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Shrugging Off Mental Illness in Rise of the Tomb Raider

This article was written by Kelly Flatley and originally published on linksaveszelda.com. For more of her writing, check the site here.

It was brought to us by our friends at Critical Distance, who find the best in critical writing about games each week. You can see more at their site, and support them on Patreon.

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Since Rise of the Tomb Raider’s announcement in 2014, Lara Croft’s mental wellness has been a subject of many discussions. It’s crucial to begin these discussions by acknowledging that Croft experienced a series of extremely traumatic events in the first game of the rebooted series. She survived a shipwreck, had to fight her way out of a cave after being kidnapped and strung up, she watched her shipmates die, she had to kill other humans for the first time as a means of survival, her father figure died in front of her, she lost numerous friends, she was severely injured on multiple occasions, she was in a constant state of fearing for her life, the list goes on and on. In the end, she is able to save her best friend at the cost of many other lives and her own mental stability. It clearly left a mark on her which was shown throughout the first game and in the announcement trailer for its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, which shows Lara Croft looking very uneasy in what appears to be a therapist’s office. Yet despite these negative experiences she’s shown strength, resolve, and remarkable resilience, making her a supremely multidimensional character. She is both weak and strong; Lara Croft is human.

Between the 2013 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider (coming to the Xbox this November) a series of comic books and a novel (Tomb Raider: The Ten Thousand Immortals) have been released, both being notably canon with the rebooted series, which showcase a mentally distressed Lara Croft, one who suffers greatly due to what she has previously experienced. Most believe this is a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is common among individuals who live through severely traumatic experiences—such as what Croft went through on Yamatai. She has been suffering from flashbacks to Yamatai which cause her emotional distress and exhibits increased levels of anxiety, fear and paranoia. For fans, this made a lot of sense for her character and only added to the realism and relatability that the newly rebooted Lara Croft embodies. Discussions about her mental wellness stem from there as fans have been able to understand and relate more to her through the realization that, like the rest of the world, she isn’t perfect. She’s more human than ever before so naturally she would be subject to human afflictions, right? Well sadly game director Brain Horton has other plans for Lara Croft, plans that dismiss any possible conversations about mental illness in regards to Lara Croft’s character.

Horton states:

“We believe the first trailer showcased a very interesting dynamic of Lara Croft uncomfortable with the idea being questioned by someone, even challenged by someone, that maybe what she saw in Yamatai wasn’t true. So, there’s a stress that she’s feeling, and the tapping of her feet and the squeezing on the chair…some people have interpreted that as a weakness or as a disorder, and the way we’ve interpreted that was anticipation to get out of the situation and just go on her adventures.

So, the concept of her being agitated or affected emotionally by Yamatai – it’s true, she has seen trauma and those feelings are real – but what we’re more interested in is her destiny to be the tomb raider, and to see her start to embrace how she feels more like herself when she’s out in the field, experiencing these things, searching for the world’s secrets, than she is confined in a room, in a society that she doesn’t feel connected to anymore. She feels more home being away from home.”

In summary: no, she doesn’t have a mental illness or “weakness”, she is simply agitated and anticipating going out in the world again. The only issues she has is trust issues, apparently. I’m not at all sure what the actual intent of Horton’s comments were in regards to the weakness and disorder portion of his statement, but forcefully shying away from acknowledging that Lara Croft suffers from a mental disorder while using a word like “weakness” is rather dismissive. Having PTSD, or any other mental disorder, is not a weakness but rather a part of life for many people. There are a lot of stigmas that society places around talk of mental illness and one of the major ones is a belief that mental illness is a weakness. Society as a whole tends to view mental illness as something that makes someone lesser, fragile and powerless. It’s something to be ashamed of, something to hide, something that makes us weak-willed and “crazy.”  A lot of this stems from misunderstandings of what mental illness is and the fact that we typically only see it talked about in mass media when someone with a mental illness commits a violent crime. This goes for anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and a plethora of other common conditions that many humans suffer from.

She is both weak and strong; Lara Croft is human

My point here is that this development team had the groundwork laid out for them from a previous game, a comic series and a novel to make Lara Croft a character that brings to light the fact that we can suffer from these disorders yet still come out on top, still be powerful, humanistic characters with depth and agency. PTSD is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses, in my opinion. It’s something that so many people suffer from yet so many others are afraid to address. So let’s talk about that for a moment, what is PTSD? Post traumatic stress disorder is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood.” While most survivors of trauma get better with time, some develop “stress reactions” that do not go away on their own and may even worsen over time which is classified as the mental disorder known as PTSD. It’s considered a very common condition, affecting over 3 million US citizens, which can last months or years depending on the individual and severity of the trauma. It’s not a weakness and it’s not something that can be simply shrugged off because of inconvenience to a character or game as a whole. Ignoring that Lara Croft suffers from such a condition in Rise of the Tomb Raider is something that I think is only being done due to a reluctance to tackle such a delicate issue.

