I’ve seen Lara Croft stabbed through the neck, had her head split open on a coral reef, seen her torn apart by wolves.
These sequences in the new Tomb Raider are admittedly uncommon, though, as most of Croft’s death scenes in the game resemble the death scenes of other action game heroes. Amid a hail of gunfire, the player-character crumples to the ground, defeated, that is, before a loading screen pops to revive her.
The more brutal, stock death sequences that I mention in my opening sentence come as the result of particular failures on the players part, usually as the result of failing a quick-time event or the like, something seen in other action games of this sort and also (and maybe more commonly) in horror-themed games.
Game critics had voiced concern when preview footage of Tomb Raider appeared prior to the game’s release that showed Croft frequently limping, wounded, and crying out in pain that, perhaps, the new Tomb Raider was borrowing a page from exploitation cinema. Having now played through a lot of those moments in the game itself, I feel less concerned about those specific moments personally (”Why Is She So Feminine?”, PopMatters, 6 March 2013), as they do make sense in the context of the narrative.
The new Tomb Raider is an origin story and part of its interest is in showing the vulnerability of a young Lara Croft and how surviving difficult experiences will eventually turn her into the stoic, calm-cool-and-collected badass familiar to players of the original games. In many ways, the game manages to convey that clearly through these sequences, and they seem sensible to me in showing the evolution of a survivor. Jorge Albor also recently considered Tomb Raider‘s presentation of Croft’s vulnerability through her animations that seems a reasonable discussion of what dirtying and wounding Croft signifies within the larger narrative of the game and how the player is intended to feel while inhabiting the role of a more vulnerable version of Croft (Touchy Feely: Tomb Raider and Haptic Design, PopMatters, 14 March 2013).
That being said, the sequences that I mentioned earlier are significantly more jarring than the general portrayal of Croft’s vulnerability. They are excruciatingly brutal moments that probably come closer to what I consider to be in the realm of the exploitation genre. In response to these death sequences, my wife commented that they reminded her of the Fatalities from Mortal Kombat, moments of celebratory over-the-top gore to punctuate a victory in an already very violent game, moments that push the limits of acceptability just that much further than maybe we can or should bear.
Indeed, though, such sequences are not exclusive to the Tomb Raider series or modern gaming in general. My immediate response was to be reminded of the similarly over-the-top gory, scripted deaths in the Dead Space series. However, those sequences are far less jarring in the context of that series. While Dead Space has been criticized for being more an action game than a horror game in terms of the mechanics of the game itself, which rarely leaves the player feeling as vulnerable as a traditional survival horror game might, the game’s tone and atmosphere still clearly hews towards the aesthetics of horror. The evisceration of Isaac Clarke hardly seems unreasonable in the chamber of horrors that make up the derelict spaceships and space stations of Dead Space, populated as they are by nightmare creatures that are all claws and teeth mounted on the bodies of grossly distorted versions of humanoids.
That being said, Isaac’s horrific deaths seem to be a form of exploitation in its grossest form, as is so often the case in the genre of horror generally. The whole point is to be exposed to gore and brutality in Dead Space for the sake of being exposed to gore and brutality, to be, as it were, shocked, to be horrified.
In a sense, though, portions of the new Tomb Raider, feel a bit like horror. Near the middle of the game, Croft is awakened in a room full of nude, eviscerated bodies. After spending time scrambling up cliff sides and trading gunfire with the less-than-friendly inhabitants of the island that Croft and company have been shipwrecked on, this sequence, too, is a tremendously jarring one. Fights have been violent, and Croft has been wounded at various points in the game. However, there has been nothing as purely horrific as this level of violence on display in this particular scene. While the moment exists to expose the truly sadistic nature of her enemies, a cult-like band of misfits led by a seeming madman and cult of personality named Father Mathias, it is also a moment that seems to just wish to goad the player, shock the player, and revel in the horror of rent flesh.
I will admit, however, that such shocks do manage to return the player to thinking about the game’s central theme. As my wife also pointed out to me while I was playing the game and she was watching Croft progress as a survivor, Croft does clearly grow more competent by inches over the course of play. As you grow accustomed to playing her and add new abilities to her repertoire and build better guns and weapons for her, you begin to forget the vulnerable figure that you start the game as. These moments, shocking as they are, remind the player (quite loudly, I might add) that Croft is still just flesh and blood, that she isn’t quite what she is intended to become yet. They just happen to be moments that are startlingly vivid in game whose imagery and play is often much “quieter.” In other words, they do seem to set an inconsistency in tone even if they remain true to a central thematic concern.
I admit that making sure such concerns stay in focus seems important. However, whether exploiting Croft’s eviscerated body to do so is worth it or not is a question that is more difficult to stand at times—as these scenes remain, at least to this player, still jarring and more than a little unsettling—and possibly merely a bit exploitative.