'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' Tries, but Fails, to Tackle Its Own Colonialism


#1

(This review contains light spoilers for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.)

“Every day it encroaches. Paititi will not survive its invasion. Everything we are will be taken or destroyed.” It’s not a line of dialogue I expected from a Tomb Raider game. But deep into the narrative of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it’s a position passionately argued by one of the main characters. They’re talking about the outside world. About colonialism.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialism

#2

John Walker’s copy over at RPS was crippled by progressively-larger movement glitches to the point where he couldn’t finish it, which is ummm… real bad


#3

Really great review. Glad Dia Lacina was able to review this one! Quick comment: in the review summary image, “majestic” is spelled wrong, as “majetic”, missing the S.

I was really hoping this game would more critically address these issues, but I also think this might be influenced by my own interest in the series despite its colonial undertones. (This is also coming from someone who’s being playing La-Mulana lately and likes Spelunky sooooooo…) The romanticized image of the adventurous archaeologist is a mindset that I think I need to weed out of myself more thoroughly. The statement “It belongs in a museum!” inherently implies “But not in the hands of the people who own it!” Side note: why isn’t there a game like this where instead of stealing artifacts you just… research and take pictures of them???

But I also wonder how much of the problems addressed in this piece about colonialism are due to the game being unwilling to criticize Lara deeply. Lara is the protagonist, and the game refuses to treat her as anything less than “ever-so-slightly flawed heroine”. It sounds like it took many first steps, readdressing caustic and false narratives, even if they ended up falling back on them later on. But the most important step with a game series literally named Tomb Raider (another word for “grave robber”) is to realize and convey that raiding tombs is not just “not good”, but inexcusable and immoral, and because of that, so is Lara. Especially as long as she continues to do it. But to do that would mean they would have to criticize Lara (and, by extension, the player), and, in fact, criticize the series itself.


#4

Dia, as brutal and uncompromising as ever (this is a compliment). Honestly, the world needs more “Your #problematicfave is fucking bad and you should feel fucking bad for liking it” takes.


#7

At first I thought “this is a damn good review”, looked at the author and will remember her name from now on.
At

No matter how historically accurate the practice was, its deployment in this game (and across media depicting these particular peoples) becomes shorthand for showing how violent, uncivilized, and truly savage they are. It’s used no differently here, and locating it within the majestic city of Paititi, only serves to condemn even these Good Brown People, as only slightly removed from the depravity of their ancestors and the game’s Bad Brown People.

I felt the perspective a bit forced. Of course, I haven’t played the game, maybe it does condemn even the good people as not removed enough from that past, but I doubt it. Seems more like the author chose to interpret it that way even this conclusion wasn’t the obvious one. As a German I don’t feel condemned by other people bringing up any WW2 Nazi topics either.


#8

Good, thoughtful review. I was left a bit wondering by one thread of the ending, though.

Tomb Raider is and will always be Lara Croft’s playground. And as uninteresting and fundamentally regressive as Lara’s tale is, that’s the only story that this franchise can tell.

I think this is true when this next bit is applied:

Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t want Lara to fail, it’s her fantasy, and because of that it doesn’t allow players the freedom to be expressive.

But it also seems to me that it would be possible to have a Tomb Raider game that does acknowledge the possibility of failure, does acknowledge things that are beyond Lara’s scope and ambit, and continues onwards anyway. Now, that’s obviously a hard thing to do when Lara is designated as the protagonist and viewpoint character of the game, but I’m not convinced that it’s not possible.


#9

It’s definitely possible, just inherently risky. It would fly in the face of the typical power fantasy that these types of games tend to express.

I’d love for developers of a Tomb Raider to take the risk of painting their heroine in a historically relevant, negative light. But will a large game company be willing to do this?


#10

I’d love that combined with a Dishonored style chaos system for being spotted or disruptive.


