'Tomb Raider' (2013) and 'The Hero's Journey': How Well Do The Two Align?
Lara Croft patches up her wounds in an early rendering for Tomb Raider (2013). Image posted by user @HarryBanna on DeviantArt.
Every story ever told is exactly the same.
That’s what Joseph Campbell believed when he outlined the archetypal path all heroes follow on their journeys. He called this the “monomyth,” or as it is popularly known, “the hero’s journey.”
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The monomyth is typically applied to books and movies because typical three-act structures make connecting key plot points to the various pieces of the hero’s journey cycle simple. Modern tales like The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Wonder Woman are all wonderful examples of "the hero’s journey" archetype in action.
However, when applied to a more non-traditional form of story-telling, such as video games, is it possible to draw the same connections to Campbell's monomyth? The answer is… sometimes. For games like Pac-Man and Super Mario, where repetition is a staple of the gameplay and little narrative is relied on, it is a little more difficult to try to outline the journeys of these heroes. But for games like the Batman: Arkham franchise, Tomb Raider (2013), and Marvel’s Spider-Man - all games that are heavily narrative-driven, it is much easier to plug these heroes into the path of the hero.
Lara Croft of Tomb Raider (2013) is an especially good example, though not a perfect one, of the hero’s journey in action because her origin story allows her to hit nearly every single point of the hero’s journey cycle.
Every story begins with a summoning for the hero to begin their quest… (Be warned: this article is NOTHING but spoilers!)
ACT I: INITIATION, OR SEPARATION
Tomb Raider begins with Lara Croft on board the Endurance vessel, in search of the mythical Japanese kingdom of Yamatai. In this continuity, this is her first expedition as an archaeologist straight out of college. She is intelligent but naive, and she severely underestimates her potential as a hero to do both good and bad on her journey.
Though it might seem as though she received her call to adventure before she actually stepped foot on the ship, Lara is not summoned to begin her adventure until a violent storm ravages the Endurance, demolishing the ship and tasking her and the other survivors with braving the deadly ocean of the Dragon’s Triangle sea long enough to make it to the shore alive.
Tomb Raider's first official E3 trailer back in 2011 set up the narrative for the completely re-imagined Lara Croft. Video posted by IGN on YouTube.
In this case, the herald (the one who presents the hero with their call to adventure) is not a human figure, but the mythical storm brought on by the supernatural force of Queen Himiko of Yamatai, forcing Lara to begin her quest in search of the lost kingdom and become the titular “tomb raider” she is destined to become.
Lara is immediately presented with a few grueling challenges (pulling a steel rod out of her stomach, escaping a mad cannibal, and traversing vast forests in search of her friends). She constantly denies the reality of her circumstances, but she (barely) makes it through. Lara refuses to accept that this is her destiny and does not yet realize that her determination is what will be needed to restore balance to this island. Lara accepts the call to adventure when her best friend, Sam Nishimura, is captured by the cult leader of the Solarii, a group sadistically worshipping Himiko, Mathias. Lara quickly realizes she would do anything to save her friend.
Lara comes across a bow and arrow while attempting to regroup with her friends, and, with the skills she learned from her mentor, close friend, and fellow crewmate, Conrad Roth (the Hermit/Angel/Wizard: the hero’s chief advisor on navigating the baby steps of their journey), quickly adopts the prize as her signature weapon. In this story, the bow and arrow serves as Lara’s supernatural aid, which is an item of special significance that aids the hero during all steps of their journey, and plays a key role in them finishing their quest.
Lara acquires her first signature bow and arrow in this clip provided by Croft Generation on YouTube.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD INTO THE UNFAMILIAR WORLD
A desolate island in the middle of nowhere ravaged by supernatural storms and a cannibalistic cult might seem unfamiliar enough as it is, but Lara has not yet crossed into the unfamiliar world because she is still seeing this world through her untainted eyes. She has not yet been granted with the ability to see her new surroundings clearly, so that she can realize just how dangerous and strange this new world is, leaving what was previously known behind.
Lara undergoes this transformation when she is forced to take a human life for the first time. In a struggle between Lara and a cult member (the threshold guardian, in this case), she has no choice but to kill her assailant, or suffer death at his hands. The moment is highly emotional for Lara, and she is almost unable to go on with the knowledge that this journey will require grit and violence from her end. Regardless, she picks up the gun and presses on, facing hordes of bad guys, fueled with the determination to survive.
Warning: this clip contains graphic imagery. Lara Croft takes her first human life in this clip from RKroft96 on YouTube.
