May 28, 2010

Following in Lara's Footsteps: An Egyptian Travelogue

Mary Goodden, who writes Well-Rendered, one of my favorite video gaming blogs, spent three weeks this spring traveling in Egypt. She visited a number of Lara's old haunts and returned with stories and photos to share.

Mary Goodden
Mary Goodden
Does anyone even remember 1999? As in: "I'm gonna party like it's..."?

Well I do. And to me, partying in 1999 consisted of closing the curtains, firing up the PlayStation, preparing a bowl of Cheerios and racing Werner VonCroy across Egypt to prevent the apocalypse. If you're reading this, there's a good chance you were doing the same thing.

Werner Von Croy - Lara Croft's Mentor

Eleven years after the release of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, I decided to visit Egypt for the first time. Was The Last Revelation a deciding factor in my choice of holiday destination? Not really. The Egyptian monuments do not need to be viewed through a pop-cultural prism in order to reinforce their majesty. But it is testament to the enduring power of The Last Revelation that I couldn't help but have Lara wandering around in the back of my mind as I explored the Temple of Karnak.

Video game levels are haunting places, apt to stay with you far longer than film sets because unlike film sets, they are not merely the backdrop to the action. Instead, video game environments are the action. This is especially true of the Tomb Raider games because not only is Lara always alone, but her physical interactions with her environment are unmatched by almost any other game.

Consequently, besides the awe I am sure every tourist/explorer/ archaeologist has felt upon first seeing Egypt's monuments, I also felt a quiet appreciation for those level designers who no doubt walked around these same sites with a camera and a notepad, thinking "what if...?"

Lara Croft in Tomb Raider 4
The Temple of Karnak.

Of course the environments in the game are different from the real life monuments. That goes without saying. Amongst other things, the game lacks tourists, ticket touts and souvenir salesmen. But then gamers do not want video games to mimic reality. We play video games in order to become somebody else and immerse ourselves in another world. If we wanted to interact with a world that was just like our own, we could just, you know, go outside.

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation gives players (along with one of the best gaming experiences of the 1990s) a vast, deep and unique interpretation of a country, its landscape and its mythology. It's an experience that no book or film could ever hope to replicate, and it deserves our attention. Again.

* * *

Initially, this article was going to be light on pictures and heavy on analysis. But then I discovered that there really aren't many direct comparisons between Tomb Raider environments and the locations that inspired them, so perhaps it would be interesting to put screenshots of the game environments next to photographs of the real-life monuments.

Before I start, I must apologise in advance for the gaps in this travelogue. I did not manage to go to Cambodia, or visit Alexandria. If anyone would like to fill in these gaps, that would make top-notch reading.

I've tried to arrange the screenshots in the same order that they appear in the game, but due to the back-and-forth structure of The Last Revelation, you might have seen these environments in a different order. Anyway, without further ado, here is an Egyptian travelogue, Tomb Raider style....



Click thumbnail photos for full-size images.

Lara Croft in Tomb Raider 4

In case you've forgotten, The Last Revelation concerns Lara Croft's attempts to avert the apocalypse when a routine tomb raiding expedition goes awry. After removing the ankh-shaped Amulet of Horus from a grizzly sarcophagus, she discovers that in doing so she has unleashed Seth (bringer of plagues etc). Oops!

The Tomb of Seth in Tomb Raider 4

In "real life", Seth was a God rather than a Pharaoh, so he doesn't actually have a tomb at the Valley of the Kings. Given the disastrous consequences of Lara's expedition, this is probably a good thing. He is, however remembered in many temples throughout the Nile Valley, most notably at Naquada.

His animosity towards Horus—pivotal to the plot of The Last Revelation—is largely down to his admiration for Horus' mother Isis. Due to his infatuation, he killed Isis' husband Osiris, dismembered him and distributed the pieces throughout the Nile Valley. Isis managed to find all the bits and resurrect her beloved Osiris just long enough to conceive a son, Horus.

This episode is remembered all over Egypt, but especially in Philae temple, where Isis is found the final piece of Osiris' body.

Philae temple
Philae Temple at its new site.

