Recently, I’ve begun watching a playthrough of Tomb Raider 3 thanks to the boon of various Let’s Play channels on YouTube, and I find myself exploring the South Pacific levels by proxy for the first time in nearly a decade. (Let’s Plays let me relive the gaming experiences of my youth in the background of my life, keeping my hands free for other tasks such as petting cats and procrastinating.) This is my first time seeing this game as an adult, and I can honestly say that I am more than a little horrified by that entire chapter of the game.
Now, I loves me some classic Tomb Raider — it was one of my formative gaming experiences as a child, and Lara Croft was one of the fictional characters I looked up to when I was young — but let’s be real here: classic Lara Croft is a goddamn psychopath in every sense of the word. Her goal is to recover ancient artifacts from their resting places, presumably to put on display (usually in her private collection, it seems), and she will kill anyone who stands in her way without hesitation. By the third game, her homicidal tunnel-vision extends to indigenous peoples who are trying to protect an artifact that has significant religious importance to them.
The Pacific Island natives are forced to defend themselves and their sacred temple with nothing but spears and poisoned darts against Lara’s superior modern firepower. They don’t fair well, needless to say, and they make guttural, animal-like noises when they die; the same noises, it should be noted, that the mutant lizard-things make in later levels of this area. (Because, you know, the native peoples of any land are uncivilized animals, right?) When confronted by one of these indigenous peoples, he explains that he can’t cannibalize Miss Lara indiscriminately like his brethren might have, because “you lucky me fasting this day.”
Oh, word? Good thing this particular native was graced with some limited knowledge of the English language so Lara could converse without shooting him! She even decides to walk away without killing the guy, leaving him to his strange and exotic chanting/meditation ritual!
Now, I don’t know about you guys, but invading someone’s homeland to steal their religious artifacts, refusing to learn the native language, and slaughtering the locals when they try to preserve an important aspect of their culture strikes me as hella problematic.
Again, I would like to stress: I love the Tomb Raider series. All of it. I love Lara Croft because she’s a strong woman who is motivated by her own desires and exists on her own merit. I adore the fact that she’s not defined in relation to other characters. I am especially fond of her earlier adventures, wherein Lara is perfectly and utterly alone, and thrives gleefully by herself in environments that have mercilessly eviscerated the unworthy.
That said, I’m not going to let my love for the character or the series obstruct my view of the problematic nature of some elements in the story or gameplay, nor will it keep me from discussing ways that it could be better. It is not and never will be acceptable that famed “archaeologist”/explorer Lara Croft tromps around in undisturbed tombs and puts bullet holes into anything that moves. (I use quotes because NOT ONCE in the classic series do we see Miss Lara use best practices for setting up and excavating a dig site, nor do we ever see her carefully brushing sediment away from pottery shards with a dollar store paintbrush while getting horribly sunburned and/or frostbitten.)
This is a philosophy that I personally try to apply to all of the media that I consume, but video games in particular seem to be “problematic media” all across the board, particularly if you are a woman or identify anywhere outside of cultural norms (read: cis, white, and male). Dismissing or, worse, defending problematic elements in our favorite games as sacred canon is a troubling practice, but being shamed into silence when we encounter these things is even worse.
So, go forth and enjoy your favorites! Despite glaring cultural assumptions and stereotypical undertones sprinkled throughout, I will always enjoy a good romp through the Tomb Raider universes, fondly reminiscing of the long-gone days of yore that sparked my love of gaming. As we are enjoying our favorites, however, let us always keep an open dialogue about how we can fine-tune the things we love to be empathetic and considerate toward all of its potential audiences.
Readers: Is there a game or series of games that you really adore despite any classist, sexist, racist, bigoted or otherwise problematic elements in the game? Let’s get that open dialogue started!