Back in April of this year, when my fellow EGM editor Evan Slead and I attended the reveal event for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we walked away with the same question: is Lara Croft a bad person? In the demo we had both played, Lara’s snatching of an ancient dagger unleashed a raging flood upon an unexacting Mexican city. Then, after our villain of the week shows up to take the dagger from Lara, he says something that we’re not ready for: that he must now use the dagger’s powers to stop the end of the world that Lara has helped set into motion.
That question was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to play the first handful of hours of Shadow of the Tomb Raider recently. Of course, I had other questions as well, such as what the team might do to keep the game feeling fresh in this third chapter of the rebooting of Lara Croft, and who Lara herself even is at this point in the story.
It was that last part—who is Lara Croft?—that I opened up with when sitting down with the game’s director, Daniel Chayer-Bisson, and lead writer, Jill Murray.
“When we go back to Tomb Raider in 2013, Lara’s not the ‘tomb raider’ yet. She doesn’t even know who she is period. And then when we go to Rise of the Tomb Raider, at a certain point, she comes back to Croft Manor. She’s saying, ‘Hey, now I understand my legacy as a Croft, and understanding what being a Croft means exactly,’” explained Chayer-Bisson. “And now in this third game, we still cannot yet say she’s the ‘tomb raider’ at the beginning of the game, but she is very capable. She’s a strong-willed woman, of course. She’s independent. She’s very efficient. She’s smart, even more than in the two previous games because she has a lot more knowledge.”
Playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it’s easy to see the growth that Lara has been going through. There’s still something about the Lara we saw in 2013’s Tomb Raider that I really appreciate, in part due to my love for the “origins story,” and in part because I think it gave a level of humanity to the character that she had never had before. However, I know that, for at least some people out there, she wasn’t the Lara Croft that they knew, loved, and wanted.
After stumbling her way through a world where she’s not sure who she is, what she’s become, or who she’s supposed to be now in Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Lara we get here in Shadow is definitely far closer to that of the classic era of the tomb raider. Though the handful of hours I spent playing the game is of course only a small slice of the entire experience, Lara feels so much more confident, determined, and self-sufficient now. In Tomb Raider, it always felt like Lara was reacting, not acting; she was trying to survive being pushed around by the world, finding a few chances to push back here and there. Now, it’s often Lara who initiates that pushing.
That’s not to say that she’ll be doing things alone, however. More so than before, this isn’t just the story of a young girl left to fight for survival on her own in the wilderness. Even if she doesn’t always take their advice, Lara must learn that she is part of a much bigger whole, and that her brains and brawn alone can’t overcome everything.
“We looked a lot at the relationship with her best friend, Jonah, as well as all the other characters that we need in the game,” Murray told me. “It’s a fairly small cast, but each of them is really the hero in their own story. They’re not just there as foils to her. It’s really about her kind of seeing herself now in relationship to the outside world, and these other communities, and wondering where she fit into everything. And maybe that her solutions to her problems, even though she is this extremely powerful agent, are not gonna be just about her anymore.”
Lara’s place in the world and the effect she has on those around her lead me back to that nagging question that wouldn’t leave my mind, however—and there was something that I left out of Chayer-Bisson’s earlier quote that brought those feelings back to the surface:
“But the most important thing is to really understand the consequence of your action.”
Consequences. That’s an idea that is dealt with to some degree in games such as Tomb Raider, or Uncharted, or even other types of similar media such as the Indiana Jones movies. What are the consequences of “adventurers” traveling around the world trying to dig up ancient civilizations and the treasures that may have been lost—sometimes purposely—along with them?
Have we truly asked that question, though? Time and time again, our heroes get into trouble, but then save the day by solving a puzzle or killing a bunch of bad guys and then smiling as a final cutscene fades out into end credits. The true gravity of those actions was something I had begun to feel during that early Shadow of the Tomb Raider demo, and it was something that I saw more of in the Lara Croft we’re given here.
Yes, this Lara is more confident and determined, but she also comes off as too confident and determined. At times, it’s subtle, but the more I played, the more I was feeling like Lara wasn’t as ready for all of the situations she was getting herself into as she thought she was. If you compare Lara to her rival dude raider, Nathan Drake makes terrible decisions and gets himself into sticky situations because he’s the brash, over-anxious fame-and-fortune type. Lara isn’t that, and her mistakes feel like they come from a deeper, more potentially dangerous place.
“I always use the analogy of a surgeon,” Chayer-Bisson explained as I started to press him and Murray on my thoughts on Lara’s current mental state. “A surgeon that fails a surgery, someone will probably die, especially if it’s a life threatening type of procedure. Lara Croft, what she does has a way of becoming bigger in terms of what her actions are. When you’re thinking about a tomb raider, she’s touching things that are supposed to be staying hidden because they will have a possible impact on the world.”
Which, of course, takes us back to Lara stealing a sacred dagger and setting off some kind of potentially world-ending apocalypse. So, I decide to just get right to the point and ask the question I’ve been wanting an answer to, which earned a laugh from both Chayer-Bisson and Murray: has Lara become the bad guy?
“For me, it’s not that she’s the bad guy,” Chayer-Bisson said, still smiling. “The interesting part, though, is that the bad guy also has a noble motivation. He has noble goals. And these noble goals are shared, but the way to reach them is very different. And they are both right in their ways. Without spoiling the story, this is something that will, I think, surprise the player constantly playing.”
“I think it’s that she’s made this mistake, and that it’s gonna be a challenge for her to figure out how to fix it,” Murray added. “And you don’t know if she is going to figure it out, which creates tension that helps pull you through the game. But you can see in the game mechanics many opportunities for her to try things different ways and change her mind. So change her mind.”
My mind, however, remained unchanged at that point, and it wasn’t long before a scene popped up to make me feel even more emboldened in my opinion. As I neared the end of our demo, I reached a small village in the forest, and among the people living there were a few villagers who offered up sidequests to give Lara a break from the main storyline.
One of those people was an older woman who had a sad tale to tell. At some point previously, she’d lost her husband and child, but said she’d see them at times shining in the night sky or sparkling in the river running along the village. Well, that was until recently, when she explained that the river had become too cloudy for her to see them anymore.
Using Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s new underwater gameplay mechanics to dive deep into the muddy river, I found the source of that sparkling: a vein of gold in a rock a bit below the water’s surface. Swimming up to the rock, I pressed a button on the controller, and Lara proceeded to take out her ice axe, chip away at the gold, and take it for herself to spend elsewhere—potentially even that very same village.
In almost any other game, I would have taken the gold and ran, but here, it gave me pause. Chayer-Bisson and Murray told me to think about the consequences behind Lara’s actions, and now that I was, I saw her in that moment as a villain of sorts, taking for her own desires without caring about what it’d mean for the old woman and her loneliness.
That’s not to say that Lara actually is a villain in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, of course. But it does mean that I spent more time thinking about the actions of its heroine probably more than I ever have before—and that has me excited to play further into a game that could easily have just been a shallower tale of tombs and treasures.