Survival Heroism

Posted by on Mar 28, 2013 in Design, Horror, Video Games, Writing | One Comment

In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft’s journey from survivor to action star to heroine (or antiheroine, but we’ll get to that) takes her through horrors visceral and terrestrial, mundane and extraordinary. But her grim and grueling adventure isn’t quite or only survival horror. At the end of her ordeal—the end of her transformation—she is a survivor, yes, and she is more than that. But what? A badass? An icon? A hero?

Tomb Raider is about fear and bravery, growth and change, in its gameplay, its story, its characters. The game’s marketing campaign (and, indeed, the game itself) tells us “a survivor is born,” but is that true? What does it mean?

That theme of survival is woven into virtually every aspect of Tomb Raider’s narrative, from its abrupt beginning to its stirring end. Every character is a riff on the theme. The whole experience is a dramatization of the challenges and costs of survival. It’s bloody wonderful.

Massive spoilers from here on out.

You saw the spoiler warning, right?

You’re pretty familiar with the game, probably, but let’s set the stage. Tomb Raider is set on a Pacific island isolated by geography (it lies within a feared stretch of ocean called the Devil’s Triangle) and weather (bizarrely powerful storms catch ships that draw too close and destroy those that attempt to leave). Remnants of previous expeditions, accidents, and passing vessels dwell on the island now, eking out a squalid and feral existence with only a meager hope of escape from the place. We call these people Scavengers. They use the island’s wreckage, from ships and planes, to build themselves a shanty town and other settlements to support their cult. For they believe in an ancient and unhappy Sun Queen that decides who leaves (no one, yet) and who lives and dies on the island.

We’ll come to know this place as the ancient realm of Yamatai, which the game presents as a kind of Atlantis-style lost civilization. Despite its isolation, despite its age, some aspects of Yamatai have survived in the form of ruins, ancient documents, relics, and the frighteningly deathless guards called Oni who protect the island’s holy sites.

Into this mess sails a ship called the Endurance, which breaks at the island’s edge, stranding its crew and passengers in a horrific struggle with the Scavengers. Those passengers are on an archaeological expedition in search of Yamatai. The expedition includes documentarians and scholars… like an untested Lara Croft.

Thus Tomb Raider puts its theme on every character through a pervasive situation that dramatizes that theme: stranded on a remote and haunted island with no hope of rescue. The environment itself is cultivated to dramatize the theme in a way that no character can really escape, and so the theme soaks into every participant in the tale. The shared hell of the lost island puts everyone into the same situation, the same test of character: fight (to survive) or die.

Lara with Torch

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider

Lara begins the tale almost without agency or awareness, just like us. We don’t know what specifically is happening to the Endurance during the opening disaster sequence because Lara doesn’t know. We don’t have any control over her fate; she’s at the mercy first of a cutscene and later of the island’s scavenging prowlers, who take her captive before so much as a tutorial on the game’s controls. Lara has no chance to change her fate, and neither do we, until she is in a low and horrific place—quite literally. It’s when she’s trapped and near death that she gains agency by becoming a playable character. Then she and we, the player, are in it together.

Consider that moment early on when Lara has to pry the shrapnel from her side. She cries out and our screen goes haywire with pain. We can’t ignore what Lara feels. Yes, of course there’s a layer of reality between us, but we aren’t very far removed from the inside of Lara’s head in this game. We have no ornate HUD to offer us the cold comfort of straight-up data. We’re asked to feel the mist on our face when we clamber near waterfalls or in the rain. We’re asked to look the consequences of failure right in the eye through a collection of gruesome death animations, too. (I took to thinking of those brief and horrifying glances at death as Lara imagining her failure since, of course, she canonically survives the game.)

So, then, our job as the protagonist is to survive the adventure to come. At first. In time, we’ll find that survival isn’t enough. Survival may be desirable and admirable and praiseworthy, but it is not virtuous. It depends what you do with your survival.

Methods

Consider the difference between the methods and motives for survival in the game’s various characters. Lara’s motives and methods change the most over the course of the game, of course, because she’s the main character, yet both her motives and methods are constantly in a kind of thematic interplay with the survivalism of her friends and enemies.

First, Lara fights off the Scavenger in the tunnel such that he dies and she lives amid the tunnel’s collapse. Later, Lara commits her first kill to save herself in a life-or-death situation that’s violently imposed on her. By the last quarter of the game, Lara is stalking purposefully into life-or-death situations to prevent the deaths of others.

Lara’s methods start off desperate, flailing, and uncertain. As she gains skill points, she can hone her abilities to better locate animals for food (which is more essential thematically than to actual gameplay). Later she learns to track useful (but not essential) things like relics and lore; as she adapts to her environment, her personal interests in archaeology and history shine through the mud and blood. She also sharpens her tools and her instincts for combat. Given the island hell where she’s trapped, this is vital to her survival and the survival of her allies. That doesn’t blunt the edge on her progression from lucky survivor to active agent, from defender to protector.

