In the fourth episode of the British comedy series Spaced, 20-something man-child Tim Bisley is gloomily playing videogames when his eccentric neighbor, Brian, walks into the apartment.
“What are you playing?” Brian asks.
“Tomb Raider 3,” Tim replies.
The television (on which we also see the reflection of Tim’s disaffected face) shows Lara Croft swimming through a submerged cavern. Suddenly, she begins to convulse and choke.
“She’s drowning,” Brian observes, mournful yet transfixed.
Lara releases a final gasp and her thrashing ceases; she hangs lifeless in the water.
“Is that the point of the game?” Brian asks.
Tim shrugs. “It depends what mood you’re in, really.”
We have been watching Lara Croft die for nearly twenty years. While you could say this of any videogame character who has endured for so long, there has always been a particular quality to Croft’s demises since she debuted in 1996’s Tomb Raider. She doesn’t just fall off the screen like Mario; we don’t hear another character cry out her name in anguish over the radio like Solid Snake. Croft’s deaths are intimate in their specificity: they are graphic, often slow, occasionally humiliating, and the camera always lingers just a half-second longer than we anticipate. From low-poly drowning in Tomb Raider 3 to a high-def spike-through-the-chest in 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, Croft dying is undeniably a thing. Even (or especially) her creator, Toby Gard, acknowledged this once in an interview with Critical Path:
“People just loved killing her. People would constantly take her to the very highest places and throw her off head-first. There was a strange power thing that people were experiencing over this virtual character, and I think part of it was made stronger by the fact that she was a very strong character, she was super tough.”
The relationship between Croft and players has always been complicated, and grows ever more ambiguous as the player base becomes more diverse and socially aware. Croft has been rebooted and reimagined multiple times across different types of games, but there is always a sense of insecurity about being a Lara Croft fan. This has been true from the first: on one hand, Tomb Raider put players in control of a badass hyper-competent woman at a time when female game protagonists were virtually nonexistent. On the other hand, she was unabashedly designed as an objectified sex symbol for a predominantly young and male audience. As if her tight shirt and daisy dukes weren’t enough, let us not forget the unoriginally named “Nude Raider” patch that set the Internet ablaze when the original Tomb Raider was released for the PC. (I don’t think I need to expound on how that patch re-textured Lara’s signature adventuring outfit.) Croft can be argued as a feminist icon or an anti-feminist throwback, an early and enduring crusader for the portrayal of women in videogames or the personification of chauvinism in a male-dominated industry.
No matter which way you slice it, we are left to deal with Croft’s repeated deaths. As Gard alludes, power is a key component to this fascination, but so is guilt, as well as some kind of desperate grab at redemption. To watch Lara die is to walk the razor’s edge between love and hate, sadness and anger, the fetishistic and the mundane. Her latest game, the iOS infinite runner Lara Croft Relic Run, provides an especially pure look into the dark heart of this decades-old dynamic.
The essence of the infinite runner is a life-death cycle that is, of course, infinite. You cannot “win,” per se, you can only run for longer than the last time, collect more coins, earn more achievements. Runs only end in death, and all runs end eventually. Relic Run, it must be said, is an impressively robust entry in a genre famous for being derivative. The graphics are more lush and detailed than they need to be, and the game is far more varied: beyond the usual jump-and-slide fare, Croft hops on vehicles, shoots lizardmen and golems, hunts for lost artifacts, and even takes on boss fights. Randomization keeps things fresh; the only true constant is death. And, oh, how she dies.
The game offers a full spectrum: Croft meets her maker in ways exotic (carried off in the jaws of a T. rex), expected (felled by a spear), and excruciatingly ordinary (falling into a pit that appears to be about four feet deep). However the end comes about, the moment of death activates a strange and complex emotional arc that has existed in some form for as long as Lara herself. And because Relic Run by its nature leads to her death at a rate and frequency previously unheard of, this arc—which is endemic to watching Lara die, to leading someone you love to their ultimate peril again and again—is amplified.
First, rag-doll physics take over Croft’s previously dexterous frame; a split second ago you were making her parkour with aplomb, and suddenly she is crumpled and flailing about, limbs going every which way, body sinking into whatever unfortunate position the level’s geometry is forcing it to go. It is a pitiful sight, and funny—a morbid slapstick routine. (You can even earn an achievement, following an ill-timed jump, by landing her dead body in the cradle of a chandelier. Hole in one!) The frustration of having ended your run coexists with—or is perhaps countered by—a flush of sadistic pleasure, a displacement of anger from off of the self and onto her. The epitome of feminine brawn, or at least the male fantasy of it, always running away, just out of reach, now flopping around in the dirt after running face-first into a tree branch. And then the camera lingers. She is dead, the game confirms. This is when shame sets in.
Finally, after what feels like an eternity, a screen pops up: “Save Lara!” it implores as a timer counts down. “Revive now!”
By spending ankhs (bought with gems, the rarer of the game’s two internal currencies), you can keep the run going, resurrecting Croft through some unholy magic to just before the spot where she bit the dust. It’s a staple of the infinite runner genre, but the process of bartering over the player character’s life takes on a special meaning when the character in question is Lara Croft. After the gleeful sadism, the guilt and remorse, here comes the opportunity to play savior—not only that, but undo the death entirely, pretend it never happened, that you never felt angry and then satisfied and then embarrassed in an amalgam that has been percolating on-screen in one permutation or another for two decades.
In the Spaced episode, Tim is feeling depressed in the first place because he has just received a feckless letter from his ex-girlfriend attempting to explain why she dumped him. Why does he turn to Lara Croft to nurse this wound? He could just as easily have popped Resident Evil 2 into the PlayStation—which was released the same year as Tomb Raider 3 and appeared in the previous episode—to watch Claire Redfield be torn apart by zombies. But the crux of watching Lara die is not merely a power trip in the way that her creator suggested; if that were the case, we would have moved on from her long ago. Videogames have never wanted for opportunities to let men murder women (or men, for that matter). What makes leading Croft to her end remarkable is that it is perpetually complicated by our affection for her. Despite the sexist outfits and Barbie-doll proportions, she is not an object. She is a woman for whom we take some measure of responsibility, yet time and again we make her suffer. The tension of the Tomb Raider franchise rests on deciding who we are when the camera holds on her corpse. A frustrated player? A fascinated sociopath? Or perhaps a bereaved companion?
Tim chooses to drown Lara because he loves her, as he loved his ex. By killing her, knowing she will resurrect, he participates in a kind of mourning ritual. The last shot of the scene shows Lara, alive and well, jumping back into the water at Tim’s direction. He is trying to undo something, make right in the virtual world something that feels irreparably wrong in his actual life. Anger, sadness, and reparation in an endless loop.