[Author’s Note: This is a non-spoilery review of the game! You can read even if you haven’t played or watched it yet.]
I’ve written a lot about Tomb Raider over the past few months. Not only did the adventures of Lara Croft initiate me into games as a child, her pioneering tenacity helped me come to terms with my identity as a lesbian. The franchise was hugely influential in my life, and I honestly don’t know whether I would have come to love gaming as much had her story not existed. You’re waiting for the other proverbial boot to drop, aren’t you? Okay, I’ll cut to the chase: I’m not feeling Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I’m here to discuss a key element in the last game that was conspicuously—and, in my opinion, detrimentally—absent from its sequel.
Last time, we left off with Lara departing from the fabled Yamatai on a passing freighter, shaken from the events on the island, yet fiercely determined to uncover more secrets about her family legacy. Okay, cool. Who doesn’t love a good origin story? The trailer revealed at E3 2014 for the next installment promised a great deal to fans who were eager to continue this journey. Quite understandably, and in a rare turn of events for a big budget game of this caliber, Lara would apparently struggle with the horrors of what she experienced. Rise of the Tomb Raider would be her path toward finding herself, fraught with the struggles of someone who clearly suffers from severe trauma.
To me, this was clearly setting us up for a new opportunity, something that rarely, if ever comes along in the gaming industry: an exploration and reaffirmation of the deepening relationship between two capable women in the face of hardship. Yes, two women. Out of everyone who embarked on the Endurance for that fateful trip, Sam was the one person who understood exactly what Lara had went through. For Rise of the Tomb Raider to feature two leading women who support one another would mean the much-needed end to the hypermasculine, devil-may-care adventurer with no regard for anything but the end goal and his chosen squeeze. I was so ready for this, folks.
None of that glorious potential for a queer exploration between two strong women came to fruition. In fact, in a bizarre turn of events, Sam was removed from the equation entirely. Not to be deterred (because we queer folk learn to scavenge for bait where we can), I kept up my desperate search for any hint of Sam’s whereabouts during my initial playthrough. Maybe if I wished really hard and looted enough, we could contact her over the radio? Find a crumpled up, clearly re-read letter somewhere in Lara’s pocket? Anything?
You’ve got to be kidding me.
To be honest, I’m not entirely surprised that Sam didn’t make the cut for the second installment. Queer characters—and, in particular, queer women of color—are sidelined pretty regularly in games, to say nothing of their shoddy portrayal across mainstream media in general. When I first heard rumblings that Sam might not return, I was immediately reminded of The Last of Us. Riley appears only in a DLC before she’s conveniently eliminated the moment a romance is confirmed between her and the lead, Ellie. Why is it apparently cool for the queer white woman to get a beautiful redemption arc, but the queer woman of color has to sit the rest of the adventure out?
Removing that fundamental piece from Lara’s life is to leave a gigantic, gaping hole in the progression of her character development. On a purely technical level, Sam existed as the literal bridge between two worlds: reality and myth. She was certainly hardworking, but also knew when enough was enough, and she expertly softened Lara’s edges simply by being near her. Sam made Lara laugh and smile for God’s sake, and that’s while they were being hunted by armed, aggressive fanatics. Like the classic boyfriends of old, Sam was the Kirk to Lara’s Spock, the Watson to her Holmes, and together, they would be more. Rise of the Tomb Raider could have fostered that connection between two independent, skilled women with a level of finesse that we still don’t see in pop culture … literally ever.
Instead, Lara’s father was shoehorned in for the driving motivation of the game, which became more than a little frustrating. At every turn, Lara is either being guided by the blurry flashbacks of Lord Croft or the crackling radio of Jacob, who is—surprise—another middle-aged white dude. Because that totally hasn’t been done before. (Cough, Roth, cough.) Where her father is (and always has been) largely absent in Lara’s life thanks to his debilitating ambition, it was Sam’s absence that felt deeply misplaced. I’m sure we’re meant to assume that Lara inherited her father’s career-driven personality just as much as his stubborn determination, but I’m not buying that she would so easily discard Sam.
