In the most recent Tomb Raider game, the ship that Lara Croft and her ragtag band of compan-ions travel on is called the Endurance; it shares its name with the ill-fated vessel that landed Shackleton in Antarctica, only to get caught in the jagged teeth of polar ice. But Lara is destined for greater things than ever were recorded in history books. She is a myth in the making, the scrappy, ponytailed girl who will become Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—she of the mirrored sun- glasses, double pistols, and quippy comebacks.
In this game, a 2013 reboot of the beloved video game series that began in 1996, Lara is still a bright-eyed archaeology student in search of the lost ancient Japanese kingdom of Yamatai. Pursuing knowledge, fortune, and the immortality that comes with scholarly publication, Lara urges her captain to steer them into the heart of the Dragon’s Triangle (the Pacific’s answer to the Bermuda Triangle). It is in these storm-plagued waters that the Endurance is wrecked, leaving Lara and company to find their way back to “civilization” as they know it.
I downloaded the game one bleary-eyed evening when I allowed myself a structured break from working on my senior thesis (a rare occasion). Tomb Raider was one of the first results under the “female protagonists” tag on Steam, the popular online retailer of computer games. For $4, I couldn’t say no. From the first moments of the game, I was hooked, drawn in not so much by the game’s (convoluted) plot as by the way it made my heart race, its relentless pace, and the mood of utter desperation it evokes.
Time and again, the narrative tears Lara away from her companions. In the opening sequence, she leaps across an impossible gap on the splin- tering ship to grab hold of an outstretched hand. For a moment, she catches it and then loses her grip, dropping into the whirling abyss of the sea. She washes up safe and sound on a nearby beach and spots her shipmates over the lip of a cliff. But before she can reach them, some shadowy stranger grabs her from behind. When she wakes, she is suspended from the ceiling of a cavern, bound up as though in a chrysalis. Her only possibility for escape is to swing towards a nearby flame, wriggling free from her ties as they catch fire and begin to burn.
Each ensuing twist of fate ensures that Lara is on her own again. Over the course of the game, she learns to fend for herself—and to believe that she can do so.
“A survivor is born.” That is the slogan with which Tomb Raider was marketed. It’s also a succinct summary of the game’s story. Lara, a clever but cosseted child of privilege, must withstand the most punishing of circumstances. The woman who lands on the island shivering, scared, and calling for help leaves it a gun-toting superhero. She becomes the Lara Croft we’ve known all along, the one Angelina Jolie played with a swinging braid and a blithe indifference to the challenges hurtling towards her.
When the 2013 iteration was released, critics leveled attacks against the game’s interpretation of Lara as a floundering, fearful naïf. Perhaps if I had grown up on the original games, I would have shared their skepticism towards this origin story. But meeting Lara this way for the first time, I felt a kinship with her I could not imag- ine sharing with the unflinching heroine of the earlier games. This Lara is human, comprehensible—if extraordinarily resistant to an endless bevy of attacks from both the unsteady environment and the island’s lurking enemies.
Lara’s internal monologue—made external, as she mutters to herself for the player’s benefit— consists of the stuff of motivational speeches or Hallmark cards. “I can do this,” she tells herself, as she reaches off a precarious branch to grab hold of a corpse that dangles just out of reach and the makeshift longbow strapped to its back.
Speaking to her over the two-way radio that is the only mode of communication for much of the game, Lara’s grizzled mentor-figure Conrad Roth urges her to “just keep moving.” And Lara does. She never stops, come hell or high water. When the ground gives way beneath her boots, she flings her body onto the nearest patch of stable land and then sets off running again.
She repeats these simple affirmations throughout the game, and one feels that by asserting her capability, she enables her own success. This might seem like an absurdly basic lesson, like self-help for the pre-K set. But it’s one I, at least, too easily forget. In the face of terror, it is essential to remind yourself of your ability, whether what scares you is writing a conclusion to your thesis or cauterizing an abdominal wound on the fly. Sitting under the fluorescent lights of my dorm room as I fumbled through Tomb Raider, I heard Lara’s words and I felt their importance.
Games sometimes move me in ways that other artistic mediums do not. When I press the spacebar, Lara jumps. When I move my mouse, her head swivels. There is a tangible and direct relationship between me, the player, and Lara, the protagonist, that does not exist in a play or a movie or a book.
Beginning the game, I could barely manage the controls. Consequently, Lara slipped off ledges, lost her way in the woods, and spent an hour doggedly chasing down a deer (her only source of food) with a bow and arrow. Lara loosed arrow after arrow towards the fleeing deer, striking to wound but not to kill. The final shot felt more merciful than cruel. When Lara knelt before her fallen prey and uttered an apology, I shared her guilt and sorrow, not just for killing the deer, but for so badly mangling the job. As I played, though, I got quicker with keyboard and mouse, and Lara got stronger, more nimble.
I went back and re-did the deer hunt recently, and Lara took out the creature with a single shot to the head. She was back at her campfire with dinner roasting on a spit before her hunger could begin to seem urgent. But I’m glad that the first time I played, I bungled the controls, because my confusion over the mechanics mirrored Lara’s inexperience with her weaponry.
Maybe that sense of actually being Lara, rather than just watching her, made me pay attention to advice that I am tempted to ignore when it comes from a friend or my worried mother, calling to check in on my progress. The words of encouragement that Lara spoke rang true and direct. Lara wasn’t the only one learning to survive—I was, too.
Weeks later, pulling yet another all-nighter to put the finishing touches on my thesis, I remembered Lara’s refrains of “you can do this” and “just a little bit further.” They felt, somehow, like words coming from within me, not from without.