When Square Enix first announced that video game icon Lara Croft was to undergo a “reboot” back in 2010, the general response of fans and critics alike might have been characterized as one of cautious optimism. This was, after all, the tail end of the decade that had seen two of pop culture’s biggest and most enduring icons—Batman and James Bond—undergo wildly successful cinematic reimaginings.

Tomb Raider finally hit shelves in 2013, after an almost five-year development process. Drawing deep from the well of the Bond and Batman reboots for its origin story narrative, and lifting more than a few gameplay mechanics from Naughty Dog’s successful Uncharted series (which itself was influenced by earlier Tomb Raider titles), the reboot certainly made good on video game developer Crystal Dynamic’s promise to be “like no other” in the series before it.

It is a rare thing for video games to tackle the subject of organized religion, and rarer still for that subject to find itself at the epicenter of the story’s overarching narrative and not relegated to the status of mere plot device.

Long gone were the days of the voluptuous and busty twin pistol-packing adventurer, the version of the character that so often stood at the epicenter of debates over cultural stereotypes and the portrayal of women in video games. The Lara Croft audiences encountered in 2013, portrayed by Camilla Luddington of Grey’s Anatomy fame, was young and naïve, driven less by personal agency and more by a desire to follow in the footsteps of her late father and his quest for immortality.

The marketing went out of its way to characterize this version of Lara as a “survivor,” an emotionally compromised but brilliant young woman thrust into situations beyond her control, who did what she had to do to come out alive on the other side. When the (surprisingly faithful) reboot film adaptation came along in 2018, the trailer ran with a remixed cover of the award-winning earworm “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, and by 2021 the three games released since 2013 featuring this version of Lara had been officially rebranded as the “Survivor Trilogy.”

But did this new take on the character, apart from earning praise from feminist critics for being “a more progressive and representative version of femininity in the twenty-first century,” add anything of genuine merit to the gaming world? And, as Christians, what are we to make of the survivor, those of us who have taken the time to play through her story?

According to the gospel accounts, a certain young man of wealth and status approached Jesus of Nazareth and posed to him a question—perhaps the most important question ever asked. “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). This is the same question that haunts Lord Richard Croft (Michael Maloney and Stephen Hope) in the Tomb Raider reimagining. An Oxford-educated renegade archaeologist, Croft’s life became defined as a singular grail quest after the death of his beloved wife, Amelia de Mornay, in a tragic plane crash.

Obsessed with uncovering the secret of resurrection, his search for a means of overcoming death took him all over the world, from the jungles of Peru to the deserts of Syria. Croft’s adventures ultimately brought him into conflict with an ancient, monotheistic order that existed long before the time of Christ, a kind of cult springing up from the Abrahamic tradition dedicated to the worship of Yahweh—and called, ironically enough, “Trinity.” After the biblical flood, which cleansed the world of unrighteousness, the Order of Trinity believed themselves tasked by Yahweh to carry out yet another global cleansing through the recovery and use of supernatural artifacts. Clearly, its members never read past the seventh chapter of Genesis.

Trinity is the SPECTRE of the reimagined Tomb Raider trilogy, an organization that operates from the shadows with nigh unlimited resources, pulling the strings and orchestrating nefarious misdeeds the world over. And its parallels to the Roman Catholic Church are not only not subtle but are connections actually made in-game. In both Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) and Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018), as Lara races to uncover the truth behind Trinity’s vast network, she continues to stumble across clues that characterize the organization as a secretive, wetwork-oriented paramilitary branch of the Vatican. In fact, Rise of the Tomb Raider establishes that Trinity’s primary source of funding comes from Rome, and several of its historical members held positions in the Church.

It is a rare thing for video games to tackle the subject of organized religion, and rarer still for that subject to find itself at the epicenter of the story’s overarching narrative and not relegated to the status of mere plot device. And while it comes as little surprise that Tomb Raider sets its sights on Rome’s particular brand of Christianity—it is the lowest of the low-hanging fruits, after all—this does not mean the games are without merit in their diatribe against blind adherence to religious dogma.

After her first true encounter with the supernatural in Tomb Raider (2013), Lara’s desire to vindicate her father’s research morphs into something dangerously close to an obsession in the game’s 2015 sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. To this end, she sets out to find Kitezh, the lost city of Old Believers legend, which she theorizes contains the Divine Source—an ancient and mysterious shard of unknown origin that supposedly contains a fragment of Yahweh’s essence.

