Shadows over the Tomb Raider (1997-2018) Part 1

Lara Croft looking out over a snow covered mountain range

“I only play for sport” (Tomb Raider / Tomb Raider: Anniversary)

An explosion rips through the deserts of New Mexico. An artefact, both ancient and futuristic, flies through the sky. A chasm opens and releases an ancient horror upon the world.

So begins the very first Tomb Raider (1997); simplistic, but elegant, in its direct approach. This description may evoke or conjure many archaeological tales for the reader as it is not only a well-worn trope of the genre, but one which the Tomb Raider series has indeed cemented. From the very beginning the player is subsumed into its overt archaeological question: to understand the provenance of these unknown artefacts, to navigate the forgotten depths, and stop the voracious ‘evil’ that has been released. By now Tomb Raider has become an icon of archaeological media, one which divides practitioners on whether its popular appeal has done more harm than good to the reputation of the field itself. Dual-pistol wielding, acrobatic, and quick-witted, Lara’s very introduction demonstrates that, like the gamer, she too was playing for fun.

Archaeological fiction has become a popular and well-recognised narrative format with its tropes of magical relics, mythic civilizations, or lost cities that suggest a deeper, more fantastical, secret to be unearthed in an otherwise charted planet. Such tales undeniably, owe much to the Indiana Jones (1981-2008) franchise, although many professional archaeologists consider this to be a somewhat poisoned chalice that has irreparably damaged their public profile. Indeed, the films provide the mystic allure of the Ark of the Covenant or the wish-granting promises of the Holy Grail, fantastika objects that seek to introduce a little magic into materiality and offer the (particularly colonial) allure of tomb raiding, globetrotting, or being the archaeological hero who foils the evil antagonist. Tomb Raider’s success is thus hardly surprising given that it allowed the player to experience such fantasies, to become the excavational adventurer, follow mythic clues, and delve to the depths of Helheim and back to uncover (and so frequently lose again) artefacts of unimaginable power.

Yet the series is not without its ethical issues. Even the title self-referentially foregrounds the player’s role as a ‘tomb raider,’ inhabiting all the (often unsaid) dubious concerns that this raises but never quite dispels. Arguably the series is less about Lara’s history itself (of which the early games offer scant details) but rather the actual process: to raid tombs. This is a subtle, but important, distinction that many of its contemporary sequels seem to struggle with as they seek to narrate or explore Lara’s intimate connection with the truths she hunts, rather than treating other cultures as being to pilfer as 'sport.' Uncharted (2007-2017) too has attempted to run this gauntlet by suggesting that its central character, Nathan Drake, is a distant relative of Francis Drake and is thus following in his footsteps. Yet, let there be no mistake that these attempts at legitimisation are overtly tracing colonial footsteps, ones that the games dubiously skirt in a very neo-colonial manner. Is it, therefore, possible for archaeological video games, whose very nature emphasises artefactual interaction, to promote an ethical and conscientious outlook to the myths or cultures they engage with? How do these games codify interactions with the non-human world? Should we be looking for more ‘authentic’ representations of archaeological practice?

Lara Croft exploring a room where the floor is glowing with map symbols

The early games, developed by Core Design, included little diegetic excavational practice, rather this was driven through the settings and objects themselves: the hunt for artefacts. Despite video games being filled with a multitude of ‘objects’ – even the code itself – the player is routinely encouraged to seek a singular artefact, one which is often invested with narrative rather than functional value. The early Tomb Raider games then followed a precedent in which the story itself was conveyed through a number of cutscenes that would book-end each level. While meaning could be inferred through the navigation, exploration, or interaction with the landscape and the objects it contained, wider narrative inferences were usually relegated to the ‘plot’ sections. Certainly, this lack of engagement with the very process of archaeology is an opening for more ethical modes of narrative. This period in gaming, often perceived to be the ‘classics,’ favoured a global journey between multiple archaeological sites, myths, and cultures, where each would ‘offer’ a piece towards a final puzzle to uncover – and in so doing avoid delving within the complexity of any one social sphere. Again, this is no surprise to the format and can be found in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), and Relic Hunter (1999-2002) amongst many other examples.

As the Tomb Raider series progressed the developers seemed pressured to push new boundaries, new limits of where Lara could explore. The sixth instalment The Angel of Darkness (2003) from its very outset sought to ‘modernise’ Lara, to update the game’s format with Role Play mechanics, interactable Non-Player Characters (NPC), a ‘darker’ tone, and the prospect of a second, playable character. Rather than emphasising the traditional globetrotting journey, Angel of Darkness is set solely in Paris – reminiscent of narratives such as The Da Vinci Code (2003) which equally suggested that these mythical excavations can happen within Western metropolises. Although the engaged interaction with local cultures and people is arguably a positive direction for the series, sadly its execution somewhat pointed towards an identity crisis – perhaps the fault of an unguided direction that saw such mechanics become momentarily relevant before largely fading into the background. Hedging off the perceived promotional support from the two Angelina Jolie films (2001, 2003), the game was rushed through development and large narrative sections were cut – including the bizarre reason to avoid sufficiently explaining Lara’s survival after her all-but-confirmed death at the end of the last game. Alongside crippling glitches, Angel of Darkness would sadly be relegated as both a critical and commercial failure, quite aptly an artefact which promised more than it could ever provide.

