Watching Indiana Jones as a child changed me irrevocably and I realized it as it was happening.
I was five years old when I sat on the carpet of my grandparent’s living room watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on their enormous screen. As the nightmarish boulder chased Indy down that famous cave throat, I felt the spectacle, music and vivid danger modify me atomically.
I was discovering the electric charge of adventure, the appeal of danger, the dark thrill of setting foot in a place where you should not be and getting out with your life.
The effect was permanent. Ever since, I’ve sought out and absorbed all of the adventure fiction (and its ephemera) that I could find. I loved sci-fi, horror and fantasy, but pulp adventure was my choicest drug.
Definitions vary, but for me, “Pulp Adventure” describes a fantasy of a physically risky enterprise set in a world or history like the one we know, but projected through a delirious haze of legend or unreality.
It’s not quite real and it’s never meant to be perceived as such.
Exoticism and far travel are requisites. Intrepid women and men of action are always the principals. Sex and gun smoke hang in the air in equal measure. But most of all, it’s good natured. The storytellers and audience have congregated to enact a not-too-serious drama for not-too-serious thrills. There’s blood, there’s peril, but there are winks and grins, too.
As a child I discovered pulp adventure lived primarily in film, novels and comic books. There weren’t many pulp-style video games (that I knew of). I put more than a couple of Sunday afternoons into Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (fun if clunky, spirited though unpolished), but that was about it.
Pulp adventure had a much smaller footprint in the world of electronic gaming at that time than, say, the sci-fi fantasy of Star Wars or the survival horror of Resident Evil.
In junior high, I knew of Tomb Raider the same way the rest of my friends did. Lara Croft arrived as an absurdly sexualized female Indy knockoff. We knew what we were being sold.
I did play the original Tomb Raider but I didn’t find much there for me. Carefully lining up my jumps was frustrating. The gunplay wasn’t exhilarating. Even the marauding velociraptors failed to impress. I didn’t get far and I never returned to it.
When Uncharted came swinging into the world in 2007, I paid some attention. The reviews made it seem like a direct answer to my difficulties with early Tomb Raider. Uncharted looked fluid, cinematic, intuitive—and, most importantly, fun. So why didn’t I play it? I certainly should have. I had leaned out of video games at this time. I probably thought I would get around to it at some point. It looked important but not urgent. I was interested, just not interested enough.
The same thing happened when Tomb Raider rebooted in 2013. I paid attention but didn’t dive in. I noted it, but that was all.
When I did get around to playing it—during the nadir of an extremely cold Chicago winter in 2017—what I found was joyful. I responded to the same sense of high adventure-fantasy that fired up my proto-brain as a kid.
The game wore its influences plainly: Indiana Jones, Uncharted itself, Michael Crichton’s most playful fiction. But it was also, I found, a deeply crafted adventure story. Most critically it was character driven.
Lara Croft was not the lurid caricature of a past era. She also was not just a re-skinned Indy. This Lara was an original character as rich and deserving of serious attention as the mysterious island on which she now found her “first” adventure.
2013’s Tomb Raider launched the “Survivor trilogy” of games that collectively tell this Lara’s origin story.
I recently played all three (Tomb Raider for the second time, and its sequels Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of the Tomb Raider for the first time each) and I was stunned by how much fun (and character) I found packed into these expeditions.
A Survivor is Born
The premise of 2013’s Tomb Raider is quick and dirty and perfect: Lara, a young (and beautiful) archaeologist sails with a motley documentary crew led by an egotistical host. The gang is diverse and their relationships are both clear and clearly sprinkled with some secrets.
Their ship breaks during a freak storm and our characters wash up on a mysterious island where they’re quickly met by other (deeply suspect and well-armed) castaways.
Shots are fired.
Lara finds herself separated from her friends and coworkers. She must find her shipmates, rescue who she can, unlock the secrets of the island and its inhabitants, and in so doing, defeat her own doubts and achieve self-actualization.
Oh, and some stuff blows up real good.
Over the course of the two sequels, Lara further matures into the capable, globe-trotting, archaeologist adventurer we all expect her to be. She travels to Syria, Siberia, South America and elsewhere. In each far flung locale, she finds secret histories, blood cults and mercenary antagonists haunting her steps.
Her abilities and battle prowess develop with her. She evolves from panicked creature of need to an apex predator. By the the end of the trilogy, Lara’s secured her position in the top tier of any hierarchy of modern day combat adventurers.
Essentially it’s three long chapters of one story about a woman becoming her true and best self.
Does an origin story need to be spread across a trilogy? I don’t know. But I’m glad this origin story trilogy exists.
If they never released another Tomb Raider game again, these three would be achievement enough to secure an unshakable legacy.
And not just because the gameplay is fun. (It is really fun: combat is tight, exploration is thrilling, the environments and set pieces are as artful, exotic and cinematic as anything in a Marvel movie, et cetera.) There are many technical reasons to recommend these games, but there’s another better reason why these adventures stand out: They’re actually about something.
