Tomb Raider: Underworld – The Ragnarok of Lara Croft

Note: This is one of a series of articles examining the entire Tomb Raider series. If you want to read the other articles, the main hub can be found here.

Underworld myths traditionally strip away worldly status, wealth, and comforts from their protagonist, forcing them to face themselves with nowhere to run and no way to hide from their ugliest inner truths. Tomb Raider: Underworld follows this tradition. Lara finally gets the answers she’s long sought regarding her parents, herself, and some of the greatest mysteries of the ages, and none of these answers are comforting.
Of course not. Lara Croft doesn’t do comfortable.

In fact, the game design for Tomb Raider: Underworld centered around the question “What Could Lara Do?” as Crystal Dynamics attempted to make puzzles feel more integrated and intuitive than they had in the past, to make puzzle-based gameplay accessible to a wider potential audience. This, of course, comes with another central, if unasked question: what couldn’t Lara do? What are her limits and weaknesses? What are her moral boundaries? While many fans love Lara Croft for where she dares to go, Crystal Dynamics showed that giving Lara lines she won’t cross, few though they may be, made her interesting too.

As in Tomb Raider: Legend, the main thing that Lara can’t do is let go of the loss of her parents. She needs closure more than she needs air. In order to get that closure, she must face her greatest enemy, as well as the worst parts of herself. She must face ancient cruelty and the darkest aspects of subversive female power. And in doing so, she also shows, as she did in Anniversary, that her selfishness does have limits. Deep down, Lara Croft cares about humanity, even if she doesn’t care for many individual humans.
Poetically, it’s Lara’s compassion and unique sense of right and wrong that ultimately allow her to overcome the godlike challenges in Tomb Raider: Underworld. The final game of the original Crystal Dynamics trilogy features the apotheosis of Lara Croft in both meanings of the term. It’s the climax of her origin story, but it’s also proof that she deserves her status as one of the great goddesses of gaming.

The plot of Underworld draws from the twin set-ups of the end of Legend, which began her search for the mythical Avalon – and Anniversary, the re-telling of her showdown with Atlantean goddess Jacqueline Natla, where Lara refused an ascension to godhood to save human life on earth. In doing so, she destroyed the Scion, the artefact that led to her father’s death and the ruin of his reputation. The points where Lara’s choices deviate from those of her father’s combine with Lara’s tendency to search out and wield decidedly masculine symbols of power make for a powerful feminist message of self-actualization, something many feminist critics who insist that the latest reboot is an improvement on the older games apparently missed.

Lara wielding the game’s version of Thor’s Gauntlets

Underworld picks up on Lara’s search for Avalon. Instead, she finds the Norse underworld of darkness, mist, cold and ice: Niflheim. Within Niflheim, lies the first masculine associated artefact of awesome power of this game: the gauntlet of Thor. Lara is promptly knocked unconscious by Legend villain Amanda Evert, who steals the gauntlet. Amanda has also dug up Natla, setting up a showdown where Lara must once again prevent humanity’s Ragnarok… oh, and finally find out what happened to her parents. These two objectives are linked, of course, which is both fortunate and unfortunate for Lara.

Natla quickly uses her powers of manipulation on Lara, informing her that Richard Croft had found the wrong Norse underworld in his search for Lara’s mother Amelia. This underworld is located underneath a temple in coastal Thailand of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. This is all, of course, very ominous forshadowing. This Norse underworld contains a statue of Odin, and a note from Lara’s father indicating that he had been used by Natla in the past. Richard Croft had hit his limit, and he’d betrayed Natla and stolen the gauntlet. Perhaps the statue of Odin indicates that this underworld is Valhalla and Lara’s father died fighting? Or perhaps it’s Muspelheim, signalling the beginning of the end? The game doesn’t specify, which is creatively interesting, since both turn out to be true.

And this is where Lara makes a profoundly different choice than her father. He thought he could foil Natla’s plans by absconding with the artefact. Lara decides that the way to defeat Natla is the same way to get her personal answers: see the quest through to the end.

This leads to a return to Croft Manor, and the beginning of the Ragnarok of the Legend age of Lara Croft. A Doppelganger of Lara destroys the Manor and Lara is blamed. The doppelganger also shoots and kills her friend Alister. Someone needed to die, right? Lara’s Ragnarok had to have a Baldur.
Alister’s death also shows that Lara isn’t always as blasé about non-relatives dying as she’s been in the past. She is capable of caring about other people.

The doppleganger is also an interesting visual device, because her appearance harkens back to Lara circa Tomb Raider II. Her character is also that colder, remorseless version of the character, almost as if the developers were saying “This is why we softened Lara’s edges now that animation technology is better.”

But the doppleganger also symbolizes the dark side of Lara’s quest for power: in her quest to get faster, stronger, and smarter, she’s done some monstrous things. It reminds us that the real Lara does have humanity, and it stops her from slipping into a lust for power for power’s sake. The doppleganger’s superior physical powers also show that humanity may seem like weakness in the short term, but it’s a trade off that’s its own source of strength.

