What role does violence play in the Tomb Raider (2013) franchise reboot? How does it shape Lara, and how does it affect the player’s relationship to her? This in-depth look explores tropes of Otherness and Abjection in our favorite gun-toting archeologist’s origin story.
Lara Croft, protagonist of the Tomb Raider franchise, is probably the single most prominent and popular action heroine of the video game world. In 1996, when the 3D third-person shooters began their rise to popularity, Lara’s physical prowess, gun-savviness as well as her relentless desire to recover archeological treasures and solve supernatural mysteries were essential to establish the franchise as a staple in a predominantly male-dominated genre.
For consumers and critics Lara also became a point of contention, especially in the context of the feminist discourse surrounding representational politics, as she was considered to be both an embodiment of sexual objectification catering to the male gaze – a scopophilic object as posited by Laura Mulvay –, and a representation of female empowerment and the diverse potential of femininity.
All in all, Lara Croft managed to be simultaneously in sync with the demands of the game industry and at odds with what the same industry had come to represent: a male dominated creative and commercial space. In her examination for GameStudies.org on the role of Lara Croft in a feminist context, Helen W. Kennedy states that Lara Croft has always been connected to a sense of Otherness:
[…] Lara explosively take[s] up space within a particularly masculinized landscape – the desert, dark urban landscapes, caves and tombs – and in doing so offer[s] a powerful image of the absolute otherness of femininity within this space. The action genre is typically masculine so this type of characterization is often celebrated as at least offering some compensation for the ubiquity of oppressive representations of women and the preponderance of masculine hard bodies. The general absence of such characters is part of the reasons why fans become so invested in these characters and helps to explain why the popular, critical and academic response is often so polarized. […] Lara's presence within, and familiarity with, a particularly masculine space is in and of itself transgressive. By being there she disturbs the natural symbolism of masculine culture.
Under the auspices of lead writer Rhianna Pratchett, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot of the franchise provides us with the origin story explaining how Lara Croft was turned into the tough, gun-wielding explorer gamers have come to know and love over the course of seventeen years. The aim was to transform what has been called a “Teflon Lara” who had lost her humanity over the years and whom nothing could touch, according to Pratchett, into a well-rounded character by casting her in the role of the survivor (Gibson). By endowing the character with a complex background story and psychological depth, the cultural icon was to be humanized.
The focus of gameplay also shifted, as the shooter elements became more heavily weighed than navigating difficult, often booby-trapped environments; gun fights used to be more of an interlude between the puzzle solving and jump-and-run exercises, a fact that’s been criticized by fans of the original franchise.
A short recap of the plot: The narrative devised for the reboot centers on an expedition led by archeologist Dr. Whitman (but based on Lara Croft’s research) into the Dragon’s Triangle off the coast of Japan, where Lara suspects they will find the legendary island of Yamatai. A violent storm hits their exploration vessel, the Endurance, and Lara and her shipmates are separated in the shipwreck. She finds herself stranded on an island, which she eventually identifies as Yamatai. However, she’s knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant as soon as she arrives, and wakes up bound and hanging upside down in an underground cavern, surrounded by corpses. Yikes. Upon freeing herself, she discovers evidence pointing to some type of ritualistic cult that is at work on the island. She escapes the confines of the cavern as well as her assailant, who’s crushed by rocks. Battered and bloody, she makes her way across the challenging landscape of the island, discovering that many of the Endurance’s crew are alive, but that a group of men calling themselves the Solarii and believing themselves to be servants of Himiko, mythical sun queen of Yamatai, are decimating them. Lara soon realizes that the Solarii, led my cult-leader Mathias, are also survivors of shipwrecks, and that they have been unable to escape the island due to some (super)natural power. That power shows itself when two aircrafts which responded to Lara’s SOS are downed by powerful storms. When Lara’s friend Sam, the expedition’s videographer and a self-proclaimed descendant of Himiko, is captured by the Solarii, Lara discovers that the supernatural force thwarting their escape is linked to Himiko, whose soul is captured in her rotting corpse, but which Mathias plans to transfer to Sam’s body. To free Sam and escape the island with the remainder of the crew, Lara must therefore first defeat Himiko’s guardians, the Oni, and destroy the mythical queen’s remains.
