The Revenants of the Dragon Age series: The Archaeology of the Walking Dead

In 2017, while I was writing up my masters thesis news broke of an unusual Roman British skeleton from Stanwick, Northamptonshire. Buried face down, the corpse’s tongue had been cut out and replaced with a flat stone. These type of burials are known widely as deviant and/or non-normative burials. News broke at the same time I was playing Dragon Age Inquisition, a game set in a world where the undead come back to cause trouble at every corner. Death in video games is more of a hurdle (regeneration or starting a level again is the only real death our protagonist will face) than something to fear and more so in a game like Dragon Age, where narrative decisions mean characters can come back through apparitions or necromancy, such as the Haunted in Act III of Dragon Age II or the character of Cole in Dragon Age: Inquisition or most gruesomely Leandra Amell’s grisly demise in All That Remains.

In Dragon Age, there are a number of faceless enemies that the protagonist faces, the most encountered are the reanimated corpses, a key enemy in A Village Under Siege, or the terrifying arcane horrors (dead mages possessed by a pride demon). However, one of the most formidable opponents you face are the revenants. In English folklore, a revenant is a person who has returned, supposedly from the dead. Borrowed from French, revenant was originally formed from the present participle of the verb revenir (“to return”). It literally means “one coming back,” either from another place or from the dead. The Romano British skeleton seemed to have suffer a mutilation that may have been a basic attempt to stop the corpse feeding on the living. Given the bacteria found in the skeleton’s bones, there could also have been a contagious epidemic at work, for which the deceased had been blamed, leading to the stone being placed in its mouth as punishment.

Although it may seem silly to us, there was a genuine belief in what we would deem today to be ‘superstitious’ or ‘occult’ in the ancient world. There was a very real fear of the dead rising from the dead and it can be seen in the archaeological record across medieval Europe. A site at Wharram Percy, a deserted medieval village in Yorkshire, England unearthed skeletal evidence of a probable medieval belief in revenancy. Historical accounts from Britain and Ireland tell of fear of revenants in general, while some accounts from Scotland and Ireland (and one from England) also hint at revenant blood-sucking – a fear linked more specifically to vampiric aspects of the revenant tradition. The scientific analysis has revealed that the individuals’ skeletal remains had been deliberately mutilated, decapitated and burned shortly after death. Medieval folk believed that corpses could only reanimate and become revenants in the short period between death and decomposition. Skeletons could not become revenants. Only fully fleshed intact corpses could do so.

Revenants were said to be stronger and bigger than they were when alive. This reflects how they appear in Dragon Age, being spirits of desire or pride that possess a warrior’s remains, and thus they appear as a heavily armored undead knight. They rise from the ground causing panic in the party and most are boss-level characters at least in Origins. The archaeological record reflects fear of undead warriors coming back from the dead, a warrior was someone to fear in life, but apparently even more so in death. Excavations near the Yorkshire town of Pocklington have discovered two revenant Iron Age burials.

A revenant burial in Pocklington, Yorkshire. (c) History Blog

The excavation revealed that one burial of a younger man who was speared repeatedly in the grave. The other was a senior man buried in a chariot with two horses. Both burials date to the 3rd century B.C. It has been argued that the manner of post mortem treatment was used to use of the control death of a powerful figure (e.g. witch, king) or someone suspected revenant, meaning social reputation of the person was valid in death as it was in life. Further afield in Sweden, a high-ranking warrior buried in grave 18 in Bjär, Gotland, with weapons, riding equipment and horse or dog, has been regarded as a potential threat to society after his death, as it could be assumed because of thy symbolic fixation of his corpse by stones and blades.  The body was fund close to a water body. Fear of revenants and their disposal in watery places may also help to explain the bog burials uncovered by archaeologists in northern Europe, these bodies were discovered pinned into peat bogs with thorns and stakes.

