Shrugging Off Mental Illness in Rise of the Tomb Raider

Since Rise of the Tomb Raider’s announcement in 2014, Lara Croft’s mental wellness has been a subject of many discussions. It’s crucial to begin these discussions by acknowledging that Croft experienced a series of extremely traumatic events in the first game of the rebooted series. She survived a shipwreck, had to fight her way out of a cave after being kidnapped and strung up, she watched her shipmates die, she had to kill other humans for the first time as a means of survival, her father figure died in front of her, she lost numerous friends, she was severely injured on multiple occasions, she was in a constant state of fearing for her life, the list goes on and on. In the end, she is able to save her best friend at the cost of many other lives and her own mental stability. It clearly left a mark on her which was shown throughout the first game and in the announcement trailer for its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, which shows Lara Croft looking very uneasy in what appears to be a therapists office. Yet despite these negative experiences she has been able to constantly show strength, resolve and remarkable resilience which has in turn made her a supremely multidimensional character. She is both weak and strong; Lara Croft is human.

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Between the 2013 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider (coming to the Xbox this November) a series of comic books and a novel (Tomb Raider: The Ten Thousand Immortals) have been released, both being notably canon with the rebooted series, which showcase a mentally distressed Lara Croft, one who suffers greatly due to what she has previously experienced. Most believe this is a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is common among individuals who live through severely traumatic experiences – such as what Croft went through on Yamatai. She has been suffering from flashbacks to Yamatai which cause her emotional distress and exhibits increased levels of anxiety, fear and paranoia. For fans, this made a lot of sense for her character and only added to the realism and relatability that the newly rebooted Lara Croft embodies. Discussions about her mental wellness stem from there as fans have been able to understand and relate more to her through the realization that, like the rest of the world, she isn’t perfect. She’s more human than ever before so naturally she would be subject to human afflictions, right? Well sadly game director Brain Horton has other plans for Lara Croft, plans that dismiss any possible conversations about mental illness in regards to Lara Croft’s character.

Horton states:

“We believe the first trailer showcased a very interesting dynamic of Lara Croft uncomfortable with the idea being questioned by someone, even challenged by someone, that maybe what she saw in Yamatai wasn’t true. So, there’s a stress that she’s feeling, and the tapping of her feet and the squeezing on the chair…some people have interpreted that as a weakness or as a disorder, and the way we’ve interpreted that was anticipation to get out of the situation and just go on her adventures.

So, the concept of her being agitated or affected emotionally by Yamatai – it’s true, she has seen trauma and those feelings are real – but what we’re more interested in is her destiny to be the tomb raider, and to see her start to embrace how she feels more like herself when she’s out in the field, experiencing these things, searching for the world’s secrets, than she is confined in a room, in a society that she doesn’t feel connected to anymore. She feels more home being away from home.”

In summary: no, she doesn’t have a mental illness or “weakness”, she is simply agitated and anticipating going out in the world again. The only issues she has is trust issues, apparently. I’m not at all sure what the actual intent of Horton’s comments were in regards to the weakness and disorder portion of his statement, but forcefully shying away from acknowledging that Lara Croft suffers from a mental disorder while using a word like “weakness” is rather dismissive. Having PTSD, or any other mental disorder, is not a weakness but rather a part of life for many people. There are a lot of stigmas that society places around talk of mental illness and one of the major ones is a belief that mental illness is a weakness. Society as a whole tends to view mental illness as something that makes someone lesser, fragile and powerless. It’s something to be ashamed of, something to hide, something that makes us weak-willed and “crazy”.  A lot of this stems from misunderstandings of what mental illness is and the fact that we typically only see it talked about in mass media when someone with a mental illness commits a violent crime. This goes for anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and a plethora of other common conditions that many humans suffer from.

My point here is that this development team had the groundwork laid out for them from a previous game, a comic series and a novel to make Lara Croft a character that brings to light the fact that we can suffer from these disorders yet still come out on top, still be powerful, humanistic characters with depth and agency. PTSD is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses, in my opinion. It’s something that so many people suffer from yet so many others are afraid to address. So let’s talk about that for a moment, what is PTSD? Post traumatic stress disorder is “a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood.” While most survivors of trauma get better with time, some develop “stress reactions” that do not go away on their own and may even worsen over time which is classified as the mental disorder known as PTSD. It’s considered a very common condition, affecting over 3 million US citizens, which can last months or years depending on the individual and severity of the trauma. It’s not a weakness and it’s not something that can be simply shrugged off because of inconvenience to a character or game as a whole. Ignoring that Lara Croft suffers from such a condition in Rise of the Tomb Raider is something that I think is only being done due to a reluctance to tackle such a delicate issue.

