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Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix

Coping with depression through Lara Croft’s origin story, the rebooted Tomb Raider. Unrelated to Portal. Spoilers.

Spoilers ahead. If you have not beaten Tomb Raider, go play it. Then, of course, revisit this post to fully appreciate Crystal Dynamics’ rebooted effort.

Staring into a mirror is an experience to which everyone can relate. What we see in the reflection is a different story. That moment has meaning for many people: Some see glory or success; some see someone stressed beyond their years; some see satisfaction. And some witness a person battered by emotion, suffering in the darkest depths of humanity, as the world crumbles beneath his feet. It is the internal and infinite battle with depression.

Tomb Raider opens with a young and unassuming Lara Croft staring into her reflection. She has yet to embark on the valiant adventures that would validate her in the Croft dynasty, to live up to her father. A Lara voice-over quotes her father as saying, “…that the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are.” After pinning a picture of Japan to her locker door, she looks into the mirror initially with a surprising face. Then her facial muscles tighten as unfermented confidence meanders into her mind, cementing her resolve.

Instantly after, her ship, the Endurance breaks apart upon hitting a patch of rough sea. The cabin swells with water as she loses consciousness. The voice-over continues: “In our darkest moments, when life flashes before us, we find something; something that keeps us going.” Saved by an unseen figure, Lara runs and leaps to the other side of the boat where Roth, a crew member, stands in waiting. Their grip is not strong enough and she falls into the roaring ocean below.

Throughout Tomb Raider, survival as a theme pervades the narrative. Surviving the shipwreck, surviving many daring and supernatural obstacles, surviving the stir-crazy inhabitants–the game is rampant with struggle. Even the slogan emphasizes this–”A Survivor is Born”. As Lara’s origin story, the outcome is obvious. Still, knowing she would survive and thrive in war-like conditions is nevertheless exciting and exhilarating.

I can also relate. Between the ages of eight and 15, I constantly battled depression and suicidal thoughts. I felt alone, friendless, uninspired; I was dismissed as a sad kid from a broken home, like an abandoned pet. Unlike Lara, my struggle was in silence. She had to be bold and audacious in uncertainty, facing insurmountable circumstances, whereas I would tense up and weep if I failed the smallest and most insignificant thing.

Our situations were both sprung on us, too. Lara had a natural curiosity for historical unknowns and a fatherly reputation to uphold. Never did she expect to come close to death so often. I was weighed down by a mother lost to alcoholism at a young age. When I should have had the world at my fingertips, I acted reservedly. My adolescent curiosity had been suppressed by forces I could not understand nor rationalize.

Hearing Lara (by extension, Camilla Luddington) speak of the extraordinary was inspiring. For that brief moment, I reverted back to my old self. It was a strange feeling and hit me like a culture shock. Traumatic memories resurfaced and for a tense few seconds, I relived my life like a film on fast forward. The countless therapy sessions, the feelings of despair, fearing the future, scaring myself, all wrapped into one single moment that took less time than to say “I’m Still Alive.” Then my heart calmed, my muscles relaxed, and I went on to enjoy ten hours of Tomb Raider over two nights.

For the first time in ages, I related to a video game character. Accidentally, apparently, because Lara is much deeper and multilayered than most video game protagonists. Just calling her a survivor seems like a caricature given the challenges she faces and the pressure put on her to save everyone in the rebooted origin story. That set of expectations is not taken lightly, and yet she shoulders it all bravely even with arrows and bullets flying past her head. She is born anew, transforming from a young archeologist following the Croft lineage to become an emboldened, hardened, defiant individual who thrives in the name of peril.

Later in the game, before Lara climbs the radio tower, a powerful moment passes quickly. After killing the first of many shielded enemies (the heavy or upgraded version that games require these days), a Solarii militiaman holding a Molotov cocktail says “Oh shit… she’s still alive? Run!” It is then that Lara says a quote that inspired the name of this article–Luddington’s on-point voice acting screams out an impassioned “Still Alive!”

It reinforces how survival is thematically engrained in every moment of Tomb Raider, from the beginning moments to when saving Sam from Mathias. That scene is also one of the more understated examples of Lara’s willingness to succeed, and one where I was stunned in my notes of how consciously the game’s writer, Rhianna Pratchett, knew and understood that value in Lara Croft.

In that sequence, a huge chill ran down my spine. I quickly welcomed the idea that this game could potentially change my perspective on the true worth of life and that every situation is survivable. For a video game to teach me that after playing so many other instances in this medium is itself impressive, but for Tomb Raider to convince me of it is on an entirely new level.

Depression is incurable. No matter how many pills taken, no matter what doctors say, that resounding doubt never leaves the brain even after depression is long gone. To this day, I still get certain thoughts occasionally. And honestly, I assumed my life had no meaning. But Tomb Raider subtly reminded me that there is value in life, and that life is a constant battle. But if I can tough through it, if I can survive the extremes, I can be extraordinary. Because, as Father Croft said, to be extraordinary is to accomplish greatness.

Maybe one day I can gaze into a mirror and appreciate the person staring back.

Tonally, this is a change from the usual here on Holygrenade. I felt inspired however from playing Tomb Raider and wanted to share my thoughts. More posts like this may appear soon. Share the post if you like it, subscribe from the sidebar, and enjoy your Sunday!

  • http://www.digitallydownloaded.net/ Matt S

    Great piece, Jeff! I agree that this game is one features one of the most complex and fleshed-out characters in the games industry. While this isn’t Citizen Kane, Tomb Raider is nonetheless going to be looked back as a critical game in the development of games as a narrative form.

    • JeffHeilig

      I hope so. I enjoyed playing it and it was weird to actually relate to a character. Haven’t done that for God knows how long. Anyway, do you think these sorts of pieces could catch on? I’ve seen other sites only do this sort of content and I found it interesting.

      • http://www.digitallydownloaded.net/ Matt S

        Yeah, absolutely. Keep doing these pieces. More than reviews, this kind of analysis of theme and character is critical for the development of games writing.

    • http://chalgyrsgameroom.blogspot.com/ Chalgyr

      I’m going to second Matt’s take here. I enjoyed the article, and could appreciate the perspective you took in writing this piece. I think they could catch on – it’s relatable and real. A different take than what you usually read about a game.

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