Welcome back for another danger-filled trek through the wilderness. Today, Survivor Reborn delves into the green, predator-infested sauna of the jungle. Grab your pith hat and bug spray, and let’s go!
Jungles – with their vine-covered ruins, lush vegetation, and stalking wildlife – are Tomb Raider’s bread and butter, so it’s no surprise they’ve popped up all across the franchise. Today, we’ll be touring India and the South Pacific as seen in Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998), Cambodia from Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999), Ghana from Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), and Thailand and Southern Mexico from Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008).
We won’t be covering Tomb Raider: Legend’s Bolivia or Peru, or Tomb Raider/Tomb Raider: Anniversary’s Lost Valley, since these are predominantly mountainous or rocky terrain – and that’s a list for another day!
It seems only appropriate to begin our journey with the game whose first level is actually called ‘Jungle’. In Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft, we got to explore no fewer than four levels – Jungle, Temple Ruins, River Ganges, and Caves of Kaliya – set in the lush rainforests of India. The game did not specify exactly whereabouts this site was located, but since it features the River Ganges, it would have to have been in the north or north-eastern part of the country.
River deep, canopy high
These Indian levels were particularly lush and overgrown. They were full of nooks and crannies created by the trunks and huge roots of the trees, and we could both crawl around through dank crevices and climb high into the treetops. These jungles featured tigers, cobras, and monkeys, alongside health-draining piranha in some of the watery areas. The tigers, cobras, and monkeys (which are more likely to be macaques, judging by their colouring and lack of tails), are certainly native to India, but piranha rightly belong in South America on the other side of the world! Nathan McCree and Martin Iveson’s sound design beautifully immersed us in the jungle, with sounds ranging from birds chirping in the canopy, to an Indian sitar and tabla drums providing unmistakable ambiance.
Nathan McCree’s ‘Something Spooky’
The temple ruins were beautifully realised and full of atmosphere. However, the styles of statues, carvings, and other decorations are actually from a variety of cultures, locations, and time periods. For example, the rather busty dancing figures – known as Asparas – are often associated with the Champa and Khmer cultures that extended throughout modern-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The small lion-like statues that are often used as flaming torches throughout the levels are closely modelled on Thap mam-style statues from the 12th century. The elephant bas-relief carvings we saw on many of the walls included representations of Ganesha. However, those with figures on their backs made them more reminiscent of representations of war-elephants, such as those found carved on temple walls in India’s south-western Karnataka state. These levels are a perfect example of how the game designers used inspiration from a variety of real-world sources to create something that was evocative and unique, without actually being true to any one real-world location.
Elephants and dancing nymphs – sounds like a party!
Staying with Tomb Raider III, we’ll spin the globe around to the South Pacific. These four levels – Coastal Village, Crash Site, Madubu Gorge, and Temple of Puna – followed the Tomb Raider III tradition of being large and very challenging. The jungles in these levels were far more hostile and more varied than those of India. We were welcomed by a seemingly benign tropical beach, but after a little exploration the terrain and natives proved to be anything but harmless. The cannibal-haunted hut village soon gave way to a ruined area of forest, complete with a crashed Australian army plane, poison-belching lizard… things, and packs of flesh-eating dinosaurs (alongside those pesky, continent-hopping piranha). As if that wasn’t enough, our Lara had to then hop into a kayak (i.e. floating tea tray with a couple of drinking straws with which to steer), and negotiate her way down the insanely dangerous and difficult Madubu Gorge. She left the jungle behind in order to tackle Puna, the level’s boss, but not a few players ended these levels happy if they never saw so much as a potted palm tree again.
Good tourists always remember their anti-dinosaur cream
Despite what the in-game clues suggest, these levels’ landscapes, flora, and inhabitants strongly suggest that they actually take place somewhere in Papua New Guinea. For example, the land has high hills and steep gorges, which Papua has in abundance. The architecture is strongly influenced by Hawaiian, Maori, and Polynesian designs, while some of the natives’ clothing is reminiscent of real Mekeo dancers’ ceremonial headdresses, from Central Papua New Guinea, but heavily modified e.g. with skull motifs. Although cannibalism is now practically extinct, it was once a widespread practise amongst many tribes of Papua New Guinea. You are also far more likely to run into tree kangaroos and possums than dinosaurs! Once again, these levels show how developers can take inspiration from a variety of sources and blend them together in the interests of artistic expression.
Now is not the time to tango, Lara
While the locations in Tomb Raider III were challenging and lots of fun to explore, their designs were an amalgamation of different cultures and time periods (with a big dollop of original ideas thrown in for good measure). This was not the case for our next jungle location – Angkor Wat, Cambodia, in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.
For young Lara’s training level, Professor Von Croy lead us through the ruins of Angkor Wat – one of the most famous sites in the Khmer Empire in modern-day Cambodia. The Khmer Empire was founded in the 9th century by King Jayavarman II, and lasted until the 15th century. The designers of this short tutorial level were careful to accurately replicate as much of the Khmer architecture as they could. This is evident in the carvings and motifs found throughout the level, such as the Devata and Dvarapala figures in bas-relief.
Wait up, Von Croy, I’m admiring the Dvarapalas!
However, the designers also accurately recreated the encroaching jungle vegetation, complete with the huge buttress roots of trees spreading over and around the ruins, and carpets of vines creeping across the walls and ground.
