It was my first session with Lara since 2013, and immediately I felt concerned. Following a trauma, one may travel any of numerous paths in an attempt to reconcile life-as-it-was with life-as-it-is; Lara, it seemed, was engaged in a loop, or what Freud dubbed the “repetition compulsion.” She and I were presently in Siberia, with a crew of wary explorers in tow, heading toward an icy peak in the midst of a snowstorm. Wasn’t this just like Japan two years ago, when she and her friends became marooned on a small island while searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai? Except this time, Lara knew she was putting herself and others in mortal danger; she just didn’t seem to care.
I understood the drive. In Lara’s mind, this was the way to make everything coherent again: if she could endure this new adventure, then surely it would reframe the horrors she suffered two years ago. The constant fear of death; watching her friends die; being forced to kill others to survive; witnessing supernatural phenomena previously assumed to be impossible—all these would be transformed into meaningful character-building exercises, rather than cruelties with which she had to live.
Lara was singularly focused; to attempt to steer her away from the harrowing mountain top would have led nowhere. So we pressed on and, unsurprising to either of us (even if she had not wanted to consciously admit it), the Siberian expedition did not go as planned. Lara and I were quickly separated from the others and trapped in the icy wasteland.
Psychotherapy is rarely portrayed in videogames, which shouldn’t be surprising. Games are inherently behavioral: we use our bodies to manipulate a controller or keyboard or touchscreen, and some corresponding action takes place in virtual space. Therapy, on the other hand, is not about the generation of actions but of thoughts. Iconoclastic psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion described the process in metabolic terms, asserting that the therapist’s job was to transform the raw, unnamed aspects of the client’s experience into more “digestible” forms, converting the unthinkable to the thinkable.
Action, Bion argued, was antithetical to thought, as it resolved emotional tensions without symbolizing them. For instance, Bion was strongly opposed to a therapist making physical contact with a client, such as hugging her in a moment of emotional distress. Doing so would soothe her pain without demanding its nature be put into words, and so she would be no less beholden to the pain whenever it returned—and without being understood, it would undoubtedly return. Psychotherapy is about expanding the space between feeling and action, and thus expanding the client’s sense of choice in terms of how to act. Without thought, we feel compelled to do things (we _re_act) according to the whims of our powerful yet mysterious emotions.
Lara flashed back a few weeks to London, and my concern grew. Yamatai had shattered her sense of safety and agency like a climbing ax hacking into ancient masonry, and in an attempt to retrieve these lost parts of herself she had started to lose her grip on reality. Friends and family kept stopping by the cold mansion she had inherited from her father in an effort to dissuade her from following in his doomed footsteps. Lord Croft, it seemed, had been driven to obsession in search of “The Divine Source,” a mystical artifact said to grant life eternal. Lara was now consumed with continuing the hunt. Her stepmother Ana and friend Jonah (the latter of whom had also survived the events at Yamatai) took turns telling her to relax, to focus on other things, to accept that she was not entirely well.
Lara expected me to be on her side in recalling these events, but her loved ones’ warnings made sense to me. Lara was not coolly unraveling an ancient mystery, she was fraught with anxiety and a sense of urgency that was difficult to rationalize. Clearly, she was avoiding her feelings about Yamatai by constructing an elaborate narrative in which the world, despite all the random horrors she had lived through, still made sense. Lara’s father had been disgraced by his blind insistence that something as made-up sounding as The Divine Source actually existed—but for Lara, if he had been “crazy,” then wouldn’t that mean that she, too …?
The Yamatai experience, Lara insisted, proved that the supernatural was real, and so too must be The Divine Source. My heart sank at this logic. She was not only repressing the traumatic aspects of her Japan adventure, but she was leveraging it to resolve a much older and deeper-seeded trauma involving her father.
As we began our adventure in earnest in Siberia, I found myself wanting to know more about Lara’s relationship with Lord Croft. It seemed to be the central driving force behind her entire personality; the fulcrum that, depending on how she worked through it, could alternatively launch her toward a life of joy or misery. I didn’t want to press her—we had more immediate concerns learning how to traverse the Siberian wilderness—but as we pressed on she could not help but periodically disclose flashbulb memories involving the late lord:
He tells her that she is special, destined for great things, while simultaneously shooing her out of his office to take a phone call.
