Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tomb Raider: Diary of a Madman

First things first, I absolutely loved Tomb Raider. It looks beautiful, the gameplay is very tight and the narrative and writing are exceptional. A few things about it didn't necessarily work, as is to be expected in any creative work, but there is one note which jarred especially with me. It's a minor one, it is entirely possible to complete the game without even noticing it, but that doesn't mean that it should be ignored.

So, there are spoilers ahead, mainly to do with theme. I've tried to keep major revelations to a minimum.

Early on in the game, if you are collecting documents, you will start reading a tranche of diary entries - written by the main antagonist Mathias. These entries detail his earlier stranding on the island, attempts to escape and the hard decisions survival in this situation have forced upon him. In some ways these background snippets can be seen as a mirror to Lara's story, and I think that they are intended to highlight the moral aspect of her own decisions, as well as to provide back story for the villain of the piece. This set of documents are collected underneath the title 'Diary of a Madman.' I don't think that Mathias is mad, though.

Some of the Solari are certainly mad, driven so by the tortures we are shown that they endure before acceptance. The majority, I think, could safely be said to be considering their time on the island as a potential lacuna, an altered state that they will wish to have forgotten once they make good their escape. There is a moment where two Solari, unaware of Lara's presence and heading away from her location discuss what they will do when they leave: they fully intend to return to normal lives. You might call what they are experiencing a temporary madness, a period of unreason specific to their situation and location. They do things that they would otherwise have abhorred, or even been incapable of, because they are in a place that they themselves have classed as unreal.

Mathias, on the other hand, is aggressively sane. Every action he takes is considered, measured and based on the observable realities of his situation. Not only that, but it is made clear that his observations are correct; he is seeing the world as it truly is, or at least as it is presented to the player as being, without the distortions to perception that are associated with many mental illnesses. That he is callous, morally corrupt or maybe even evil does not make him mad and it is disingenuous and damaging to suggest that it does although hardly uncommon.

The fact that the writing in the game is so good and so tight is one of the things that I feel highlights this in particular - it is a jarring use of an unreconstructed trope within a work which studiously avoids, subverts or boldly embraces and makes it's own the the standard cliches of action narratives. Villains are very often called mad, colloquially by the frustrated or appalled protagonists who must oppose them as well as authoritatively by the narrative voice, as here. In another game, one in which the story such as it is was just a set of these tropes strung together it would remain an annoying example of lazy stigma, but would hardly seem as egregious as it does here.

(This brings to mind another aspect of, not so much the game itself but the discussion around the game. I have seen the phrase 'mass murderer' bandied about a lot to describe Lara in a way that is very rarely used about the male protagonists of any number of similar games, and it is difficult to be certain if this comes as a response to the game itself and the way it forces you to confront the actions you take, or if it is a latent misogyny that tends towards the labelling of female killers as worse than male ones.)

I don't want to be disappointed by this game or it's writing team. I want to believe that the subtlety they've shown in other aspects is on display here, but I'm not sure I'm entirely happy with what that would lead me to conclude, either. The big theme of the game is survival: how you survive and what you sacrifice in order to do so. Lara's survival, her insistence on protecting those around her and in taking the damage so that they don't have to, is consistently contrasted with that of Mathias, who survives at the expense of others. If survival on Yamatai, including the discovery and acceptance of its secrets, is madness, then this implicates Lara too. Effectively it states that Lara has not only become hardened, but has become (at least temporarily) mad, and I am uncomfortable with this. It is however, hard for me to pinpoint exactly why, and maybe, actually, I shouldn't be.

There was a lot of pre-amble from Crystal Dynamics about how the idea of a reboot for Tomb Raider was in part inspired by the success of the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman movies, but the focus on the psychological and moral aspects of the story, as well as the equivalence, although asymmetrical, between protagonists and antagonists put me more in mind of the re-imaginings of Batman put in place during the 80s. It was during this time that the idea really took hold that Batman was almost certainly as mad as the colourful villains he incarcerated at Arkham asylum. I like the increased complexity, and I think that it is a service to the character that Lara is allowed to undergo these different examinations of how she got to be who she is, and to have different interpretations given room for expression in the canon.

It's not like they've gone the full Batman on her anyway, as everything I've discussed above is based on the implications of a very small element of what could essentially be called fluff. But Lara's control of her own emotions - her iciness if you want to be pejorative - has always been important to her characterisation (even if it stems from her early lack of characterisation), and so how the developers handle her mental state over the likely coming sequels will be interesting to watch.  And I hope that if they do decide to tackle any mental health fallout from her time on Yamatai head on that it is done with the sensitivity both it and she deserve.

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