Butresses and vines are a climber’s best friends
This level never felt quite like the sweltering green wilderness of India, or the hazardous country of South Pacific, but it still managed to capture the sense of isolation and of nature reclaiming what is hers. Although this level, set in 1984, suggested that Angkor Wat is virtually deserted, in modern times it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Cambodia, with over two million visitors a year. The site was also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1990s.
When Tomb Raider: Legend was released in 2006, it witnessed a return to the amalgamation-style of level design we discussed for India and the South Pacific. It’s ‘jungle’ was quite limited; we only got to explore a small lake at the bottom of a waterfall, and there was little in the way of clinging vegetation or natural predators around. The bulk of the level revolved around a temple hidden behind the waterfall. Troels Folmann lent an enthralling musical backdrop to these levels, especially the moment when Lara swan dives off the cliff to begin her exploration.
Troels Folmann’s ‘Ghana 1’
Many of the motifs and figures seen carved into the walls of the temple are, once again, drawn more from the artists’ imaginations than real-world examples. A good example are the stone figures seen guarding many of the doorways and arches; they seem to have borrowed inspiration from Ashanti ‘Akuaba’ dolls, which are more usually made from wood or bone and hung around the neck as good-luck and fertility charms. Such charms are commonly found in many world-cultures, not just African ones. The Ashanti Empire was one of dozens of West African cultures that sprang up in the region of modern-day Ghana. None of them seems to have used motifs such as the stylised scorpion or gazelles seen in the Ghana levels, but this doesn’t diminish the atmosphere or sense of antiquity.
In 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld, we got to play in the coastal jungles of Thailand. These levels are some of the most richly-realised and colourful jungle levels in the entire franchise. From the moment we arrived in Lara’s small yacht, we were bedazzled by palm fronds, creeping vines, er…parrots? (another South American stowaway!), orchids, and gorgeous ruins. Clever use was made with light and shadow to create environments where you could almost feel the sun on your back. Birds, spiders, sharks, bats, and tigers made this lush jungle come to life – though not all of these inhabitants were friendly!
I call dibs for my next holiday
The architecture seems to be fairly standard Buddhist and Hindu in design, and most of it appears to match Classical era styles (10th to 14th century), or the earlier Dvaravati period (7th to 10th century). However, some architectural styles are borrowed from other areas and time periods. An excellent example of this can be found in the gopura, or entranceway, that we see in our first big ‘wow’ moment upon actually entering the main ruins. This closely resembles the ornate gopura as seen in 12th century Khmer architecture, such as that found in Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Another example from Angkor Thom can be found in the rows of carved figures holding a naga, or divine snake. These are more properly known as Asuras – or great demigods (or demons) from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts from India. In some places in the Thailand levels, you can actually see the flared, cobra-like head of the naga they are holding.
Gopura, Asuras, and nagas, oh my!
The last stop on our jungle tour takes us to the Mayan ruins of Tomb Raider: Underworld’s Southern Mexico levels. These levels were unique amongst all of the jungle levels we’ve discussed so far, not least because of their twilight gloom and the fact that we arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm!
The jungle here was as distinctive from the earlier visit to Thailand as night is to day, quite literally. In keeping with the dark story developments, Southern Mexico turned out to be dark, brooding, and full of quiet malevolence. We rode around the Mayan ruins on a motorcycle, making this outdoor area quite easy to explore in a short time, but it still gave us a grand sense of scale. This is perfectly illustrated by the ballcourt-like entrance to Xibalba (before Lara started tinkering, that is). Ballcourts like this were a staple feature of Mayan (indeed, many Mesoamerican) cities, as were the pyramids and angular stone buildings we discovered in the area.
A little rain never hurt anyone…
The ruins guarding the gates to Xibalba display many of the features of Mayan construction. However, they once again owe more to artistic interpretation than real-world fact. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the massive stone statue that rises up when Lara opens the gates to Xibalba. This terrifying figure is eerily similar to a gigantic statue of Coatlicue, a primordial earth-goddess of creation, that was discovered in 1790 AD. However, there are several important points worth mentioning; the game’s statue’s two snake heads face forward, not inwards at each other, and there’s also the fact that Coatlicue was Aztec, not Mayan!
Maya, you’re lookin’ well!
This level once again proves that drawing inspiration from several sources, while it may rub the purists the wrong way, can produce dramatic results that fully immerse the player in a cinematic environment.
What memories do you have of jungle-based levels? We’d love to hear them over in the Survivor Reborn forums!
All screenshots courtesy of J. R. Milward
Huge thanks to Stella’s Tomb Raider Site and her savegame resources for making screen-captures so much quicker and easier!
- Art of Champa culture
- The Khmer Empire
- Thap Mam lion ‘Atlas’ statue
- Architecture of Karnataka state, India
- Papua New Guinea
- Mekeo dancers and traditional costume
- Angkor Wat
- Devata figures at Angkor Wat
- Dvarapala figures and other features of Khmer architecture at Angkor Wat
- The Ashanti culture of Western Africa
- List of cultures in what is now modern-day Ghana
- Gopura entranceway at Angkor Thom
- Asura figures holding a naga at Angkor Thom
- Asuras in mythology
- Maya civilisation
- Coatlicue goddess
- Coatlicue statue
Globetrotter: Welcome to the Jungle by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.