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.

Why is it so easy to stigmatize gamers?

Both left wing and right wing operatives find it far too easy to take cheap shots at gamers whenever it pleases them. Opportunistic attention seekers use video games as a punching bag when they want a motherhood cause to beat on. And of course, the mainstream media treats gaming as a horrible thing until there’s a major celebrity from a game to interview. But why? Why is this accepted? Why isn’t it seen as bigotry? Here are some factors at play:

It’s competition

A few years back, the console companies started an initiative to “own the living room”, offering distribution services that are alternatives to cable. Of course, now they’re also making their own content, with stuff like Halo: Nightfall and Powers on the Playstation Network. This is creating more competition not just for eyeballs, but for market influence. With video game IPs giving comic books a run for their money in the superhero space, and game properties also competing with Sci-Fi stalwarts, a lot of media conglomerate companies – Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, and Disney, for instance – are rattled. Some of these companies have attempted video game distribution themselves to varying degrees of success, but the top-down model of TV development is going to catch up to them because gaming’s collaborative structure allows innovation at a faster pace than TV can manage. And old media always tries to beat down a competitor before it tries to half-heartedly embrace them, so the mainstream media has been pretty nasty to video games.

It’s something enjoyed by young men

Like rock music, rap, and extreme sports, anything that young men like is somehow seen to warp the minds of young men. In the West, this bias goes all the way back to the fact that the Bible, and before it, the Torah, were designed to codify correct behaviour for men, who would then control their wives. Note that the commandment against coveting only mentions the neighbour’s wife?  The focus on curbing male behaviours, while beating women into submission on the grounds of innate “purity” has continuing repercussions that strongly affect the dialogue around video games. But it goes deeper than that.

For a lengthy period, the most desirable advertising demographic was 18-34 male, because advertisers believe that’s the demographic that is most effectively swayed by advertising. However, with the rise of digital media, the 18-34 male demographic fragmented to the point that advertising to young men became much less lucrative. The most cohesive advertising demographic is now 25-54 male/female, because those are the people who still primarily consume entertainment through television. Women have an edge in this regard, however, in that their influence regarding household purchases, and their multiplier effect as primary caregivers of kids, make them a more desirable demographic for advertisers. And now, women make up the majority of the workforce as well.  This sudden boom in media feminism isn’t anchored in some desire to make the world a better place. It’s all about money. So if you’re wondering why gaming is desperately trying to attract more women? This is a huge part of the reason why.

New technology is always demonized

Whether it’s radios in cars, cell phones, or video games, any new tech will have some doomsayer figuring out a way it will somehow kill you. Men are more likely to be early adopters of technology, so this ties into the last point some, but taking gender out of the equation, people still fear things that are new. I’m old enough to remember when it was TV that was going to rot a kid’s brain. Now it’s video games. It’s just whatever the newest form of technology is that children like. This is connected to the fact that kids are usually more tech savvy than their parents, so adopting tech gives them an element of freedom and autonomy in a society that likes to swing into the realm of helicopter parenting every ten years. Seriously, you can set your watch to it: the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, and this decade are all marked by upswings in interest in attachment parenting, spending quality time with kids, and other behaviours that just flat out smother a kid’s independence. Notably, these decades were also tied to economic conditions that put entire groups of people out of work. Isn’t it great that adults are still taking out their baggage on their children?

It’s now considered “common sense”

The best bumper sticker I’ve never seen read was “common sense is neither”. Latte liberals have rebranded common sense “lived experience”, but it’s all the same thing “blaming the Other for your own damned problems”. Common sense once told us that going out in the rain would cause you to “catch a cold”, even though colds are caused by viruses. Common sense tells us to judge people based on likeability instead of skill, because it’s centered on like staying with like.  Common sense is grounded in the idea that you should keep doing what you’ve always done instead of trying new things, or keeping an open mind to different ways of doing things. Advertisers love appealing to common sense, by the way, because it’s as much like real sense as Kraft Singles are like real cheese.

How does this effect gaming? Well, you’re not going to get much progress with people who subscribe to the idea that “I know what I know”, and right now you’ve got two extremist echo chambers in video games who refuse to talk to each other and live to make the “other side” look bad. There’s no political stripe to the idiocies of “common sense”, so one side is screaming “well everyone knows men are just better at tech”, even though that pearl of wisdom has been proven to be nonsense.  The other side, however, revels in proclaiming random things racist, sexist, and transphobic, while breaking their own definition of these things as systems of oppression as opposed to offensive statements by an individual… which is how these very same crusaders claim that racism against white people doesn’t exist. Outrage warriors have metastasized common sense to the point that they demand trigger warnings for any scary idea.

Now, common sense outside of gaming tells non-gamers that listening to people who want to do nothing but fight is a waste of time. The benefit to this type of common sense is that it’s also reasoned sense. So the extremists in gaming are making discussions of gaming so unpleasant that people avoid them at all costs if they have anything better to do. But this is a recent phenomenon. There’s been a factor that predates all of these things.

Gaming is for “nerds”

Gaming is not a physical activity, and gimmicks like the Kinect and e-sports are striving to make gaming more like sports, so it will appeal to the “cool kids”. The lifestyle associated with video games isn’t sexy, because it’s solitary and sedentary. Gaming hasn’t helped itself in this regard by making the traditional gamer dress code less stylish than the clothes of some homeless people. I think it’s fine that gaming has its own look, but this trend of tech nerds showing up to board meetings in hoodies as made technology seem unserious and slacker to the outside world. It’s also attracted a crop of humorless, insecure moral purists who want women to stop being visibly recognizable as women. Advertisers don’t want to associate with these whopping amounts of boring and lame. No one is going to want to buy a product to be more like the biggest names in gaming right now… except for maybe Pewdiepie.

This isn’t about being a geek. Being a geek is cool now. There’s bank in being a geek. But a geek is a nerd with healthy self esteem, and there’s a real self esteem deficit in video game discussions these days due to years of bending over and taking it for whatever special interest group wants to beat the piss out of video games this month. For every moment of real leadership, like EA telling homophobes where to go and Blizzard trolling the crap out of complaints about Overwatch characters, there are five examples of the video game industry begging outsiders to tell us all the reasons we’re horrible pieces of crap. No one wants to identify with that much masochism, and it’s blood in the water that attracts sharks.

There’s so much bullying in video games today because the video game industry invites bullying. Fortunately, this is an addressable problem. Unfortunately, video games have forgotten the art of constructive criticism, because its collective self esteem was so low from the outset.

An organization truly based on respect will not tolerate the constant negativity that infects discussions of gaming. An organization with pride in its products doesn’t bend over backward to please its haters. This is something that Grand Theft Auto and The Sims have in common: these games are polarizing. As many people love them as hate them. They cater to very different types of gamer, but they completely embrace the type of gamer they attract. They don’t agree that enjoying a certain type of fantasy makes you a horrible person.

There’s nothing special about the content in these games. They’re just as limited and flawed as anything else on the market. But I think that the key to the success of these IPs, and franchises like Call of Duty, Destiny and Fallout, is that they have clear confidence in what they do well, and they’ll change to make their fans happier, but they don’t bend to the haters. This is something the rest of the industry needs to learn. No one wants to identify with a brand that doesn’t even seem to like itself.