So how did revenants become a genuine belief? Were they nothing more than stories passed down from one generation to the other around the table to entertain, scare or teach a valuable lesson through storytelling? Although their origins may have started in the Iron Age, they became much more well known by English historians in the Middle Ages. There was a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire as told by William of Newburgh in the 12th century. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

A famous example of a warrior revenant is in the martyrdom of Oswald, it is Oswald himself, the hero and warrior, who is mutilated by the Mercian pagans. Oswald was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death in 642, and is venerated as a saint with a particular cult in the Middle Ages. Oswald brought the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira once again under a single ruler, and promoted the spread of Christianity in Northumbria. After eight years of rule, in which he was the most powerful ruler in Britain, Oswald was killed in the Battle of Maserfield while fighting the forces of Penda of Mercia. John Damon (2001, 403-05) is concerned with the fact that Oswald was decapitated post-mortem, and the ‘trophification’ of the severed limbs in both cases. This could be from a fear of rising from the grave much like his messiah Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, contemporary Old English records have little to say on the matter of prone burial, and everything we know of them is from the archaeological record.

Medieval communities in England believed that the only way the dead could walk is if a demon entered the body, props it up on its feet and then makes it take a few steps. This ideology was spread by Thomas of Cantimpre, a Flemish medieval writer and theologian, in his manual for preachers, Bonum universalede apibu. Thomas’s language emphasizes the demon’s manipulation of the body as an object: “[The Devil] moved [the body] at first in the coffin. . . suddenly the Devil roseup with the corpse”. Similar to the revenants of Dragon Age, demons in Medieval Europe were believed to seek out cemeteries in order to rob graves of their occupants. Thomas’s interpretation of revenants as demonically possessed means they are corrupted only corporeally. In Dragon Age, where warrior bodies are rife for demons, there are two forms of revenants, one takes the form of a corpse and the other a demon, which reflect the uncertainty of what they truly were and what medieval people feared, was it a fear of death or the fear of the devil? The creativity of Bioware to reflect the mental attitudes of medieval cultures to a wider audience allows video games to be a serious medium to convey archaeological and socio-historical ideas or theories. While it may be naive to think this way, as Dragon Age has demonstrated video games can become an effective approach for understanding the more nuanced religious and supernatural beliefs of our ancestors, even if we have to level up to do so.

  • Caciola, N., 1996. Wraiths, revenants and ritual in medieval culture. Past & Present, (152), pp.3-45.
  • Damon, John Edward. “Desecto capite perfido: bodily fragmentation and reciprocal violence in Anglo-Saxon England.” Exemplaria 13, no. 2 (2001): 399-432.
  • Mattison, A., 2016. The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150: an examination of changes in judicial punishment across the Norman Conquest(Doctoral dissertation, University of Sheffield).
  • Toplak, M., 2018. Deconstructing the deviant burials: Kopparsvik and the rite of prone burials in Viking Age Scandinavia. Met

Video games inspire us

“All men dream – but not equally. Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity… But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.” From T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I get asked a lot, “how did you get into archaeology?” it’s not a question I like to answer. I find myself tugging on the ends of my sleeves, an awkward reflex I picked up during the tortuous years of high school. The truth is I always lie when I respond to this question. I lie quite unabashedly about getting interested in archaeology in my teens, but the truth is archaeology never really crossed my mind until my early twenties. I’d always loved history; castles and I took delight in Indiana Jones as a kid but that was the extent of my appreciation for the discipline. The reality is videogames got me interested in archaeology, and not just any video game, Dragon Age. I loved the series so much, but it wasn’t just the storyline or characters that sucked me into the world, it was the world itself: scattered ruins, ancient races, forgotten languages and mystery hidden behind every corner.

