Lara Croft: Explorer of Ultimate Horrors
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Lara Croft: Explorer of Ultimate Horrors

Gaming was, as a child, always quite the experience. Even with games that were “child-friendly,” I would constantly cower in fear at enemies that popped out at me unexpectedly. But I have to admit, these old habits creep into my gaming habits as a grown, 28 year old woman. I can say with the fullest of confidence that Tomb Raider was the cause. 

Tomb Raider 3 was my most played game as a child; little Siobhán would amuse herself for hours on end, running and jumping around Croft Manor to her heart’s content. When I was feeling particularly brave (and bored), I would make my way to those front gates and launch myself into the first level, The Jungle. But five minutes in, I would be absolutely petrified by a tiny monkey and immediately quit, heading back to the manor where the only thing that would bother me was a shuffling old man with separation anxiety. 

In my older years, I have gone back and completed the first two installments of the Tomb Raider franchise multiple times; yet there is something about them that still gets me. For some bizarre reason, I can’t quite break through the Jungle level of the third game. The monkey still bothers me, and I still have a wave of panic when faced with that spiked trap room. But the game that I still have the biggest issues with is The Last Revelation

Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation on Steam

I have such fond memories of my Dad playing it back when it came out in 1999—that menu screen is fully imprinted on my brain, with the sweeping camera that flies through the torch lit tombs, bursting out onto this awesome high-ceilinged temple. It’s truly epic. 

But when I picked it up as an adult, once again I found myself playing the introductory level and getting too scared when launched into the full game. I’ve now come to realise that Tomb Raider, while marketed and well known as an action puzzle game, has more ties to the horror genre than most people realise. 

In the introduction to the 1996 game, simply titled Tomb Raider, you witness your guide being set upon by a pack of wolves and find yourself alone in front of a foreboding set of open doors, ready to start your stressful and eerie adventure. 

The way the game thrusts you into this cave after seeing your guide be immediately killed by the creatures that lurk in the depths really sets the tone as the doors slam shut behind Lara and the real adventure begins. This sense of being completely alone is what absolutely terrified me as a child, and in some ways still does. I still find it hard to move forward. 

Perhaps the most obvious horror technique that Tomb Raider uses is sound to create tension. The soundscape in these early games is incredible. There is no fancy soundscape, with underlying creepy noises that leave you thinking “What the hell is that?” The way that Core Design scare the bejaysus out of me is by having complete silence for the majority of the game. I have no idea if this was an intentional technique, or merely a product of the studio’s limitations at the time. But it is so effective—so much so that if there were any sounds at all, I would enter into panic mode. 

The tension created via this use of sound is impeccable, and sometimes it does feel like you are being trolled. There are countless times in the early Tomb Raider games where the signature music would play for absolutely no reason. I would be left paralysed not being able to move Lara because I was expecting something to run out of the shadows, but it would be a false alarm.

But then when enemies do approach, more often than not, there isn’t any warning. This led to some of the most haunting and traumatising jump-scares of my childhood. 

However, this use (or lack thereof) of sound and sense of isolation, while present in the second and third game, never feels as strong as it does in 1999’s The Last Revelation

The Egyptian tombs feel alive, with lit torches lining the walls, traps going off left, right, and centre—all culminating in a strange feeling like you’re being watched. But to top this off, there is something so intrinsically creepy about Egyptian tombs in particular. I am constantly expecting any mummy around to jump to life and attack me. In The Last Revelation, I find it so hard to enter into any new room; the apprehension is so high because of the fears of what horrors lurk in the depths of the tombs.

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) promotional art - MobyGames

One thing that is a constant throughout the Core Design years of Tomb Raider is how scary the enemies are. The 1996 game is filled with horrors: the weird torso giant, which looks like it’s come straight out of Attack on Titan, and not to mention the doppelganger of Lara that looks like E.T with pointy boobs.

But it doesn’t stop at the first game—every single Tomb Raider game has enemies that would be quite comfortable in horror games and films, including various types of mutants, skeletons, mummies, hillbilly cult humans, demon dogs, hags, you name it. All of these would not be out of place in games like Resident Evil

Speaking of Resident Evil, Tomb Raider does have its fair share of survival mechanics, too. Items like Medi Packs are scarce, and would often be found in the most awkward places to get to—finding them was such a relief. For me, there was nothing more scary than wandering around a tomb with no Medi Pack and half health. 

Sadly, during the Crystal Dynamic years of Tomb Raider, the elements of horror that were so well utilized in the first few games were lost. For instance, 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, in terms of tone, was perhaps one of the most far removed from the original games. 

Tomb Raider Legend - Level 1 - Bolivia - YouTube

For the majority of that game, you have Lara’s team of helpful sidekicks, Zip and Alistair, chatting away in your ear, giving exposition and helping fuel the narrative. Now, this made it a very good gateway for 13 year old Siobhán. Having company made the entire ordeal less stressful—but this took Tomb Raider from an eerie, almost horror-like game into full action-adventure mode. While it still had the signature tombs, puzzles, and shooting enemies, it didn’t capture that excellent and rather unique tone of the first few games. 

Skip ahead to 2013 with the full reboot of the franchise, and we see Lara in a completely different light, but the ties to the horror genre are present. Lara, once again, is left alone at the start of the game, having to use her wits to survive. So much of this game plays out like a horror movie; the sense of dread is immediate as Lara is separated from her friends after their ship sinks off the coast of a mysterious island. Waking up, strung upside down in a cave—which is set up in a very ritualistic manner—you immediately know this island is inhabited by people of a less than savory nature. There are such heavy nods to movies in this game, in particular The Descent. In this initial escape, we see Lara desperately clawing her way out of this cave, towards a shaft of light, which is so derivative of The Descent—but in this case, the desperation feels so real because you are controlling the character.

There is also such a strong sense of the unknown. At this stage, you have no idea who hung you up and what they wanted with you. To further these parallels, Lara jumps into a pool of blood to escape the cultists, delivering a pretty much frame for frame homage to the movie. But it’s not just these direct homages to horror films that makes this game so firmly rooted in the horror genre—the overarching sense of isolation present is made worse, not by silence, but by the watching eyes of an unknown enemy. As soon as you realise that they are just humans, it makes them even creepier. The fanatical cultist as an enemy is always one that creates a strong sense of unease—particularly when films and games play on the notion that humans can do far worse damage to each other than some fictional monsters. 

Despite all of this, there is something about 2013’s Tomb Raider that never really hit me full on in terms of fear. Yes, I was creeped out, but there were so many elements, like Lara constantly talking to herself or the HUD continually popping up with information, that took that sense of isolation that was so prevalent in the earlier games out completely. 

Although it is hard to class the Tomb Raider games as full-on horror titles, there are undoubtedly so many elements of them that utilise horror techniques. While the newer games have left that silent, eerie atmosphere behind, they still have other elements of horror in them. The franchise has always been aware of its scary moments, and I truly believe that it should be considered more in discourse about horror games and their history. 

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