I really liked the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. It was a fun adventure story with plenty of neat mysteries to uncover, plus, this incarnation of Lara was a headstrong survivalist who would find a solution to whatever stood in her way. I was totally on board, plus, I love adventure stories. Exploring ancient ruins, finding treasure, dude, that’s my jam.
Of course, there’s a lot of baggage with the genre. Exploring new worlds is an iffy idea, because can you really discover somewhere that people already live? What gives anyone the right to pick over ancient ruins (often in a foreign country!) for treasure to take home with them? Why’s it always white people who are finding these hidden ruins in brown people’s countries?
This wasn’t a huge issue in the first two games: Tomb Raider, as the game takes place on an island guarded by a magical storm and is thus untouched. The second game, Rise of The Tomb Raider, took place in a Siberia that had already been picked over by the Russian government. Both games were fun, so when I finally got around to playing Shadow of The Tomb Raider, the third entry in the series, this month, the rocky history of adventure stories was far from my mind. The game was fine enough, though Immersion Mode having locals speak Spanish only for Lara to answer in English was laughable, and I was having fun exploring the jungle and ruins.
Ancient ruins in Tomb Raider are usually a little creepy, which makes sense because, y’know, ancient ruins. Frustratingly, Shadow ups the creep factor by playing right into tropes about Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations: It’s all about those human sacrifices. Skulls are the decoration of choice, murals you read talk about the violence of the civilizations, and there’s literally a puzzle that involves you redirecting blood-soaked oil to light fires. Now, sure, human sacrifice was a part of these civilizations (as it was in many, many civilizations), but Shadow makes no attempt to engage with it. It’s effectively just window dressing to make everything more ~spooky~, serving to just further exotify indigenous cultures and make them seem feral and savage. Not great.
And then we got to Paititi.
When Lara and her friend Jonah stumble upon A Hidden City still inhabited by Incans and untouched by the outside world, I thought, oh, hey, maybe this is a chance to engage with the culture. Perhaps now we’d see more of the Incan culture beyond skulls and sacrifices! Maybe this would be a chance to flip the script, and suddenly have Lara as the Other in the scenario having to negotiate and interact with a culture outside her own. Would we get an adventure story that attempted to dismantle colonialism?
She quickly befriends the queen of the city and her son, is given a dress to ‘blend in,’ and is let loose on the city. You can explore the city before continuing the main story, interacting with locals (who don’t blink when a woman responds in English to them speaking Yucatec Maya), and, of course, find stuff. This involves raiding ancient tombs on the edge of the city, maybe grabbing some jade to sell to a merchant or taking some relics from what might be somewhere still in use. Exploring the city is cool, but it becomes decidedly uncomfortable when Lara grabs fur off a rack for crafting or opens a pot inside someone’s home for the loot within. Look, it’s one thing when Link does it Legend of Zelda, it’s a different matter altogether when an explorer rummages around indigenous people’s homes. You can have Lara talk all she wants about respecting Paititi, but when a game has you reenact colonization with no effort to reckon with your actions, it’s hard to believe her.
Sometimes, there are relics in these homes, which often means we’re treated to Lara describing what it is and what its purpose is — as the local standing next to you do nothing. Rather than doing any responsible anthropology, Lara engages in the unfortunate tradition of an archeologist assuming they know more about the people than the people there. This isn’t Uncharted 2 where Nathan Drake joins up with a local Tibetan to learn more about what’s going on with the legendary Cintimani stone, this is Lara who’s the only one in Paititi who can find the mysterious Silver Box.
When you find a monolith in a square in Paititi written in Yucatec, the game doesn’t give an option for you to ask anyone around you to help translate it (instead you have to improve your knowledge by finding documents and murals), creating a very surreal scene.
And then the game gets back to human sacrifices and all that.
Look, I love the adventure genre. I love stories about going off looking for unknown mysteries and all that, but I also know that its history makes it rife with unfortunate implications. This doesn’t mean that other stories haven’t tried harder to compensate for the colonial white savior narrative. Mass Effect: Andromeda cutely sidesteps issues with ‘discovering’ inhabited worlds by having another colonial force already present. Raiders of The Lost Ark and The Last Crusade both have Indiana Jones stopping Nazis (who, for obvious reasons, are worse) from getting mythical artifacts. Tenzin and the other Tibetans in Uncharted 2 are portrayed as Drake’s equals as they work together to stop the villainous Lazarevic from claiming the Cintimani stone. Uncharted 4 makes the secret treasure island a hidden pirate colony, effectively removing the colonial undertones outright.
I know, I know, it’s just a video game. But Shadow of The Tomb Raider’s refusal to engage with its relation to the unfortunate history of real-life tomb raiding makes it another page in that history. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and part of telling stories is being willing to reckon with what’s come before and be responsible in what you do. I want more adventure stories! But I also want these adventure stories to wrestle with their legacy and create a new narrative that’s more inclusive and dispenses with the colonialist mindset. It sounds a tall order, but no one ever said storytelling was easy.