ACT II: THE ROAD OF TRIALS
Now that Lara has fully immersed herself and accepted this new world she finds herself in, she is presented with a series of trials that are intended to push her to limits, further inching her towards the fulfillment of her destiny. These trials typically come in the form of three major tests of the body, the mind, and the heart.
TRIAL OF THE BODY: This trial is demonstrated primarily through the gameplay of Tomb Raider. Lara (through the player) must climb, jump, run, and fight her way through an unforgiving environment containing perilous cliffs, bloodthirsty animals that are out for blood, and militia of the Solarii who are instructed to ensure that Lara and her friends are eliminated.
TRIAL OF THE MIND: Lara is tasked with climbing to the very top of the island’s only working radio tower, the highest altitude of the island, so that she can radio for help and get her crewmates rescued. Lara is fully aware that she could fall and die at any given second, but she pushes on regardless of her fear and successfully sends out a distress signal.
Lara experiences a triumphant victory in radioing for rescue in this clip from trgiangvp3 on YouTube.
TRIAL OF THE HEART: After a daring rescue of Sam from the Solarii by the Endurance crew, Roth is killed by a tomahawk, aimed at Lara, sparing her life by sacrificing his own. Lara is devastated to lose her confidant, her mentor, her friend, and the man that filled the void left by the death of her parents as a little girl. Lara learns the true meaning of sacrifice, and goes on, despite the pain she feels at losing someone so important to her.
The death of an important ally teaches Lara a valuable lesson in this game cinematic provided by Nick Morouney on YouTube.
THE INNERMOST CAVE
This is the darkest point of the story, in which the hero realizes that they are not so different from the villain after all.
When Lara stumbles upon the tomb of a Stormguard general -a member of the Oni warriors that served as the queen’s royal guard - she discovers that the last shamanistic successor to the queen took her own life rather than absorb the queen’s spirit and her supernatural powers, trapping Queen Himiko’s spirit within her mortal corpse. Mathias believes Lara’s friend Sam to be a descendant of Himiko, and attempts to transfer Himiko’s spirit into Sam as a new vessel. Aware now of Mathias’ plan to use Sam, Lara realizes he will do anything to have influence over the power of the island. With a renewed spirit, Lara vows that she will do the same to save the person that is most important to her. Lara grabs her bow and runs to Sam, who has been captured again by Mathias after being betrayed by a fellow crew member.
ACT III: RETURN
Arriving at Himiko’s monastery, Lara unleashes her fury on the Himiko’s Oni warriors and on Mathias’ mercenaries, releasing the power of the elixir/the ultimate boon… a combination of her toughness shaped by the hardships she has endured, from her newfound sense of prowess, fury and confidence borne out of the challenges she has conquered, and her natural affinity for the art of the bow and arrow.
At the climax of Lara’s adventure, Lara struggles with Mathias in hand to hand combat, nearly stabbing him to death but not before he can pin her to the ground, inching his blade closer and closer to her neck. It looks like Lara may die, until she spies Mathias’ gun on his belt. She summons all her strength and stuns him long enough to grab his gun and her own from her holster, firing shot after shot until he falls off of the cliff to his death (rescue from without: the hero is saved by chance at the last second). Lara stabs the corpse of Himiko in the middle of the ascension ritual, before her spirit can be translated into Sam’s body.
In an iconic reference to Lara's dual pistols from the original game, Lara bests Mathias and puts an end to Himiko's reign of terror. Clip posted by SuperLionLand on YouTube.
Lara and the crew, now free of the island’s curse to sail home, board the boat and make their way back to the known and familiar world.
But Lara is a changed woman, and now going back to her home will never feel the same again. Lara expresses a yearning for understanding, a means of explaining everything she just experienced on her very first journey, and defiantly claims she “is not going home.” It will not be long before the cycle of the hero’s journey begins again as Lara Croft embarks on her next adventure.
"I'm not going home..." Clip posted by OniBojan on YouTube.
HOW DOES TOMB RAIDER WORK WITH THIS ARCHETYPE?
Though an argument is made that Tomb Raider hits nearly all the points of the hero’s journey, a lot of the events that occur have to be twisted or heavily justified in order for them to make sense within the template of the hero’s journey. Some are altogether left out, such as the meeting with the goddess, the refusal to return to the known world, and the ritual death/sacrifice of the third act.
It works, but it is definitely not the greatest example of a hero’s journey-specific tale. Perhaps this mold needs to be altered in order to better fit the world of video game fiction, which vastly differs from the fiction of movies and novels.