I went into Tomb Raider (2013) knowing a lot of the controversy surrounding it—that there is a great deal of violence against women, that there are several assaults that are problematic, and the like. I was aware of all the charges against the game, and to say that I was tentative about playing would be putting it mildly. Did I really want to play a game that glorified violence against women? However, what I actually encountered in the game seemed to be a touch different than what others have said. I really enjoyed it and found some parts rather amusing and interesting. There were only a few disturbing moments, so I was rather confused as to why there was any controversy.
The actual gameplay is what you might expect from a Tomb Raider game. There is combat for sure, utilizing various weapons, but primarily it has always been a franchise where you need to solve puzzles in order to move forward. A number of the puzzles involve you timing jumps right, figuring out where things go in order to use them as platforms, figuring out how exactly to cross a crevasse, etc. These are all the challenges that have been in the classic games, which made the franchise so much fun. A few moments were rather traumatic where you have to run and maneuver through things before destruction catches up with you. They really did a good job upping my adrenaline at times and the graphics made for a very visceral experience.
Story-wise, the game was fundamentally a reboot of the Lara Croft universe. This is a young, jaded, kind of innocent Lara Croft who is thrown into what is essentially Lost but with a more cohesive plot and serious bad guys. I did appreciate that her breasts were not as huge as before, so she looks more like an athletic young woman. She is still a terrible archeologist—blundering through ancient tombs, breaking the occasional relic, and the like. Granted, actual archeology would make the gameplay tedious and frustrate players more than usual, what with the careful cataloging, the establishing of grids to make the study as accurate as possible, etc.
The island that you traipse through is essentially a murder and death porn paradise. When Lara wakes up hanging upside down surrounded by bodies, bits of bodies, and blood, you are well aware that this isn’t Wonderland. It has a feeling of an all you can eat cannibalistic funhouse. The stakes are terrifyingly high given how over-the-top the opening is.
Lara’s primary motivation throughout the game is to rescue her BFF Samantha Nishimura, who has been kidnapped by the locals for a rite involving an ancient Lich Queen who can control the weather. The vibe the game gives you is that Sam isn’t just her friend, but her girlfriend, making Lara’s reasoning for giving her all in order to rescue her perfectly sensible. It is never explicitly stated that they are a couple, but some of the voice acting and animation certainly leans that way. Maybe I am just seeing things with my shipper glasses, but it was definitely there. Lara basically travels and fights her way through hell to get to her girlfriend, which is fun and feels like an honest and valid motivation for all Lara does. There are definitely some amazing cinematic moments in the gameplay that are rather stunning in all honesty, mostly driven by Lara’s intense need to get to Sam.
Another thing I liked was that Lara’s enemies weren’t a lot of Pacific Islanders in a lost and forgotten tribe, too primitive to really put up a fight. No, the main villain is a white man who got stranded here and lost his sense of reality as he tried to survive. His minions, the primary people you fight through, are either Russian or American. So it is basically Lara versus The Army of Angry White Guys. And it is a serious fight against them, as they make some excellent enemies. This is a nice change from Lara Croft killing her way through native, primitive cultures in her path to glory.
And the evil whiteness does not stop there. I noted that, of the ship’s crew when it crashed, those who died that Lara was familiar with were all white. The grumpy old man who gives himself to save her, the mentor passing on her father’s legacy, the naïve electrician trying to prove himself to her, and the traitor who puts his reputation before other’s safety—they were all white. The survivors of this Disneyland of Death, with the exception of Lara, were all people of color. Sam is Japanese-Portuguese, Joslin Reyes is black, and Jonah Maiava is Polynesian—all of whom make it to the end. That was rather striking, as usually POC die more often then the white people. There are a number of classic tropes that were thankfully ruined.
The Japanese bad guys show up primarily at the end, and they are more akin to undead hordes than anything else. There was no destroying their samurai culture, as the game had painted them as undead minions of the MacGuffin: Himiko the Sun Queen. Himiko’s storyline and the bits of information that the game doles out about her followers tells an interesting story about their culture and what it is based on, but it is as violent as the unhinged white guys, so Lara just sort of ploughs through them to save her girlfriend.
As for the extreme violence towards women … well, yeah, that’s there, but not in the format I had expected. There are a number of disturbing scenes where men attack and hurt Lara. I found those sequences had little to do with sexual assault and more to do with the fact that the they lived in a culture of violence and killed almost anyone they came across. They were attacking and trying to kill her just like they did the others, so there was no gender issue with that. It was just who they were. Thanks to that backstory and setup, that violence all made sense and fit the storyline. No, the biggest violence against women bit was the excessively graphic death scenes that play out when Lara doesn’t do what she is supposed to.
I was treated to a number of scenes where Lara cracked her head open and drowned, was impaled on various things, including a few through the head where she clutched and grasped at the pole helplessly. Those scenes were the most disturbing because someone put a lot of thought into how Lara would die and what it would look like. They made the scenes graphic enough to really unsettle the player. Falling deaths were not big deal, as they were dealt with as is usual with that style of game, but there were times where those death scenes made me very uncomfortable, as it was a bit more graphic than needed.
All in all, I really enjoyed Tomb Raider. It is an excellent reboot of the franchise and establishes Lara’s character rather well, giving her an interesting backstory and some pretty cool friends. She is not the do-all, be-all that she used to be, being rather more realistic than prior games, which is a nice change of pace. The game is excellent and flows well with a sensible narrative and understandable bad guys along with great upgrades in power as things progress, tying some of those upgrades into the plot itself. So, despite the violence inherent to the system, I would recommend Tomb Raider to anyone who is interested in a combat and puzzle-solving game. While there are some disturbing moments, it’s a blast.