It’s tricky to talk about whiteness in games. Yet we have to recognize how it’s infected the medium and its surrounding culture to its very core. It’s insipid, it’s overwhelming, and sometimes its hard to wrap our heads around. Yet, it needs to be addressed, it needs to be called out. Much like Bioshock: Infinite and it’s false equivalence between racists and the oppressed, Tomb Raider has, by its premise alone, propped up extremely racist connotations, and I’m sad to see its issues completely ignored by people who I thought we could safely assume knew better.
There’s a post going around today from Cara Ellison about how the next Tomb Raider should be made. Which is weird to me, because I thought games critics were beyond the armchair designing that plagues message boards riddled full of people wanting to be the ideas person. We’re critics, we’re supposed to engage with the medium and confront it, not sit in up in the rafters (edit 8/18 - just learned the racist connotations behind the term “peanut gallery,” my apologies) and abstract over our ideal game free of context or responsibility from the environment and constraints games developers deal with when trying to make a game. It’s almost always vague and entirely worthless, detached from the realities of game development. So we don’t do it, as an unwritten rule. We all have ideas, we all have the capacity to the imaginary ideas person at an infinite and sovereign game development studio. Our individual ideals or perceptions of what a games franchise should be are frankly irrelevant, regardless of how many rackets we’ve been featured in.
However, the problem with Tomb Raider is a problem that exists at its core, something it shares a similar ideal with in the Indiana Jones franchise, and in some cases even goes farther. Tomb Raider, in name alone, is riddled with imperialism. You know, I thought maybe we as a medium, had perhaps moved past affluent white person robbing the tombs of people of color all around the world until Crystal Dynamics rebooted Tomb Raider. Yet I guess we never really realized the issue at hand here with the fantasy and the execution of the franchise, especially considering the elements that make Tomb Raider in certain regards worse than Indiana Jones is the fact that at least Indiana screams “it belongs in a museum!” while Lara just stashes the physical history of ancient people of color in her oversized mansion for her personal amusement.
Yet, racism in archaeology is very much a rampant and potent issue to this day. So it feels odd, if not horribly offensive, to make a violent power fantasy celebrating what is essentially the reality - people of color having their tangible history taken from them and placed in white owned and white run museums and collections for profit. So I’m surprised to see Tomb Raider in its rebooted form propped up by games critics who claim to care about social issues in games - it’s one of the worst when it comes to upholding white supremacy over people of color, striking at their very history and stealing it out from under them.
This is a large part of the problem with the games industry’s love for rebooting old franchises - maybe back in the 90s, our culture in attempts to be edgy and eXtreme, stuff like Duke Nukem, Shadow Warrior, and Tomb Raider were more acceptable, but as they’ve been brought back and given new blood, they’ve fallen flat on their face, to varying scales of acceptance. Duke Nukem Forever was universally rejected, Shadow Warrior received mostly positive reviews while it kept a great deal of sexism and hid away some spats of racism, and Tomb Raider, a bizarrely dissonant game of attempting to have a gritty, realistic story stuffed full of bizarro mechanics which illustrate an ideal of Lara Croft being a Magical Gun Witch who steals the ancient trinkets of people of color (referred to as salvage, mind you) and turning them into gun parts like silencers and high capacity magazines over a campfire, this was a game that was almost universally celebrated, and if you didn’t like it or consider it Game of the Year you’re a borderline sexist! (minus the fact that the author of this piece would go on to help develop a game with four varying-levels-of-white female protagionists) The problem, frankly, is that there are numerous critical arguments to be made why Tomb Raider is not a good game, much less a GOTY contender.
Much like Gone Home’s weirdness of being a kleptomaniac orb deceived into thinking its human as it floats around hearing voices and absorbing the data of people’s private lives, there’s a far more interesting story in Tomb Raider that the mechanics tell that is never explored to tell a far less interesting tale that’s been done a million times before. But this is irrelevant - the game still centers around one white woman running around raiding the tombs and stealing the history of people of color for her own empowerment. We simply cannot, as a community of games critics, celebrate and support a franchise that is centered around the conquests of whiteness.
Tomb Raider (2013) is one of the biggest offenders as far as “collectibles” are concerned - relics are simply something to farm for an achievement. How crude, how offensive it is to devalue the physical history of the Sino-Japanese into nothing more than something to run around and collect in order to gain another 50 achievement points. Especially since in the 2013 reboot’s attempt to get away from the racist connotations of the franchise spend the majority of the focus on shooting murderous cultists serving under angry white dude Mathias and doing consequence free platforming a-la Uncharted, it instead reinforces the lack of importance of history being trampled on to forward this plot between white people.
We as a medium, or at least as games critics, need to acknowledge that we need to let the old franchises die, or at least recognize, instead of celebrate, the imperialism of these old 90s franchises we enjoyed and cherished for one reason or another. Duke Nukem was the worship of the smug white guy with an attitude who loved 80s action movies for all the wrong reasons, Shadow Warrior was about the othering of Asian culture and how “exotic” it is when you mindlessly blend them together and reduce it to a joke, and Tomb Raider was about how the physical history of people of color was something to steal and collect for the empowerment of white people.
Tomb Raider belongs in a tomb of its own, to be forgotten, and for newer, fresher, and more beautiful ideas, franchises, and characters to take its place, perhaps even centered around characters that exist to accomplish something other than the personal crusade of furthering white imperialism.