Before I go any further let me make clear that Rise of the Tomb Raider, sequel to the 2013 reboot simply entitled Tomb Raider, is a really fun game. Whether you pick it up for one of your Xboxes or wait until it hits the PS4 in a year, you will undoubtedly enjoy your time with it. The crafting isn’t as significant as you want it to be and there’s not quite enough reward for gathering XP, but it’s gorgeous, well-paced, and the levels are so perfectly designed, so that everywhere you visit feels like an actual place, not a puzzle simply there to serve the game. Rise of the Tomb Raider is entertaining as heck. Ok, we good? Cool. Because I want to talk to you about why it makes me so sad.
The reboot of Tomb Raider starts at the beginning of Lara’s story and encompasses her journey from bookish university student with a fondness for ancient things to nascent adventurer burning to learn the great truths of the world. It’s a very personal story; we see Lara deal with the loss of her father figure, grapple with guilt over unwittingly putting her friends in dire peril, and come to terms with the fact that sometimes no-one is coming to rescue you. We don’t see many coming-of-age stories about women that don’t involve romance or marriage or something like that, so watching Lara discover her own agency was very meaningful to me, not least because I lost my father at a similar age and came to many of the same life-changing realizations she did when it happened. I was very much looking forward to continuing the journey with her in her next adventure.
The reveal trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider that ran during Microsoft’s E3 2014 press conference was everything I was hoping it would be. It showed Lara bouncing her foot with irritation as she listened to her psychiatrist, who seemed kind enough but who clearly just didn’t get it. It showed a Lara saddled with PTSD, a Lara profoundly impacted by the events on Yamatai. It showed that Lara wasn’t someone who couldn’t just shrug off the amount of violence and loss she’d been forced to endure, and instead was turning that loss into a drive to explore. A drive that was inspirational or desperately unhealthy – perhaps both.
Early descriptions of the game mentioned that part of Lara’s motivations in Rise was how difficult she’d found it to rejoin the normal world after making it off the island of Yamatai. Nobody believed her account of what had happened, to the point that she’d begun to question it herself. She was out there risking her life to prove that she wasn’t crazy, that she really had seen supernatural things, that she could trust her own memory. The idea of a Lara motivated not by the desire to find ancient shiny loot, but rather find peace within her own mind was, I thought, a very exciting and modern approach to the character.
Sadly, virtually none of that makes that into Rise in any significant way. It’s there, in a few lines of dialog and some comparisons to her actual father Richard Croft, but if you hadn’t seen the trailer or heard any of the pre-release interviews about her mental state, you’d simply have no idea any of that was going on. It’s easy to understand why that aspect of her character got downplayed. Many players who pick up Rise won’t have played the reboot, but even if they have, “I want to prove that my dad was right” is a perfectly solid motivation that’s totally in keeping with Lara’s character.
I, however, am not most players. I have PTSD, and was hoping that Rise would be as personal a story for me as Tomb Raider was. The worst thing about PTSD, among its many worst things, is that a lot people don’t believe you. That thing that happened to you wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, or it didn’t really happen that way, and maybe you’re just overreacting or exaggerating for attention. The people who are closest to you are telling you, repeatedly, that this awful thing that ruined your peace of mind, probably forever, was no big deal, because they simply can’t imagine that it is. If it had happened, surely they’d know.
Granted, in Lara’s case, it’s a bit tougher to swallow “these people wanted to sacrifice my best friend to raise the long-dead spirit of a princess”, but the core fear is the same. Are they right? Is it my fault I can’t just get over it? Did things really happen the way I think they did? It’s an awful nagging doubt that eats away at you and I was looking forward to someone, even a fictional someone, understanding that pain and coming out the other side. But that part of Lara’s story got left behind.
When I said I am not most players, what I should’ve said was most players aren’t me. The intersection of the Venn diagram of female video game players who lost their dads when they were about 20 and later suffered from PTSD is, I would think, pretty small. Most Tomb Raider fans just want to enjoy running around ancient ruins with Lady Croft, and that’s totally cool. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not a lesser game for not exploring Lara’s mental health in greater detail, it is merely a different game.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a “games need to explore more meaningful stories” complaint. Rise isn’t a particularly deep game, no, but so what? Nothing wrong with just exploring and shooting the odd exotic animal or two. I know that what I wanted it to be was very personal and I don’t feel slighted because it didn’t turn out that way. But I am sad.