This Lara, played perfectly by Camilla Luddington, is—in my view—the defining iteration of the character. And the arc of her development here is not only fun to experience but it’s generally well told. She changes. She grapples with and defeats self-doubt. She earns her apotheosis.
Yes, there is lore and mythology, and nonsense mercenary conspiracies and spontaneous explosions of supernatural phenomena, and all the rest, but Lara and her personal journey are always at the center of every moment.
Character is always the answer.
When I’m writing my own fiction, I hit walls constantly. Is there tension here? Does this choice make sense? Is this advancing the story? Is this actually about anything?
I rarely have any idea what I’m doing. But when I hit a wall, I try to remind myself of something I believe to be true: Character is always the answer.
Whatever the conundrum, whatever the self-architected trap I find myself in, the answer can be found within the character, not without.
The reason we remember Indy and not any (or at least not many) of his knockoffs, isn’t because he wears a leather jacket better than the others, or goes to more interesting secret places, or finds shinier loot… It’s because of Harrison Ford’s “I don’t have time for this shit” facial expression when he shoots the Cairo swordsman.
Or maybe it’s because of that self-satisfied grin when he shouts, “Nice try, Lao Che” before shutting the door on a Lao Che aircraft and unknowingly sealing himself within a death trap.
Or maybe it was the “No ticket” quip after throwing the Nazi out of the zeppelin.
The point (you guessed it) is that we know the guy. We like the guy. We like it when he wins and we relate when he screws up.
Lara isn’t Indy. She doesn’t have those same character beats. She has her own. And I wouldn’t claim that they compare with Indy’s because they don’t have to.
Her writers, artists and, most importantly, Camilla Luddington herself craft a relatable heroine who doubts herself, longs for her lost family and avenges her friends. She takes things too far. She gets caught up. She wants what’s best for those she loves. She fears. She rages. She loses and sometimes wins.
Sure, this Lara runs and guns as well as any action hero but critically, she captures us in the quiet moments too—like the very best characters of fiction, pulp or otherwise.
Here’s what I noticed on these play throughs:
Tomb Raider (2013)
- The villains hate being on the island
The bad guys don’t want to be on the island and it (hilariously) shows. The army of shipwrecked cultists washed up here and now can’t escape. Listening to the exhausted arguments (“I’m not your brother!”) between these redshirts is a joy.
- Amazing set pieces
A salvaged shipwreck suspended in the air by cables… Heat bouncing off the ramshackle scrap metal shanty towns… Ancient mystic strongholds that grow out of mountainsides… There’s nowhere to go on this island that isn’t fascinating and beautiful to behold.
- Her mentor rules
Roth, the old man adventurer, is a great character. He looks like Omega Man-era Charlton Heston and he (spoilers) takes a tomahawk in the back like a champ.
- Lara’s self-doubt is her biggest enemy
Lara’s constantly trying to talk herself up. “I can do this.” “You can do this.” “I can make this jump.” We get it.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015)
- Why was Jonah redesigned?
Jonah, Lara’s best friend and accomplice, is a tough and lovable brick who treats her with a sibling’s respect. His design in the first game is interesting (kind of a New Zealander dude bro) but his look is toned so far down in the sequel he looks wholly new. The change seems unnecessary, particularly as it calls attention to itself.
- Excellent art design
The environments here are vivid and clearly deeply researched. The mashup of Mongolian, Russian and Greek influences all feel pulled directly from history and synthesized into a new and vibrant digital arena.
- A slightly more fragmented story
The central lore at play here doesn’t quite gel. The MacGuffin (“The Divine Source”) is simultaneously vague and generic. Some new characters stand out, particularly Jacob, but the twist at the end can be seen miles off.
In the previous game, the island itself was a character that telegraphed its own mythology. We don’t get that unity of experience here and its absence is sharply felt.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)
- Why was Jonah redesigned again?
We’re back to Jonah’s original character design. It’s an improvement but the change up is jarring.
- The games, annoyingly, tells you when to be impressed.
“Even with all the wrecks, this is beautiful.” “This is stunning.” “Amazing.” “What an incredible sight.”
- Lara’s dream sequence is beautiful and different.
During the game’s only major shift, we get to explore a puzzle-based memory of Lara’s youth in Croft manor. It sounds like a drag but it’s a thrilling departure that gives us an even deeper glimpse into her character.
It’s a fantastic sequence: The music changes, the world softens, the regal estate reveals joyful secrets and now I’m mad at my parents for not raising me in Croft manor.
- Exploration over combat
At this point, Lara is as lethal as Rambo, though in this game, battles aren’t the focus. There’s a much greater emphasis on exploration and nothing is lost for it. This mythic world, and Lara’s respect and enthusiasm for it, make for excellent partners.