Mixed Messaging in Shadow of the Tomb Raider
I want this series and channel to be first and foremost a celebration of games and the powerful ways they can affect our lives. For that reason I don’t like to focus on games that fail to do so, but as an introductory series to themes in games I think it’s necessary to see how an otherwise good game can fail to be memorable and impactful due to mis-messaged and contradictory themes.
So we’re going to take a deep dive into 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest title from long-time Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics. Focusing on Lara’s struggle to avenge her father and an epic journey throughout Central and South America, to stop the villainous Trinity organization from ‘remaking the world’. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an excellent example of a game with very strong aesthetics and mechanics, but doesn’t bring them together with it’s text into a unified experience. While many of its themes are well conveyed, they are often only half-realized or outright in conflict with other themes.
A disclosure - I was the project manager for the Xbox One version of the Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition reboot in 2013 and worked closely with Crystal Dynamics to bring their recently-rebooted franchise to the next-gen console.
Spoilers ahead for the entirety of Shadow of the Tomb Raider!
Much like Lara, Crystal Dynamics has an obsession: creating the most beautiful art the games industry has ever seen. They are the industry leaders in creating nearly flawless visual spaces in video games, both in action and when you take a breath just to look around. For that reason we’re going to start by looking at the aesthetic themes of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. This is where I believe the developer spent the bulk of time and budget, and that reflects the importance it put on what the art in the game should mean to the player.
Every single scene of this game has been crafted with extreme care. I can honestly say that no other developer puts such careful attention to detail at a premium as Crystal Dynamics. It’s clear that an enormous amount of research, iteration and polish went into creating the regions that Lara visits. While many studios ensure their cinematics are well composed, Crystal Dynamics puts the craft of proper framing and juxtaposition into every single camera placement during gameplay. Not only does this serve an important mechanical function (guiding the player to the next platform using light and color), but it makes moment to moment gameplay look like a masterfully shot film. Even in the many set-piece chase and escape sequences, with the player narrowly avoiding hazards, scampering up walls, escaping floods and dodging arrows in benchmark-setting action sequences, the virtual cinematographer keeps pace, ensuring you always have an epic view of the action taking place.
As mentioned, almost the entire game takes place in Mexico and Peru. I claim no particular knowledge of either region, and certainly can’t speak to the accuracy of the mythos Lara recites so frequently (many other experts can and have written at length on this), but I can attest to the amount of work that went into the creation of these spaces. Game developers have mastered ways of obfuscating the need for one-off art models and animations when it’s convenient, but Crystal Dynamics takes no shortcuts.
All that said, it’s clear that the art direction couldn’t resist playing up common tropes of the region. You’ll see dozens of bodies on spikes (and be caught on many yourself), endless human sacrifices both in action and after the fact, intense body piercings, and more. Along with a near obsession with claustrophobic tunnels, the game can’t help but get caught up in the associations these cultures have with horror in the Western world.
There’s an interesting focus on Lara Croft blending in to this culture. As part of the storyline she frequently changes outfits in order to appear inconspicuous among the locals of the town or village she’s visiting. On its own this would show a degree of deference for local customs and the inevitable distress that seeing a white outsider might cause to an otherwise isolated populace, which is why it’s so strange that Shadow of the Tomb Raider has such an unusual relationship with language. Despite Lara clearly speaking the local languages (even being able to decipher ancient dialects) she only speaks English. Even stranger, all the other characters seem to switch between English and Spanish without a hitch. Why is a drunk Mexican telling a disguised Lara to scram in English? Why is the passphrase to the cult prison in English? Why don’t the guards notice the disguised Lara is saying the passphrase in an upper-class British accent?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider wants its aesthetic themes to encompass respect for these cultures, acknowledgement of their value to real people living today, fueling the player’s and Lara’s desire to protect these things from Trinity’s plans. But it frequently undercuts these values with a confusing approach to language and by tightly integrating these cultural artifacts with horror.
This horror is most prevalent in the group called the Yaaxil. Teased as violent boogeymen for most of the game, when you finally encounter these seemingly feral “monsters” you’ll spend 10 minutes shooting them with your newly acquired shotgun, and likely be brutally murdered by them a few times too. Nothing’s quite a dehumanizing as putting someone on the other side of a powerful weapon your player has just picked up for the first time.
Much later, in the game’s finale, the Yaaxil leader is portrayed as a sort of counterpart to Lara, but the audio and animation portrays them far closer to disposable orcs than human beings with self-determination and conscious reasoning. The Yaaxil hew far too close to the tales of “savages” Western colonizers would tell their children to keep them wandering off.
On the topic of Western colonizers, let’s look at the Croft family. Shadow of the Tomb Raider includes a very revealing flashback for Lara, taking us back to her childhood minutes before she finds her father killed. Two things are immediately clear, Lara Croft has always been Lara Croft, even as a child - she even has her ‘instinct’ ability in her flashback. And two, the Croft’s are fabulously wealthy Britons, with at least her father being obsessed with the collection of relics from ancient cultures around the world. This is a man who keeps an ossuary of human remains in his study (along with many other antiques).
This is not a family that respects other cultures, it’s a family that collects them and uses them to empower themselves. This is something that the game’s villain, Dominguez, recognizes early, and kills Lara’s father to stop him revealing his isolated tribe to the world.
The story of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is pockmarked by macguffins but manages to stay coherent, minus a detour into rebel monarchy politics, and benefits from strong characterizations in Lara, her best friend Jonah, the aforementioned villain Dominguez, and Unuratu, the deposed queen of the isolated Paititi village. Unuratu’s arc is laser-focused on one theme - everyone is responsible for choosing their destiny, but fails to find purchase on any of the other story elements. Few characters in this story feel bound to a destiny, and those that do embrace it willingly.
