Part 2 of Kerry's essay on Tomb Raider and the ethics surrounding the representation of archaeology in video games. Read Part 1 here
The Tomb Raider series has become a staple of archaeological media, a cornerstone of artefactual fiction that promises the allure of fantastical myths, hidden worlds, and magical relics. The popularity of the series, alongside the iconic archetype of Indiana Jones (1981-2008) and even more recently Uncharted (2008-2017), thus has the potential to mediate and present crucial narratives concerning ethical cultural practice and non-human engagement. Indeed, as argued in the preceding essay [hyperlink], authors such as Cornelius Hortolf and Andrew Reinhard have emphasised the potential for such media to engage with public interactions with archaeology, to take advantage of this interaction and not solely lament that it does not reflect ‘real’ excavational practice. Archaeogamers, like Reinhard, present new paradigms in which to engage with such archaeological media, to ruminate upon its potential as a speculative field that can present ethical, material-based narratives. As I have suggested, Tomb Raider sought to capture the fantastika wonder of the artefactual quest and exotic journeying, to allow the player to experience such moments and become an active participant. The series, however, demonstrates a tumultuous engagement with cultural appropriation, not only through the adaptation of myth but even the very ‘tomb raiding’ it so self-reverentially presents. At the end of the last essay, I queried whether such a format could move in a more ethical direction. This question is one which the most recent Tomb Raider iteration, Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018), is clearly aware of, yet one which – as I will argue – confronts with mixed success.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the concluding instalment in yet another reboot of the franchise, one which promised to focus on Lara’s origins and how ‘she came to be the tomb raider.’ Following in the footsteps of her father’s research, Lara becomes equally obsessed with searching for the source of immortality. While connecting Lara’s origins to her parents is by no means a new development for the series, such an outline cannot help but reduce the independent agency that the character was first known for. Her quest begins in Tomb Raider (2013) with a search for the lost island of Yamatai and the myth of the Sun-Queen Himiko. The storms protecting the island, however, shipwreck the crew who must now keep each other safe from a group of cultists while uncovering the myths of the immortal Queen. The second game, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015/16) continues the search for eternal life, but instead turns towards locating “the divine source” in the lost city of Kitzeh. Although only hinted at in the previous game, Lara now must also combat the clandestine and secretive corporation of Trinity, who are seeking the source for their nefarious purposes – essentially the antagonist staple of archaeological fiction.
Despite the excavational drive at the heart of both games, structurally neither seems to sure of how to ethically present or mediate upon such quests. Are these survival games, action adventures, intense third-person shooters, or archaeological explorations? Certainly, Lara’s connection to the myth of Himiko at times seems to get in the way of her single-handed decimation of a cult living on the island of Yamatai. Alternatively, the player’s quest to find every single collectable provides a narrative dissonance to the apparent threat that your friends are, once again, in danger. The desire for a wondrous spectacle and mythic adventure seem at times discordant with the story it wants to tell; indeed, certain inclusions – such as the violent and gratuitous deaths for Lara in the Tomb Raider reboot – are not only bizarre choices but feel ultimately out of place. Shadow of the Tomb Raider seemed, at least on the surface, more self-aware of both the format’s exploitative paradigms and fragmentary structure. Yet, while playing, I could not help but feel a discordance between this title being vibrantly interested in discussing cultural narratives or the danger of colonial hegemony and, alternatively, permitting Lara to stage a revenge-fuelled shoot-up of an oil refinery. Such diametric opposites persist from Tomb Raider to this new interaction and will surely cause their fair-share of mental whiplashes, as even Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to not be too sure whether, yes, that really did happen.
In this final concluding chapter, the player is quickly brought up to speed and told that Lara is now rooting out Trinity Cells, following the events in Kitezh. Although there have been a number of comics sets between each game, this sudden narrative leap – both in plot and tone – already invokes the identity crisis spectre, as such an opening feels more attributed to spy thrillers than dig-site excavations. The trail leads Lara and her companion, Jonah, to Cozumel, Mexico, where Trinity has taken an interest in newly uncovered Incan ruins. Infiltrating the tomb, Lara finds the Dagger of Chak Chel alongside references to both an ancient, hidden city and warnings that removing the Dagger will trigger the Mayan apocalypse – “the Cleansing” – to occur. Lara, in her hubris, obviously ignores such a warning and takes the Dagger regardless and, as promised, triggers a tsunami that destroys Cozumel and, in the process, loses the artefact itself. Such an opening is certainly ripe for a post-colonial critique and is one which the game itself gestures at, if only momentarily. Indeed, throughout there is a certain lack of accountability to Lara’s action as, while she struggles to emotionally process the consequences, there is no lasting culpability for the destruction her journey causes. Leaving Mexico, Lara must now race against time to stop both the Mayan apocalypse and the game’s antagonist, Pedro Dominguez, from using the Dagger with the Silver Box of Chak Chel to remould the world to his desires.
