Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the Human Impact of Archaeology

Games Features Shadow of the Tomb Raider
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<i>Shadow of the Tomb Raider</i> and the Human Impact of Archaeology

This past E3 I got a chance to play a demo of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third installment in the series reboot since its initial debut back in 2013. In this latest sequel, the game travels to the legendary city of Paititi, blending aspects of both Mayan and Incan cultures as the backdrop to Lara Croft’s adventures in Peru. With input from academics and historians, the developers have blurred the line between the factual and the fictitious, skirting the edge of plausibility to make a game that feels real, but without the added weight and time needed to faithfully create a more authentic experience. It raises the question if cultural appropriation can occur within a fantasy scenario. If so, does accuracy do more harm than good?

The tutorial section of Shadow of the Tomb Raider that I played began with a hefty disclaimer featuring wording I hadn’t seen on a pre-demo screen before, declaring that the content of the game was created with the consultation and input of historians. The demo ended with a montage sequence that I found very interesting, one that culminates with a scene in which Lara, who has traveled to Peru in search of a Mayan relic, is confronted for her tomb raiding for what appears to be the first time. The brief confrontation demands that Lara reconsider her pursuit of the paramilitary organization Trinity and reflect on her role and the impact her actions have had in the ensuing conflict. As it unfolded, I was fascinated—in the many years that Tomb Raider has existed, and in all the games it has inspired, I’ve never seen their inherent brazenness challenged. Perhaps with this game Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics might try to dismantle the white savior trope so epidemic in the one-person power fantasies of videogames.

After the demo, I was able to talk about this with Shadow of the Tomb Raider narrative director Jason Dozois, who went into more detail about the historical consultations that went into preparing for the game and Lara’s personal journey. He told me that as she enters this next phase of her career, Lara has been humbled, despite her initial arrogance going into the conflict she creates in Peru. “We’re having her confront the fact that if you don’t come prepared, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can have disastrous consequences for not only yourself. She’s put the world in danger for her lack of understanding or respect for what she’s getting involved with,” Dozois said. “What we wanted her to learn through this story is realizing there’s a human cost to these things. Early archaeology was all about possessing and going in and taking it, let’s bring it to a museum. Now archaeology today is about preserving history and celebrating and finding it and protecting it, so things are staying with the people now. So this is kind of the journey she’s on here, to realize that archaeology is not bad, archaeology is good, but it can be used—tomb raiding can be possessive, it can be oppressing people, and tomb raiding can also be about protecting it, and conserving the history of that, and that’s kind of the arc we have her on.”

In the course of retrieving a Mayan dagger, Lara ends up in Peru. Dozois and his team explored this logistical technicality with the help of historians. The goal was to create a scenario that was realistic but not so committed to fact that it stood in the way of what the game wanted to do.

“We wanted it to be fact-based, but still fiction,” he said. “So we wanted it to feel as real as possible, but the myths we’re using, they’re a mash up of different things because we have compressed time to tell the story, we want to tell an emotional story, it’s not like, ‘let’s go into the time machine and see what it was like in the past’, this is a ‘what if’ situation, so we consulted them on the plausibility of people coming from Mexico all the way down to Peru—would that be plausible? Well there’s no evidence that’s ever happened, but it was plausible. Then it’s a ‘what if’ question, ‘What if a group came down? What if they had this powerful artifact? How would they set up a city to protect it? How would they do that? How would those—what would the districts be, how would you feed these people?’ So that was all historically inspired, so the layout of Paititi, the architecture, and all the different districts, that was the biggest influence, for us to create a place that felt real.”

In the game, Lara attempts to keep the dagger out of the hands of Trinity, triggering the Mayan apocalypse. The irony, of course, is that whatever her intentions, she only makes things worse. In the scene I’d witnessed during the demo, her companion Jonah finally confronts her for the effect her meddling has had, telling her that it’s not always about her. It is key to Lara’s arc during Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Dozois continues, “When you saw the scene on the rooftop there, Jonah wonderfully says, ‘Not all of it is about you, you don’t know that you caused all of this.’ There’s a lot of uncertainty with her…because she’s been so reactive for so long, just trying to get to the next step. To me it’s the difference between tactics and strategy; in strategy you have a goal and you know what you’re doing, [whereas] she’s super tactical and she’s so competent that she can be a danger. A hero can be a danger. She needs to learn the human impact.”

