Tomb Raider: A History of Violence
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 her body, adopting an over-the-shoulder perspective by default when engaged in combat situations, and closing in even more during quick-time events. So overall, the player’s involvement in the construction of the player-character subject might be limited in terms of agency, but not in terms of identification and complicity.
It is in these processes of identification and complicity that Otherness affects the construction of the player-character subject.
Existentialist, ontological, or also psychoanalytical approaches to Otherness posit it as essential for intersubjective relationships. The Other is the opposing pole in the dialectic that defines not only the Self, but also its ideological superiority ex negativo. Drawing on Hegel, Lévinas, and Lévi-Strauss, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of duality – that of the Self and the Other. […] Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without setting up the Other over against itself” (16-7). In the survival narrative, the Other is pivotal for the construction of the subject: it defines the subject as living in spite of the threat of dying at the hands of an Other.
In Tomb Raider, this Other is obviously represented by the deadly forces of the Solarii Brotherhood and the Oni on the one hand, and the hostile environment, which is partly controlled by Himiko, on the other. Her struggle against natural forces is emphasized from the very beginning, when the Endurance is torn apart in the storm and Lara must save herself from drowning. Her struggle to resurface is her first act of defiance against these forces, and the player is right there with her as the virtual camera is immersed in the stormy waters as well.
In the course of the game, the player character is faced with many situations that are potentially similarly deadly and require a quick reaction on part of the player in order to save Lara from a violent death. Successfully navigating these situations rewards the player-character subject with a sense of relief and satisfaction that follows an intense rush of adrenaline. (The implications of Lara’s repeated death will be looked at later.)
It is important to note that Lara is often injured in cutscenes in which the player has no control, and which are often followed by a quick-time event. At the very beginning the player must help Lara remove a metal spike that pierced her side by mashing a specific key or button. When her foot is caught in bear trap, she has to shoot wolves who jump at her from surrounding shrubs, while specs of blood spray the lens of the virtual camera. In these and many, many other instances, the visceral violence that Lara’s body is exposed to serves to reinforce the construction of the player-character’s subject as a contender in the struggle against and aggressive and deadly Other in the shape of a hostile environment.
Forms of Otherness
The environment of Yamatai and the presence of Himiko’s spirit is also notably alien in that it represents both the supernatural and the Oriental Other. Lara and Dr. Whitman being Western archeologists casts them in the role of intruders, entering into an alien space to analyze, extract, and conserve it (although as is the tradition of the franchise, Lara seems to belong to a special order of archeologist who mainly shoots, burns, or blows historical treasures up). As agents of rationality and civilization, they are confronted with the wilderness of Yamatai, but also its cultural remains.
The mythical sun queen Himiko is set somewhere in between; she is simultaneously an object of archeological discovery, and the source of much of the violence faced by Lara and the other survivors. Himiko’s Stormguard, the Oni, represent one of these threats. Otherness is expressed not only by their traditional Japanese warrior garb, but also in the monstrousness revealed when their armor is removed. The Solarii, for whom Himiko is an object of worship, have not only adapted to this Otherness, but internalized it.
Not long into the game, Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time, representing the first instance of intense psychological trauma experienced by Lara in a confrontation with a human Other. In their search for other members of the crew, Lara and Dr. Whitman are held up at gunpoint. Against Lara’s advice, Dr. Whitman gives up his gun, thinking he can reason with the attackers. They are captured and bound, but Lara manages to break free. However, the leader of the group catches her. Lara and her assailant end up struggling for a handgun, and – upon the success in the quick-time event – shoots him in the head.
Throughout the sequence, Otherness is emphasized in several ways. Firstly, the assailants stand in stark contrast to Dr. Whitman, representing the rational, non-violent and even groomed, as well as Lara, whose feminine physique is foregrounded by the surrounding male bodies. The shooting of other unarmed prisoners exemplifies the indiscriminate application of deadly violence the attackers are capable of. The threat of physical and sexual violence emanating from the large male body is emphasized by steeply tilted camera angles that show Lara from above and her assailant from below.
Secondly, Lara’s reaction to it are highlighted in such a way that her implied innocence and non-aggressive nature stand out against hostility of her attacker. During the quick-time event, the virtual camera is very close to Lara, the proximity once again highlighting the intensity and emotion of the violence experienced by the player character. After succeeding, Lara is shown standing over her attacker and a close-up shows the result of the struggle: the man is missing half his head; he bleeds out and dies. Lara breaks down crying, sitting next to the dead man’s body. Her emotions are laid bare in another close-up. The fatal violence that just occurred is shown to be anything but casual or normal. It has an impact on Lara’s psychological state. Dialogue with her mentor, Conrad Roth, later confirms this:
Lara: “Roth…I had to kill one of them.”
Roth: “I’m sorry, Lara…That must have been hard.”