He flies into a rage because the unintelligible pages of ancient lore on his desk don’t make sense. She is terrified, and powerless to calm him down.
She discovers him slumped over his desk—always he lived behind that desk—with a revolver in his hand.
Due to psychotherapy’s focus on subverting the compulsion to act, it is notoriously difficult to dramatize, or even explain. The case study is the oldest empirical method of doing so; long before the call for psychology to mimic “harder” sciences by conducting randomized controlled trials, one therapist writing about her experience treating one client represented our window into understanding if, and how, the psychotherapy process worked. Even now, many argue that psychotherapy is too idiosyncratic and relationally-derived to be analyzed quantitatively; the only way in is through phenomenology, exploring each client-therapist dyad as a uniquely rich data point.
The most common type of case study is the one that shows how therapy can work. Much less common—though often equally useful—are studies of treatments that fail. This is true across the sciences; though we tend to favor the publication of “positive” results, much can be learned by analyzing why something didn’t play out as expected.
An early and controversial trailer for Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider was the first signal that the game would have everything to do with mental health and psychotherapy. The trailer cuts between scenes of Lara sitting in a therapist’s office—face down and hooded like a dysphoric teenager—and scenes of her “in her element”: running from a bear, leaping from a cliff, and stalking a man from the shadows before killing him with a bow and arrow. The juxtaposition between thought and action was unambiguous, and the therapist’s monologue throughout the trailer read like a warning: if Lara could not find a way to integrate her traumatic experiences from Yamatai and resume, to some extent, a normal life, she would be trapped in an endless loop of thoughtless and life-endangering action.
The outcry over the trailer centered around the longstanding prejudice, particularly in the United States, that therapy is for the weak. Lara Croft is a legendary badass, detractors argued: she would go raid a tomb in the depths of the Amazon jungle to work out any psychical knots, not talk to some balding man in an overstuffed leather chair. This, of course, is the point. The trailer suggests, and the game confirms, that Lara Croft’s therapy was unsuccessful. And the more I played the game, the more it became clear that the only way to talk about Rise of the Tomb Raider would be as a sometimes poignant, often painful case study of when treatment doesn’t work.
Time went on, and my sense that Lara was deliberately breaking from reality and putting herself in danger only intensified. She wanted to validate her pain—and by extension, the pain of her father—or die trying. There was no middle ground for her, no turning back. Her will was powerful and her methods impressive: I admit that I was easily drawn into the fantasy of her adventure, and for a while she and I colluded in the notion that this was a good thing to be doing. Skulking through the shadows and picking off enemies brought a rush of adrenaline and a profound sense of competence. We ruled this desolate place, alone and unencumbered. Even in situations where we could have snuck past guards without harming them, I indulged Lara’s desire to kill each one in turn and loot their corpses. This didn’t feel like survival anymore, as it had in Japan. We chose to be here, and these acts of killing—these murders—were choices, as well. Nevertheless, they somehow felt right. For a while, at least.
Who were these enemies, exactly? What were we really doing here, looking for the key to eternal life? Every step of the way was littered with evidence that what Lara and I were actually wading through was not snow, but her unconscious: her fears and doubts, secret wishes and fractured memories. The whole scenario lacked the historicity of Lara’s previous adventure; specific mythologies were replaced by a vague story of “The Prophet” who hid “The Divine Source” in a lost city in Siberia, itself the terrestrial archetype for human isolation. And then there was the fact that the whole place was infested with nefarious no-goodniks from an ancient yet ill-defined organization called “Trinity.” Frankly, it all felt a little far-fetched.
But it wasn’t until Lara’s stepmother Ana showed up in an abandoned Soviet gulag and was revealed to have been a secret agent for Trinity all along that I finally realized we had left reality behind and were living purely in the turbulent dreams of a young, traumatized woman. We’re not really in Siberia: the revelation hit me like a ton of ice.