The Temple of Philae was initially built several miles south of its current site. However, the construction of the Aswan Dam meant that the Temple was soon submerged beneath Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world. It was moved, brick by painstakingly numbered brick, to an artificial island on the other side of the dam. That said, Lara wouldn't have much trouble exploring underwater ruins.

About 200km north of Philae temple is the Valley of the Kings, where Lara emerges after removing the amulet.

Sadly, the fragile paintings inside the tombs at the Valley of the Kings are light-sensitive. This means that tourists are not allowed to take a camera inside the complex. If you're interested (of course you're interested!) there are lots of pictures of the various tombs on the internet. I was able to take pictures of the limestone hills from which the tombs are carved. These spectacular natural monoliths form the surrounding landscape, and are beautifully recreated in the "KV5" level in The Last Revelation.

Valley of the KingsTomb Raider 4 - KV5 screenshot
The real Valley of the Kings and the KV5 level in Tomb Raider 4.

A lot of the outdoor levels in The Last Revelation have dark, moody lighting and ominously cloudy skies. This works well for two reasons. Firstly, the apocalypse is a serious business, and too much sunshine might encourage the player to kick back and crack open a beer rather than concentrate on the job at hand. Secondly, the alternative would be to set all the levels in the same bright sunshine which shines daily in Egypt. Nice though this is in real life, it would become monotonous in a game, so the developers wisely used their artistic licence and cast those inscrutable clouds over The Valley of the Kings.

Aside from the weather, The Last Revelation's Valley of the Kings looks much like it does in real life. Just down the road is Hatshepsut's mortuary temple complex, Deir el-Bahri, situated in a natural limestone auditorium similar to the Valley of the Kings. I couldn't speculate as to whether this temple directly influenced the Valley of the Kings and the KV5 areas of The Last Revelation, but its proximity makes this likely.

Deir el-BahriTomb Raider 4 screenshot
Statues at Deir el-Bahri and another KV5 screenshot from the Last Revelation.

The Valley of the Kings is the burial site for many of the New Kingdom Pharaohs, including Tutankhamun. Hatshepsut was a woman, and one of the most successful Pharaohs ever to rule Egypt. Had Lara not accidentally hastened Doomsday, she might have found the time to pop in.

Hatshepsut's Temple - Deir al-Bahri
Deir el-Bahri is a complex of mortuary temples and tombs located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the city of Luxor.

In 1997 Deir el-Bahri was the site of a terrorist massacre in which 58 tourists were killed. This (alongside several subsequent attacks over the last decade) is one of the reasons a modern tourist's Egyptian experience is so different from Lara's. The importance of tourism to the Egyptian economy means that tourists must now be protected at all costs, meaning that heavily armed tourist police now patrol every major (and minor) site. It's also necessary to run your bag through a metal detector every time you enter a major building, though tourists generally are usually waved through regardless. That said, perhaps the fact that Lara's bag contains a shotgun, a crossbow, a grenade launcher, a revolver, a pair of uzis, a pair of pistols and a large volume of explosives might have slowed her down a little at this point.

After Lara's frantic Jeep ride through the Valley of the Kings, she leaps onto a rusty Nile ferry and continues to the home of her friend Jean-Yves. Interestingly, Jean-Yves is based on the real-life Egyptologist Jean-Yves Empereur, who is almost exactly like the Tomb Raider character. However, real-life Jean-Yves wasn't happy about popping up in The Last Revelation, so I won't put a picture of him in here. He was later replaced by the similar (albeit British) character Charles Kane in Chronicles.

Given that The Valley of the Kings is but a few miles from Karnak, and Jean-Yves' house appears to be between the two, it is likely that he lives in the nearby city of Luxor. Today, Luxor is mainly used as a base for anyone visiting the wealth of surrounding monuments, and consequently it is filled with places to eat and shop. Sadly, Lara doesn't have time to pick up a T-shirt.

Luxor
The city of Luxor, Egypt.

Anyway, Jean-Yves tells Lara that she needs to travel to Karnak to visit the Tomb of Semerkhet in order to find out how to re-entomb Seth. Before that, however, she has to make her way through the Temple of Karnak itself.