If this introductory overview seems quite compact and fast-paced, then this is truly a faithful replication. Indeed, as both player and critic, I could not help but feel that the game benefited massively when it was allowed to breathe. To take a moment, reflect, and allow the player to consider the consequences of their position. There are some extremely beautiful moments: the flashback to Lara’s childhood is certain to warm many a sceptic’s heart. The return of a ‘hub-world’ that allows Lara to interact with and help local citizens with their daily problems or chores is also an important representation of ethical engagement. Both moments are stunning to behold and demonstrate how the allure of the spectacle can help present a more encompassing and pressing narrative to the viewer. Nevertheless, such aspects are undercut by more disturbing portrayals. For while it is commendable that the player may choose for NPCs to speak in their native language, Lara will continue to speak consistently in English. While surely native languages should have been the default option regardless, this bungled inclusion cannot help but remind the player of the – particularly British – stereotype of tourists progressively shouting louder in English to make their point heard. While certainly the dialect of Paititi might have been challenging for Lara to follow – it is a ‘lost’ city after all – the player is expected to suspend their disbelief with magical daggers and boxes, so surely language inclusion is not that much of a stretch? There is indeed some particularly weird ethical gymnastics surrounding Lara’s excavation of artefacts and the exploitation of local resources that she can then sell back to Paititi’s merchants, all while speaking English.
It is worth, however, discussing where Tomb Raider really does otherwise shine. The game is undeniably beautiful to explore and a number of popular staples return – the challenge tombs are one of the greatest successes, even if they are all too brief. However, the best innovation is undeniably the customisable difficult that allows the player to choose how challenging they want their puzzles, exploration, and combat to be. This aspect helps ensure not only a degree of accessibility but finally demonstrates a more open awareness to the different types of enthusiasts or followers that this series has. Collectable artefacts and murals equally make their way back into the game. Although there are much larger ontological issues with prescribing narration to objects, these are particularly compelling instances in which the player can learn about Incan or Aztec myth and culture – this is one of the moments where the pedagogical inferences of excavational games becomes clear and is a strong inclusion indeed.
Despite this, there are some very long shadows cast over the game. For example, the narrative compels the player to believe that Trinity are the ‘big bad’ while Lara is the more conscientious and understanding archaeologist, one who is more interested in supporting the local community than exploiting it. Although their moral positions are somewhat challenged towards the end of the game, certainly – for the most part – Lara is demonstrated as a beneficial force in opposition to the evil invaders, the oil tycoons, resource exploiters, and gun-toting mercenaries. From within such a dichotomy a rather worrying attempt at legitimisations arises, especially as Lara’s actions are presented as ethical and humane when compared to the over-the-top brutality of Trinity. Again, this does not restrain Lara from her aforementioned revenge rampage through an oil refinery after a poignant, if undeniably predictable, plot ‘twist.’
Lara emerges out of the water to an ominous soundtrack, almost silhouetted against a sea of flames. This is suggestibly a much ‘darker,’ more fatally driven Lara who believes that she “is the only one,” the destined hero, who can fix the apocalypse. What follows is a brief – roughly five minutes long – cover-shooting sequence that sees Lara enact her vengeance against Trinity with quite literally explosive consequences. This whole section feels so discordant with the wider narrative that I cannot help but feel that it was, at some level, an artificial insertion. Lara is supposed to be taking responsibility for her actions and realising that her influence or meddling effects the wider world. Yet, her personal revenge here causes the wide-spread destruction of not only an oil industry but seemingly the wider landscape – we can only assume this as it is diegetically unverifiable. Indeed, I think it is quite telling that this is one of the few locations that the player cannot later return to. Perhaps this was meant to be a cathartic experience for player and Lara alike, but instead it comes across that such narratives can only interest an audience if punctuated with accompanying explosions. Ultimately, it feels out of place and unnecessary within the wider context of the narrative being told.
Archaeology is an incredibly pervasive medium and its textual representation is one to surely celebrate to encourage a more open and self-reflective approach to materiality, culture, and other non-human participants. Games such as No Man’s Sky (2016) or Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017) incorporate excavational paradigms as a key process in which the avatar/player can come to understand the world around them. Although obviously there are ingrained issues within this empirical inference – and one which is far too nuanced to sufficiently engage with in this reflection – there is evidently a rich spring of archaeological media worth engaging with. The Tomb Raider series arguably struggles with the long shadows cast by both its history and fanbase expectations, of cultural expectations, commerciality, and narrative structures to name a few. Yet, for myself, the most compelling aspects were those moments where the game catalysed the player to think about the excavation they were undertaking, to consider Lara’s implication in wider social narratives and the history of (neo)colonial exploitation. Indeed, by the end of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the game seeks to re-focuses Lara’s attention away from solving myths and mysteries to protecting them. There are certainly some very compelling arguments around this intention, but – like an archaeological adventure – there are many traps, pitfalls, and dangers to be avoided in this journey. As an excavational enthusiast and die-hard Tomb Raider fan I cannot help but follow the series’ development with a keen interest and wish it every success; however, I contend that there is both room and a vital need for future games to be a little more reflective – to be bold, step out of the shadows, and convey the necessity of ethical archaeological practice.
Holtorf, Cornelius, Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Archaeopress, 2007.
Reinhard, Andrew, Archaeogaming, Berghahn, 2018.
Tomb Raider. 1996. Core Design. Video Game.
---. Shadow of the Tomb Raider. 2018. Crystal Dynamics. Video Game.