This isn’t the article I wanted to write about Tomb Raider. In fact, I had an article that was a lot more poetic; there were lines about agency, the environment becoming a character, and how Tomb Raider truly was a next gen title that was my game of the year.
Instead this is an article about Lara Croft being choked to death.
There’s a scene fairly early on in the game where our young, intrepid heroine is being stalked through the forest. Her innocence is shattered; her friends are being brutally shot around her, their screams echoing in the distance as they’re murdered. She crouches against some old ruins at one point, finding a brief reprieve from the horrors she’s witnessing unfold. Suddenly a man surprises her, grabbing her and lifting her up by her throat. His hand clamps over her throat and he begins to choke the life out of her. She starts struggling. She has seconds to live.
If you don’t hit the right series of buttons, she’s choked to death in front of you. Her body goes limp in his hands, her face goes blank, and he laughs the cruelest of laughs.
If you don’t hit the right series of keys, she dies a horrible death. He lives. They never escape the island and Lara never becomes the heroine she was destined to be.
I hit the keys wrong at first. I was so taken aback by the scene that I just stared at it, my mouth slightly open. A video game had never made me feel this way in my entire life—and I wasn’t sure what I thought about that.
You see, it shocked me so much because twelve years ago, my father choked me in that manner. He lifted me up by my neck and he wrapped his hands around my throat and he choked me until I fought back. I don’t tell a lot of people this because it’s one of those things I never talk about. It was one of the last interactions we ever had before the police got involved, before the detectives talked to me during sixth period, and before I never saw him again in my life.
So as I watched Lara die, I tried to stomach it. It was, after all, just a video game. It wasn’t real life, no matter how similar that exact moment seemed to me. I reloaded the game and tried again. This time I got further: she successfully fought back for a second, before another quick time event cropped up. I failed it.
And she died again.
For the next ten minutes, I kept repeating the scene—failing at different arcs, making the same mistakes, fighting against Lara’s attacker and letting her die each time through my own emotions and inability as a gamer.
Eventually I beat it. I mashed the keys at the exact right time and watched as it was the man who died rather than Lara Croft. But I felt nothing; I didn’t feel like I beat the scene, I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. Horrified, I realized I was crying silently as I finished. The tears were hitting my keyboard.
The game had terrorized me. The game had violated me.
Against my will, at a complete surprise, it made me relive something that I had spent most of my teenage years forcing out of my head; the smell of the shed, the way the air was so cold, and the way my throat burned for hours after the attack as I sat in the street afraid to move—afraid for my life.
Earlier today someone asked on Twitter if they were the only person triggered by Tomb Raider. The answer is no, but it’s more than that.
Tomb Raider triggered me, sure. For the next hour, I sullenly picked at the game. I moved forward reluctantly. I killed enemies with the pistol slowly, with great calculation and terror. I never saw the bigger picture, I just killed and Lara killed with me. I watched as Lara learned how to kill—how to survive at all costs. I watched as she learned the evils of the world. I watched as they broke her, repeatedly, in the most atrocious of ways.
But more than that, I watched her survive. By the end of the game, she’s screaming at her attackers. She’s daring them to fight her. She’s telling them they will never break her and that she will make it off the island. Her attacks change as well; as she gains more experience, she goes from distant kills to intensely personal and violent ones. She buries her climbing axe into their heads, she throws her whole weight into their bodies, and she fights with every fiber of her being.
I used to play Tomb Raider 2at my dad’s house. He bought it for me. I remember jumping through the canals of Venice. I remember killing enemies, dodging bullets—finding artifacts.
But I don’t remember why I did it in particular. It was just a game and I went through the motions to play a game. It was meaningless. Lara Croft could have been anybody and in a sense she was. She was pretty, she was skilled, but she wasn’t real.
She never made me feel anything.
This version of Lara Croft, though, bruised and broken—surviving against all odds, living out the ultimate revenge fantasy—she made me feel a lot. She made me cry. She was the version I wish I had known growing up.
Tomb Raider triggered me, sure. But it didn’t do it needlessly. It didn’t do it tactlessly. It didn’t do it for a cheap rise. It instead captured a real emotion and a real experience millions of women will encounter in their life. Some of them won’t be as lucky as I was. Some of them won’t be as lucky as Lara Croft was, either. Some of them won’t survive. Some of them will be silenced forever.
Some of them will die and some of their attackers will live.
Tomb Raider triggered me and that’s ok. Maybe that’s even good. I think it is because it means it’s the first realistic, non-gratifying portrayal of violence against women that I’ve seen in video games. It’s the first one I’ve seen that wasn’t exploitive. It didn’t hold any punches, but it didn’t need to. It was raw. It was accurate. And it affected me in a way years of therapy never did. It healed me in a way that no one’s physical comfort, words, and condolences could ever do. It made me realize that, much like Lara Croft, I survived as well—and that I had my own path to walk. That my experiences were real and tangible and yes, they defined me, but that I’d have it no other way. I am a survivor and I am alive. And so is Lara Croft.
She’s no longer the woman who stared into the mirror on the ship before her journey. Pristine and then unscarred, she didn’t know what people were capable of; she just wanted to be an archaeologist. Standing on the rescue ship at the end, bruised and scarred, she looks at her journal and the sea surrounding her.
In that moment, she’s reborn.
Like I said, this isn’t the article I wanted to write about Tomb Raider. I wanted to tell you about how beautiful it was, how good the combat felt, and how it’s my game of the year.
But maybe it was the article I needed to write. For Lara. For me. For the other women.
For people who think games can’t be art, can’t be experiences, can’t be ugly and beautiful and raw. For people who think games can’t have good gameplay and good storylines.
For people who think games can’t have a female protagonist.
Yeah, I think it was.