The Karnak complex in real life is truly awe-inspiring. I completely understand why those guys at Core had gone to such pains to recreate it. Of all the environments in The Last Revelation, the Karnak levels are the ones which most resemble their original counterparts.

Temple of KarnakTomb Raider 4 screenshot
Karnak in real life and Last Revelation style.

The Temple complex is vast, and tourists are able to explore it freely. Through every archway is another relief, every relief leads to another statue. It doesn't take much to imagine vaulting onto a ledge and through a crawlspace in order to find a Canopic jar. The crumbling stones have lost none of their majesty. It's really hard to do anything other than gush.

Temple of KarnakTomb Raider 4 screenshot
A little blue lightning helps distinguish the obelisks in the game from the real thing.

The Great Hypostyle Hall is astonishing. Interestingly, Egyptologists still don't really know how the vast pillars were a) made and b) erected. A popular theory is that the granite pillars were cut straight out of the rock using wood wedges that were soaked in water to expand them, thus easing the pillars out of the ground. Once carved, many scholars believe that they were transported to the site on their sides and then manoeuvred upright using piles of sand. The people at the bottom give you a good idea of the scale.

The Great Hypostyle HallTomb Raider 4 screenshot
The Great Hypostyle Hall today and as it appears in The Last Revelation.

Originally, every surface of the temple was painted in opulent colours. We know this because the few surfaces of the temple which are not exposed to the elements still retain a little colour. In The Last Revelation, the entire Hypostle Hall appears to have retained its paint job.

Columns in the Great Hypostyle HallTomb Raider 4 screenshot

The Sacred Lake at Karnak is also shrouded in mystery. Astonishingly, no-one is really sure how deep it is due to the unevenness of the bottom and the opacity of the water.

The Sacred Lake at KarnakTomb Raider 4 screenshot

In The Last Revelation, Lara had to fight crocodiles in crystalline water. Again, I reckon this was a good call on the part of the developers, since there has never been a good game about recovering from a water-borne illness.

Needless to say, The Last Revelation does not recreate Karnak. It takes its colours, its shapes and its history and imagines a place untouched by commerce and tourism. Before we get too wistful, it's best to remember that Lara's Karnak is also beset by scorpions and assassins, so contemporary Egypt is not all that bad.

Assassin

After this, Lara undergoes a rather gruelling session in the Tomb of Semerkhet, which I didn't visit (it's down the road in Abydos, if you're interested). Emerging into the light, she accosts her former guide, disguises herself in his robes, and boards the desert train to Alexandria.

Train

Now, I didn't make it to Alexandria, but I did get a desert train from Luxor (the city near Karnak and Abydos). Was it like the train in The Last Revelation? Well, no. But there is a good reason for this. You see, security precautions in Egypt since the recent attacks dictate that tourists are only allowed to board the "deluxe" sleeper trains north from Luxor. Consequently, it is entirely possible that Lara (in her very convincing disguise) may have boarded the kind of freight train which tourists are forbidden to ride.

Sadly, I don't have a picture of the sleeper carriage in which I rode. But I do have the picture of the breakfast I received.

Assassin

I tell you, there is no more nutritious start to the day than six cakes.

Following her ninja-dispatching antics aboard the desert railroad, Lara winds up in Alexandria to ask Jean-Yves for more advice and to explore the coastal ruins. Sadly, I didn't follow her there. That said, it seems a shame to neglect the Alexandria levels altogether, so I will mention Egypt's coastline, which I was able to visit.

Although many of Egypt's visitors come for the monuments, a good proportion return for the diving. The north (Mediterranean) coast, the east (Red Sea) coast and the Sinai peninsula are rich with both sea life and sunken treasures. Remains of the Pharos lighthouse were found underwater in 1994 (just in time for Lara), and the wreck of the SS Thistlegorm was found by Jacques Cousteau in the early '50s. The water is as astonishingly clear and blue as it is in the game.

Present-day EgyptThe Coastal Ruins level in Tomb Raider 4
Egypt's Red Sea coast and the Coastal Ruins level in Tomb Raider 4.

