Like many others who have played through the beginning hours of the new Tomb Raider, I have found myself pondering on the recreation of Lara Croft and the methods in which Crystal Dynamics attempts in order to expand the character and help her find relevancy in today’s gaming culture. And yes, the game isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t help but myself really getting behind Lara as a character. I mean, I’m only human, and witnessing the kind of abuse she endures in those first few hours is gut-wrenching. But, more importantly, the abuse that she suffers is explored through the way the character reacts to her suffering. Camilla Luddington gives a stellar vocal performance as Lara, and when Lara hurts, Camilla can perfectly capture that empathic suffering – her pain just doesn’t physically hurt, it emotionally hurts. The pain is destroying the fabric of the person that Lara Croft is.
That’s the tragedy of the new Tomb Raider that, at least narratively, helps it surpass its similar island-survival simulator Far Cry 3. Both Lara Croft and Jason Brody start out as wet-behind-the-ears, and both have their share fair of pains, both emotional and physical (watching Jason repair his dislocated thumb made me squirm every time). But with Jason, I never got the full brunt of that emotional destruction that I felt with Lara. Jason never seems to have any kind of identity before the events of Far Cry 3 and discovers himself through its story, whereas Lara – though physically active – sees herself as more of a marginally withdrawn academic, engaging with her family lineage while rejecting the darker side of it, a dark side that she finally must succumb to in order to survive and save her friends. My intention here is not to pass judgment on Far Cry 3, but instead frame a significant difference between the narratives: Far Cry 3 is about power, Tomb Raider is about trauma.
You could extend this claim into the very different island representations the games portray. Far Cry 3, while having a few dilapidated structures, flourishes with wondrous jungle landscape, bright and colorful, urging primal instincts and releasing the animal in the human. Tomb Raider’s environments are far more unpleasant and repulsive; the game is littered with crumbling structures centuries old, dark and ugly caves, rooms of corpses, pits of blood, and unpredictable nature. Even forest areas can appear dingy and uninviting at best. The island of Tomb Raider is a world traumatized, broken by the depravity required to escape and survive. And even if Lara Croft escaped that island, she died there. Trauma killed the person she was.
Trauma is Crystal Dynamics’ tool for getting us to relate to Lara Croft, and it has proven quite effective. And why shouldn’t it? Trauma represents a huge part of empathic connection from the audience to the protagonist. When I say trauma, I’m directly referring to the mentally scarring sort. As Tomb Raider proves, physical trauma is more than capable of rendering an empathic response from the audience, but I think it has to go deeper than just specifically the physical. Take Nathan Drake, a character whose current incarnation is much like Lara Croft’s original character. Drake has suffered a series of physical traumas on his adventures, but the guy just never seems that shaken up about the whole thing. “Oh, climbed a train falling over a cliff. Okay.” Again, I’m not badgering this portrayal; I’m just saying that it’s not empathic. The physical trauma of Nathan Drake is just that, a physical ailment that he can shrug off. It asks the audience to admire him, but not necessarily relate to him. You should just feel good about being empowered.
And that’s the core of emotional trauma and why it causes so much discomfort, it implies weakness; that something was taken forcefully from the protagonist and – by extension – the player. Furthermore, this kind of trauma takes something intangible away, something that you can't get back,no matter how hard you try. Popular gaming tends to gear itself more towards power fantasies, so trauma in the mainstream market is often ignored or portrayed as kitsch. That, of course, isn’t always the case, as Tomb Raider has proven, along with a variety of other popular games which have thrived due to their honest and personal analysis of trauma.
The survival horror genre itself has been built upon player depowerment, often utilizing trauma in the stories in order to make the horror of the narrative to appear all the more impactful. Trauma could essentially be rendered as the most significant element of the Silent Hill games. You feel the mental and emotional exhaustion of characters like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, and the above pictured "There was a hole here" is a direct ironic commentary on James' own trauma; the hole is still there, just covered up by flimsy paper. Perhaps more importantly than James is Alessa from the first game, as she personifies the trauma of Silent Hill's narrative and, by her mother’s admission, she “Suffers a fate worse than death.” Alessa’s physical trauma transcends into the emotional, which then transcends back into the physical, and it is the center of the entire set-up for the Silent Hill franchise. More modernly, Daniel from Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a walking disaster of trauma, driven to madness by the monstrosities chasing him to the point of complete divorce from any kind of resistance other than flight.
