Classics and pop culture / Random thoughts / Reviews

Via Memoriae Classicae III – Tomb Raider

Righto, then. Let’s talk a bit about computer games. Being a shy and somewhat awkward teenager, a lot of the most memorable experiences of my secondary school years came vicariously from a games console or our just-about-operational-most-of-the-time PC. I explored Super Mario World many times, I braved the twisted forests of Hyrule’s Dark World. I choked down a lump in my throat when Aeris died and I’ve had the waltz music from Balamb Garden’s graduation ball stuck in my head since 1999. None of that has much place in a Classics blog.

Instead I’m going to talk about the only game series from my teenage years that genuinely intersects with Classics and archaeology in a more or less (probably less) meaningful way: Tomb Raider. A lot has been written about Tomb Raider over the years. It was one of those era-defining games which breached the ramparts of even the most mainstream of media awareness. Alongside its contemporary, Super Mario 64, it’s credited with effectively defining the 3D platform-game genre when it was released in 1996. Its main character, Lara Croft, became a 90s pop-culture icon and she’s still by far the most famous female video game character. It’s on this – and her supposed appeal to legions of teenaged boys – that most commentary about the game has focused.

The thing is, as a boy whose teenage years almost perfectly map with the original games (I bought the first one in 1997 when I was thirteen and got each instalment until Tomb Raider Chronicles in late 2000, just before my seventeenth birthday), it was never about Lara. At least not in the sense that the popular stereotype would have it. That old cliché does a disservice both to the developers and to the people who enjoyed the games. The dubious charms of her cuboid derrière or appropriately pyramidal bosom were not what attracted me to the series. I found her screams and breathy grunts little more than embarrassing. As a main character she wasn’t an object to be lusted after – honestly, even shy teenaged boys aren’t that undiscerning! She was an avatar. Just like Mario or Link or Cloud Strife, she was a figure I could inhabit to explore a world. Her gender was irrelevant.

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What I loved were the tombs themselves. From the opening section in Peru’s Lost City of Vilcabamba (a real place, though less snowbound and dinosaur-infested than it was depicted in the game), through Egyptian ruins, to the strange, bacony architecture of long-lost Atlantis, the original Tomb Raider struck a slow, quiet, and memorably solitary pace through a succession of magisterial forgotten ruins. The setting is in stark contrast to the modern cities and military installations infested with gun-toting villains which became de rigeur from the first sequel onward. First time out, it was all about the tombs, and wonderful they were. As you’d expect in a game which no-one could have foreseen would go on to spawn such an enduring franchise, the makers blow all the most obvious ancient civilisations in the very first game: Inca, Egypt and Ancient Grome.

GRCE_1~1

tr dolphinsAh yes, Grome. Is it Greece? Is it Rome? Who knows?! The developers seem more than a little confused as to where the second sequence of levels actually takes place. Lara begins in St. Francis’ Folly, a name which suggests Italy; the second area’s called the Colosseum (although since it’s been built underground inside a mountain,[1] for unknown reasons, it’s clearly just an ordinary amphitheatre, not the Colosseum). There’s also a Cistern. So far, so Roman. But most of the publicity materials, as well as the developers of the 2007 remake, assert that this sequence occurs in Greece. The architecture looks vaguely Roman, though water pools are tastefully decorated with Minoan-style dolphins. I’d still be happy to assume this was Italy (as I did on my original play-through), if it wasn’t for the fact that the levels are populated with rather more lions, gorillas and crocodiles than might reasonably be expected either there or Greece. To muddy the waters even more, the fourth level in the sequence is the Palace of Midas. So are we in fact in Phrygia?

And then, as a real curve-ball, you get the four puzzle-rooms which form the centrepiece of St Francis’ Folly. Each is themed after a figure from mythology: Neptune, Atlas, Damocles and… Thor.[2]

But it’s facile to pick holes in the historical accuracy. Worse, it’s missing the point. This is a game about the joy of exploration and discovery. It gives you a grab-bag of as much cool stuff from the ancient world as possible and leaving it to you to figure out how it all works. It’s history as a puzzle-box, an intellectual challenge set by the ancients. This, I think, is why I find it so much more engaging than so many of its sequels and imitators, where the environment is just a backdrop for run-of-the-mill videogame gunplay.

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Nathan Drake, presenting his BBC4 documentary about the ancient world.

Whether it was an imposition of technical limitations or a conscious design decision, the stark loneliness of the original Tomb Raider is a masterstroke which is exploited to wonderful effect. Returning to it in these days when games hold your hand, carefully shepherd your movements and constantly bombard you with incident, spectacle and dialogue in case your attention should waver for even a moment, it’s perhaps even more powerful. It’s not a game that’s afraid of silence, and is all the more powerful for it.

