Crystal Dynamics' 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider series begins with its famous lead character, Lara Croft, embarking on her maiden adventure. She's 21 years old, alone amongst strangers, bound for the notorious Dragon's Triangle, treacherous waters off the southern coast of Japan also known as the Devil's Sea. She's searching for Yamatai, an ancient country that was once very real, albeit with its location debated. In the game's lore, it's a place of mystical power, home to supernatural soldiers and the malevolent spirit of an ancient Sun Queen. Lara overcomes terrific challenges, navigating countless life-or-death situations, to prove herself a survivor ready to do it all again, and more, in the just-released Rise of the Tomb Raider.
I've played through as much of the Tomb Raider reboot and its sequel as I can, so far seeing out the main campaigns and completing a large number of challenge tombs (every one in the first game, but I have a few to go in the second). Throughout my time with both games, it's striking just how physically and mentally conditioned anyone in Lara's position would need to be to overcome the incredible odds that stack up against her. It's one thing to hold a pistol discovered by the silent and still body of a recently dead NPC, but quite another to hold that gun, aim it at an onrushing attacker's unprotected head, and squeeze the trigger. To do what Lara does takes more than guts. It takes a determination, a drive to be bigger and stronger and tougher than what you thought you were, something that many of us in this "real" world could never muster.
Australian sailor Jessica Watson was just 16 when she completed a southern hemisphere circumnavigation of the world, alone and unassisted, between October 2009 and May 2010. She didn't have to kill and skin any wolves on her voyage, step carefully through decrepit halls for fear of deadly spike traps, or halt heavily armed enemies in their tracks with a perfectly tossed Molotov cocktail—but when it comes to considering "real" Lara Croft figures, she ticks a lot of boxes that connect video gaming fiction with the facts of an incredible journey. The spirit of adventure that we've seen in Lara over the years is something that Jessica has in spades: that yearning to see what's just the other side of that horizon, to push herself and learn to reach for new limits, and then race right through them.
"I wanted to prove plenty to myself," Jessica tells me from her Queensland home. "I realize now, some years later, that I was trying to prove a lot to myself. I know now that I can be tough if I need to. Also, my journey was about showing the world that this is what young people can achieve. Young people throughout history have gone on incredible adventures and done amazing things. I really hate this blanket rule that's put on young people as being undervalued, when if you take them seriously, they can do incredible things."
Something that both Tomb Raider and Rise… don't really show us much of is Lara's preparation prior to embarking on her latest adventure. That's not a criticism—why would they? There's little exciting about watching a character practice emergency drills, do push-ups, or sit down with a psychologist to instill a solid steeliness, a resilience to and respect of all potential risks, within their psyche. (OK, I suppose in some movies we'd get a montage.) Before Jessica's round-the-world trip, though, she worked incredibly hard. She put in thousands of hours on the water. She earned qualifications and certificates. She saw where she was going in her mind's eye and focused hard on achieving her goal.
"Preparation is such a big part of it all, almost as big as the voyage or adventure itself," she says. "I spent such a long time preparing, which meant I knew inside that I was ready to leave, when the time came. The preparation is what made me brave when I was out there—that, and knowing that I was ready to face whatever would come my way. Sailing around the world sounds like this big, dramatic goal, but when you break it down to realistic parts, it becomes more manageable, and by the time I was ready to leave I'd already been visualizing the trip, for years."
Lara learns a lot about her abilities while on Yamatai, as she does again while seeking out a legendary source of eternal life in Rise of the Tomb Raider, following a quest that begins in the heat and dust of Syria before moving to the surprisingly varied terrain of Siberia. Jessica, too, had to improvise on her journey. She had her share of mishaps—four knockdowns in storm-whipped seas not long after passing the Falkland Islands, causing damage to her boat, Ella's Pink Lady (yes, her boat was pink). In the Great Australian Bight, she experienced more turbulence, leading to further knockdowns. But throughout it all, her preparation and ability to problem-solve on the fly saw her through.
"You've got to worry about everything that might go wrong on your trip, and then you deal with it and you tick it off, that's the only way to handle it," Jessica says. "I'd be terrified to be out in the middle of the ocean and not worry about things going wrong. One of the big things I did before leaving was put together a risk management plan, which was kind of weird for a young girl to be doing, but we were strategically going through each risk and working out what could happen, and what I could do about it, and having back-up plans too. I can't downplay some of the terrifying things that did happen, but in my headspace I knew what to do when they happened. That said, there were a few nights that were a bit dodgy, but you have to expect that.