In the last Tomb Raider, Lara was ready to abandon her initial search for answers the moment her friends were in danger. Narratively speaking, removing Sam from the story entirely frees Lara from a lot of compassion that made her human, not to mention any lingering sexual tension and deep affection that began to blossom between the two. It’s apparently more important to depict Lara squeezing her hair dry after a swim and scavenging for crafting materials than it is to depict two women approaching something like love. I’m hearing you loud and clear, Square Enix, and I’m not liking it.
We talk a lot here about representation for women in games, but I honestly think we should be stepping a little beyond that at this point. I’m more interested in discussing the relationship between characters who are women, and how that’s portrayed and cultivated over the course of a story. Or not at all, as the case usually is. What really did happen to Sam, anyway? According to the Wikipedia:
“After Himiko had transferred part of her soul to Sam, she began to change and act strange. She begins to suffer from violent outbursts, blackouts, and being very distant. One of the results of which, Sam assaults a man, and ends up being imprisoned in a mental institution.”
Because that’s definitely not something Lara would ever comment on within the context of the new game, nor reason to express any concern—even in passing. Yikes. If anything, it sounds like Rise of the Tomb Raider would have greatly benefited from including Sam’s journey through her own healing process. How utterly revolutionary would a game like that have been? Just picture it: two women learning to trust in their own companionship and seek solace in each other’s company. They’re still capable and skilled, yet that doesn’t diminish the fact that they have a lot of work to do in terms of self-care. Together, they find strength in their shared journey, both for the Divine Source and inner peace. Except Sam was removed from the equation entirely to make room for … something? Not tombs, at any rate.
To eradicate Sam from the narrative is, in my opinion, to remove the fundamental groundwork that the first game worked so hard to establish. And, quite honestly, the first game did achieve some truly wonderful moments. In the Tomb Raider reboot, the relationship between both young women is so strong that it drives Lara through hell and back just to get to Sam. It’s very clear that this affection was intended to stand in stark contrast to most of the men who populate their story (with the exception of Jonah). Where the original games were unequivocally about Lara Croft, the reboot was about Lara’s relationship with another woman—and how that empowered her.
Without Sam by her side in Rise of the Tomb Raider, we’re just pillaging ancient tombs, looting priceless artifacts, and mowing down faceless NPCs. It’s cold, and I don’t just mean the sunny Siberian weather. Why is it that all “Strong Female Characters” have to be depicted as brutal and heartless in order to be held up as a fine example of writing? Why can’t women be allowed to cultivate loving relationships with other women? If you play the game for long enough, this well-worn writing tool is never more apparent than when you realize who was working against Lara’s father, and who, ultimately, is prepared to sell Lara out in order to get ahead.
There’s a scene (and I won’t spoil!) where Lara, in her admittedly justified fury, almost calls another woman a “cunt” before the word is bitten off. It’s that kind of gendered inflammatory language that pits women against each other, much like “whore,” “bitch,” and “dyke.” We’re creating divisions between us, forcing separation where there could be strength. Plus? It’s completely unnecessary. I’d expect language like that from Konstantin, the lead antagonist of the game, or any one of his faceless cronies. But when I heard Lara wielding it against a fellow woman, I knew Rise of the Tomb Raider wouldn’t be rising above its own internalized misogyny any time soon, and that’s really disappointing.
I’m not the only one who feels this way, either. While this particular article was published before Rise of the Tomb Raider was released, “Why Sam Nishimura Being Sidelined is Such a Big Deal for Lara Croft” sums up my experience playing the game so well, it’s almost prophetic:
“The first game showed a fantastic range of emotion in Lara, a character who developed and drew her tremendous strength and perseverance from her desire to save Sam, her friends, and whoever else she could from torture and death. That is what kept her going, and what led her to perform amazing feats of incredible bravely, to finally be united with Sam, to save her and everyone, and to lead what remained of her crew off Yamatai. Why are the devs trying to strip Sam away from Lara? Why is Sam spoken about on some of the official forums like a weakness for Lara? Sam helped Lara develop into the heroine that she is.”
Lara already had to ~go it alone~ in the first game. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Jonah traveled all the way to Siberia with her in order to prove that she didn’t have to face her problems like that again. Isn’t it time that we allow women to support one another, too? Or are we fearful that women banding together will become too overpowered? Because, yeah. That’s a thing.