In September 2018, I reviewed Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I gave it a 4/5, citing narrative issues and some real bizarre, Uncharted-like jank that put a damper on my experience enough to lop that number off the score. I didn’t spend a ton of time with the narrative issues, because for one I generally try to respect spoilers and I also don’t consider myself super well equipped to tackle one of the bigger problems with the writing in this Tomb Raider. I especially wasn’t at the time of the review. But I’ve had time to think on it and time to read on it, and I think it’s safe to say there’s a real problem with the way Shadow of the Tomb Raider handled its own namesake. The bigger problem, however, is trying to find the answer.
See, Shadow of the Tomb Raider attempts to be self-aware. It attempts to shine an introspective light on Lara Croft and, well, her tomb raiding. The whole scenario, the part that isn’t the continuation of the Trinity story, is set off by her being aggressive and meddling in places she doesn’t belong. She literally starts the apocalypse, because she just can’t help but put her hands on an ancient relic she knows little about. The bad guy almost seems like a reasonable person in comparison, even taking a moment to express genuine shock that she did what she does in the beginning of the game.
Right after that, there’s a moment with her friend Jonah in which he yells at her, telling her that not everything is about her. It’s at this point you’d think Shadow of the Tomb Raider would continue to cast judgment on Lara, showing her actual consequences for her actions. Instead, the game promptly turns on its heels and reassures us Lara is actually in the right, was always right, and the whole incident at the beginning was little more than a dip in the road. Effectively, Lara gets a slap on the wrist for doing her Indiana Jones thing, something pop culture has begun to, softly, raise an eyebrow at.
At the end of the game, Lara decides that being the Tomb Raider is kinda bad, and instead she should be the Tomb Protector. Now that she finished tearing up the world in pursuit of Trinity, she can wipe her hands clean and go out to be the good guy. But like I’ve seen suggested elsewhere in coverage of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, such as Dia Lacina in her review at Waypoint, Lara didn’t actually learn anything. The story here almost starts to address the cultural elephant in the room, but pulls back before it really goes anywhere, but then still asks for a cookie at the end.
But here’s the thing. How can Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider, come to a real, a realistic, conclusion in the middle of a Tomb Raider video game? For all the back and forth about politics in games and whether or not games should bother trying to tackle them, this one sure does that. But it doesn’t really come to a conclusion, or stick to any sort of thesis statement, or present a sense of conviction at all. It raises its eyebrows for a second, then goes back to being the surface-deep, Hollywood blockbuster. That’s fine, there’s space for that, but why bother in the first place?
What is Lara supposed to do, quit? Then where’s the franchise after that? It’s over right? The very existence of Tomb Raider is such an aged concept that it’s awkward at best to try and performatively play the “hey we know this is problematic” card at this stage of the game. It’s not good enough to just try, not when you’re pumping millions of dollars into something and presenting it like it’s the latest masterpiece. While there were writers who likely cared deeply about that part of the story and really wanted to explore it, at the end of the day it’s a Tomb Raider and if Lara doesn’t do the tomb raiding then the greater audience who doesn’t care has been failed.
So what we ended up with is a game I called “messy.” It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, torn between being a thoughtful commentary on the genre, just doing its polished, AAA thing, and being a wacked-out but really fun to play jungle murder simulator. Its efforts to address the problematic aspects inherent to the “white person explores destroyed indigenous cultures and has a grand time finding artifacts and shooting people” are shallow and wasted, and even frustrating or worse for people who find themselves more personally affected by this setting. It does expose Lara in the end for being an issue of a character, but not in the way it wanted to, with that exposure leading to a redemption. Instead, it has me wondering, “what’s next?” But, not in a good way.