"Shoot me," screams Ana, "and my men will cut you down in seconds."
Ana, a middle-aged woman with a pixie cut and Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe, makes the case for her life at roughly the midpoint of Rise of the Tomb Raider, the follow-up to 2013’s reboot of the iconic action game franchise. Ana is the villain. The heroine, Lara Croft, has a pistol to her head and a finger on the trigger. Because this is only the second act, Croft’s upper hand is undercut by Ana’s soldiers and their heavy weapons.
Ana doesn’t beg; she threatens.
"It’s the one thing they're better at than you," says Ana. She means killing.
Lara winces at Ana’s words — as if Lara somehow doesn’t have the chutzpah in her to pull the trigger. I snort, because if there's one thing Lara Croft is better at than Ana’s men, it's killing. In the first seven hours of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara shoots, burns, stabs, and drowns men from Syria to Siberia, scavenging their bodies for resources before leaving the pillaged detritus to rot in the sun. The self-professed archaeologist shows roughly the same level of respect to ancient tombs, which she raids not for monetary gain or historical artifacts, but for weaponry and ancient, lost knowledge of combat that makes her a more efficient killer. As an archaeologist, Lara Croft’s not simply bad, she’s a threat to the entire craft. She’s a bull on an international tour of china shops.
Meanwhile, Ana and her and henchman are, at the least, efficient in their quest for an ancient, uber relic, constructing dig sites, using tools rather than bashing holes the size of Volkswagens through tombs with whatever’s on hand — a Lara Croft specialty.
I’m unsure if the game’s developers, like Ana, are reluctant to embrace Lara’s identity as Joanna Rambo — a role I wish they weren't so eager to conceal. The first footage of Rise of the Tomb Raider, shown at last summer’s reveal, deemphasized Lara Croft’s murderous proficiency. The young adventurer harrowingly scaled a mountainside, mid-avalanche, with no enemies in sight. In interviews, game director Brian Horton underlined large tomb puzzles that subvert the game’s pace, and a hunting and crafting system.
Fair! Lara Croft is top notch at practically all things, from skinning bears to uncovering lavish, riches-strewn tombs lost for centuries in the Russian wilderness, mere yards from Soviet mining sites. But like Bo Jackson’s time in the NFL, her archaeological career is supplemental. There’s a beautiful canned animation in this game, in which Lara rips down a stone wall with her pick; it’s a guttural act of strength, flawlessly composed by, I imagine, many artists, programmers, and product managers — plenty of people participating in what is the epitome of Lara Croft’s "history is a wall to progress" method.
Croft’s true profession is rogue superhero, and her power is grafting napalm onto an arrow, shooting the missile into a crowd, then pumping explosive shotguns into goons who are too distracted by the fire engulfing their arms and legs to defend themselves.
When Lara is lost, you can press in the right joystick, removing the color from her world, and highlighting secrets hidden within it. The "sense" is borrowed from a more traditional hero, Batman, who in the popular Arkham series, uses a near identical ability to do his detective work. For Lara, the power serves to highlight animals to hunt, secret items for sussing out, hidden tombs, and most importantly, the next checkpoint.
Wherever the game directs you, a fresh set of bodies will be waiting to be corpsed. "It’s the one thing they’re better at than you." Baloney! Hunting is the C-story, tomb raiding is the B-story, and the A-story is shooting fools in the face — and it’s a skillfully penned, award-winning story at that.
But Ana’s line speaks for the games developers who, in how they present the heroine, seem uneasy with a character who repurposes every item she retains into armor or weaponry. In 2013, I attended a lecture at the annual Game Developer’s Conference by Walt Williams, a writer and designer on Spec Ops: The Line. Another violent third-person shooter, The Line’s script picked on itself and questioned its violence and the effect it had on its players. Here's how Williams concluded his lecture about the game and its portrayal of violence and guilt:
"As far as next steps go for us, I’ve thought a lot about this. Where do you go after making a game like this… I don’t know. I think we need to get to a point where we move back to maybe trying to write characters that aren’t as bloodthirsty, maybe characters that are a bit more helpful. I think that may be a good first step. But it’s in our hands as the writers to make violence seem, I don’t know, to make a game with more options maybe. If there’s a way to get around it."
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s creators certainly include other options. Tucked away in the game are side-missions that are more generous in scope and artistry than entire campaigns of its contemporaries. Lara can shoot targets, drones, and walkie-talkies; hunt and skin rare beasts; and explore "optional" tombs that range from claustrophobic, submerged burial chambers to shrieking cliffside that dwarf the star. I guarantee Rise of the Tomb Raider’s production team could create a spectacular travel photography simulator, if such a thing could ever find funding, as the adventuring and vistas are the best I’ve experienced in the sub genre of games inspired by Indiana Jones and National Geographic.
But the rewards for traveling the non-violent path — experience, upgrades, skills — always serve the campaign, which is a shooter, and a comically violent one at that. Multiple skills exist purely to maximize Lara’s brutality, whether that’s strapping bouncing bombs onto arrows that already explode, or unlocking the ability to perform a showy shotgun kill at close range. The story ignores Lara's actions, powerfully charting the growth of her inner strength, but neglectfully ignoring her outer behavior.
I say, embrace her as a killer. Or at least acknowledge it as more than a psychological setback that can be pushed aside at a moment's notice for more and increasingly creative slaying. Croft’s blood-dipped skillset doesn’t undercut her complexity. How did an extremely wealthy and intellectual young woman become the world’s best killer? And why’s she using that gift to defend ancient relics and foreign cultures? I want to know! Lara, the real Lara underneath the script, is an antidote to decades of action films — can you name a more dangerous female lead?
Maybe you believe this is overthinking good old-fashioned fun. After all, there are beloved precedents for the archaeologist turned action hero, namely Indiana Jones, the inspiration of the Tomb Raider series. But Jones is a lighter point from which the series has leapt. He has cracked only a fraction of the skulls and relics of his peer. Nathan Drake, the star of the Uncharted video games, which apes both Indiana Jones and the early Tomb Raider adventures, is a closer parallel, as he too shoots his way across the atlas of planet Earth. But Drake is a psychopath, who doesn’t merely spoil tombs in his jumbled quest for riches and self-identity, but leaves entire villages and favelas with millions of dollars in damages.
Croft sincerely aspires to shield the world from cataclysm, often at great personal sacrifice. She’s a hero; her power just happens to be atypical. Her world is so fantastically built; the only thing it’s lacking is characters that recognize what’s actually happening, and who they’re really dealing with.
Late in the game, Croft crawls through a set that recalls The Temple of Doom by way of Hellraiser with a splash of Giovanni di Modena. Bodies removed of their flesh leak juices into a thick, syrupy stream of blood. Croft makes an obligatory quip of disgust, then walks through the gore with the casual disappointment the rest of us experience stepping into a rain puddle on a day we wore sneakers. Captain Willard, eat your heart.
Lara exits the cave of human blood, and immediately comes across a member of the Descendants, a bloodline of historical preservationists meant to safeguard the land’s tombs and the hallowed, supernaturally imbued artifact they protect. The burly man is looking through his binoculars at a hill, so you know, not doing the best job.
"Glad you're still with us," he murmurs, like a B&B owner moderately pleased to see a guest tacked on an extra evening to her stay. Lara just demolished an ancient statue the size of a bus stacked nose down on another bus. And killed a couple dozen people. And dodged a tribe of that converts the living into bloody nubs. The man would appreciate it, though, if Lara helped out around camp — if she’s not too busy.