The environs of Dragon Age got me thinking of historic landscapes in my country, England. I started visiting ruins of abbeys some which could be picked straight out of Ferelden. I loved the symbolism found in Celtic crosses and was drawn to the preserved landscapes of the prehistoric. After a year of making the most of my English Heritage membership I knew that I wanted to pursue something that made me fulfilled, much like how video games had made me feel. I applied for a degree that year, and continued playing video games with archaeology as a focal point, Tomb Raider and Uncharted. My archaeology origin story was one I didn’t like to share with others at university who usually had the typical story of joining their father’s excavation at Durham or found their first piece of worked flint at the age of 8.

Video games have always influenced my life and for the most parts in truly positive ways. It was my love for video games that led me to Japan when I was 20, got me into sewing as I recreated outfits of my favourite characters. It’s how I met my best friend, my first boyfriend, it’s provided me with a number of positive female role models throughout my adolescence and early twenties. It provided escapism when life just got too tough, allowing me to switch off the static around me. The role video games has had on my life and career has been unmeasurable, I owe Square Enix, Bioware and Core Design my sanity and happiness. When parents complain about their kids on that damn Xbox all the time, don’t automatically think they are wasting their time. It’s likely they are being inspired for the rest of their lives, to take risks they probably wouldn’t  take outside of the safety from their own living room.  To think outside the box, to study astrophysics to be like Commander Shepherd, to be fearless like Ellie or to create their own video games as a writer, artist or composer. That’s because video games inspire us.

Queen Himiko of Japan – The Archaeology Behind Tomb Raider (2013 & 2018)

“Myths are usually based on some version of the truth”

– Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

There was something to admire about Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 video game Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, the main protagonist’s of the franchise is a keen archaeologist and like many wide-eyed archaeology graduates wants to make a name for herself. In this rendition, her interest in exploration focuses much more on the archaeology she hopes to discover than the treasure she uncovers during her time as PlayStation’s pinup girl of the 90s. In the 2013 game, recent archaeology graduate Lara Croft travels to a lost island off the coast of Japan in search of the lost kingdom Yamatai. Unfortunately for Lara and her comrades, the island is crawling with cultists known as the Solarii, and soon she forced into a battle of survival as she tries to escape the cult and the a supernatural presence that is chasing her.

Like many gamers, I loved this version of Lara (before the daddy issues came along, damn you Rise), and as an archaeologist interested in East Asian prehistory, this setting sparked intellectual joy (thanks Marie Kondo) unlike the previous games, which stuck to the fail safe of pyramids and King Arthur. There aren’t many faults with this game, and like Lara I too became captivated by the legendary figure of the Sun Queen, Himiko.

In the game Queen Himiko (卑弥呼) serves as the antagonist to Lara Croft, creating a supernatural entity Lara not only has to fight but also has to use her wits and intelligence to keep one step ahead. A formidable opponent for Lara, the spirit of the ancient Sun Queen is transferred from body to body through ritual female sacrifice.  Himiko is essentially a plot device that allows Lara to realise her full potential as an archaeologist and tomb raider as she tries to solve the mystery of the island and its inhabitants.

Queen Himiko as she appears in the 2013 video game Tomb Raider

A quick history

Queen Himiko was the shamaness ruler of the Yamatai kingdom, an area of Japan considered to be part of the country in Wa (Japan) during the late Yayoi period. Himiko is not mentioned the first history books Nihon Shoki (720 AD) and Kojiki (712 AD). She is however mentioned in Chinese history books, specifically the he c. 297 Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Zhi 三國志). These Chinese sources portrayed Himiko as a mighty sorceress and there are several such characters in Japanese history who could fulfill that role. Scholars in the 17th century proposed Empress Jingu. She became the defacto ruler of Japan in 201 AD ruling for the next 68 years until her death at the age of 100. However, Chinese sources claim when Himiko died there was a prolonged period of civil war which ended in the Yamatai making another woman their Shaman-Queen, a woman called Iyo (壹與). Jingu was succeeded by her (possibly illegitimate) son, Ojin.

However, the biggest mystery that still lingers till this day is where was the kingdom of Yamatai? In the video game Yamatai is depicted as having multi-period occupation island, but archaeologists believe the real Yamatai to have existed in some form in Kinki, the Yamato region of Japan.