The doppleganger is also the most powerful of a series of enemies that underline one of the major themes of Underworld: free will. Many of the enemies are thralls: undead versions of tigers, lizards, and even people, robbed of their free will. The Legend timeline makes it clear that Lara is a made hero, not a born one. She isn’t given gifts by gods or granted superpowers from a radioactive spider. Lara has worked hard for her athleticism and intellect. She definitely has above-average drive, curiosity and intelligence, but she has deliberately honed those skills as well. It’s notable that as well as the thrall enemies, Lara’s main antagonists in Underworld are a goddess, a doppleganger that lacks free will, and a woman that ends up getting possessed. Lara’s ownership of her own choices serves her well against these enemies, and choice is so important to her that she decides to grant the doppleganger its own free will instead of destroying it. This leads to the doppleganger aiding her in the permanent destruction of Natla.

The ultimate treasure of this game backs up the theme of “heroine by choice”. Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, is traditionally only wielded by the worthy. What worthiness means in Underworld is the person who can collect Thor’s gauntlets and belt, which are then bound to them until death. Lara, of course, assembles these artifacts, and wields Mjolnir not by the grace of Odin, but as the results of her own stubborn determination. Again, after Lara also wielded Excalibur in Legend, it can’t be an accident that Crystal Dynamics repeated the pattern of Lara making one of history’s greatest masculine symbols of power her own. And back then, no one freaked out the way people freaked out over a temporary female Thor, perhaps because it wasn’t the centerpiece of the game’s marketing.

This scene induced no outrage.

Getting back to Lara’s quest to find her mother, she knows this requires a deal with the devil – the devil, of course, being Natla. Again, Lara accepts freeing Natla as a choice with consequences that she’ll deal with later, since only Natla knows that Avalon is actually Helheim, and that’s where Lara’s answers lie. This is a moment where Lara seems blinded by emotion, since if she were thinking rationally, she’d know that Helheim means that her mother is not in a nice place. Helheim was the place the Norse went if they died of old age or disease – forms of death perceived to be more shameful than being slain in battle.

Or perhaps Lara recognizes this, and still needs to see her mother’s eventual fate with her own eyes. The Legend timeline does tend to link knowledge, power, and divinity. Either way, the game strongly forshadows the fact that Lara’s mother has become a thrall, and that Natla knows this. As Ishtar has her adornments and protections taken from her as she descends into the underworld, Lara is stripped of the more comforting hopes she had regarding her parents’ fates. Her mother had become a monster and her father had been in league with one who killed him when he rebelled. There was no happy ending. There never is for Lara.

Which loops back to Natla, who needed Lara to wield Thor’s hammer to open Helheim, to access a technological reimagining of the Midgard Serpent in a fresh attempt to wipe humankind from the planet. Amelia’s Croft’s unfortunate fate was a stroke of luck for Natla, as it made it easy to manipulate Richard and Lara into playing into her plans. But as Lara did in Anniversary, she once again thwarts Natla’s evil plans, and ends up right back where the whole sordid tale started: in that original portal in Nepal she opened as a child that swallowed up her mother.

Tiger Thralls

Lara’s will to discover, to answer the call to adventure, was far stronger than even her father’s, and her ability to survive is certainly superior to her mother’s. But Lara’s drive, some would say stubbornness, also serves her well in Underworld. She doesn’t seek power for power’s sake the way she seeks answers for knowledge’s sake. To Lara, power is simply a tool she uses in her quest for closure. She doesn’t have the emotional connection to power that she has to knowledge.

And Lara finally receives the closure she sought, though the answers are as disappointing as answers tend to be regarding one’s lost parents. Lara’s father was a puppet and her mother was a husk. She has answers, but no comfort. At the end of Underworld, however, we discover that what Lara seemed to need, as opposed to want, was the ability to say goodbye. The real treasure she sought wasn’t any artefact. These, like power, were a means to an end. What Lara needed to be made whole, or at least for her healing to begin, was answers.

At the end of this saga, the bittersweet ending feels decidedly right: a conventional happy ending would feel cheap, as would Lara’s “death” the way Core attempted in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. Crystal Dynamics managed to find a balance in their Legend saga that Core had never achieved.

So many pixelated feels

Through the story told in Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld, the character of Lara Croft became defined, well-constructed, and detailed. She is consistent and understandable even when she’s not likeable. It’s as though Toby Gard needed to go back and get it right the way Lara does in the games, and the result is one of the greatest character arcs in the history of video games. The more recent Survivor Timeline games surely have far better graphics and more pulse-pounding combat-driven gameplay, but they will never achieve the understanding of gaming’s greatest anti-heroine the way the Legend Timeline did. These games stand as some of the best character-driven storytelling in video game history, because they let Lara be Lara and held on for the ride.

What could Lara do? Anything she puts her mind to; the Legend games show us that, beyond her athleticism and intelligence, it’s Lara’s sheer determination and force of will that are her greatest strengths. Self-actualization is a much more satisfying story than mere survival.

Note: This is one of a series of articles examining the entire Tomb Raider series. If you want to read the other articles, the main hub can be found here.

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