Later in the interview, Horton is asked “So you’re still looking for realism in the game?” and his response is “Absolutely! Authenticity, because we believe grounding Lara makes the fantastic situation she’s in feel that much more easy to relate to.” It’s clear that realism still means a lot to the team, and I don’t mean to imply that Lara Croft or Rise of the Tomb Raider cannot be realistic unless PTSD is addressed, but seemingly brushing it aside or putting it on the back burner while still wanting a level of realism is just troubling to me. Throughout the entirety of the interview it’s clear that Horton, as well as the rest of the development team, cares deeply for Lara Croft as a character and they want to do her as much justice as possible through making her a realistic, emotional character that is more than just an animation. I think that their level of dedication to her paired with the earlier comments is the most unsettling aspect of this. To me this is a prime example of a missed opportunity. If they decided to address the issue of mental illness they would not only be doing a great service to the illness itself by showing that you can be strong and have such a disorder, but they would also be adding so much more realism to the game. To side step it completely in Rise of the Tomb Raider given the events of the last game and the behaviors Lara Croft exhibits in the canonical comics and novel is just really problematic. I feel as if they are ignoring a part of her and it’s a part of her that is so very important to her development.

a realistic, emotional character that is more than just an animation

The other issue I have with this statement from Horton is that it seems as if he is implying that she couldn’t go out and be a tomb raider if she were to have such a disorder. When he says “she has seen trauma and those feelings are real – but what we’re more interested in is her destiny to be the tomb raider” I get the impression that these things are thought to be exclusives; that having a mental disorder and being a tomb raider are things that cannot be attributed to the same person and can never be focused on equally. Sure, tomb raiding is a core element of the game and I love that aspect of it but it’s entirely possible to have a mental disorder while raiding tombs. This again brings me back to his use of the word “weakness” and basically wraps back around to this stigma that surrounds mental illness, that it’s a weakness and causes fragility; that you can’t have a strong character with a mental disorder because that is weak and you cannot be strong and weak. The problem here is that weakness isn’t a fault, it’s a characteristic of being human. Lara Croft should have weaknesses as well as strengths, isn’t the whole point of her character to show that even though she was weak she persevered? The first game in the rebooted series was special in that way, it’s one of the first times we have seen Lara Croft in a state of weakness, yet she pushed forward and found strength in herself. Shouldn’t she be able to do that now as well under new and differing circumstances? I think this could have been a great opportunity to further develop her character in a realistic and measurable way, which seems to be what they want to do – they just want to do it sans mental illness regardless of how clear it has been made elsewhere that she has one.

I’ve seen a lot of fans refer to this new revelation as a disappointment and a missed opportunity and I think those are the best ways to describe it. I don’t think mental illness should be forced upon a character or made the center of a game simply because it’s misunderstood. I don’t think that Rise of the Tomb Raider should focus solely on PTSD simply because Lara Croft suffers from the condition. I do, however, think that there was a grand opportunity here from the game to showcase a Lara Croft who is so much more human than we could have ever imagined. A Lara Croft who has this condition that many others suffer from, who struggles but who fights back and who pushes forward despite it all. To say that she doesn’t suffer from a disorder while creating canon stories in which she does seems so out-of-place, it seems as if to have Rise of the Tomb Raider feature a Lara Croft with a mental disorder is inconvenient because they’d rather focus on her being a stronger character. It is possible though to be strong and have weaknesses at the same time, though, and I wish that understanding was displayed properly here. I have no doubts that Rise of the Tomb Raider will be a great game, but seeing this does disappoint me as a fan and as someone who suffers from mental disorders. I wish the best for this game and I will still be buying it, but I hope that this whole thing is one big misunderstanding. Missed opportunities such as this shouldn’t go unnoticed, spending time furthering the development of a character’s mental wellness is just as important as developing that character into who they were meant to be – a tomb raider.

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This article was written by Kelly Flatley and originally published on linksaveszelda.com. For more of her writing, check the site here.

It was brought to us by our friends at Critical Distance, who find the best in critical writing about games each week. You can see more at their site, and support them on Patreon.