Her first kill was in self-defense. Splattered with the blood of the man she just shot, Lara collapsed on the ground, emotionally drained. Murder was not part of her archeology training. But moments later, resolved to continue forth, she steeled herself for the dangers ahead. In fact, she relished the bloodshed. There would be more men ahead, fresh prey to hunt. Her fear dissipated, replaced by excitement. Lara began to anticipate the next fight. She was a changed woman. And as she stalked from one camp to the next, her hunger for blood grew ever stronger, until she was more monster than the creep who first forced himself upon her.
At least, that's who Lara Croft was in my most recent playthrough of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Pressed against tight time constraints, I couldn't explore the vast expanse of wilderness like I did when I first played the game last year. And slinking through scattered groups of soldiers, silently picking them off with my bow while staying out of harm's way, was far too methodical. I didn't have time to waste. So instead, my assault rifle became my right arm. I was the attacker, I was the instigator. Lara defied her narrative growth. She may have mourned her precarious situation when talking to her friends, but once enemies were nearby, such humane thoughts were washed away as she once more stuck her knife in an unnamed man.
The weight of the narrative is placed firmly on noninteractive scenes. It's when we put down the controller that a character's personality and motivations are filled in. What they say during those scripted moments is what matters, right? Well, that would be true in a static medium such as film or literature, but games offer so much flexibility that it's impossible to confine emotional growth to the short time spent watching scenes play out. We are active participants, and it's the choices we make while playing that ultimately determine who the characters really are.
Much of the criticism directed at Tomb Raider centered on Lara's improbable adjustment from stranded archeologist to full-blown killer. Lara became comfortable with her situation much too easily, some argued, so even though she shook with emotional exhaustion after her haunting first encounter, such trepidation was pushed to the back burner in an effort to keep the story moving forward. And though I read such analysis last year, the complaints rang hollow. There is no way Lara was so cold, so inhuman, that taking another's life required no more than a second of contemplation before her years of pacifism were forgotten.
As she stalked from one camp to the next, her hunger for blood grew ever stronger, until she was more monster than the demon who first forced himself upon her.
When I first played Tomb Raider last year, Lara was as far from a killer as a modern video game protagonist could be. An archeologist first and foremost, she spent much of her time combing though the ancient ruins that populated her temporary island home. Yes, you could say that her obsession with old coins was unhealthy, given that friends were held captive somewhere while she picked through decrepit locales. But you can't blame a scholar for caring more about intellectual curiosities than human companionship, can you? Once she found every hidden treasure, she moved forward, but she entered every fight against her will. She fought to defend her own life, not because she enjoyed killing, so my Lara was emotionally strong and still very much a respectable human.
My actions are instrumental in how I experience a game. The binary choices that dictate how story sequences play out in games such as Mass Effect are just one way that we shape who our characters are. But choices aren't limited to being a renegade or paragon adventurer, and we shouldn't ignore how much our own actions dictate the way we view games. Lara's character development is slow and believable if you take your time exploring the world. But it's monstrous if you decide to ignore such extracurricular activities and focus on the killing. Both play styles are certainly correct since there's no wrong way to play a game, and they both make a huge difference in how we view Lara.
It wasn't until I replayed Tomb Raider that I realized why so many people were upset at her unbelievable growth. When I skipped optional objectives and pushed straight through to the next story segment, I was shocked at what kind of person Lara was. What was at first a goofy story suddenly turned dark, as Lara played out the secret murder fantasies that lay buried inside her. Did she plan to venture to this lawless island to hunt men for sport? Was she eager to make use of what seems to be extensive weapon training? What compelled her to master both a bow and an assault rifle? Is she hiding other deadly abilities? All of these questions made me view Lara in an entirely new way, and certainly didn't make me happy when they passed through my mind, but they continually surfaced as I plugged man after man with bullets. Who is this Lara? And why is she considered a hero?
Such ruminations lead me back to my experience with The Last of Us. I have been vocal in my dislike of Joel. Even before the ending scene, I thought he was a loathsome man who, if the story was viewed from another vantage, would be the antagonist. However, much of that anger toward him was based on my life experiences and how I made him interact with the world. His seeming disconnect with his daughter Sarah made me think that he was a neglectful, selfish father, a thought that someone with a different upbringing than I may never have contemplated. I fought the zombies and survivors with such violence that it was clear that Joel enjoyed it. Fights were a bright spot in an otherwise drab existence for Joel, rather than a sad necessity for life in a broken world. And it's hard for me to like someone who relishes killing others.
Dissecting video games is complicated because no two experiences are the same. Whereas my Joel was an emotionally stunted killer, he could be a desperate survivor to someone else. Many thought Lara was a sociopath because of how quickly she got over her first murder, and yet I thought she was a grounded, relatable woman thrust into a terrible circumstance. It's these discrepancies that make games so special. Our thoughts are dictated by every action we take, even if we don't realize that it's happening, so every game offers a unique experience for every person. It's incredible to wrap my head around the infinite possibilities out there.