The Yamatai Controversy

Andonyama kofun – burial mound of Emperor Sujin

Known in academia as “The Yamatai Controversy” , in the last century archaeologists and historians had two main contenders for the location of Yamatai. Kinki in the Yamato region of Japan and Northern Kyushu. However, an account by a Korean itinerary to Yamatai in Wei-shu disputes the theory that the kingdom was that far south in Kyushu.

It is likely that the kingdom was close to the old capital of Nara within mainland Japan, a potential archaeological site has been linked to Yamatai in Hashihaka. In 2009, excavations in Makimuku ancient ruins in Sakurai revealed the Hashihaka tomb, dating back to the late third century, and is said to be the location of the tomb of Himiko. The Makimuku ruins measure about 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) east to west and about 0.93 of a mile (1.5 km) from north to south. The ruins have ancient burial mounds, and a 306-yard (280-meter). In 2015, further investigations showed a burnt boar scapula found in the ruins of Makimuku, which may relate to the practice of burning animal bones to tell the future. The boar bone found at Makimuku measures 6.6 inches (16.7 cm) long by 2.64 inches (6.7 cm) wide. A further 117 frog bones have also been found at the site and there is a suggestion that they may have been used as an offering to the gods or in some other kind of religious rites.

Shaman Queen

In the video game Tomb Raider, Queen Himiko is said to have shamanistic powers and abilities, and there is some truth to this. Himiko is said to have practiced guidao, or Japanese kido, a type of Daoist folk religion. The Gishi no Wajinden (魏志倭人伝, ‘Records of Wei: An Account of the Wa’) described her as a having “occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people”. She was seldom seen in public and was attended by “one thousand attendants, but only one man”. Like the video game, Himiko had many female attendants and a legion of skilled warriors who were sworn to serve and protect her known collectively as the Stormguard. They guarded her decaying body until Lara is forced to fight them to get to her tomb to save her best friend Sam from being another sacrifice.

 The archaeological record shows reveals that some of these myths might have some basis in the truth. Between 1955 and 1964, a series of archaeological discoveries including the excavation of a tomb near Kyoto with numerous bronze mirrors possibly dating from the 3rd century.  A mirror, known as Himiko’s mirror, was found in the Higashinomiya Tomb in Aichi, Japan. Researchers analyzed the “mirror”  and found it had a slight unevenness to its surface – so slight the naked eye cannot recognize it. The uneven surface creates patterns on the back as light reflects off of the front of the mirror, seeming to project a magical image.

Tomb Raider 2018

Queen Himiko as depicted in the 2018 movie Tomb Raider

Unlike the 2013 game, Tomb Raider the movie released in 2018 starring Alicia Vikander as Lara, takes Himiko in a completely different direction depicting the queen as the “Mother of Death”. The movie has a big twist, unlike the game Himiko isn’t mystical, (the real Queen Himiko probably couldn’t control storms or transfer her essence across bodies) but rather she was the carrier of a deadly disease. Furthermore, she wasn’t malicious; in fact, she exiled herself to Yamatai to prevent the spread of the sickness. There is no mention of her shamanic abilities or her role as a religious figure, which spurs the video game’s main antagonist Mathias, who’s been stranded on the island for 31 years, to worship her. Yet, like her real life counterpart she is still shrouded in mystery and intrigue.

The real Himiko’s legacy is a reminder of how historical women figures are often forgotten. She doesn’t feature prominently in the history of Japan, and recognition as a ruler didn’t come till the Edo period in the 1600s. It is likely that the Japanese adoption of Buddhism and Confucianism didn’t do much to elevate the status of women. Fortunately, she wasn’t permanently erased. Himiko represents the first notable ancestor of a strong tradition of female religious leaders and political leaders in Japan and serves as a representation of the unnamed women forgotten to history.