Following the saturation of light and colour of the Alexandria levels, The Last Revelation takes an altogether gloomier turn as Lara arrives in Cairo in order to save Jean-Yves from Werner. This section of the game takes place in the old Islamic quarter of Cairo, partly in the Citadel of Salah Al-Din. Being a site of historical interest (and tourist revenue), the Citadel is managed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities who are responsible for all the archaeological sites and artifacts within Egypt.

Archway in the Citadel of Salah Al-DinTomb Raider Citadel screenshot
Cairo's Citadel of Salah Al-Din.

When she arrives in Cairo, the police aren't too friendly. Although their reaction is a little extreme, Lara probably isn't helping matters by being quite so scantily-clad. Although bare arms, shoulders and legs are tolerated in the larger tourist sites such as Giza, women can expect attention around the city if they don't make an effort to cover up. In the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, women who aren't sufficiently covered are given an attractive green cape to wear.

Entering the Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Entering the Mosque of Muhammad Ali.

The darkness of the Cairo levels can partly (and, well, logically) be attributed to the fact that they are set at night. However, pollution might also have something to do with it. Cairo is one of the most densely populated cites in the world, and has one the smallest ratios of green spaces to people. Although Cairo is most certainly not gloomy—it's busy, diverse and exciting—it is a little grubby. Sand blown in from the desert doesn't help. Islamic Cairo's stately minarets rise majestically over the vast cloud of car fumes and dust which enshroud the city.

Caro's skylineTomb Raider 4 screenshot
Cairo's skyline includes modern buildings and towering minarets.

The famous Khan El Khalili street bazaar is reimagined in The Last Revelation as an altogether murkier destination.

Bazaar in CairTomb Raider 4 screenshot
A bustling street bazaar in Cairo... and the far more sinister game setting.

If Lara had managed to make her way to the bazaar without awakening Seth, her biggest irritation would have been enthusiastic salesmen trying to sell her trinkets. As it is, her actions lead to the presence of a beast in the streets of the city. Perhaps this is the reason for the bazaar's dilapidation.

Tomb Raider Last Revelation cut scene
The Beast guarding the Citadel Gate.

Once she's rescued Jean-Yves, there's only one thing left for Lara to do, and that is to head to Giza where she can invoke Horus and re-imprison Seth. Giza, as everyone knows, is the site of the pyramids, the most recognisable monuments in the world.

The Sphinx complex at Giza
The Sphinx complex at Giza.

Of course, artistic licence has been taken in swathes to ensure that Lara's primary opposition to preventing armageddon are not lost tourists searching for the refreshment stand. Consequently, The Last Revelation's Giza is dark and menacing rather than hot and bright.

Pyramids at GizaPyramids in Tomb Raider 4

You can't even really attribute The Last Revelation's darkness with it being nighttime at this point. This is because the famous Pyramids Light Show takes place at night, a profoundly tasteful affair which I am sure Lara would have found enlightening. Perhaps the plagues and the beasts put a stop to that night's festivities?

Pyramids Light Show
Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids of Giza.

Further liberties have been taken by Core with the location of the Temple of Horus. Although it makes perfect narrative sense to situate it in Giza amongst the imposing grandeur of the pyramids at the end of Lara's quest, in reality the Temple of Horus is at Edfu, a little south of the Valley of the Kings. It is a vast temple, many times bigger than Philae. The faces of the Gods and Goddesses on the reliefs which cover every surface inside the temple were chipped away long ago by Coptic Christians who saw them as heretical. Horus still looks on today.

Statue of the God HorusHorus in The Last Revelation
A statue of Horus and the falcon-headed god's armor reanimated in The Last Revelation.

In order to find Horus' temple, Lara must make her way inside the Great Pyramid, belonging to Khufu (or Cheops, as he is often known). Today, only 300 people are allowed inside the pyramid every day. Although possible erosion of the pyramids is a concern, this is mainly a precaution taken to prevent people fainting due to the humidity which forms in the pyramid. Besides, the access tunnel is so tiny that it is extremely difficult to pass anyone coming the other way. I was lucky enough to arrive in time for a ticket. Sadly, I have run out of superlatives, so I can't really express my awe.