Suddenly this whole endeavor made much more sense. The search for The Divine Source was the search to resurrect her father, to deny his death. She both loved and hated this man who loomed so impossibly large in her internal world: it was he who she tried to so hard to emulate and yet feared so deeply she would turn out to be. In this surreality, Ana—who Lara hated for replacing her mother, hated more for intimating that her father was obsessed, that he shouldn’t have prioritized an imaginary artifact over his flesh-and-blood daughter—could be cast as the treacherous villain Lara secretly wanted her to be. In this version of reality, Lord Croft was right to be such a bad parent. Lara’s voiceover narrative during various breaks in the action described how she felt his presence with her. In this terrible place, they could finally be together.
To some extent I was comforted by the notion of being inside Lara’s dream-world, as it gave context to the adventure’s excessive grimness. But I felt unsure about whether I could help Lara find her way back to the real world. And she needed to find her way out: this place was killing her. I was already accustomed to morbidly celebrating Lara’s deaths, but in this iteration there seemed to be just as much attention paid to how unpleasant it was for her to be alive. Most of the activities we engaged in were identical to Yamatai, but now each cave and hidden cache, every gutted animal and strangled human being, they all felt filtered through a lens of growing desperation. Last time around, the compulsion to explore and survive came from the outside: Lara was trapped on a dangerous island and did what she had to in order to make it through. Now we were in a land of her choosing, and the compulsion came from within.
Its toll was undeniable: throughout our Siberian sessions, Lara looked miserable. This was not fun for her. In trying to endure the harsh winter of her own creation, she spent much of the proceedings shivering, arms crossed in the same defensive posture she had adopted in her brief psychotherapy.
Speaking of which, a curious thing popped up in Lara’s growing collection of documents after Ana’s betrayal was made clear. Most of the tapes and scrolls Lara kept were tracking the developments of The Prophet, or Trinity, or her own meandering thoughts. But then all of a sudden, without fanfare or explanation, I was granted access to short recordings of Lara’s previous therapy—the one from the trailer, which she abandoned before our time together began. I was not instructed to listen to these recordings or even explicitly told they had been summoned into existence; I discovered them by accident. Yet there they were, another indication that we were traversing the icy crags of the psyche rather than a Russian province. How could I ever accept that audiotapes from Lara’s therapy would show up here, if we were in the real world? This was dream-logic, a signal to me from a part of Lara who still recognized that she needed help.
About halfway through our time together, Lara’s mind became a warzone. Trinity—the evil strawmen who drove Lara ever forward—clashed with Siberian natives espousing the cliched but still valid mantra that some forces (namely life and death) are not meant to be controlled. The leader of these natives, Jacob, became central to the narrative from an early point. Conjured up from the depths of Lara’s fragmented mind, he advocated letting go of the obsessive search for “truth” in the interest of leading a truer life, and so stood as a marked counterpoint to her tyrannical father.
“You can’t fill the emptiness inside you, Lara,” he said once. “You can only set it free.”
Exactly, I thought. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her all along.
Until I realized that’s not what I’d been doing at all.
In my head I had painted myself as some kind of savior to this poor creature, but in truth my actions only ever served to press her forward. I was not Lara’s therapist, I realized, but her enabler. Throughout our adventure in Siberia, I may have felt Lara’s pain, but I also craved her stealth kills and cliff dives. Sure, it was disconcerting to pilot a young woman shaking from early-stage frostbite, but that never deterred me. I lived vicariously through her, and justified doing so with vague lip service to the idea that I understood what she was going through, or that I wanted to help her find her way back to reality. But really, I was Lord Croft: the invisible force robbing Lara of thought, compelling her to take harmful actions for my own gratification.
Lara’s therapy was a failure. Rise of the Tomb Raider was not, but it did force me to reconcile the uncomfortable paradox of the titular badass also being an emotional wreck. I felt guilty controlling her, but simultaneously enjoyed it—which may be the inevitable nexus of Crystal Dynamics’ franchise reboot that began back in 2013. If Lara is a three-dimensional person and the Tomb Raider, things are going to get complicated. Raiding tombs is not a life decision indicative of contentedness and stability.
By the end I questioned the very choice to play; participating in the game felt like consenting to the retraumatization of a vulnerable young person about whom I genuinely cared. This is why the therapy process is so hard to represent in gamespace; it demands pausing the action now and then to consider what’s driving it all—what’s driving us—which is not always something we are interested in acknowledging. For Lara, it was anxiety and unresolved grief. For me, it was the desire to discard my compassion for a while and just shoot some motherfucker in the head with an arrow.