Tomb Raider is ostensibly an action game, but it’s filled with an unusual amount of very specific horror imagery for an action game. It’s smart about how and when it uses these visual cues, and it’s clear that the developers understand how this kind of imagery affects us as gamers and people and even what such imagery represents within the greater context of the horror genre.
Most of the time, when the game cribs from horror movies it does so in order to emphasize Lara’s vulnerability. Admittedly, it’s a narrative shortcut, using the visual cues of another genre to establish the character’s place in the world rather than bothering with the heavy narrative legwork and slow gameplay pacing that would have more naturally established Lara as an inexperienced and frightened explorer, but it’s also an effective shortcut, used throughout the game at just the right moments to punctuate her character arc.
The game opens with a prologue straight out of a hillbilly cannibal horror flick. Lara is knocked out on a beach, then awakens tied up, hanging upside down like a sack of meat, surrounded by other hanging bodies. Such methods of storage and the nearby ritualistic alters tell us that this cave has been occupied for so long that the grotesqueness of the setting has become monotonous for its inhabitant. Lara escapes by setting her bindings on fire, severely injuring herself in the process, putting her at even more of a disadvantage.
When we do encounter the dweller, he’s unlike any of the other enemies in the game. The Solarii are typically a tactical enemy; some shoot from afar while others come running to flush you out of cover. They work together to kill you. This dweller is far more wild and animalistic, jumping down from the ceiling as Lara passes beneath him, like he’s been hanging in wait for her since the beginning. He’s also unarmed, so instead of attacking her with a deadly weapon, he just gropes at her, trying to bring her closer. This enemy isn’t designed to be deadly, he’s designed to be scary; the others are good action enemies, but this first guy is a good horror enemy.
Her final escape from this prologue has her crawling up a hill towards a thin ray of light, leading her out of the cave; a scene reminiscent of the end of the horror movie The Descent. What’s impressive about this homage is that Tomb Raider doesn’t just steal this imagery because it looks cool, the context of that scene in the movie mirrors its context in the game. This scene comes at the very end of the movie; the heroine climbs up a mountain of bones until she finally bursts through the surface, out of the caves. It seems like a dramatic escape, but in reality, it’s just a dream (there’s another version of the ending in which she escapes, drives away, then sees the “ghost” of her friend in the passenger seat, implying at the very least that she can’t escape the memories of what she has experienced). This hopeful image of a desperate escape is undercut by the horrible reality of her situation. Putting this image at the start of the game emphasizes that illusion, that false ending. The prologue is Lara’s own mini horror movie, and her intense escape doesn’t represent any sort of end. It’s just the beginning of an even bigger struggle.
Most of the horror imagery in Tomb Raider is meant to alter our view of the antagonists, it builds them up while breaking Lara down, but the island itself gets its fair share of horror scenes as well. The most effective of these is when Lara is tasked with retrieving a radio from a wolf’s den. This scene is very deliberately paced like a horror game: You enter the den, explore the den, find the radio, and then you get attacked by a wolf on the way out. The game takes pleasure in building up tension and delaying the payoff for as long as possible. In a typical action game, you’d fight the wolf first and then get the radio as a reward, but Tomb Raider doesn’t want you to feel rewarded at the end of this scene. That would be too empowering. Lara does defeat the giant wolf, thus establishing her growing dominance over the nature of the island, but that strength is defined within the context of a horror game, not an action game.
That soon changes, however, with her long climb to the top of a radio tower. This scene is scary, but not because there’s some malevolent force working against Lara, the tower is just really, really tall. This is an important moment for her, especially in light of the wolf attack from earlier, because the tower is an inanimate obstacle that she has to choose to face. Overcoming this barrier establishes her as more than just a survivor, as more than just someone who simply lives through horrible situations. It establishes her as more of an action hero than a horror movie’s “final girl.”
But Tomb Raider is a long game and it doesn’t want Lara to complete her personal journey too soon. Thus, we’re introduced to the Oni in a scene that mirrors the prologue, though now with a more capable character at its core. Lara is knocked out and awakens hanging from the ceiling yet again, but this time she’s able to escape her bindings without grievous bodily injury. Also, instead of being surrounded by bones, this time she’s surrounded by still-gooey bodies. There are heads and arms and blood everywhere. The image of falling into a pile of decomposing bodies is far more graphic than falling into a pile of bones, and this escalation elevates the Oni above the Solarii in terms of danger, and reestablishes a part of Lara’s vulnerability. We know by now that she can take out human opponents, but can she survive against stronger mystical opponents?
Soon after encountering the Oni, and after shooting her way through a shantytown, Lara fights her way into a Solarii temple and crashes a sacrificial fire ritual. Things don’t work out well. She’s mobbed, beaten, and her gear — the ludic symbols of her character growth — is taken away. Stripped of those symbols, the game instantly reverts back to its gruesome horror imagery to emphasize her vulnerability. She escapes her captors by jumping into a river of blood. Here, again, the game pays homage to The Descent, with Lara emerging slowly from the river like a crocodile, but this time the homage doesn’t paint Lara as a victim.
In the movie, this scene represents the moment when the protagonist stops running and starts fighting back. She’s still at a substantial disadvantage overall, but that doesn’t stop her from going on the offensive.
At this point in the game, Lara has been fighting back against her oppressors for a while now, so she’s no longer the vulnerable and victimized girl from the prologue (and this is doubly true when you consider that facing the Solarii, not the Oni). Without her gear, the game reverts back to the mechanics of survival-horror with a focus on stealth and limited ammo, but Lara doesn’t revert back to her “final girl” horror role. While the earlier horror homage focused on Lara as victim, this one focuses on Lara as a fighter. It’s an homage that takes character development into consideration: Lara once again finds herself thrust into a horror movie, but her role within that horror movie has changed.
From there, she fights her way back up to the temple, setting the foundation on fire in the process, turning the whole structure into an inferno. She blasts her way through the building, rescues her friend, and escapes the crumbling temple by jumping off the roof into a helicopter. Finally, Lara Croft the action hero has arrived, and the rest of the game appropriately pulls back on the horror imagery. In the end, she fights the Oni up close, but these magical zombie/ghost samurai aren’t presented as zombified or ghostly or magical creatures; they don’t look supernatural at all. They just look like people in samurai armor. At this point, Lara has grown so capable that there’s no point for the game to play the horror card. She’s not scared anymore, not of the island, the Solarii, or the Oni, so the game rightly doesn’t try to scare us.
All of this bespeaks a game that’s very aware of what’s on screen and how that influences our perception of the character. Tomb Raider swings back and forth from horror game to action game, but thankfully it doesn’t keep swinging back to the same horror game. Its horror imagery evolves with Lara, so that once she overcomes her fears the game stops trying to provoke ours.