This article contains spoilers for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
“I thought she was an archaeologist?” Not my words, but those of my wife, when she sat in on a recent Shadow of the Tomb Raider session, with me murdering mercenaries and dragging Lara Croft through narrow tunnels lined with decaying human body parts. And they’re words that cut to the core of the problem that Tomb Raider, as a series, has right now: just what is it supposed to be about?
When Lara Croft debuted in the original Tomb Raider of 1996, first for SEGA Saturn and then the Sony PlayStation, she was a crypt-cracking, treasure-hunting go-getter commissioned to track down valuable artefacts. With an aristocratic upbringing, the 20-something Lara rarely wanted for anything of an everyday variety, so her thirst for discovery – and risk-taking – made a sort of sense. She hunted big game, thieved from under the noses of her adversaries, and had a great time doing it.
As Tomb Raider has rejuvenated itself over the years, so the specifics of Lara’s origin have changed. 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks the final entry in a trilogy that began in 2013 with a reboot that cast her as an ambitious archaeology graduate who must learn, quickly, to stomach violent solutions to particular problems. 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider showed us a harder, tougher Lara, quicker to shoot first and ask questions later. And Shadow? Lara’s body count would make Nathan Drake blush.
PUZZLES AND PREHISTORY
Criticism for Shadow of the Tomb Raider extends beyond its elevated level of gore, distress, and graphic violence (seeing a child fall to their death very early on sets something of a miserable tone). The moment-to-moment action – climb this, steal that, slit all the throats and pick all the pockets – hasn’t changed significantly over these three current-gen games, leading to several players, myself included, feeling that the series’ formula could benefit from a shake-up. And more, perhaps – what if it’s Lara herself who needs a rethink?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider closes with Lara back home in her inherited manor, her butler bringing her tea. A patched-out alternative ending, however, paints the scene a little differently – Lara’s in the same place, albeit less bright and homely, and about to read a letter from one Jacqueline Natla, aka the primary villain of the 1996 game and a few subsequent titles, too.
Neat fan service, for sure, and a way to connect this Lara with her gaming roots through a Shadow follow-up that plays more like the first title. For those who weren’t around: a pronounced emphasis on puzzle-solving, and fewer murderous rampages.
I’d certainly welcome that (and I doubt I’d be alone). A less-violent game would be a refreshing change of pace for a hero, a genuine icon, who’s been through hell and back across her past three adventures. Give me Lara and a bunch of ruins, temples, mysteries and treasure.
The challenge tombs in the new games can be great, so there’s no reason to believe that a whole game built around them wouldn’t be great, too. Okay, let’s also chuck in a gigantic dinosaur to pop a few shots at, dual-wielding style, and a bat or two. But no mythical mutants or undead samurai, please. And certainly no shady cabals that go back a thousand years or more, because right now I’m all Trinity’ed out, cheers.
AN OLDER, WISER LARA CROFT
One potential new direction for the Tomb Raider series to take is more radical: what if the Lara we saw next time out was older, significantly so, having already seen the world and its many secretive sights, and stolen countless trinkets infinitely more valuable to their native communities than a private collection in Oxfordshire. Long-time Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett, who was behind the stories of both 2013’s Tomb Raider and its Rise sequel, as well as comics that filled in the narrative blanks between said games, has expressed interest in shifting the young vision of Lara Croft that’s been maintained since day one.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly around the time of 2018’s theatrical release of the Alicia Vikander-starring movie of Tomb Raider, which takes its cues from her 2013 story, Pratchett stated how she’d “love to write an older Lara, in her 50s, who’s grizzled and war-torn,” adding (correctly) that this is something we’ve seen in male gaming protagonists like Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher and Metal Gear Solid’s Snake. “I’d love to see that with a character like Lara – and maybe she has to take another character under her wing.”
Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t quite set Lara up with a potential apprentice, but in the warrior-souled and eager-to-explore Etzli, who she meets in the jungle city of Paititi, the series has laid the foundation for a future teaming up of experience with enthusiasm.
Okay, so Etzli does have the small matter of ruling his kingdom to attend to; but he asks about the outside world and is fascinated when Lara tells him that it’s at least 100 times bigger than Paititi. He also owes Lara his life, with her coming to his aid as he’s about to be sacrificed by the creepy mask-wearing Cult of Kukulkan. Could she call upon him, years on from Shadow‘s events, for a job she couldn’t handle alone?
OLD FRIENDS, NEW ADVENTURES
One of the best qualities of the then-new Lara Croft we met in 2013’s Tomb Raider was her affection for and commitment to a small circle of friends. These thinned out in subsequent installments – only Jonah Maiava, originally introduced as the cook on the research ship that sailed to the lost island of Yamatai, appeared in Rise and Shadow. But while comics have filled in some gaps on what became of Sam Nishimura (possessed by an evil spirit, ends up in prison) and Joslin Reyes (grudge-bearer, mother figure), a game that brought the four together could be a winner.
Just putting it out there, should anyone from Square Enix or Crystal Dynamics be reading this – four people makes for a pretty decent RPG party, no? And Square, there’s no need to be modest here – you do know your way around those things. Just a thought. And what’s an RPG without a little romance? Pratchett has spoken in the past of wanting to write Lara as gay – “Who knows what the future might hold?” – and the Tomb Raider fandom’s taken that idea and run with it, “shipping” her and Sam with relish.
Flashbacks to Lara’s childhood have been a part of both Rise and Shadow, and feature in the Tomb Raider movie – in the most recent game, we even get to play as a pre-teen Lara, climbing around the exterior of her family home, wrecking guttering and almost getting herself killed. As a kid, Lara was already addicted to treasure hunting, albeit on a smaller scale – and that got me thinking.
A DIFFERENT 80S INFLUENCE
The Tomb Raider franchise has always borrowed from the Indiana Jones movies for inspiration – indeed, one piece of early coverage for the first game, from Electronic Gaming Monthly, referred to its star “Indiana Jane”. The deadly traps found in its titular crypts can be compared to the obstacles Indy overcomes in his second movie outing, Temple of Doom; and The Hollywood Reporter, reviewing the latest Tomb Raider film, actually felt it skewed too close to the Indiana Jones formula for its own good.
But perhaps a new Tomb Raider game could shift a year forwards in its 1980s inspirations, and focus on a younger protagonist? The Steven Spielberg-directed Temple of Doom hit cinemas in May 1984, while the Steven Spielberg-written The Goonies arrived 13 months later, in June of 1985.
It shares the Indy movies’ mischievousness, their wide-eyed sense of adventure, and several moments of high-tension, high-stakes drama, albeit always framed with families in mind. The difference: the stars of The Goonies are (mainly) all kids. Would a game about a younger Lara, and her childhood chums, seeking pirate treasure, while pursued by some cartoon meanies be so much of a stretch? In all likelihood, yes. But any video game that captured the spirit of The Goonies would be onto something if you ask me.
Which, you didn’t. You might well think that the Tomb Raider series, as it stands post-2013 reboot, is just fine. Yeah, the games play the same way, for the most part – if it ain’t broke, right? But for me, I’m crying out for something else for Lara Croft, and her legacy. Something with a little more levity, some light, some humour.
Less blood, more brains. And in a mainline entry, too – as much as I appreciate Lara Croft GO, Guardian of Light, Relic Run and the rest of the sideshow releases, they’re just that. Unnecessary, really, in the grand scheme. And that’s something that Lara Croft and Tomb Raider should never be allowed to become: relics, of the kind that the character herself used to go digging for, back when all this began.