Playing through the reimagined Tomb Raider series is something of a religious experience—a kind of gamer’s liturgy, if you will.

Yes, you read that right. Lara Croft raids those tombs in search of the very substance of the Godhead. Ever heard of “three persons, one essence?” Spend some time studying historical trinitarianism and you will encounter such phraseology. Along the way, she encounters old Byzantine legends of a Deathless Prophet whose resurrection from the dead provoked the ire of the “Church in the West” because said prophet’s very existence challenged the authority of another important man who cheated death with the power of the Divine. So, Rome dispatches Trinity, to kill the prophet and his followers. The modern version of Trinity that Lara encounters is spearheaded in part by a ruthless man with a bad case of stigmata named—wait for it—Konstantin (Charles Halford). I know, I know, subtlety thy name is not Croft.

Anyway, this Deathless Prophet, revealed to be a man named Jacob (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez), has managed to establish an ethnoreligious group called the Remnant. Look, how religious scholars who happen to be video game aficionados have not absolutely devoured this game, I will never know. The parallels are so blatant and obvious, and the themes, as well as the religious motifs, at play are absolutely astounding considering this is a AAA video game title. Forget the movies that pander to broad audiences, folks, video games are apparently where all the narrative risks are being taken these days.

Rise of the Tomb Raider plays out like a larger-scale and better-thought-out version of The Da Vinci Code. Forget the long-lost bloodline of the Christ, the stakes here are much higher than that. Lead writer Rhianna Pratchett—yes, that would be the daughter of that other bestselling fantasy writer named Pratchett—has crafted a story about a whole new system of belief within the Abrahamic religious tradition centered on a persecuted people group who follow another resurrected messianic figure. Sure, the Tomb Raider series has always drawn from the deep well of world mythologies for inspiration, but few and far between are the narratives that use the Abrahamic traditions as their starting point.

Now, I would be remiss to point out that the Divine Source turns out to be nothing more than a very powerful and mysterious artifact (i.e., not divine in origin). Jacob is revealed to be a fraudulent and failed messiah, having manipulated a desperate people’s belief in the God of Scripture for his own ends. No, Lara does not convert to Christianity by the end of the game, and the Catholic Church is still suggested to be closely aligned with the villains, but she does learn something about the value of personal sacrifice when it comes to saving the world. After all, she chooses to destroy the Divine Source and doom her chances to vindicate her late father in the academic community rather than let the Source fall into the clutches of Trinity.            

Most days I grow weary of the endless deconstructionism that permeates so many pop culture artifacts in the twenty-first century. But every now and then a particular story comes along using deconstructionist methodologies powerfully to make a profound point. While Rise of the Tomb Raider does not reach the heights of, say, David Webb Peoples’s screenplay for Unforgiven, its tone does not come across as wholly cynical, either. So much of the game’s narrative involves Lara working through the emotional trauma of losing both her parents, and there are some moments along that journey that are genuinely touching and even heart-wrenching. This is a particularly tricky tightrope to try and walk but, to her credit, Pratchett does manage to strike an admirable balance in her attempt, but the mileage is sure to vary from player to player.

The narrative reaches its conclusion in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Though the story stands in continuity with the previous two, a new developer was brought in to handle the final chapter of Lara’s origin story. The differences from what Crystal Dynamics and Pratchett built between 2013 and 2015 are felt pretty strongly, as the storyline takes a hard left turn and sends Lara off to discover the lost Incan city of Paititi. Though the story thus far has been unafraid to tackle more mature themes and subject matter, things are decidedly darker this time around. I mean this in both the obvious figurative sense and the literal, as this game’s storyline revolves around Lara inadvertently setting off the countdown to the Mayan apocalypse, which supposedly culminates in a permanent solar eclipse.

Trinity is back in force, this time embodied in the figure of Dr. Pedro Dominguez (Carlos Leal), who is slowly revealed to be both a prince of Paititi and the current leader of Trinity’s high council. As a child, Dominguez (then named Amaru) was taken in by the Cult of Kukulkan, the serpent god of Mesoamerica, itself a proxy for Trinity established by Spanish conquistadors during their conquest of the Americas. Amaru was eventually adopted by an Italian cardinal, whom he succeeded as the leader of Trinity. Dominguez, it turns out, was the man who ordered the death of Lara’s father when the elder Croft threatened to reveal the truth about Trinity and the location of Paititi to the world.