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Later in the interview, Horton is asked “So you’re still looking for realism in the game?” and his response is “Absolutely! Authenticity, because we believe grounding Lara makes the fantastic situation she’s in feel that much more easy to relate to.” It’s clear that realism still means a lot to the team, and I don’t mean to imply that Lara Croft or Rise of the Tomb Raider cannot be realistic unless PTSD is addressed, but seemingly brushing it aside or putting it on the back burner while still wanting a level of realism is just troubling to me. Throughout the entirety of the interview it’s clear that Horton, as well as the rest of the development team, cares deeply for Lara Croft as a character and they want to do her as much justice as possible through making her a realistic, emotional character that is more than just an animation. I think that their level of dedication to her paired with the earlier comments is the most unsettling aspect of this. To me this is a prime example of a missed opportunity. If they decided to address the issue of mental illness they would not only be doing a great service to the illness itself by showing that you can be strong and have such a disorder, but they would also be adding so much more realism to the game. To side step it completely in Rise of the Tomb Raider given the events of the last game and the behaviors Lara Croft exhibits in the canonical comics and novel is just really problematic. I feel as if they are ignoring a part of her and it’s a part of her that is so very important to her development.

The other issue I have with this statement from Horton is that it seems as if he is implying that she couldn’t go out and be a tomb raider if she were to have such a disorder. When he says “she has seen trauma and those feelings are real – but what we’re more interested in is her destiny to be the tomb raider” I get the impression that these things are thought to be exclusives; that having a mental disorder and being a tomb raider are things that cannot be attributed to the same person and can never be focused on equally. Sure, tomb raiding is a core element of the game and I love that aspect of it but it’s entirely possible to have a mental disorder while raiding tombs. This again brings me back to his use of the word “weakness” and basically wraps back around to this stigma that surrounds mental illness, that it’s a weakness and causes fragility; that you can’t have a strong character with a mental disorder because that is weak and you cannot be strong and weak. The problem here is that weakness isn’t a fault, it’s a characteristic of being human. Lara Croft should have weaknesses as well as strengths, isn’t the whole point of her character to show that even though she was weak she persevered? The first game in the rebooted series was special in that way, it’s one of the first times we have seen Lara Croft in a state of weakness, yet she pushed forward and found strength in herself. Shouldn’t she be able to do that now as well under new and differing circumstances? I think this could have been a great opportunity to further develop her character in a realistic and measurable way, which seems to be what they want to do – they just want to do it sans mental illness regardless of how clear it has been made elsewhere that she has one.

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I’ve seen a lot of fans refer to this new revelation as a disappointment and a missed opportunity and I think those are the best ways to describe it. I don’t think mental illness should be forced upon a character or made the center of a game simply because it’s misunderstood. I don’t think that Rise of the Tomb Raider should focus solely on PTSD simply because Lara Croft suffers from the condition. I do, however, think that there was a grand opportunity here from the game to showcase a Lara Croft who is so much more human than we could have ever imagined. A Lara Croft who has this condition that many others suffer from, who struggles but who fights back and who pushes forward despite it all. To say that she doesn’t suffer from a disorder while creating canon stories in which she does seems so out-of-place, it seems as if to have Rise of the Tomb Raider feature a Lara Croft with a mental disorder is inconvenient because they’d rather focus on her being a stronger character. It is possible though to be strong and have weaknesses at the same time, though, and I wish that understanding was displayed properly here. I have no doubts that Rise of the Tomb Raider will be a great game, but seeing this does disappoint me as a fan and as someone who suffers from mental disorders. I wish the best for this game and I will still be buying it, but I hope that this whole thing is one big misunderstanding. Missed opportunities such as this shouldn’t go unnoticed, spending time furthering the development of a character’s mental wellness is just as important as developing that character into who they were meant to be – a tomb raider.

7 thoughts on “Shrugging Off Mental Illness in Rise of the Tomb Raider

  1. Kelly, I would really love to see you interviewing the Tomb Raider team. You have demonstrated over and over that you are great as a journalist and you are also a fan of this franchise, with deep knowledge of it. You would be the right person to ask important questions to them.

    This being one of these questions. I still need to play the game, obviously, but as I read the article, I wondered exactly about this conflict of the canon comics and Horton’s statement. It even occurred to me that he wanted to avoid talking about the issue, but Lara still has a disorder in the game. Because, I mean,
    Rhianna Pratchett is writing the comics and is also one of the writers of the franchise.

    Anyway, I agree with you. If it doesn’t happen, that’s a missed opportunity. They rebooted the series in an effort to make her more human. They can go one step forward.

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    • Thank you. I’d love to do such a thing to be honest, if nothing else then to gain more understanding of why they went this way with the character and story. I’m really hoping that, in a way, this is a misunderstanding. I hope they address mental illness at some point, even if it’s a minor reference. Just to acknowledge it at all would be better than nothing.