Speaking on Amnesia, the indie market often gets an opportunity to analyze the nature of trauma in gaming narrative with a bit more leniency than mainstream games. Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is the very definition of a gaming narrative about trauma. McMillen has talked about his religious upbringing, and how he wanted Isaac to demonstrate the “self-hate and isolation it instilled” in him. What makes this so interesting is the fact that the story of the game is fairly bare-bones – Isaac escapes his zealot mother and then must defeat her in mortal combat in the depths under his house. McMillen opts to tell the story of Isaac’s trauma through visuals and gameplay. It’s not enough that Isaac battles enemies with his tears, but the physical effects of items do much to portray Isaac’s abuse and subsequent trauma. One power-up in particular, the Wooden Spoon, increases Isaac’s speed, which at first seems strange – that is until you look at the back of Isaac’s head to see a huge spoon-shaped welt, indicating Isaac running from his mother as she struck him with it. It’s some really chilling stuff, and showing Isaac’s trauma elevates the maturity of the game, despite the game's immature artistic aesthetic.
The success of Telltale Games’ Walking Dead series has attributed much of that success to the game’s story, and the franchise as a whole is a narrative about trauma. Getting into spoilery territory, the story of Telltale’s Walking Dead isn’t really about protagonist Lee Everett. Rather, The Walking Dead is the story of Clementine and her coming to grips with trauma at a young age. Clementine has often received accolades as one of the best (if not the best) child character in gaming. Again, much like Camilla Luddington’s voice work with Lara Croft, Melissa Hutchison knows how to show trauma, and has won awards for her work with the character. Hutchinson’s work notwithstanding, I’d argue that Clementine’s appeal comes from the way in which she absorbs and processes the traumas we see her endure. We feel for her, knowing that she has to carry these events with her for the rest of her life, her childhood robbed from her by a horrific fate. The ending furthers this as Clementine and Everett’s story comes to a close, and the events of Walking Dead will be carried with Clementine into Season 2, and perhaps through the rest of the Telltale series.
We could even take Rocksteady Studios’ work with the recent Batman games as more proof of how demonstrating trauma helps to elevate narrative. The Arkham series is the break-out hit of the Batman video games, Rocksteady opting to demonstrate a true Batman simulation moreso than any other game starring the character, which they do in two ways. First, they make you feel like Batman in the gameplay, allowing you to be the master crime fighter Batman is in stealth, combat, and detection. Second, Rocksteady understands that to truly simulate the Batman experience, they must hit on one of the significant points of the character: the trauma he experienced witnessing the death of his parents. Batman’s trauma is portrayed both in Asylum through a Scarecrow sequence, and in City by seeing both visions of his parents and visiting their murder scene in Crime Alley. And much like Lara Croft “dies” on the island due to trauma, Crime Alley is where the child Bruce Wayne “dies” to be eventually reborn as Batman. Capturing this trauma was essential for Rocksteady to explore the Batman mythos, as it truly is the defining feature of the character, not to mention that doing so helped elevate the Arkham series, both games receiving “Game of the Year” acclamations.
My intention here is not to say that, for a game to be good, it has to examine trauma. There are plenty of light-hearted games that are artistically rich and satisfying, and those games need to exist. We also need games like Far Cry 3 because, dammit, power fantasies are fun and a joy to adventure in. My point is that anything with true aspirations of tackling mature narrative themes must take trauma into account. All of us experience something that affects us on a deep level, something that changed the person we would be forever, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. It is an uncomfortable truth of the adult life. And when writers and developers can tap into that truth, the work they do becomes all the more provocative. While the future of the Tomb Raider franchise is yet to be seen, I'll always feel the trauma of it, and Crystal Dynamics would be wise to keep that in mind for the future as well.