The silhouette of Jesus Christ lingers in the shadows of these games, but an accurate portrait these stories (wisely, perhaps) leave thinly drawn.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider dabbles heavily with the religious syncretism common in Latin America. Dominguez himself is the perfect example of this, being at once the high priest of the Cult of Kukulkan and the head of another cult-like organization dedicated to the worship of Yahweh. At first, I thought that these idiosyncrasies were the result of different developers and writers trying to tie off narrative threads and provide the storyline with some closure. But when Lara ended up at an old Jesuit mission established by Spanish missionaries who apparently witnessed visions of John the apostle during solar eclipses, the narrative’s interest in exploring blended religious ideologies in perhaps the most syncretic of settings became clear.

The story reaches a head when Lara, having finally defeated Dominguez, is momentarily imbued with the power of Kukulkan. She is given the opportunity to remake the world as she sees fit, the great “cleansing” that Trinity had long attempted. In that instance, she experiences a vision of the life she never had, a world in which her mother and father were still alive, the power of resurrection that Richard Croft spent his life searching for now coursing through his daughter’s veins. She could save them both, but the cost would be the destruction of the world in its current state. Ultimately, she chooses to sacrifice herself instead, leaving her broken past in tatters and her parents in the grave to end the devastating ritual. She is spared, however, though her temporary upgrade to godhood is revoked as Kukulkan’s power evaporates.

Depending on the lens through which one looks, playing through the reimagined Tomb Raider series is something of a religious experience—a kind of gamer’s liturgy, if you will. And that is hardly a stretch of the imagination when Evan Narcisse’s Kotaku review of Rise of the Tomb Raider is titled “The New Tomb Raider Made Me Think About Going Back to Church.”

So, what are contemporary evangelical Christians to make of the new Lara Croft in an age where most evangelicals struggle to even agree on what that word means? After all, the mythology of these video games is one in which the old gods are still in conversation with one another, and the supernatural is a fluid, mysterious thing. Nobody in the series converts to Christianity, and perhaps the most devout Christian is Konstantin, the shockingly cruel antagonist of the trilogy’s second act.

Well, there is value here, first and foremost in the story’s exploration of the consequences of blind, unreflective faith. Konstantin is so narcissistic and absorbed by his need to feel that his life has purpose that he cannot see his faith in the Christian God is being manipulated by his even more devious sister (Kay Bess) to carry out her own goals. Jacob takes advantage of the Christian faith of his followers to feed his own messiah complex, however altruistic he claims his motivations might have been in the end. The same could even be said for Dominguez, who perhaps manipulates Trinity’s own desire to cleanse the world of unrighteousness in the name of Yahweh to help him achieve the power of Kukulkan. True to history, the lives of many are shattered due to the delusions of a powerful few who believe that God favors them over everybody else.

Furthermore, despite their critique of organized religion, the games also highlight the benefits of exercising faith in a communal context. In the age where “non-denominational” has become something of a denomination in its own right, and tracts have been exchanged for mantras like “it’s a relationship, not a religion,” it can be hard for some modern American Christians to see the value of exercising faith among the faithful. This is exacerbated by the “online church service” that became popular during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, with debates over whether this should even be considered a valid model of worship still raging. But when Lara encounters the Remnant in Rise of the Tomb Raider, for example, their commitment to selfless sacrifice and helping others in need in practical, ordinary ways teaches her an important lesson that carries over to the climax of Shadow of the Tomb Raider

How does one unlock the power of resurrection in this Tomb Raider trilogy? Well, the truth is there are a few avenues to that end. But this power comes at great cost, the story warns, and is, perhaps, best left untapped by the hands of secular humans. The silhouette of Jesus Christ lingers in the shadows of these games, but an accurate portrait these stories (wisely, perhaps) leave thinly drawn. The man is talked about and referenced on more than one occasion, but his followers are continually deceived by many antichrists throughout the narrative, and an open-minded Lara never quite figures out what to do with him.

But, at the end of the day, I got to walk through the stations of the cross with Lara Croft. And I can’t think of a single other video game with the moxie to demand that players learn those stations to raid a tomb.

cdnb.artstation.com

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