Tribal identities – gaming and reality

The one thing I enjoy about role-playing games (RPGs)? Character creation, it’s my favorite part of the game. I can spend hours creating the perfect character, I can go back and forth deciding if I want to be an elf or human this time around, or if I want to be a noble or harness power as a mage. The struggle of making these choices are based on how I want to perceived by non-playable characters (NPCs). Do I want people to be scared of me? Do I want people to accept me? That’s why I struggle, specially as someone who has difficulties accepting my identity in the real world. I know no real consequence would come from me playing a dwarf, but can I be bothered to meander through the story with such heavy biases set in front of me? I normally play it safe first time round by playing a human noble and then experiment in later playthroughs when I know how the game ends. The safe path.

But unlike games, reality is a different story altogether. The safe path is something we hear as women all the time, “get home safe, stay in well-lit areas.” As a woman, I have struggled to find my tribe, there have been a number of pointed decisions, which I’ve made to be fully accepted by the general public as acting a certain way or being perceived in a certain way can fulfill our traditional notions of belonging. Perceptions are strong influencers, how people perceive you inevitably comes down to how they will treat you. Have a harsh working class accent, it is likely that people might not take your opinions seriously. Like RPG worlds, what race, class and gender you are reflect how you’re treated, especially in a game as nuanced as Dragon Age . There are plenty more ways to deal with people’s perceptions or influence/change opinions, but unlike the in-game world you inhibit in your free time, reality is much more complicated.

What tribe do I belong to? Am I part of the trendy middle class white elite, that spout the rhetoric about veganism and renewables while traveling to luxury villas in the summer? Am I part of the ethnic working class sect of society, who are blamed for the lost of jobs and inflation of house prices? This is not how I see things, but how race/class have been catergorised by political narratives. I identify as neither, because I am both without being either. When I play the female mage elf in Dragon Age, I know what I’m setting myself up for. I’ve chosen to play a knife-ear somewhat feared seductress. This is because race has a history within the social structure of Ferelden. Even if I don’t respond the racial bile or romance any of the NPCs, I will be perceived as such. But, I also have an identity that sculpted by the myriad of people who identify similarly (in game and real life) and an identity that I can discuss frankly with a number of NPCS without feeling anxious about how I express my views despite being a female mage elf. Discussing identity in real life is a trickier game, and much more based on who you associate with. Branding myself a feminist or/and a gamer can have a somewhat prickly response from certain people I don’t consider friends, and even some people who I consider family. The political narrative can steal these identities and use them to drive their policies, gaming makes you more violent, feminism is an agenda to destroy the family unit.

Tribal identities are formed on part on survival, when we lived as a nomadic tribes, we had roles which dictated what we did, and if the tribe survived or not. The human species had a tendency for striving towards homogeneity within the group and competition against outsiders. What we have now is neotribalism at least in predominately western and western influenced societies. French sociologist Michel Maffesoli was perhaps the first to use the term neotribalism in a scholarly context stating that as the culture and institutions of modernism declined, societies would embrace nostalgia and look to the organizational principles of the distant past for guidance . In the same way neotribalism is a form of survival when not belonging can be disastrous for mental and physical health.

James Paul Gee proposes three different aspect of gaming identity: the virtual identity (the Player Character or Supporting character), the real world identity (The player) and a projective identity (the player’s emotional boundaries to the Player Character) (Gee 2007). Personally, I always choose female characters, because my real world identity is female. I choose elves, because I’ve always felt a little different (projective identity). In a game like Dragon Age there are defining characteristics of membership for each identity. In real life you can be favoured for the physicality, but usually neotribes incorporate a diverse group of individuals in the in-group based on beliefs. I can play an elf in Thedas, but I can believe in the maker and reject the elven gods. Although it adds a layer of somewhat complexity to my character, Dragon Age is a game built on the past, and by virtue of its authority giving people genuine identities. Integration of the past in the formation of an identity allows you as a player to orient ourselves in time and space.