      I do have a lot of faith in this development team and Pratchett is one of my writing idols so I do have a good feeling that whatever they do, and whatever she does, it will be brilliant. Still, if they do choose to negate her mental illness entirely then I will definitely be disappointed.

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  2. Hi Kelly. I’m curious as to your idea of mental illness not being a weakness. I would completely agree that mental illnesses shouldn’t be socially stigmatised, that it shouldn’t be hidden and that we definitely shouldn’t fault the victim for suffering such conditions, but i would still view the mental illness to be a weakness.

    Suffering from major anxiety disorders, the type commonly affiliated with PTSD and similar mental illnesses, would usually lead to impaired judgement and difficulty in acting in social situations (to say the least). Would this not be considered a weakness of sorts? Surely not having PTSD would be considered infinitely better than having PTSD. Logically i feel that having such a disorder could not be seen as a positive strength, nor can it be neutral as it can have a major effect on one’s life, so therefore it should be seen as a negative weakness. A mental illness should be seen on the same level as a physical illness, and a person should aim to rid themselves of an anxiety disorder the same way a person would wish to rid themselves of cancer.

    Or am i just misunderstanding your point?

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    • Hello Matt and thank you for your reply to my article!

      In response I’d like to say that weakness is a fluid term when it comes to mental illness, in my opinion. Everyone handles mental disorders differently, some may become weaker and some may not change at all but rather adapt and carry forward. Some even use it as a strength, one which helps them overcome the disorder or simply push forward despite the sometimes incurable issues.

      That being said, I don’t think it’s correct to consider mental illnesses to be inherent weaknesses, which was my main point. For Horton to sort of group all mental illness together as a “weakness” in his statement (as he wasn’t specific as to what type or severity of the disorder he was talking about) is not only short sighted, but a tad offensive.

      I suffer from severe anxiety disorders and depression yet I don’t consider them to be a weakness for me. Yes, it’s hard to do a lot of things and yes I don’t handle it as well as I should, making me weak at times, but overall it’s not something I would look at as an inherent weakness in myself. So Lara suffering from PTSD is not something I would assume is automatically a weakness for her. It really all depends on how severe the disorder is and how it is handled. In the article I also mentioned how weaknesses and strengths aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s possible to have both. With that I mean to say that yes, it can be a weakness to have a mental disorder but that’s not really something that can’t also be paired with strengths and Lara can (and should) have both due to the fact that she is meant to be a very human character.

      You mentioned impaired judgement and difficulty with social situations being a concern, but I would have to say that again that depends on the severity of the disorder within the individual as not all conditions are the worst forms of themselves. I don’t feel as if my judgement is impaired due to my disorders, but rather the opposite. I do struggle in social situations but have adapted to it and tend to do well working in customer service jobs, for example. I imagine that given the time between the first and second games, and given the comic’s/book’s content, at the point of Rise of the Tomb Raider I’d say her issues with PTSD wouldn’t be too terribly severe but would definitely still be present, even if only in small ways.

      I hope that clarified my stance and answered your questions. Thanks again for your response, I appreciate this kind of discussion! Have a great day!

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      • Thanks. I kind of wanted to have a debate with this but you’ve cleared up the confusion nicely. I suppose it is the fluidity of the term that can cause the confusion here. It would be better to not have a disorder rather than to have one- but simply having one does not make a person automatically weak, and working to overcome it can make one stronger than they were before.

        When i was young i had more of a speaking disorder than a mental illness (i would stutter and was prone to speaking in whispers or not speaking at all). This was very much something i sought to overcome and eliminate from my life. In doing so i guess it made me function better in social situations, so i can see how one can become strong through weakness.

        The sad thing about the game itself is that it’s not like these types of issues couldn’t be worked in. The first game of the new series was excellent at getting Lara to overcome her situation, and in a variety of ways too, with some being positive and some being negative. The first time she’s made to kill someone is handled in an effective way, with her freaking out and panicking over it as someone who is forced to become a killer should, but also eventually becoming numb to the experience of killing somebody (yes, they want to kill her, but she’s still slaughtering them en masse by the end of the game). I would kind of love to see Lara trying to handle her experiences of Yamatai after the event and see how she copes with it. Seems a shame that it doesn’t seem likely to happen.

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  4. My goodness, this is hugely disappointing. I wasn’t aware that CD had little intention of exploring Lara’s trauma, as it was heavily implied in the first trailer. Looking back now, the debut trailer feels like Square Enix’s version of the first Dead Island trailer: expressing a heavy implication for something deeper than what it actually is. TBH, I don’t think I’m going to purchase this game any more. That’s how bummed out I am (oh, and Fallout 4).

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