scene was framed a little differently, it could probably have made the same point in a legitimately compelling way. Imagine: Lara gets caught, the villains see her with the knife, and they go what the fuck, where’s the box? What box? says Lara. The fucking – the BOX! shout the villains, clearly scared and upset. When you took the knife, you needed the box. Where is it? Lara fumbles for a reply: I was just trying to stop you taking the knife, she says. We weren’t going to take it, they reply. We were going to make sure nobody grabbed it until we’d found the box.
Now, that would’ve been a clear fuck-up on Lara’s part. She was overzealous, didn’t really know what she was doing, assumed the worst and blundered. But it’s not really how the scene is positioned. I went back and watched it again (here), and the villain doesn’t seem particularly worried that it’s been taken out of its stand: he holds it up and examines it, in a very Indiana Jones villain kind of way, and has a bit of a monologue about how he appreciates Lara’s work. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. It takes a full minute before the player learns that the world’s going to end – and that minute is spent going on about how the dagger is super powerful and it’ll remake the world – very standard villain-with-McGuffin dialogue. Structurally, the introduction of this detail about the world ending is very unexpected – no, not unexpected – it’s opaque. The context causes the full impact to be obscured and actually lessened. Even after the reveal – consider this subsequent argument that takes place after Lara finds out what she’s done. The villain shouts at her for taking the knife and initiating the apocalypse, and she shouts back ‘You would’ve done the same!’ And, like, yeah, isn’t she correct? Wait – is she correct? He doesn’t contradict her, so, I mean, maybe? It’s hard to know how to interpret what’s happening.
So the scene overall is a bit scrambled. The writers probably could have led with a stronger sense of threat. Given that Lara’s whole moral guilt for the rest of the game hinges on this one specific act, the writers here have dropped the ball arguably at the worst possible time. But okay – we know that Lara did a fuck-up, so let’s imagine the game actually communicated that fuck-up in a clear, compelling way. Let’s talk about the tsunami itself. It’s a pretty cool sequence – whatever criticisms I have of Shadow’s story, they have fucking good environments. Absolute pleasure moving through these places. So you get blasted down along the tsunami’s path, and you swim past a fuckload of drowned people (who Lara killed), and then a child falls out of a building and dies in a fire (also Lara’s fault), and then Lara climbs up and out of the tsunami’s path and goes ‘We have to get after the bad guy!’ And her buddy Jonah goes ‘what the fuck all these people just died are you even human?’
For me, again, I feel like I see where they were going, but the final product just doesn’t fully resonate. This time, it’s less an issue of scene construction and maybe more primarily an issue of context. We’ve seen too many random bystanders dying as a consequence of your actions in video games. We’re desensitized to it. Sad as it is to say, Lara’s response to a horrific disaster feels perfectly normal within the dominant frame of reference given to us in video games. It doesn’t make us blink, because – well, why would it? We’ve played so many games where none of it matters. The developers were obviously trying to emphasise the impact of Lara’s actions, particularly by murdering a child, but ultimately none of it really registers. That’s an indictment on gaming culture and the video game industry, absolutely, but it also points to a poorly designed scene. Given the culture, given the state of the industry, they needed to go in much harder on the horror to make us pay attention. They needed to spend more time with the victims, more time with the damage. But they couldn’t, because they needed to whisk you away to the next scene so you could keep playing. The issue here is basically similar to the whole colonialism thing I mentioned above: you can claim you’re addressing it in demos and pre-release interviews, but ultimately the thing that the game is trying to critique is so deeply embedded into the game that any criticism comes off as superficial. Lara killed a bunch of civilians, and it was bad! But don’t worry, we’re off on the next adventure. We’ll even skip the night that Lara and Jonah spent caring for the victims of the tsunami. You don’t need time to sit with her victims and think about the immensity of what she’s done. You’ve got a game to play.
If you were defending Shadow, you might here point out that Lara does in fact spend the rest of the game being upset by how she murdered a bunch of innocent people. And that’s true: every time you stop at a campfire for the next couple hours, she’ll have some self-doubt ‘what have I done’ hand-wringing. The problem here, as I said at the start, is that the game is much more concerned with Lara’s tears and hand-wringing than with the people she’s killed or the places she’s devastated. Indeed, the dead victims are only interesting to Shadow insofar as Lara feels bad about them. They only exist within her frame of reference, and never as their own independent characters. And you can say that Tomb Raider was never going to feature nameless Mexicans as main characters – it’s a Tomb Raider game, for heaven’s sake. And that is entirely the point. The game’s criticism of Lara’s actions is cack-handed specifically because the game itself doesn’t really care about Lara’s victims either. They are, ultimately, a set of expendable props, designed to elicit emotions in the protagonist rather than to exist as real people in and of themselves. When you consider that the whole tsunami episode is set in Cozumel, a Mexican island off the coast of Yucatan, the colonial issues just come roaring back into view. Shadow is a game about a white woman crying over the time she murdered an island full of Mexicans. It’s not really interested in those Mexicans, but it wants you to know that those murders really made the white woman struggle with her identity.