This brings us back to the question of Lara, and where she stands in the halls of the pop-culture ‘archaeologist’. I hardly need to spell out that she fits very well into the stock character of the lone, heroic adventurer-cum-treasure-hunter who can recall details of even the most obscure civilisation in an instant, who speaks every ancient language going, and whose brand of archaeology contains more mythological monsters than Munsell charts; where Nazis and mafiosi are more of a headache than permits and publications. Lara’s most often compared to Indiana Jones, and the through-line from his pulpy old-school adventures to hers is, of course, obvious.

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Early concept art. Nice thermos/severed head combo.

But while Lara owes a debt to the estimable Dr Jones, I’d argue it’s a more superficial one than is often given credit for. It extends more to the worlds they inhabit than to the characters themselves. In those 90s games, even when Lara’s recognisably in a ‘modern’ setting, such as Venice or Alexandria, it’s a curiously old-school version which in many ways seems more reminiscent of Indy’s 1930s stamping-grounds than 1990s reality (and it’s one reason why I could never really get on with the more tech-savvy, headset-wearing Lara we were given once development shifted to America). Even the old cassette Walkman she carries in her inventory in the first game now seems almost as strange and archaic as the relics it sits alongside. Tomb Raider now rests somewhere between ‘timeless’ and being a period piece.

The same old-world charm infuses the world of Nathan Drake, who has latterly supplanted Lara as the PlayStation’s leading plunderer of ancient sites. The Uncharted series in which he stars is in many ways excellent, but it’s a rowdy, swashbuckling, noisy ride with a strong supporting cast of larger-than-life characters. Close to Indy, but a far cry from the cerebral thrills of early Tomb Raider.

Indiana Jones and Lara actually embody very different conceptions of the heroic ‘archaeologist’ character. Indy’s a swashbuckling, devil-may-care hero; a romantic, a brawler and a shooter. Lara’s altogether more aloof, thoughtful and detached. She seems to have few friends, no love interests and little concern for her inherited wealth. Like Indy, she’s physically adept, but while he’s all scrappy energy and improvisation, Lara’s movement is characterised by its studied precision, actions carefully judged and repeated until perfect. There’s a nerdy, perfectionist, obsessive streak to her. For all that I said she’s an avatar, I don’t think that’s entirely something I read into her myself. For all that the presentation of archaeology in the Tomb Raider games is self-evidently ridiculous, the combination of meticulous, careful planning and precise execution with the occasional, judicious application of brute force does echo something of the archaeological methodology. I think I can buy early Lara Croft as a PhD student far more than I can Indiana Jones as a professor. Would it be going too far to link this to the series’ English origins? While Indy harks back to the Cowboys and Indians of American pulp, Lara preserves at least a vestige of the scholarly and aristocratic British antiquarian. The Grand Tour and MR James are arguably as there in her DNA in a way that they’re not for Indiana Jones.

I’m replaying the original Tomb Raider now, and I’m surprised and delighted at how well it stands up. Needless to say, the graphics are terribly pixellated and unrealistic, but so much so that they take on an almost painterly, impressionistic quality which demands active interpretation. Even the visuals refuse to spoon-feed you. And the atmosphere that made me fall in love with the series is still there in spades. Even with the discovery that it did in fact have music which my old PC for some reason never played does little to impact the austere grandeur of it all. And for all that 1996-7 was an excellent vintage for games, austere grandeur isn’t a quality many of them can be said to retain.

A couple of years after I bought the last of the original run of Tomb Raider games, I became an archaeologist myself, taking part in my first dig in the suitably exotic location of Carthage. Towards the end of the project, I ended up working alongside a Dutch archaeologist on conserving and cataloguing the painted plaster. Her name was Lara.


[1] When I worked as a commercial archaeologist I was once asked by the landlady of the B and B we were staying at why people in ancient times built everything underground. I have to confess I was lost for words.

[2] For the remake, they changed it to Hephaestus. Which is more sensible but a lot less fun. I rather like the idea of Thor lost somewhere in the Classical world and not quite able to work out exactly where.

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6 thoughts on “Via Memoriae Classicae III – Tomb Raider

  1. Reblogged this on The Archaeology of Tomb Raider and commented:
    A Classics student shares his thoughts on what he considers an era-defining game: the original Tomb Raider (1996). In his article, he highlights some of the historical inaccuracies of the original game (yes, I was also wondering about that “Thor” room in St. Francis Folly when I first played the game many eons ago) and explains why he believes Lara and Indiana Jones are two different conceptions of the heroic “archaeologist” character made popular in the twentieth century. A must-read for Tomb Raider fans!

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