Lara Croft's latest adventure is surprisingly religious. It's not just about the good aspects of a communal belief in a higher power. Rise of the Tomb Raider's main bad guy is a true believer, too.
The plot of the new Tomb Raider revolves around Lara's search for a mythical figure called the Prophet and his connection to something called the Divine Source.
Major spoilers follow.
Early on in the game, I was struck by the familiarity of the story told by artifacts that Lara comes across. One artifact, for example, is a reliquary that seemingly once housed a body part of the Prophet. I grew up Catholic and these parts of Rise of the Tomb Raider reminded me of learning about the religious persecution suffered by early Catholics centuries ago.
Religion is a tricky subject for me. The older I get, the more tempted I feel by atheism. I don't go to Mass anymore and feel increasingly beset by a world where everyday injustices makes it hard to put faith in a divine plan. I can't say I don't believe in God, though, mostly because I refuse to accept that my mother isn't in the heaven that she prayed to. I generally feel ambivalent talking to my four-year-old daughter about God, but I know I'm invoking the ideals I learned from Catholicism when I tell her about how treating other people nicely is something that makes the whole world better.
Those same values show up in Rise of the Tomb Raider when Lara encounters a community of people called The Remnant, who have been protecting the Divine Source for centuries. The Remnant don't trust Lara at first and are hostile to outsiders. For all their isolationism, they have also been committed for generations to a central, altruistic myth that tells them to help others in need. It doesn't just feel like a plot beat when Lara starts helping them; it feels like she's coming around to what they believe.
Descended as it is from the same archeological pulp lineage that informed Raiders of the Lost Ark, the new Tomb Raider also has paramilitary bad guys in search of the Divine Source. They want to rule the world, of course, and there are vague noises made about securing power and/or eternal life for those who they deem worthy. This part of Rise of the Tomb Raider's story isn't just a genre convention trotted out for familiarity's sake. It's a callback to how religion has been used to justify some of mankind's worst crimes against itself. Slavery, ethnic cleansing and wars throughout history have all been aided and abetted with the cooperation of religious powers-that-be.
When main bad guy, Konstantin, kneels to pray, I didn't receive it as posturing for effect. I can accept that he believes that God is on his side, because that's been the case with many powerful corrupt men.
Later in the game, Lara witnesses what looks like a miracle after her friend Jonah gets badly hurt.
Again, the prayer in the scene feels essential. It's not just some weird undefined mysticism that makes Jonah's wound get better. It's the faith in the words uttered by the man laying hands on him.
These moments from Rise of the Tomb Raider felt bold. When religion gets used as a macguffin in a video game plot — as has happened the conspiracy underpinning the Assassin's Creed games — there's a comfortable distance with regard to how it informs the characters. The religion in this game feels up close and personal, true to how it's lived by many people in the world. I'm glad Crystal Dynamics didn't shy away from showing the power that faith can give people, good and bad.