In reality, I orient myself based on my beliefs, like we all do. I actively choose not to respond to comments about race and/or self-identity. In someway playing games which involve making decisions some times based on your identity in game can reawaken how we perceive ourselves in our current world. How we are perceived for our social, economic and political connections has become increasingly individualised. With such conflicting views, tribalism is one of the processes that shape identities. While many born before the surge of technology, see gaming as a form of alienation, it can also form the core principles of our identity and as we form friendships in-game and in real life. Games can help us navigate the difficult sphere of sociality. What happens when a man deprived of struggle plays a female elf, who in DA: Origins is held captive and almost raped by someone outside her race? Does this allow for a form of empathy to develop? Does help him develop a better understanding of Everyday (Intersectional) Sexism?

It’s hard to focus on identities in gaming, without delving into the problematic nature of inequality. Projective identity is used as reasoning for successful franchises, which include mostly good-looking strong white male characters. However, understanding identity through the lens of a character you wouldn’t necessarily identify with helps build emotional connections between the Player and the PC. Our in-game identity can be projective, it can also be derivative. But what it is – is an identity. One that can strengthen our tribal connections (in game and in real life) as we orient our PC’S narrative and space in relation to a past, a present and his/her/their future.

This Land is My Land and the homogenisation of Native America

There aren’t many things I get excited about apart from an exceptionally well made cup of tea and a chance to go on a holiday. So when it comes to gaming, it takes a special kind of game for me check on Steam if it’s on preorder. And let’s be honest if you follow me, these games mainly focus on archaeology or anything Bioware (#since2003). But, I was blown away with what I saw from This Land is My Land trailer.

The game is s an open-world set in late 19th century frontier, you play from the point of view of a Native American during a time when “America” was being overrun by white settlers. The game is being created by Ukrainian outfit Game-Labs, best known for the PC strategy Ultimate General series, set in the American Civil War.

The truth is I’ve always wanted to play an indigenous character who fought the colonizinng force of Western Europe. It was story rarely seen in Hollywood without a white male savior thrown in the mix (think Dances with Wolves, The Last of Mohicans, The Revenant etc). The video game industry is no better, there have been few games with native protagonists with the Indie game Never Alone,the only one springing to mind. While AAA games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider incorporate indigenous tribes, it still focuses on the privileged white hero saving the day. No hate, I love Lara Croft. And the issue becomes ever more glaring when you realise only 0.09% of video game characters are Native American. Whoa.

Speaking to Polygon, the game’s development lead Denis Khachatran, says the protagonist represents an amalgam of western tribes. “You represent them all,” he said. “The Chickasaw, Cherokee, Lakota, Cheyenne, Apaches, Navajo, Shawnee, Shoshone, Mohawk, Utes and all other tribes large and small. And this is where the problem lies, popular culture and movies perpetuate an homogenized Native America and ignore the incredible diversity of Native groups across North America.

The homogenizing cultures perpetuates issues of identity and stereotypes of Native people. Without consulting Native tribes and the general lack of contemporary representation of Native Americans in the media it’s no surprise Native Americans find it difficult to see themselves fitting in to contemporary American culture.

The homogenization of Native Americans effectively reduces them from proud people to salable curiosities. As Steven Heller states, “By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become so commonplace in American advertising that it was taken for granted, and criticism was minimal if at all.”

While in some ways its commendable for a European game studio to incorporate the Native Americans’ historical fight against European colonization, the issue still remains that popular media is the only exposure some people have to certain members of other groups. And when game developers decide to homogenize multiple cultural groups inaccurate or stereotypical representations are bound to be conveyed.

Video games like This Land is My Land have the opportunity to present Native Americans cultures to those not familiar with a group who often themselves feel invisible in the mass media. Consulting with Native American tribes also shows that we are moving away from borderline colonial discourse that has plagued mainstream media since the dawn of its creation. The issue isn’t only about under-representation, but the quality of representations on offer, not allowing people to see the unique, diverse, and contemporary people they actually are.