Although she continues on her path armed with a bow and arrow as well as a handgun, she initially remains reluctant when it comes to using deadly violence. “Please,” she yells at her attackers at one point, “you don’t have to do this!” It is consequently important for the survival narrative to emphasize the difference between the player-character subject, who desires to hold on to its moral integrity by abstaining from aggression against others and remaining innocent, and an uncivilized, aggressive, and male Other, that uses violence indiscriminately.
This pronounced difference between the player-character subject and the hostile Other soon dissolves, however, as the gameplay aspect of the game intersects with the survival narrative in such a way what the player character’s development is based on the escalation of violence.
The skill tree is divided into three sections. The first available section is the ‘Survivor’ section, followed by ‘Hunter’ and then ‘Brawler’. The skill development mirrors Lara’s evolution from a hunter of animals – which, in the narrative, is explained by her need for sustenance at first, but turns out to be a way to find salvage material with the ‘Bone Collector’ skill – to a skilled killer.
As she becomes more adept at attacking and dodging, the player character’s performance in combat situations is improved to the point where an enemy can be taken out with the climbing axe in close combat or quietly shot from a great distance. At the same time, the player character will find weapon parts and salvage material for weapon’s upgrades. This rapid development of Lara’s arsenal reflects the escalation of violence in the narrative, as Lara, who begins her journey with a makeshift bow, proceeds to find a pistol, a rifle and a shotgun, which are later modified, only to end up with a competition bow that can fire napalm, a magnum pistol, a combat pump-action shotgun that causes burn damage, and a commando rifle with a sniper mode and an attached grenade launcher. Talk about escalation!
In the same vein, Lara’s initial reluctance to use violence slowly fades away, turning into a strong desire to live (“Yes, still alive!” she jeers at her attackers during combat) and, later, into open aggression (“That’s right! Run, you bastards! I’m coming for you all!”). Tomb Raider’s survival narrative therefore builds on intensification, turning survival instincts into killer instincts, as Lara’s violent physical and psychological trauma serves as the explanation and justification of this transition.
This evolution is in no way unproblematic, as it ultimately challenges the integrity of the player-character subject. Firstly, the realism of the portrayal of visceral violence and the player’s proximity to it emphasizes its gruesomeness. Blood spurts on the virtual camera’s lens and opponents who are set on fire scream loudly and rather long before they finally die.
Secondly, the ludic framework’s systematic and distanced portrayal of this lethal violence as a means to gain XPs, develop the skill tree, and to acquire new upgrade, highlights the status of killing as a game. So, on the one hand, the player’s complicity in causing pain, death, and destruction is shown to be necessary for the continuation of the survival narrative; on the other hand, it is also exposed as cog in the mechanics of a game.
Thirdly, in the course of the narrative, Lara’s status as a survivor and implicit justification for violence is explicitly questioned. Solarii gunmen express their fear of her proficiency as a killer (“She killed Nicolai like it was nothing!”) and even beg for their lives (“Please, I don’t want to die!”). At some point, Mathias asks her: “Do you think you’re the hero? All I did, I did to survive. How many people have you killed to do the same?” In the context of the escalation of violence that drives the construction of play-character subject forward, the comparison of the Solarii and Lara shows its moral integrity and superiority – a defining feature for its differentiation from the Other – to be more precarious than previously assumed.
If Lara’s escalating violence undercuts the integrity of the player-character subject by imbuing it with the very qualities that defined Otherness, this represents an instance of transgression brings us into the realm Abjection. The Abject, which “manifests itself in the most exceptional instances of human horror, both personal and collective, but also in the deepest structure of cultural taboo, and even in what we hold to be our highest cultural achievements” (Becker-Leckrone 152), permeates the narrative, and is pivotal for the construction of the player-character subject.
It’s not only present in the shape of the dead bodies of humans and animals that are strewn across the landscapes Lara navigates, but also in the transgressions that disturb the clear-cut relationship between the player-character subject and the Other. As philosopher Julia Kristeva posited:
The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us. It is thus not the lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does no respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscious, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is the savior… […] Abjection […] is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady; a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend, who stabs you… (4)
Following this definition of the Abject, it becomes clear that it is materialized again and again in
Tomb Raider’s the survival narrative.
First, let’s consider the most obvious manifestation of the Abject, namely the corpse. The corpse is abject because it represents a transgression within the liminal space between death and life:
There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. (Kristeva 3)
In the course of the game, Lara is not only in close contact to corpses, but also becomes one repeatedly as a result of the player’s failure to avoid one death trap or another. As seen at the very beginning, the game continuously foregrounds Lara’s physical vulnerability. Physical and psychological trauma go hand in hand in the survival narrative, so in order to make her inner pain visible, her body is injured in a myriad of ways. The transition from “Innocent Lara” to “Survivor Lara”, as the character models for Lara’s design are called, relies on this. Physical trauma is often emphasized by visual means such as shaky camera movements that blur the image, black-and-white images, or the spatter of blood on the virtual camera lens. The player witnesses and sometimes partakes in Lara’s treatment of her wounds, e.g. in the removal of the metal spike at the beginning or when the player witnesses Lara cauterizing her wound with the red-hot tip of an arrow.