Lara eventually becomes as skilled in combat methodology as the Scavengers. By the end, she’s not sneaking around trying to avoid combat, she’s calling out to them in defiance, in warning, in rage. Eventually she surpasses them all in methodology—devising deadlier and deadlier weapons with which to kill them—and proving that she is as willing and as able to kill as they are.

The real, lasting difference between Lara and her various enemies is in motivation.

Motivation

The Scavengers don’t kill to survive. They let each other live, such as they do. The Scavengers kill to get what they want: escape. They kill to protect and enact the plan of their leader, Matthias—a plan that itself requires someone (a woman pleasing or suitable to the Sun Queen) to surrender their life. How many women has the cult sacrificed to their goddess in the hopes of pleasing her? How many women have Matthias and company burned to see if the Sun Queen would blow out the flames? We don’t know but there don’t seem to be any female Scavengers, so…

Matthias wants to deliver a sacrificial victim to the Sun Queen to please her, so she will allow him (and perhaps his people) to leave the island. Matthias kills to get what he wants and his people learn their ways from him.

Compare Lara, who kills to survive—and kills so that others may survive—to Matthias and his men. Are their motives opposite? We’ll get back to that. First, let’s look at the Oni.

The Oni don’t kill to survive, they survive to kill. They slay the likes of jerkwad archaeologists that pose no threat to them. They exist because they believe it is their purpose to end other lives for the sake of protecting their queen, Himiko. The Oni don’t thrive or apparently long for escape. All they do is endure. All they do is survive. That’s the duty they swore to their mad queen.

Himiko the Sun Queen kills so that she can survive beyond the natural bounds of a mortal lifetime. She imposes her life on someone else’s body. She doesn’t end lives, she takes them for her own. She imposes her life onto her victims’s bodies, denying them their lifetime so that she can extend her own. She has placed her survival above countless other lives, from the succession of her personal victims to the heaps of gory remains piled in her palace. She is plainly a monster.

So, is Lara Croft the neat mirror image of Himiko or Matthias? Lara Croft kills so that others may live. She kills to keep Sam and the rest of the Endurance crew alive as best she can.

No. Lara differs from Matthias and Himiko, but she’s not their opposites. She may be perpendicular to them in motive but she’s not unlike them in methodology. This is, by and large, a result the actions taken by Himiko and her Scavengers. Lara’s transformation is the result of a culture of fear and violence built by Matthias and Himiko on the island. If Lara and her team had been welcomed by Matthias and his people as experts who might be able to help them slay Himiko and end her storms, things might be different. That such an approach wouldn’t occur to Matthias and his Scavengers is evidence of how corrosive and corrupting their way of life is. (And there’s the ugly question of whether anyone could successfully defeat the Oni and slay Himiko without Lara having gone through the crucible to become more than a survivor.)

Surviving in the Crucible

Lara Croft the Tomb RaiderSurvival isn’t enough. Getting to the next sunrise isn’t enough. Tomb Raider is full of characters trying to survive in different ways and for different reasons and many of them are nasty, awful, evil people. Survival is neither virtuous nor wicked in itself. Why we survive, what we survive to protect, matters more. When Matthias says there are no heroes at the end of the game, he’s blind to what Lara’s doing. Lara is covered in mud and blood, but she’s taken on the antihero’s mantle to do something heroic. She’s pitted herself through bravery against forces that others feared. She braved the Oni and Himiko herself.

My initial instinct, playing Tomb Raider, was that the message was artfully obfuscating itself: “A survivor is born.” Survivors aren’t born, they’re made. They enter the testing ground and they survive to emerge from it… or they don’t. Lara Croft was forged from raw materials into a survivor in the fires of that hellish island. Sometimes she swung the hammer and sometimes circumstances swung it at her, but the badass character we know was made there by her choices.

Having finished the game and looked back on it, I think the game’s both more tangled and more earnest than I thought—and both in good ways. Lara was forged on that island… but she brought the raw materials with her in herself. While Lara’s choices made her the antiheroine necessary to secure escape from the island—choices she was forced to make in harrowing situations—she changed on that island in a way that no one else did. That isn’t just because of what she went through; it’s because of how she reacted and responded to what she went through. How many people entered the crucible of Yamatai and became Scavengers or corpses? And how many entered that place and emerged as the Tomb Raider?

Just her.

1 Comment

  1. Zack
    March 28, 2013

    I feel like I just watched you field strip and reassemble that game. Very thoughtful.

    Reply

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