Lara Croft: the problematic archaeologist

She proved to the world that women can make exceptional protagonists. She embodies woman empowerment, wit and adversity, but Lara Croft also represents the colonial values of old school archaeology.  Like many archaeogamers, I’m a huge fan of Lara Croft, even Classic Lara, who stole artefacts and disseminated archaeological sites just because she felt like it. In the first Tomb Raider, she says it herself: “I’m sorry, I only play for sport.” But as the reboot series tried to transform Lara to less of a female avatar built for the male gaze to a relatable hero, she fell more victim to Western imperial privilege. Oh the irony.

This wasn’t an issue with her character in 2013’s Tomb Raider. When the game was released we were introduced to a very different, much younger and inexperienced Lara. She eventually becomes reminisce of the fierce warrior we all know and love. Her trials throughout the game proved that she could take care of herself no matter what was thrown at her while still taking a moment to awe at the ruins and artefacts she encountered. I loved 2013’s Lara Croft, she reflected the metaphorical journey of becoming an archaeologist that it was hard not to root for her.  In the game, Lara voyages to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai on an expedition (not to look for her lost father, thank you kindly Alicia Vikander) funded by her best friend Sam. The trip turns into a fight for survival as she finds herself stranded on a desert island with cultists and a supernatural force who refuses to let her leave. The story focused on her trying to break into the archaeological world with a huge discovery, and that’s the key difference to its successors.

Rise of the Tomb Raider shows us quickly that Lara has changed, she’s become more interested in hunting an organisation known as Trinity, (who she believes is behind the death of her father) than in archaeology. Before in 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara was mesmerised (as much as she was afraid) of the island she was stranded on. But the narrative device of seeking revenge leaves her more in John Wick territory than Howard Carter’s trench. In Siberia, Lara joins the Remnant (descendants of the prophet Jacob) in order to defeat Trinity. Lara is less interested in discovery and the excitement of the archaeology she finds, and more the need to prove that her father was right (about Trinity and the supernatural). Rise of the Tomb Raider gives Lara less agency in her decisions, which only makes her less competent as an archaeologist and explorer.

But her incompetence doesn’t equate to British imperialism, she might make bad decisions, but she’s not a looter or a thief. That however changes in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, everything I had loved about Lara was shattered with her intro in Cozumel, Mexico. As Lara Croft “takes” a knife protected within a pyramid, she becomes part of the gang of white folk traipsing around the world, stealing treasures from other cultures.

Even the antagonist, the leader of Trinity and esteemed archaeology professor, Dr. Dominguéz underestimates Lara’s entitlement  saying “It never occurred to me that you would just take it.” Not only does she freely steal a clearly valuable piece of cultural heritage she also triggers a massive tsunami that kills almost all the inhabitants of Cozumel. The relatable Lara that Crystal Dynamics wanted us to so truly love in 2013’s Tomb Raider had disappeared. The consequences of her actions and her remorse are left out of the rest of the game. The empathetic Lara, who went to immeasurable lengths to save her friends in 2013, unintentionally drowns a whole town and she hardly manages a shrug. But it only gets better, Lara then “discovers” the ancient and still living city of Paititi, where she does simple tasks for the indigenous people, who seem incapable of doing any sort of action before Lara came swooping in. This is obviously a citadel purposely built  for Lara to steal plenty of Indigenous souvenirs along her way.

There aren’t many more ways for it to get worse in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, right? Wrong! The introduction of good old human sacrifice elevates the game to Apocalypto level of racism and inaccuracy. It’s true sacrifice was practiced by many different cultures of pre-columbian South America, but that’s true of almost every culture in the last millennia. Humans were killed because of contemporary ideological beliefs, be it religion, politics and/or conquest. The use of sacrifice in Shadow of the Tomb Raider reflects the savage Indian trope. In order to implement sacrifice into the main storyline, the developers needed to recontextualise parts of the practice separate from white colonialist ideas of good and evil. Later in the game, Lara replaces Unuratu (the leader of Paititi) as the hero of her own people.  Lara doesn’t just steal artefacts in this game, she steals people’s destiny. Unuratu can’t save her people, she needs Lara for that.