The words “A survivor is born” are faded in in the last frame of the game, highlighting that Tomb Raider is a narrative of transformation in which the theme of survival and trauma are central. The question is, what drives this evolution? As the basic genre of third-person shooter already suggests, violence is an absolutely integral part of the narrative. In Tomb Raider, violence derives from a hostile environment on the one hand, and an adversary force – here in the form of the Solarii and the Oni – on the other. What, then, is the transformative power of violence and how is it portrayed?
Firstly, violence is always transgressive, both morally and physically, meaning that the crossing of boundaries is central. Lara’s violent transgressions are shown to be essential to the evolution of the survival narrative, as the impact of violence on her body and psyche progressively changes not only her abilities, but her attitude.
Secondly, violence is also pivotal in the delineation of the relationship between the Lara or player character – i.e. the focalizer and complex nexus of identification for the player – to both Otherness and Abjection. From the very beginning, the threat of a first unknown Other as well as the confrontation with the Abject in the form of death and dying are absolutely defining for Lara’s character development, because they serve the narrative and ludic construction of the player-character subject (a concept that I will explain shortly).
However, the violence portrayed and enacted in the game also increasingly points to the complexity and ambiguity in the relationship between the player-character subject, the Other and the Abject. The justifications and morality of the violence perpetrated against the adversarial forces are repeatedly called into question and renegotiated, as is the position of player character and the Other.
In the portrayal of transformative violence, I want to argue here, the ambiguous position of Otherness and Abjection destabilizes the (moral) integrity of the player-character subject. The role of violence and the Other are less straightforward than the premise of a survival narrative might suggest. In order to determine how Otherness and Abjection are constructed, I will take into account the role of gender, physicality and the body as a place of transgression; the trope of nature/the supernatural vs. culture; as well as the trope of survival and trauma. The focus will not only be on narrative and visual elements, but also on the ludic framework and the way these levels of gameplay connect to each other in the portrayal of violence.
Me, Myself, and Lara
What is the player-character subject? If the player character is the avatar and focalizer of the player, meaning the entity from whose point of view the game world is perceived, the player-character subject is constructed in the course of the game through the process of identification – the establishment of a sympathetic and emphatic rapport to the character – and complicity – the direct involvement in the actions of that character. The player-character subject could therefore be considered the intersection of the player’s self and the self of the character.
Tomb Raider isn’t an RPG, the player has no direct control over the Lara’s (moral) choices or dialogue with other characters, except for the violent interactions with her opponents. Her reactions and her decisions are predefined; Lara comes with a personality that the player has little effect on, except that s/he’s responsible for driving the narrative and the character development onwards, and with it, the evolution of Lara’s psychological journey.
The player’s role is to take over command of her physical actions within the affordances of the game, i.e. within the possibilities and constraints of the semiotic sphere the player character is situated in, and to extend the capabilities of the player character by investing the gained experience – measured in points (XPs) – in a predefined set of skills. The player is also responsible for managing and expanding Lara’s arsenal through exploration and resource gathering; selecting a weapon in combat situations; exploration of the spaces open to him/her and the discovery of treasures, tombs, as well as documents or journals, which are essential to piece together the entirety of the story as other characters and the story of Yamatai are given more depth.
This means that the player only plays very superficial or distant role in the development of the player-character subject. The focus of the player’s involvement primarily lies on the investment in the tools and skills necessary for the violent interactions with the opponents. The limitations of the player’s agency are also emphasized by the frequent use of cutscenes as well as the use of forced perspectives.
Despite these constraints, the player is not restricted in his/her ability to empathize with Lara. The camera positions the player in close proximity to