More disturbingly, of course, the player is directly responsible for Lara’s death. Lara can die in a variety of ways, ranging from simply falling or drowning to being impaled by sharp objects of many shapes and sizes. These death scenes are very graphic and let the player witness her struggling for breath or reaching out desperately, and then finally, the light leaving her eyes and her body going limp. So, what we observe is not only the most extreme of physical traumata, but the actual moment in which Lara’s living body becomes a corpse. Lara herself becomes the Abject as a result of the player’s ineptitude.
However, even if the player always successfully avoids deadly situations, Lara is both actively and passively immersed in the Abject. The player character hunts and dresses animals for sustenance (i.e. salvage material), and kills dozens upon dozens of men. The representation of the remains that are the result of these violent encounters are mostly very clean, especially compared to what else Lara come across. Mangled corpses, bones, blood, and viscera are strewn about almost everywhere on Yamatai. Lara must often wade through putrid water and crawl through tight spaces filled with body parts. At one point, she is even forced to evade the Solarii by diving into what seems to be a pool of blood. In a close up, the visual camera follows Lara as she slowly rises out of the pool, her body covered in blood.
At the very end, Lara also faces Himiko’s rotting corpse, to which the undead sun queen’s raging spirit is bound. In the course of the ritual conducted by Mathias, Himiko’s face begins to disintegrate, revealing the rot underneath. Himiko, like Lara, seems to be straddling the boundaries of life and death, representing the ever-dying female body, and therefore, the absolute abject. In the course of the game, the player-character subject is both the source of death and the source of vitality and life that stands in absolute contrast to the Abject.
This ambivalent relation to the Abject fundamentally affects the construction of the player-character subject, because if Abjection – like the Otherness – constitutes that which the subject is not, and if it is that which the subject rejects in order to live – to survive –, then Mathias, the Solarii, and the player-character subject are aligned in their desire to remain alive on the one hand, and in the danger of becoming or already being Abject themselves. The Solarii and Mathias, who embodies “the killer who claims he is the savior”, represent the societal Abject, as their immersion in violence and death has led them to cross all boundaries of humanity. The survival narrative consequently puts the player-character subject in the same position, forcing a development through endless violent transgressions that turn an innocent into a survivor.
Ultimately, Mathias and the Solarii all die, as their redemption or restoration to society seems unimaginable. Yet, however wounded and traumatized, Lara remains unbroken; she is driven to continue her search for truth where before she only saw myths. The purpose of her origin story becomes clear: Only through this traumatic and violent event could she become the fearless explorer the franchise has built her as. The callous use of violence the action game genre is known for is now contextualized for this action heroine as she is shown to have surpassed her victimhood in her desire for survival to become a violent force herself.
How are we affected as players? I’ve tried to show that while the construction of the player-character subject is based on its juxtaposition with the Other and the Abject, the violence that is the main impetus of the survival narrative and character development on the level of gameplay, narrative and aesthetics, introduces ambiguity into that relationship.
The integrity of the player-character subject is rooted in its differentiation from the Other and the Abject, morally and visually; yet violence, the vehicle for Lara’s transformation, becomes an ambiguous force that creates an overlap, a diffusion of boundaries.
So one could see the survival narrative as an attempt to embed the violent female subject in the framework of a traditional gender order by justifying the violence because it targets the Other, the Abject. A female killer, a violent woman, only feels natural in the context on an unequivocal, abominable inhumanity, the argument would be. However, I what I want to suggest is that Tomb Raider manages to involve the player in the destabilization of the Subject-Other/Abject relationship. The player takes part in creating a Lara Croft who is complex and non-traditional, whose actions challenge her own and the player’s subjective integrity in a very human way, and who will hopefully continue to appeal to gamers for that exact reason.
What I’ve endeavored here is to explore the facets of the relationship between the player and the game character, as well as the complex role of violence in an action game. Further venues of investigation of Tomb Raider include a critical examination of the role of gender and ethnicity in the portrayal of the nature-culture contrast, as well as the role of the female body and corpse in a gendered space (for example in contrast with a conceptually similar franchise like Uncharted). What will remain interesting in any case, is how Lara, her narrative and the overlap of character and player evolve in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Becker-Leckrone, Megan. Transitions: Julia Kristeva and Literary Theory. London: Palgrave, 2005.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. London : Vintage Books, 1997.
Gibson, Ellie. “Rewriting Tomb Raider.” Eurogamer. Febuary 11, 2012. Web. March 25, 2015. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-01-rewriting-tomb-raider-a-conversation-with-rhianna-pratchett
Kennedy, Helen W. “Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the Limits of Textual Analysis.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Games Research. December 2002. Web. March 10, 2015. http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/kennedy/
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Mikula, Maja. “Gender and Videogames: the Political Valency of Lara Croft.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture Studies, 17.1 (2003): 80-87.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1977.
Tomb Raider. SquareEnix. 2013. Video game.