“Death is a part of life!”
“That’s easy for you to say, you’re not the one dying.”
One of the wider criticisms of 2013’s Tomb Raider was that Lara Croft seemed to evolve from wide-eyed university student to a single-woman militia in the span of a few well-aimed shots. It was a dramatic character development in a game focused around giving Lara a proper origin story, but it was not impossible to reconcile given the extreme circumstances she was thrust into. People are capable of incredible and incredibly horrible things for the sake of survival, and video games are rarely known for subtlety.
Early trailers for the direct sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015), suggested that Lara was not altogether unphased by the events of the first game and was, in fact, struggling to reintegrate into society after such a traumatic experience. Perhaps Rise would be a game focused less on finding mythological MacGuffins, and more on developing Lara into a complex character whose violent past is now haunting her. But somewhere between that announcement trailer and the game’s full release something changed, resulting in a game even less concerned with Lara’s humanity and far more preoccupied with finding proof that her father’s conspiracies were more than just that.
Disappointing as the decision to dismiss Lara’s PTSD is (the effects of violent trauma are rarely discussed in games, especially those of Tomb Raider’s stature), it would be forgivable if Rise had offered something equally human in place of any deep exploration of why Lara is so compelled to put herself in dangerous situations. Instead, Rise arrives like an Indiana Jones B-Side. Ancient mysteries are discovered, long hidden civilizations are plundered, and a metric fuck-ton of people die. And Lara is the one that kills them.
Roughly a year after the previous game, Lara has become obsessed with her father’s research into the “divine source,” a device which grants immortality to those who gaze upon it. Lara’s father was widely ridiculed for his suggestion that such a thing existed, leading him to commit suicide out of shame. Lara then embarks first to Syria before arriving in Siberia hoping to put the final pieces together to clear her father’s name, while somehow through that process also coming to terms with her own questions from her previous adventure. Along the way is dogged by Trinity, effectively modern-day Templars, who happen to be racing to find the “divine source” as well.
We can see echoes of the game Rise was perhaps aiming to be at one point in its development in these early scenes, where Lara is clearly unhinged by her experience on 2013’s island and clinging to anything that might lead her to understand what she saw. However, this plotline quickly becomes secondary to the main quest of finding the source. This quest leads Lara into an indigenous Siberian village, subsequently marking for death many of the few native people who remain alive and undisturbed by the west.
In The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide (the parallel titles should not go unnoticed), Mark Levene recounts the many atrocities committed against the native Siberian peoples during 19th century westward Russian colonization and the ways both expansionists and future scholars attempted to rationalize their seizing of native land and the genocide of native people. One passage, in particular, stands out, especially as the events of this genocide inform many of the pseudo-historical documents Lara finds littered across Siberia:
“The pace, manner and scale of Russian colonisation eastwards invites obvious comparison with the corresponding US ‘domestic’ imperial surge westwards...fuelled by excess peasant populations pushing out into what were perceived as ‘virgin’ lands ripe for settlement, as well as by similar rationalisations as to why the land belonged by right to them and not the natives...equally tellingly, native resistance was stamped out at least as quickly as anything the Americans could organize.”
Though it is difficult to discern exactly what historic events Rise is drawing on for its backdrop, it is impossible and dishonest to believe that they are anything short of genocidal. Rise paints a picture of religious conflict, centered around a Christian figure clearly meant to represent Jesus Christ but referred to only as “The Prophet,” which is meant to explain the motivations for the mass killing of native peoples and the divine origin of the object Lara and Trinity seek.
What this accomplishes, however, is to sidestep the many unpleasant realities of what it means for Lara to be a tomb raider. The Tomb Raider series has always had a messy history with cultural appropriation, at times bordering on outright colonialist propaganda. But where many games could be given a dubious pass due to the civilizations Lara was trampling already being dead and buried, the native people of Kitezh are very much alive. Furthermore, they outright refuse Lara’s help until they are forced to accept it due to Trinity’s explosive entrance. Kitezh was not a tomb until Lara found it.
Rise never reconciles where the line between archeology and blatant theft actually lies. Between her many firefights, Lara spends most of her time picking through garbage, opening chests, and murdering endangered species, all in the name of exploration. But as is always the case with colonialism, what Lara is after is not really answers or the objects themselves, it’s money for a new gun upgrade and a bigger bag for furs. Everything you collect in Rise gives you experience points, being a far more integral means of progression than the actual plot as the world is stuffed to the breaking point with crap for you to pick up. These may be optional in the strictest sense, but they feel far more significant both to Lara’s character and to the gameplay, being the driving force behind exploring the obsessively detailed world.
Of the 59 skills in the game, 47 are combat focused. This makes sense mechanically, as you spend much more time fighting than you do exploring, but thematically introduces the problem of what you are actually doing here. When you first meet Jacob, the leader of Kitezh, he asks whether you can’t or simply won’t turn back. It’s one of the few moments when Rise seems to be wrestling with Lara’s identity as a mythological archeologist or bloodthirsty colonialist. By the end of the game, after Lara has brutally murdered hundreds if not thousands of men (once again this is M-rated tomb raiding, though thankfully Lara’s torture-porn death scenes did not return) it’s difficult to argue that Lara has actually accomplished anything good for the people of Kitezh.
And perhaps it is simply a matter of bad timing, but as we continue to trudge through an era of #FakeNews, holocaust deniers in the White House, and conspiracy theorists being treated as factual sources, it is difficult to buy-in to a plot whose emotional core centers around the vindication of a myth peddling white man. It is even more difficult when said plot involves the death of native people who have purposefully sealed themselves off from the world because they know what happens when the west comes knocking.
Rise might succeed in that it provides further context for just who Lara Croft is and how she arrives there from being just another rich archeology student, but the picture it paints is a dire one. Lara isn’t the hero of this story. She’s just the only one who survives.