After Lara does indeed save the day, she returns to her manor in the British countryside with a butler bringing her a fresh pot of tea. In typical colonial fashion, she returns to her comfortable life and her crimes are left unpunished.

Archaeology of Video games

For many, video games offer a distraction from the harsh cry of reality. They grant us a chance to delve into a world unlike our own. I loved being able to shut off the demands of homework when I got back from school. One of my favorite games was Final Fantasy VII, the steampunk world that Square Soft invented was so far from my own mundane existence it was very easy to switch off and immerse myself into its story. But, my favorite games were the ones which took place in a medieval fantasy world, they had just the right blend of anotherness and familiarity to make me feel content. I loved running around derelict towns, and fantastical ruins that it awoke a part of me that I never thought about before – a love of history and archaeology.

I can name a few video games which use archaeology as it main premise, there is of course Tomb Raider, and her male equivalent Nathan Drake’s Uncharted.  These games mashed with the supernatural make archaeology a world not left to the dead. Although the realities of archaeology are hardly ever shown, it allows for the mystery to draw you in. For archaeology to truly be effective in video games, it’s not the truth or accurate depictions of history that need to be implemented. It’s the aesthetic quality of the archaeology, seeing ruins and the degradation of civilization is just as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.

tresspaser1
An ancient elven temple in the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLC Trespasser  ©  Bioware

One of my favorite visuals in video games comes from the fantasy series Dragon Age, in the DLC Trespasser, your character travels to a number of abandoned and ruined temples to uncover a plot to take over southern Thedas during a period of political uncertainty. The temples and structures are ancient elven, although they could be picked right from the North York Moors or the Scottish Highlands. 

fountains-abbey
Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire a “real” ancient elven temple.

The aesthetics for ancient elven ruins weren’t plucked from the artist’s imagination although there is definitely a degree of creative licensing. These ruins are based mostly off medieval monasteries, most of which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s reformation.  Ruins tend to inspire a distant world long gone, one that sparks our imagination. In 2013’s Tomb Raider Lara voyages to the land of Yamatai, a forgotten feudal kingdom off the south coast of Japan, the island is full of ruins, most which are remarkably still intact. Although running around the island killing cultists had some fun, I was taken back by the beauty of the Kofun-period ruins. Just like the elven ruins of Dragon Age, they aren’t picked from an artist’s imagination.

R45qVEh
The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013, took place in Yamatai, an insland full of ruins  ©  Crystal Dynamics

When I lived in Japan, I visited a place called Nokogiriyama home to a sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex. There are a number of reliefs carved into the side of the mountain which definitely are reminisce of Yamatai’s Queen Himiko’s statues. Game environments like these allow us to explore the past from more than just a player’s perspective. Interaction is a key to gaming, a medium that has allowed us to explore ancient environs. When it’s done successfully, a la Tomb Raider and Dragon Age, it can inspire gamers to seek the real truths, or spark their own creative imaginations.

6433_04.jpg
Nokogiriyama definitely had some real life Yamatai vibes. It is home to one of the biggest buddhas in Asia.

There are the plenty of other examples of the use of archaeological ruins and artefacts, but these two are my favorites. There is something very much ingrained into our psyche about archaeology and the mystery of what our ancestors left behind. When we interact with these environments in game it allows us to think of its functionality, its beauty and its past. In Trespasser when we go further and further into the evanuris to discover the truth of the plot, we discover a past that in fact is very much like our present. A world full of conspiracy, intrigue, betrayal but yet one full of beauty and humanity.