The Grand Gallery inside Khufu's PyramidTomb Raider 4 screenshot
The grand gallery inside the Great Pyramid at Giza also appears in The Last Revelation.

I won't spoil the ending of this magnificent game for those of you who haven't played it, but I will say that after all she'd been through, it might have been nice for Lara to catch a taxi back to Cairo at the end, check into the Rameses Hilton and pour herself a nice cool glass of Egypt's most famous beer.

And what is this beer called, you ask? Well, "Stella", of course!

Stella, the Queen of Beers
Stella, the Queen of Beers.

Mary Goodden is on a quest to re-shape the landscape of video game journalism. You can find her thoughtful, entertaining and slightly irreverent commentary on games, literature and life at Well-Rendered.

Special thanks to Katie Fleming for the use of her Last Revelation screenshots. You can find more gorgeous game screens on Katie's Tomb Raider Site.

27 comments:

  1. Fascinating read! What a wonderful post, thank you Mary - and Stella for hosting it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great blog! Loved all of the pictures.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I can't believe TR4 was released 11 years ago! It feels as if it was yesterday! Awesome read!

    ReplyDelete
  4. What an emotional journey. Top stuff

    ReplyDelete
  5. tomb raider 4 will always be my favirote game.
    the jeep rocks wooooooo.
    they should bring that jeep back because it didn't blow up and thats the only car lara has riden yet.
    Anyway thanks stella, i love learning about eyption history, what remarkable stuff they made
    and thanks for the great screenshots katie!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Fan"tastic! I'm going to dig out my copy of LR and play it again (for the nth time!)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Indeed. I'm so grateful to Mary for doing this for us. If you all haven't already visited her blog, well-rendered.blogspot.com, I highly recommend it. She's got some great stuff about Tomb Raider and games in general.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great read. Informative, often amusing and thoroughly nostalgic. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is so so so FANTASTIC,wow I want to see all this in Egypt......Thank you Mary,thank you Stella:)

    ReplyDelete
  10. What an amazinf adventure! I love Tomb Raider 4 because, at the time it seemed like the most expansive and in-depth Tomb Raider game. There was an article several months ago about someone going ot Egypt (maybe?) and they compared what they saw to the Tomb Raider games. But that one wasn't as cool as this! Thanks for the awesome article Mary and for putting this on Stella (Queen of Beers). Also for anyone intersested. Yahoo! hosted an article this week sporting information on a recent dive off the coasts of Alexandria (only a few pictures ;( ). But I'd encourage everyone to read it because they were talking about all the different finds they found and statues underwater and all that cool stuff! The exhibit will be in Philidelphia, PA starting on June 5th so my parents and I have made plans to go see it! THANKS!!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. What a fun article! Brings back some fun memories of playing Revelation. I'm impressed with the designers' (and your) attention to detail. Fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thankyou for this very interesting article. Its a bit of a coincidence because I'm playing (once again) TR Last Revelation - just reached The Lost Library. I don't know what I'd do without your excellent walkthroughs, Stella. By the way, I'm an older player (41 years young!) and can see myself playing these wonderful games for years to come (with help from your walkthroughs). Thankyou.

    ReplyDelete
  13. awesome blog! wow! awesome! hey Stella! you got your own beer! ^_^

    ReplyDelete
  14. I know. How cool to have a tasty beverage named after me. Too bad I don't drink alcohol anymore or I'd order in a case. ;)

    Hunter, thanks so much for that info. Philly's a little far for me, but maybe the exhibit will come to NY one of these days. Meanwhile, I googled for more info and found this: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127113983 in case anyone's interested.

    Cup, I still owe you a prize from week 2 (http://stellalune.blogspot.com/2010/05/tomb-raider-book-bonanza-week-2-winners.html) so if you're interested, drop me an email to work out the details.

    ReplyDelete
  15. hey awesome! I'm going to do some freelance photography in egypt. I loved the pictures, especially the one about the queen of beers. :)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hello everyone,

    It's wonderful to see so many comments, especially for someone who hasn't been doing this for very long.