#11

fuuuuck yooooou this is a great idea, holy shit

the game would be tactically difficult because your character, who is attempting to be as noninvasive as possible, is trying to access these relics without breaking anything or pissing off the locals who have been generous enough to let you near them in the first place, thereby rewarding stealthy, careful movement


#12

An important takeaway that I feel many won’t leave with is that it seems like Dia basically liked the game, she just had real problems with it, too. Those feelings aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s okay to like the journey of these stories while still coming away thinking, “Lara/Indy/Jack (from Romancing the Stone, a movie that rules) is an asshole,” even when the narrative might tell you, “no, they’re the good guys in the end.”

We don’t have to tell ourselves to stop liking these stories. The reasons we like these stories probably aren’t because the protagonist is an asshole who is robbing ancient cultures. For me, I like (LOVE) these tomb-raiding stories because I love the idea of secrets, cultural, geographical, or otherwise, and these stories are always about secrets being revealed. My interest in tomb-raiding stories transposes directly onto my interest in conspiracy stories, which are often structured similarly.

Dia ultimately appears to be arguing for stories like this in which the protagonist is either not an outsider attempting to rob a culture, or is an outsider, but one whose actions and motives the story necessarily and soundly condemns. The reasons for which I like tomb-raiding stories would still apply to stories about those kinds of protagonists, and I’d bet the same can be said for anyone else who is grappling with their conflicted feelings about these kinds of stories.

In the end, everyone should be encouraged to have multiple feelings about the same thing. Cognitive dissonance should be welcomed, not seen as an impetus to “make up your mind” and go to one “side” or the other. It’s complicated, but it’s good! Enjoy Tomb Raider, but also think Lara sucks!


#13

I remember when TVTropes was the hot new thing. Back then, it was almost a hobby to pick apart your favorite media and make fun of its inconsistencies and problematic components. It didn’t mean you hated the work, just that, hey, isn’t it weird that all teams in cartoons seem to have precisely one woman and one person of color? Somewhere along the way, people seemed to forget what trope culture was all about, and now obviously Dia hates Tomb Raider because she points out flaws.


#14

If they are too afraid to criticize Lara then I think we should have a new game that follows a new protagonist(Maybe one of Lara past partners) that will allow the creators to critique the actions of Lara and the concept of tomb raiding.

Even though uncharted lost legacy wasn’t exactly that to the rest of the uncharted series, I think a shift from a white male protagonist exploring other cultures by going in tombs with protagonist with a more connection to the land(Chloe Frazer) and the people.

@beardyratchet that idea is a day one buy if it ever happened.


#15

Yes, what I felt through this piece was someone with an heated desire for someone to do the better job that they’ve communicated a desire to do. This is one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve read on a game in this sense. These games are layered, complex, and shit’s going to get messy. I’m grateful she touched on so many of those messy aspects in this because that’s reflective of genuine feeling- Disappointing aspects of something enjoyed don’t go away simply because that thing is enjoyed.


#16

Combat is fun, but it would be nice to see more puzzles and tombs (not optional side tombs, actual tombs in the gameplay, i mean the game is called tomb raider after all).

I also hope they add more personality to Lara and focus more on her character. She is strong, but her personality is very black and white most of the time. In my opinion she doesn’t really have a recognizable personality, which the classic Lara had. I guess this is because she’s supposed to be a younger version of Lara, but it would be nice to see her personality evolve more in this game.


#17

This next sentence is a question about the viability of a character so fundamentally defined by their connection to historically bad shit, not a condemnation of Dia Lacina as a critic, a writer, or a person: COULD there ever be a Lara Croft game (that isn’t just “now she’s a secret agent instead of an archaeologist”) that Dia would sign off on?

In other words, anything short of a complete reversal of the character (e.g. Lara gives up archaeology entirely and devotes her time and fortune on returning all the artifacts in the Croft family manor) is unavoidably a half-step. There are a lot of ways that it sounds like this game dropped the ball, but even if it had handled everything perfectly, she’s still a tomb raider. After all is said and done, no matter how much Lara learns about the value of respecting and protecting indigenous cultures, she’s still going to end up with a ton of other people’s dead relatives stuff on her shelves. As Rob puts it in the part of the podcast I’ve listened to so far, “the track-lighting denotes reverence.”