"It's an incredible feeling to fix something, or achieve something, entirely by yourself. There's something special about fixing a wind generator, or stitching up a sail without anyone there to help you. Whenever something would break on the boat, of course it'd be frustrating and I'd get a bit stressed, but then I'd think about how to fix it. I'd be taking screws out of one part of the boat to fix another, and bobby pins are fantastic—I used them endlessly to fix things on the boat."
We've come to expect Lara Croft to be fairly handy with her hands, with piecing useful tools together from salvaged parts, and she does just this over the course of Rise of the Tomb Raider, discovering components that can be combined to form better weapons, and upgrading the arsenal and accessories she already has at every opportunity—usually a quick sit-down beside an open fire. Naturally, some necessary items can't be assembled from scrap spread around previously abandoned copper mines, so she picks up things like a knife and a shotgun at serendipitously opportune moments in the story—which I'm certainly not about to detail in any more depth here, because spoilers. (But our review of the game is here, if you're interested.)
Footage of Jessica Watson's homecoming in 2010
While Rise of the Tomb Raider and its predecessor are action packed, frothing with dangers and guaranteed to get the player's heart pumping (and brains itching, when it comes to the many challenge tombs available, completion of which unlocks new abilities for Lara), they're also very beautiful games. Early on in Rise…, we witness Lara just about crawl away from the wreckage of a jeep, on a Syrian cliff. It explodes, blood reds and fiery oranges filling the screen, and Lara struggles to stand, briefly stumbling, onto a rock, overlooking a vista… Which is just an unbelievable view, gunfire sparking over the rooftops of a city in the distance, the horizon beyond more widescreen than any trip to the movies. And it's far from the first and last jaw-dropping sight to be seen in the game.
Jessica saw her share of wondrous things, too—whales coming close to Ella's Pink Lady, for one thing. But she, like Lara, who spends so much time in her adventures alone, had nobody to immediately share the sights with. Not that being on her lonesome was necessarily a bad thing. "I'm not quite sure what it is about being by yourself, maybe something to do with not immediately turning away to a friend and sharing it, but you just soak it in and enjoy it. There was a lot of beautiful things out there—but a lot of boring times, too, where there was nothing but grey, empty ocean to look at. I really came to appreciate the beauty in the waves, real simple things."
When the time came for Jessica to wave goodbye to her boat, to her adventure, and focus on new challenges, she was celebrated internationally for her achievement and named Young Australian of the Year in 2011. She wrote a book, True Spirit, about her months at sea—it's currently in development as a movie. When Lara leaves Siberia come the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider, well, I can't really go into specifics, can I? But I can tell you that she's again evolved, strengthened herself, become more than she ever thought possible—which is useful, as a third game in the rebooted series is confirmed. Lara continues to defy stereotypes for female gaming characters—she's never truly helpless, and in Rise… regularly proves herself entirely capable at devastating enemy forces and surviving the trickiest traps. She goes against the grain, grittily, sometimes with a grimace, but always with heartfelt purpose. And Jessica did the same.
"I sailed in this cute pink boat, but I was as tough as anyone to sail around the world. Nobody should be defined by age or gender—the range of little girls you meet are so different, and that's nothing to do with their gender, which doesn't define them more than anything else. It's all about their personalities, and what they're learning, and that goes for age, too—it's all about experience, and if you have that, nothing should hold you back.
"There's nothing quite like getting out there, and the sense of achievement you can get. I'm not just saying, go on dramatic journeys, exclusively. Just pack a lunch and cross that river, go for a walk and do something that feels like a little adventure. Seek out the small things while following your own spirit of adventure. My voyage around the world was all very carefully planned and managed, but at its core it was just about going out there to see what would happen next, and that's why you do it. You never set out knowing exactly what to expect. I admire that spirit of adventure, in anyone, and feel we need to cherish it."
Rise of the Tomb Raider is out now, exclusive to Xbox consoles until 2016. We reviewed it.
Follow Jessica Watson's future adventures on her Twitter.
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