Artifacts of Empire: Orientalism and Inner-Texts in Tomb Raider (2013)

Artifacts of Empire: Orientalism and Inner-Texts in Tomb Raider (2013)

Kristin M. S. Bezio (University of Richmond, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0477-1.ch011
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This chapter examines Crystal Dynamics' 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, arguing that the game makes use of intertextual references to the original Core Design Tomb Raider (1996) and popular culture archaeology in an effort to revise the original franchise's exploitative depiction of both Lara Croft and archaeological practice. Framed by a theoretical understanding of Orientalism (Said, 1979) and the constraints of symbolic order (Kristeva, 1986a) and the recognition that video games in general and the Tomb Raider franchise in specific are “games of empire” (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009), it becomes clear that the 2013 Tomb Raider ultimately fails to escape the constraints of imperial procedural semiotics.
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In 1996, Core Design released Tomb Raider, a digital exploration-adventure role-playing game (RPG) featuring a treasure-hunting female protagonist named Lara Croft. By the early 2000s, Lara had been featured on more than 200 magazine covers, listed as one of the “Sexiest Women of the Year,” and nominated as British Ambassador for Technology (Lancaster, 2004, p. 87). She had also been repeatedly lambasted as a digital sex object and as representative of the exploitation of native peoples in the name of archaeological discovery. In 2013, Crystal Dynamics “rebooted” the Tomb Raider franchise, redesigning the appearance, origins, and ideology of Lara Croft in order to reflect a more inclusive ethos. At its core, the franchise relies upon a set of Western cultural assumptions of superiority which manifest in ways categorized by cultural theorist Edward Said (1979) as “Orientalist.” These practices—which appear in Tomb Raider games as exploration, combat, and collection mechanics—situate the franchise within a framework of “games of empire” (Dyer-Witheford &de Peuter, 2009), games which manifest in theme, gameplay, and marketing certain sociological codes explicitly associated with capitalist imperialism and conquest.

In order to adequately understand how a video game can be both supportive of and subversive toward an imperialist paradigm, it is important to first understand how paradigms come to have cultural meaning, how imperialism functions as a cultural force, how that force causes harm to those it oppresses, how games participate in an imperial paradigm, and, most importantly, how that paradigm makes resistance to its oppression all but impossible. Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot enters into this paradox of resistant complicity both consciously and—to an extent—critically through intertextual reference to its direct predecessors, as well as to objects and practices of colonial imperialism. The 2013 Tomb Raider deliberately engages with colonial (and post-colonial) criticism of hegemonic masculine imperialism in an attempt to refigure the series, and Lara herself, as a different kind of exploratory agent, more concerned with knowledge acquisition than exploitation or conquest. Yet despite significant revisions to Lara’s backstory, the 2013 Tomb Raider remains trapped in an imperialist framework; in spite of its desire to escape its own intertextual past of oppressive colonial violence by producing a narrative centered around female-coded space and a capable female protagonist, the 2013 Tomb Raider is ultimately constrained by its own procedural imperialism, unable to fully escape its cultural past.

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