I’ve already written two things (spoilers at the second link) about Rise of the Tomb Raider, but as a history graduate I felt that its approach to history and archaeology deserved its own post, because much like the rest of the game it was great on a surface level and terrible futher down.
I mentioned in my first post about the game that Lara’s archaeology was deeply painful in parts; as she flooded an ancient monument, swamping all the Byzantine coins, parchment fragments, and miscellaneous artefacts that borrow heavily from real history just so that she could float up to the “big prize” – invariably an illustrated manuscript about the game’s key “historical” player, the created-for-game Deathless Prophet.
I understand why this video game, designed to be fun, does not present real archaeology to the player and expect them to enjoy it. A couple of years ago I volunteered at an excavation in the north of England and while the artefacts that they find there are any bit as good as those in Rise of the Tomb Raider, the methodology is far less exciting in real life. I can’t imagine Square Enix and Microsoft signing off on six straight hours of deturfing (and anyway the back pain it caused just wouldn’t translate into video game form) or a full two weeks of scraping topsoil away with a small trowel. Of course it’s the excitements of the finds that Rise of the Tomb Raider wants to portray - though equally the game absolutely cannot live up to the feeling picking up an object that’s been buried away from all human contact for 2000 years.
Nonetheless, the presentation of the artefacts in the game is satisfying. Each one feels like an achievement. Much like when you find something in real life, there’s a solid minute where you just examine it from all angles and imagine what it would have been used for (or get a little primer from Lara). They’re usually a lot more glittery and exciting looking in the game than they technically should be, which is fair enough. Probably most people wouldn’t get as excited about picking up an iron nail, piece of plain clay Amphora, or Roman coin as I did, particularly when it only comes on a screen and you’re not holding the thing. Much like the methodology of Lara’s excavations, I can forgive some artistic license on how pretty everything from the past looks.
But my god, I can’t forgive the destruction. I know they’re not real monuments and artefacts being destroyed, but it’s the principle. Lara shows that she cares about the history, in parts. In particular, I loved that her description of various artefacts showed a real consideration for their context. During my degree I found a fondness for what I termed personable history – one that focuses on the people, real lives we can only reach through obscure proxies that they left to us. For example, Lara finds “someone’s rosary” – not a rosary, which would conjure usual dry historical thoughts of religious significance, but someone’s rosary, which is more personable. Who owned this? Did they buy it? Was it a gift? What comfort did it bring them? This was one of the fantastic parts of Rise of the Tomb Raider’s history. But it made the destruction all the more bitter. If you didn’t find that rosary, it’s now underwater and there’s no way for you or another archaeologist recover it later. No one will ever consider its owner.
My other big problem with Rise of the Tomb Raider’s history is that it hints at addressing some of the real issues within archaeology, and then refuses to actually tackle them head on. Lara meets the inaptly named “natives” and gets upset when they refuse to help her find the Divine Source, a great historical artefact that she believes holds answers to the human soul and immortality. “I came here for something important!” she objects. “So did they,” responds Jacob, the spiritual healer of the village, referring to the “bad guys” Trinity, who have killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of monuments looking for the Source. (I use quotes around bad guys because Lara did these things too.) This exchange made me think that there was going to be some kind of social commentary on imperialist museum culture, a long running problem in Europe (and particularly Britain) wherein we took (and take) artefacts from countries and then refuse to return them to the populations to whom they genuinely belong. But it’s never brought up again. Lara never truly has to face up to her entitled attitude. It was such a missed opportunity that would have rounded out a generally flat and hollow story in which Lara never really grows as a character.
Much like the rest of the game, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s history is beautiful and engaging on a surface level, but taking a look past the surface level reveals a disappointing lack of finesse. Whilst I wasn’t expecting Archaeology Simulator 2015, so much more could have been done with this mechanic, which should make the Tomb Raider series unique among its kind. Instead, it’s tacked on as an afterthought that does nothing to elevate its archaeology above the similar collectables that are in every game of this genre.