So again, I don’t ask this to say “Dia is wrong”, I ask it to say “I don’t know if Lara can be right” - Is it even possible to have a story with a character like Lara as its protagonist tackling issues of colonialism in a way that would survive the scrutiny of someone as rightfully critical as Dia? Or would “having it both ways” (Lara Croft is a good person AND ‘the Tomb Raider’) a losing proposition from the start?

Lastly, I’m kind of curious if it would have been better if they’d taken the opposite approach to this game. Like, if instead of saying “yeah, she’s robbed a lot of graves, but she’s real sorry about it now~~”, they just said “this isn’t the first time she’s taken an amulet off of a skeleton and it sure as fuck won’t be the last. It sucks, but so does she *shrugs*”

Edit: An example of the “yeah it sucks, but it is what it is” might be how (as far as I know), the Hitman games never really even bother trying to portray 47 as a good, redeemable person. He murders people and he’s very good at it and he doesn’t feel bad about it. He usually is killing people who are also very bad, but any attempt to portray 47 as heroic or noble would be pointless.


#18

I didn’t read the review as saying that we shouldn’t see or hear from Lara anymore because she is bad for the places she goes and the people she meets, but rather that the game and the story do little (if anything) to criticize her for being bad. I therefore read the piece as leaving it open to a story in which Lara is the protagonist, but is justly portrayed in a negative light. Dia says that, although the story begins with Lara making seemingly foolish, headstrong mistakes, she is proven to have been right to do so by the end of the game. It seems like Dia is saying that a story in which she is proven wrong would be fine.

I’m not gonna guess what Dia thinks anymore, but I will say, on my behalf, that I’d be perfectly happy with a Lara Croft game in which it’s canon that she’s been the antagonist the whole time, and that is what I’m hoping for in the future. It’s necessary to portray this archetype in order to dismantle the romanticism that surrounds it.


#19

if Lara doesn’t spend some time in the next game doing some actual archeology the gamers will revolt

that’s right, three years of trying to get grant money and then digging a 10m x 10m x 10m hole with a tiny garden trowel and a toothbrush with stops for photography and measurements every time you think you might have found a stick

the game will be 300 hours long and it will be a masterpiece.


#20

Exactly my feelings also. Great review :+1:


#21

This is a good point, and one that was also brought up in regards to God Of War this year: Even if the game is good and addresses the problematic history of the franchise that came before it, doesn’t it still simply perpetuate the same problems simply by virtue of being centered around the same character.

If you want to make a game about indigenous peoples and the horrors of colonialism, why would you make that game about Lara Croft. If Sony Santa Monica were actually remorseful or reflective of how toxic Kratos is as a character, why didn’t they make a game where he simply wasn’t the protagonist? Why even include him at all?

The answer, obviously, is that Kratos and Lara Croft are both hugely recognizable characters and publishers aren’t stupid. They know that slapping Lara Croft on the front of the box makes them more money, even if the themes and narrative of the game would be better served under another banner.

Even if this should be the last Tomb Raider game it won’t be, because publishers like money and nothing sells better than a recognizable franchise, even if it is intrinsically tied to some pretty gross shit. Developers can try to find a new spin on it, explore a new angle, whatever. Ultimately you are still going to be saddled with the baggage of what came before you.

I am personally of the opinion that creators should try to address problematic elements, like they tried to do in GoW and SotTR, but I also absolutely agree with Dia and Austin, who I think made the point about Kratos earlier in the year, that a lot of the new characterization can seem like some milk toast ass damage control and not nearly bold enough.


#22

Real talk though, you could make a pretty good Lara Croft game and be way less problematic, just focus on the whole “globe-trotting adventurer” thing but have her stop stealing artifacts from indigenous people. she could go on a trip to a lost island in the pacific (or whatever) and take pictures for photojournalism (this was her original job) and like throw some dinosaurs in there for stealth/combat purposes. if you absolutely must have her murder mans while hiding behind chest high walls, then as she’s there documenting this priceless place she comes across corporate goons intent on stealing everything and gets so outraged she goes on a murder rampage to preserve it for history. maybe the goons kill her partner or something when they try to protest the looting, and so Lara Croft must take revenge on the Tomb Raiders