Image of a 'mummy' bear

It is hardly surprising then that the next main-line instalment would seek to reboot the format in order to resurrect its mummified corpse. As development shifted to Crystal Dynamics, the series sought to capture a more cinematic and spectacular landscape alongside the intriguing mythic narratives the classics were known for. This new trilogy of games, Legend (2006), Anniversary (2007) – a remake of Tomb Raider – and Underworld (2008), were equally interested in providing a moral alibi to Lara’s excavation. Indeed, the injection of a tragic backstory regarding the death of her mother sought to provide a legitimisation to Lara’s search – that she is looking into the mysteries surrounding this event rather than necessarily looting the past. Drawing on Arthurian, Atlantean, and Norse myth, the series returned to its core identity and mythological roots while experimenting with more modernised mechanics. The trilogy also emphasised the apparent pressure for these games to now be considered as visual spectacles – to elicit a ‘wow’ factor from its audience – that has only increased following the popularity of Uncharted. There is thus a degree of performativity to both the series and genre more widely, one which is not only found within the animation of its core artefacts – a supernaturalism that invests a degree of wonder within ‘mundane’ materiality – but also the representation of exotic awe. Although the games can produce moments of sheer beauty, it is important that they remain aware of the biases ingrained within such portrayals. Despite the series’ clear endeavour to engage further with processes of non-human contact (exploration, survival, navigation etc), it still cannot quite escape the criticism that has continually been pointed at the series: that this is not ‘real’ archaeology.

Many academics and archaeological practitioners would be quick to point out that, despite the ethical concerns involved within the eponymous ‘tomb raiding,’ very little true excavational practice takes place. Despite for many Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, or more recently Uncharted, being gateways into archaeological curiosity, each is undeniably a far cry from the work that ‘real’ archaeologists undertake. Yet as Cornelius Hortolf suggests in Archaeology is a Brand! (2007), this is not a vice to shed but rather an alignment to embrace: “Few disciplines are lucky enough to be similarly widely and similarly positively represented in popular culture as archaeology is” (133). For while series such as Tomb Raider may undeniably struggle to replicate authentic excavational practice, they are prime narrative formats to convey the prime tenants of the field: its potential to educate and inform wider communities about the importance of archaeological method. Authors such as Andrew Reinhard have been keen to reinforce such a call and demonstrate how practices such as Archaeogaming – ‘the archaeology in and of games’ – not only utilise video games as a site for excavational practice but may in turn reflect and influence their ‘real’ counterparts (7). Reinhard’s proposed methodological framework for video game archaeology is thus a progressive step into the welcoming inclusion of such mediums that appeals and aims to enlist public interaction. The ‘No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey’ is a prominent and compelling example – of which Reinhard is a founding member – that adopts archaeological practice and deploys it within video game worlds, while also being open to community-led practice. Within these frames, then, emerges the potential for an ethical and respectful archaeological practice, one which works with local groups and is attentive to the nuance of its excavational paradigms.

While growing up I was a huge archaeology enthusiast. Tomb Raider was the first game I remember watching or playing and narratives of artefacts or lost cities fuelled my fascination with mythical stories, becoming such an abiding interest that it even informed my choice of PhD topic. Having read archaeological and material theory, however, on reflection there are some particularly worrying moments of cultural, political, and ontological negotiation at play across not only this series, but much of the media that was incredibly formative for me. Yet, I believe that there is still a vital and important role that archaeology can play in the negotiation of cultural narratives and indeed one that the video game format is primely established to convey. ‘Walking simulators’ – Gone Home (2013), Firewatch (2016) – or object puzzle games – Myst (1993), Obduction (2016) – demonstrate the pervasiveness of games aimed at exploring the connection between a person and the world around them; certainly, then, excavational games also have the potential to convey ethical, conscientious, and de-colonised narratives of cultural experience.

However, can such a process be replicated within more mainstream games? Is it possible to produce a video game that utilises archaeological settings and is yet mindful of the ethical implications of its gamified ‘tomb raiding’?

Part 2 of Kerry's Tomb Raider reflection to be published next Monday with a specific focus on the latest game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider.


Kerry Dodd is an Associate Lecturer at Lancaster University, UK, having recently completed his PhD at the same institution, and currently Acting Head Editor for Fantastika Journal. His thesis, entitled “The Archaeological Weird: Excavating the Non-human,” examined the intersection between archaeology and Weird fiction. Focusing on the cultural production of the artefact encounter, his thesis explored how archaeological framings can offer a re-conceptualisation of object ontology through the Weird. Kerry also works more widely in the fields of: Science Fiction (particularly Cosmic Horror and Cyberpunk), the Gothic, and glitch aesthetics.

Sources Cited

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.

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