Thankfully Lara, Jonah and Dominguez share a stronger central theme. Obsession blinds you to your own weaknesses and consequences of your actions. Lara Croft is obsessed with vengeance for her father’s death at the hands of Trinity, and as is later discovered, Dominguez himself. This leads her to desperate sacrifices, both her own and those around her. In perhaps the best moment of the story Jonah shouts down Lara, who despite having seemingly unleashed a tsunami on a Mexican town, is desperately trying to leave immediately to chase down Dominguez.
“Not everything is about you, Lara”.
In fact there are a handful of excellently acted and voiced scenes that make Dominguez more than a villain, they manage to make Lara’s actions appear at least as villainous. After all, Dominguez is actually a native of Paititi, the village he’s trying to protect from being annihilated by outsiders. He’s seen the world and knows full well what happens to isolated civilizations when the world discovers them.
Lara, on the other hand, is entirely unconcerned with anything but stopping Dominguez and his Trinity organization. Ultimately, that boils down to looting the supernatural treasures before Dominguez has a chance. The truth is that Lara doesn’t really care about the ancient cultures she’s quite literally raiding the tombs of. While Lara definitely becomes close with individuals of these groups, she is wholly uninterested in protecting and preserving their way of life. The people actually living in the places Lara visits are never actually benefited by her, she is not their protector, she is an avenger blinded by obsession. According to Dominguez, her father was similarly blinded by the possibilities of revealing Paititi to the world.
This contest of wills ultimately comes down to who can obtain a dagger and a box. Dominguez will use these items to “remake the world without weakness or fear”, the specifics of this are never especially important, while Unuratu and Lara want to use it to “bring back the sun” after the coming eclipse, largely leaving everything the way it is. If neither achieve their goal, the world will be destroyed by the Maya god of creation and destruction.
It’s difficult to relate to Lara when Dominguez, by all rights, has far more at stake in his quest than she does. Nevertheless, Lara eventually succeeds in defeating a nearly god-like Dominguez and is tempted to remake the world to bring back her family. This is a powerful moment for the character, but deeply undercut by the fact she completed her quest for vengeance just moments prior. Foregoing resurrecting her loving, but deeply problematic father, Lara acquiesces to her own human sacrifice at the hands of her Yaaxil counterpart, and is inexplicably saved by… white light, negating the need to find a new lead for the next game.
I’ve no doubt that many elements of the story and mysticism are expanded upon with in-game lore and artifacts scattered around as secondary quests, but this content is best used to enhance a story, not as a means to make an incoherent finale make sense the first time it’s experienced.
Lara has one final moment after the credits roll. Her vengeance complete, she has fully taken on her father’s inheritance and settled into the Croft home, added her own relics to the pile of cultural theft, and thanks her upstanding British butler for tea.
She says “You can’t live your life if you’re trapped in the past”. It’s just a shame that the life she’s now choosing to live is her father’s.
There is a singular, overwhelming theme to Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s mechanics. Everything in the world exists to make you stronger. Enemies exist to be brutally murdered for XP (almost all of which are local people of color, by the way), living creatures exist to farm resources from, artifacts exist to complete metagame challenges, treasures (in the homes of the living and the dead) exist to be collected, and tombs exist to reward you with new skills.
This is a difficult problem that many games face. Players want every action to result in forward progress, this makes players feel like each action they take is rewarded. However it means developers must sprinkle activities, challenges and loot everywhere like breadcrumbs the player hoovers up. The end result is that no action the player takes is ever for its own sake.
This can be mitigated by careful placement of these rewards and consideration for the verbs the player uses to interact with them. For instance, in an early mission the player is given a challenge (which are additional goals the player is given for extra rewards when playing through a section of the game) to destroy 5 “death whistles”. In other words, the player is traveling through a tomb with the explicit instruction to destroy the delicately crafted chimes someone put there centuries ago. Even the game’s many puzzles usually involve destruction of cultural artifacts to progress.
In fact, virtually everything Lara does causes destruction. Practically every jump, climb, and interaction results in something crumbling or falling into an abyss. Ancient Maya bells be damned, Lara needs to reach that next checkpoint. These crumbling objects make each player action feel impactful as if you’re navigating a real, threatening world that you’re vaulting through by the skin of your teeth, but this trumps the themes the aesthetics of the game are trying to convey.
This heightens Lara’s apparent lack of respect for the cultures she visits as the player is encouraged to loot precious gems from tombs, sell them to the local merchant, and then buy a military assault rifle. It doesn’t make any sense to the text or the aesthetic the game is otherwise messaging, but that doesn’t matter because it’s part of the player-empowering feedback loop.
Mechanically, the players verbs are collect, traverse, destroy, kill, upgrade and little else.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is successful in using its tools to convey some themes, but fails to integrate them together in a meaningful way. The aesthetic themes extolling the value and relevance of ancient and modern cultures different from our own are deeply undercut by Lara’s explicit indifference to cultural preservation and the game’s insistence that the player destroy, loot and shoot their way through them. The textual themes of moving past an obsession with vengeance falls flat when, through gameplay, the vengeance is achieved anyway.
Had Shadow of the Tomb Raider weaved together these themes in an internally consistent way, left behind the harmful tropes, and focused on a single core theme, the game could’ve been far more resonant, allowing the incredible artwork and solid gameplay to be a memorable experience worthy of the cultures it cribs from.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a good game that I enjoyed playing and studying, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of the genre or devotees of the visual arts, but it’s important that we can critically analyze the games we make and the games we play. These criticisms come from a place of great affection for this medium and a strong desire to see it improve!