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Shadow of the Tomb Raider released recently – and unfortunately close to the juggernaut that continues to be Insomniac’s Spider-Man – and while it’s gotten good reviews for the most part, there’s been a notable divide between ‘fans’ and ‘critics’. Shadow of the Tomb Raider fans seem pleased with the reduced combat and focus on exploration and underwater traversal.
Critics meanwhile are musing that this rebooted formula has become a bit tired while the gameplay feels dull for its lack of Uncharted levels of murder like the previous two. One aspect that doesn’t seem to be garnering as much attention – which is surprising given that it feels like prime fodder for the “anti-SJW” crowd who are still mad at Lara’s insistence on wearing sensible clothing – is the franchise’s first real attempt to tackle the elephant in the room of its own deeply ingrained and uncomfortable colonialism.
While always in the background of the series, it was easier to ignore in the heady days of the 1990s where the games had more of a pulp adventure feel. Lara was a woman of few words, a deadpan adventurer, happy to murder anyone in her path and accidentally save the world along the way. Her exaggerated pin-up design helping the whole enterprise feel detached from reality. The problem now with Shadow of the Tomb Raider is two-fold; an emphasis on realism and making Lara a hero.
The more realistic environments lead to a more realistic world and therefore to a more authentically real world where the lines and ethics are forced to bleed into our own. Which could be fine if Lara was still a pulp adventurer and anti-hero who only saved the world because its ending was between her and a new shiny bauble for her basement collection. Now they want her to be morally in the right as well as someone who invades foreign countries, commits mass slaughter of numerous species, is a literal murderer, a desecrater of priceless archaeological finds and outright thief.
On the one hand, you have to admire the very intent of trying to address this issue at all, especially given just how much of the game’s play time is dedicated to earnestly engaging with the topic. The problem is that the only truly honest way to handle this problem would be to just not make the game. Paying lip service and spending a not insignificant amount of in-game dialogue discussing these themes of colonialism is all well and good but you’re still making a game called “Tomb Raider”. Challenge tombs continue to make up a sizable portion of the side-gameplay. And, crazed cultists or not, you’re still murdering people who have more of an inherited birth right to the objects you’re climbing their corpses to steal.
The Shadow of the Tomb Raider game mechanics feel so utterly at odds with the intent and you can see that the developers were genuinely concerned with the topic but couldn’t see a way to get around the standard gameplay this particular trilogy had built for itself. When you raid a tomb, you don’t take anything big back with you; your reward is a new skill from the skill tree (you still smash your way in and break who knows how much valuable architecture/machinery but that’s just par for the course one supposes).
When you successfully complete a crypt, you don’t pull something from a corpse and claim it as your own, you have to ‘restore’ it first with scavenged resources, giving the illusion that you ‘saved’ something. But you still just pulled rags off a corpse, made them look nice and are now parading around in some stat-boosting culturally appropriated threads.
Then there’s the scavenging itself which seems harmless until you sprinkle in some context…
From reading quotes with the devs, they set this game in South America intentionally to ground the world of the story and address these very themes, but in reality it made said themes so much worse and more glaring. With the previous two games in this timeline there was enough distance to not make you think about what you were doing. First you were on a cultist-ravaged Japanese island no one could reach because of a magical storm killing almost everyone who set foot on it.
Then you were in the Siberian wilderness, picking through the remains of tombs that Russia had already plundered and trying to stop further plundering/global domination by Vatican-funded, very white, bible quoting paramilitary types. It was easy to see Lara as the lesser evil in these cases. Shadow of the Tomb Raider knows exactly what Lara is and starts with you as the villain. Lara’s need to beat Trinity to the artifact causes her to put a Mayan apocalypse into motion, the first stage of which is a tsunami obliterating the small town you just spent the prologue plodding around and interacting with NPCs in, culminating in a frantic-with-guilt Lara watching a child die in front of its parents because of what she did.
This is a very effective and genuinely interesting direction to take the Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Lara. However the vast majority of the game is spent awkwardly ignoring it, reminding you of Trinity being the real villains (“they’ll do much worse if they get the McGuffin” etc) and providing Lara with multiple opportunities to become a new friend and valued killer to any locals that need her to fetch something or murder some dudes about to kill a child (it’s only just occurred to me how many children the side quests and main story make you save, clearly to assuage Lara of the guilt of that opening). You spend your time between deeply impoverished modern villages who’ve been abused by Big Oil or a lost civilisation cut off from the modern world but secretly being manipulated by Trinity.
And here’s where we return to the scavenging; in what world does it feel right to take gold and jade from any of these people? You can almost get away with justifying the gold you physically mine yourself (until you then walk 10 minutes back to the market and trade it back to them), but what of the gold you take from crypts? Clearly left there as a burial offering by someone’s ancestor in the nearby village. The desecration is bad enough given how hard the game wants you to sympathise with these people, but pocketing every bit of precious metal from a struggling and technologically inferior culture, while yourself being an impossibly wealthy English woman does not sit at all well.
Given that Shadow of the Tomb Raider increasingly paints Lara as post-morality when it comes to how she coldly and viciously deals with Trinity lackeys, it would have felt more honest to end with her realising she can’t stay in this business and think she’s in the moral/ethical right, thus leaving her neatly where she started in ‘96. Or at least hand back the vast trophy room we see is in her house during the bleak flashback. Hell, if even *one* native villager didn’t like her owing to her presence as a violent, white coloniser who smashes up the village, that would be a start.
It reminds me of the recent Bond films which tried very hard to play down all the dodgier elements of the character but only ended up drawing infinitely more attention to them when the requirements of the franchise demand they still happen anyway. It’s oddly fitting that Lara and Bond find themselves together, sitting on their successful franchise thrones and shifting uncomfortably as the modern world clears its throat from nearby.
Lampshade-hanging is for plot holes, not colonialist overtones.