    Tomb Raider (all of the games, but especially The Last Revelation) means a lot to me, and it's so wonderful to be living in the internet age where people all over the planet can share their appreciation for something that many people don't necessarily understand.

    Thank you so much to Stella for taking the trouble to put it up, and thank you all for your lovely comments.

    Raid on,

    Mary

    ReplyDelete
  17. Oh, and thank you to Katie for her screenshots! I certainly couldn't have done it without her.

    Mary

    ReplyDelete
  18. Wow! Am way impressed, and such a clever idea too. Haven't yet completed my Last Revelation game - but far enough in the game to relate to the photos ...
    Wonderfully done and thanks!
    Rene, South Africa

    ReplyDelete
  19. All I can say is "Yeah, what they said times a hundred...." THANKS SO MUCH! Your effort and talent shine through the whole piece. As my young niece said to me once, "more, please". Yes, yes. Game on!

    ReplyDelete
  20. haven't read the post yet, but wanted to tel you that i just started playing this game again a few days ago and i'm using your walkthrough. i think i even sent you a bug note about TR1 some years ago.
    I live in Cairo btw and playing this game makes me wish such an adventure would've been possible here. too bad it only exists in games :D

    ReplyDelete
  21. What a great game it was..... makes me wish they still had core, cause crystal dynamics obviously not the right company for the job.... did underworld even have a boss? NO! the in game scenes did all the work....... and wheres the tombs? the tombs are only at the end.... Mexico really doesn't count.... hopefully now that the mother situation has been resolved she go back to exploring tombs "for the heck of it" thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm with you, Anonymous. I liked the Anniversary-Legend-Underworld story, but I much prefer the old-style exploration, discovery and combat. Bring it on in TR9!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Me too. I also quite miss the Core structure of only 4/5 environments with about 3 levels in each, really giving the player time to get a sense of place.

    Much as I enjoyed the Crystal Dynamics games, I would have liked more depth in fewer environments. I really enjoyed the Thailand level in Underworld and could have done with a bit more. As it is, I felt that the shorter sections got a bit lost. Same with Legend.

    That said, it must have been a really hard decision for Eidos to make, but I suppose the bugs and slightly dodgy design decisions (conversation trees? levelling up in arm strenght? really?) in Angel of Darkness (combined with a severe dip in sales) meant that they had to take the reins away from Core.

    I'm really quite sad that we never got to see what happened in the rest of the Angel of Darkness Trilogy. The concept art and backstory hinted at in the first game were so tantalising.

    I also liked the idea of a foil (Kurtis) for Lara, who was definitely getting to the stage where her character was starting to benefit from having a relationship (not necessarily romantic) with someone.

    That said, I did really like Amanda, especially at the end of Underworld. If you haven't seen this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MO2sZ6wnDfM) it's worth a look. Gives the whole proceedings a much darker edge.

    ReplyDelete
  24. These are all the very famous and eminent places and all destinations are very popular and attractive as well.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Great post! Love to read about two of my greatest interests, Tomb Raider and Egypt.
    Just wanted to let you know that it isn't Hatshepsut's mortuary temple complex which inspired the screenshot you putted next to the photo; that part of Tomb Raider is definitely inspired by the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, if you compare the giant colosses.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Magnificent article, what a genuine pleasure to read, nice one Mary :) Love your writing style, it's a nice extra layer underneath the fascinating subject matter. I'm fortunate enough to have visited Luxor so can gleefully concur that it is impossible to wander around Karnak without getting flashes of Lara backflipping and clambering around in there. I left a little of my heart in Vilcabamba in Ecuador (different Vilcabamba but hey) and I left another piece in Karnak, and the Hypostyle Hall in particular. Reading your words brought it all back. Thank you :) nice to see there's a whole website's worth of your work to er work through too, best get crackin'. Cheers again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for the positive feedback. I'll be sure and pass it along to Mary, who wrote the article and did the actual traveling. I'm more of an armchair traveler myself. ;)

      Delete

Tomb Raider Archives - Collecting all the classic Top Cow Comics
Tomb Raider Archives 4-volume set collects 50 issues of the best-selling Top Cow comic. Order from TFAW, Amazon, or Amazon UK.