The human impact of archaeology is precisely what I hope Shadow of the Tomb Raider addresses on both a macro and micro level—not just in terms of Lara’s impact in the game, but the social footprint of the entire series. While the game may try to dismantle Lara’s entitlement, there’s still a lot of possessiveness and overstepping of boundaries in deciding to be the one who, as Dozois puts it, protects or conserves a culture’s history, especially one that isn’t yours to save in the first place. Similarly, the game takes from cultures not its own, and how much it allows the cultures in question to participate in (and profit from) their stories is still up for question. Did any Mayan or Incan descendants participate in the writing of this story at all? What was their level of involvement, and did it stop at giving tacit permission to fictionalize the subject matter of Tomb Raider in a “believable” way?

As an archaeology junkie since I was a very young child, I can understand why the developers seem to expect that the game’s authenticity will be valued. But I question that it still seems based on an entitled curiosity and cultural voyeurism that many of us, particularly white people (Shadow of the Tomb Raider is produced in Canada), misinterpret as appreciation or respect. While there’s an undeniable thoughtfulness in thinking through certain historical logistics, at the same time, their use in a violent piece of entertainment that will be sold for a profit undermines that sincerity. It also seems to suggest that authenticity should be appreciated on its own merit, as if based on an arbitrary commitment to principle, rather than its role in the visibility of a culture. It mixes virtual tourism with armchair anthropology.

Looking back, I realize now I might have misinterpreted the disclaimer at the beginning of the E3 demo. While I thought their work with historians was out of sensitivity or respect, it seems the motivation was more to ensure the plausibility of the game’s premise, which is different. While historical accuracy is a form of respect for other cultures, it’s not the only factor in the decision to represent or speak for one on a larger platform. Part of the reason it’s insisted upon is because to do otherwise would be a form of erasure. To blend or make a mish mash of various cultural identities, versus actively identifying them and ensuring their use benefits the people within those identities, does not help to preserve the cultures it professes to admire (a topic I was first educated on by What We Talk About, When We Don’t Talk About Natives, by Dia Lacina).

The question of whether it is less regressive to fictionalize an existing culture, or to just lift it wholesale, lies in how to affects those we actually represent that culture, and if they’ve been a sufficient part of the creative process and allowed to drive the conversation. The Mayan and Incan cultures that Shadow of the Tomb Raider lifts from may no longer exist, but their descendants do. If they do not benefit from the retelling and reinventing of their own history by outsiders, then, as with Lara’s many excursions into foreign lands for items she has no legitimate claim on, they will be treated as if they belong to everybody. This is an issue in that, Lara Croft is from a country known for its long history of imperialism, cultural theft and extreme violence. The British Museum is a monument to its colonialist past, to this day refusing to return many of its stolen items, from the Egyptian Rosetta Stone to the Grecian Elgin Marbles. Given how little progress has actually been made since the free-for-all days of early archaeology, it’s not only valid to ask questions about how we frame the acquisition of cultural heritage artifacts, but also vital to dispute the idea that our curiosity and desire for knowledge outweighs the need for permission. When our sense of entitlement is framed as in the best interest of the people whom we subject it to, it harkens back to an era when a self imposed authority to enforce “civilization” was used to justify the subjugation of a significant portion of the world. It’s the sort of possessiveness that the game professes to challenge.

These were, of course, topics I could not fully address in the tiny, pressure-filled window of time I was given, but I hope to explore them more once the game comes out and I have more information. What I find interesting is how the game seems to finally challenge Lara’s role in the ethics of cultural theft (I mean, it’s right in the name, Tomb Raider) but may not question its own complicity. In general, given the history of British Imperialism and its intersection with archaeology, Lara Croft’s profession is downright ugly. Even if she were to take the Indiana Jones route and donate all her findings to a museum, at the end of the day, it’s not her choice to make. If the game addresses that, will they criticize their own contributions to that as well? Is pointing the finger at Lara the same as pointing the finger at themselves? Through the events of Shadow of the Tomb Raider Lara sets off the whole gosh dang Mayan apocalypse and—as if she hadn’t already done enough—still decides she’s still the only one who can save the world. This insistent meddling is contradictory to the game’s directly stated narrative aims. But then I suppose if Lara was going to do the truly right thing, we wouldn’t have a Tomb Raider series at all.

As the interview closed, I asked Dozois if the game’s premise was one that emerged out of the team’s conversations with their outside consultants or if it was just something they came up with on their own. “It’s a little bit of both,” he answered. “It was doing a lot of research, but it’s also just looking at the trajectory she was on from the three games and trying to conclude that in the most satisfying way possible. The attitude and what’s she’s going to learn in this game is a very mature, adult way of looking at that. She’s going to realize that she’s endangered these things, that she has a sense of responsibility to try and help and fix the problem that she’s done. I think she’s learned that you shouldn’t mess with things that you don’t understand.”

Not messing with things that aren’t yours and that you don’t understand is generally a good policy. After all these years raiding tombs, Lara Croft will learn her lesson. But as for Eidos Montreal…will they?

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.