Crystal Dynamics studied medieval heresies while writing Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Video games don’t have the best track record portraying religion. Nervous about controversy, most titles avoid the topic altogether -- even in historical settings when it should play a large role. When games are forced to address the topic, they tend to tiptoe around spirituality, paying it lip service as best, misunderstanding it at worst.
Which is what makes Rise of the Tomb Raider so fascinating. Rather than fleeing from religious subject matter, it makes Byzantine heresies an essential part of the conflict, and injects its invented religions with personal meaning, historical basis, and an evolving structure. In doing so, Rise of the Tomb Raider creates a religious landscape that’s far more credible -- and realistic -- than most video games.
Inventing Religion: More Than Making Gods
Inventing an in-game religion is easy -- the hard part is making it plausible. To do that, game designers need to go beyond making new gods and temples, and instead focus on the personal and societal reasons people subscribe to their beliefs.
According to John Stafford, Narrative Director, and Cameron Suey, Narrative Designer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, the team at Crystal Dynamics was determined to craft a credible foundation for its religious groups. As a result, they decided during the planning stages to create the belief systems first, ensuring that both Lara’s allies in the Remnant faction -- and her fanatical enemies in Trinity -- had depth and dimension.
“This was absolutely one of our core pillars,” said Stafford, in an email interview with Zam. “Taking the time to develop a deep backstory for these groups helped inform every aspect of their development – from character design to architecture, art, and the stories we chose to tell in the ancillary documents.”
Using religion as a foundation for culture was an inspired move. Too often, in-game religions feel like an afterthought rather than a cultural force that’s shaping the world. These invented faiths get too caught up in representing themselves mechanically -- catch 20 fish to gain the favor of Bubbles the Fish God -- than showing the internal benefits that actually attract people to spiritual practice.
Religions, love them or hate them, exist because they fulfill (or try to fulfill) emotional needs. Whether it’s connection with ancestors, mastery of the self, forgiveness, or a worldview that makes order out of chaos, people buy into belief systems for reasons that are largely personal, social, and internal. Rise of the Tomb Raider understands that. Religion itself doesn’t benefit characters mechanically, but it shapes everything from their personal outlooks to how they build temples and bury the dead. The Remnant are noticeably Byzantine in their architecture and religious art, while Trinity, like the religious order of knights it sprang from, has a strict hierarchy of secrets and oaths. It’s not only a more nuanced approach, it tallies better with the player’s real-world experience with how religion shapes culture.
But Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t focus on religion solely as a cultural element -- it has a deeply personal dimension as well. Everyone in the game, from Lara, to the Remnant leader Jacob, to the villain Konstantin, have a spiritual arc in the narrative.
“While every character has a physical goal in the story,” says Stafford, “we deliberately wanted most of the characters to have a philosophical or internal struggle as well.”
That makes sense, since the quest for Kitezh itself has a spiritual dimension. Rise of the Tomb Raider, after all, is literally about people fighting over immortality, and themes about conquering death dominate the game.
But what’s interesting is that the characters’ ultimate motivations rarely line up with the idealized statements they espouse. Jacob’s position as a Moses-like leader-in-exile masks a desire to abandon his people. On the surface, Konstantin wants to secure the gift of immortality so Trinity can cleanse humanity, but his messiah complex speaks of a need for people to acknowledge that he’s exceptional. Lara, the only character who isn’t explicitly religious, might say she wants to help the world, but it’s clear her real goal is to figuratively transcend death -- connecting with her father by finishing his work.
Stafford points out that these buried motives may be more selfish, but they’re still ultimately spiritual. “By the end of the story, as every character is tested, the artifice of their desire is stripped away to reveal their truest wants, some of which are in direct opposition.”
And that divide, that opposition, is key, since it takes into account something often missing in fictional religions -- diversity of thought.
“We wanted to create unique mindsets that were at odds with one another, despite arising from the same root religions,” Stafford explains. “By very clearly choosing a historical point from where our manufactured faiths diverged from history, we gave ourselves bedrock starting points.”
And that starting point was 970 CE, when the Prophet first appeared in Constantinople.
Heretics and Templars: The Real History Behind the Prophet’s Exile
Piece together the murals and documents in Rise of the Tomb Raider and you get a good summary of the Prophet’s history: In 970 CE, a man appeared in Constantinople preaching a radical egalitarian doctrine. Farmers and soldiers, he claimed, knew more of the sacred than lords and emperors, and ordinary men could see the divine reflected in the sky, the water, and the flow of the world. Chased out of Constantinople, the Prophet’s followers built fortifications on the periphery of the Byzantine Empire until a party of knights found their sanctuary and destroyed it. With their leader dead, the remaining followers headed north, settling in Siberia and rebuilding their former life. After that, their community followed the Russian folktale of Kitezh -- a city so righteous God hid it under Lake Svetloyar to save it from the Mongol army.
While the latter half is folktale, the story of the Prophet’s flight into Eastern Europe matches real groups that existed around that period. According to Stafford, that’s very much by design -- the Tomb Raider team intentionally used real events as background to enhance the game’s authenticity.
“We looked at the history of many religious sects in Byzantium that were outcast or actively suppressed,” he says. “The Remnant are an extrapolation of several messianic sects that existed at the edge of the Byzantine Empire.”
One specific group the team researched were the Paulicians, a 9th century heretical movement which bears a striking resemblance to the Prophet and his followers.
Founded in 660 CE by an Armenian named Constantine, the Paulicians ran afoul of Church doctrine by indulging in dualistic Gnosticism -- a belief that there were two gods, a good one who created the spirit, and an evil one who created the physical world. The Paulicians also rejected Church authority, claiming that religious hierarchy had no biblical basis.
This didn’t go down too well with Byzantine authorities, who stoned Constantine to death in 687. After a calmer period, official persecution ramped up again in the 9th century, and in 843 the Empire declared all-out war on the group, massacring up to 100,000 of them in an attempt to exterminate the heresy. As depicted in Rise, the survivors fled east, building cities on the fringe of the Empire. By 844, the group achieved enough power to carve a Paulician state out of the eastern border of Byzantium -- but it would only last 30 years. In the 870s, a Byzantine expedition crushed the Paulician state, killed its leader, and razed its capitol -- breaking them as a military power.
If you’re keeping track, this is broadly the same backstory as the Remnant.
And the resemblance doesn’t end there -- because like the Prophet and his people, the Paulicians also escaped persecution by settling in Eastern Europe.
In 970, Emperor John I Tzimiskes needed to shore up the Empire’s border province in modern-day Bulgaria. Instead of killing the last of the Paulicians, the Emperor forcibly resettled 200,000 of them in the newly conquered province, promising to grant them religious freedom if they defended the area. The Paulicians accepted and merged with the local population, ending a journey that had taken them all the way from the modern-day Turkish/Syrian border to the Balkans.
Though the pieces fit, Stafford stresses that the Paulicians were only one of many inspirations for Rise of the Tomb Raider. Since Trinity was based on Catholic militant orders like the Templars, the team’s research wasn’t confined to Byzantium.
“We also ended up looking at several of the Western European groups that suffered at the hands of the Church,” he says. In fact, the initial inspiration for the Remnant’s battle with Trinity came not from the Paulicians, but the Albigensian Crusade -- a 13th century effort to scour Catharist heretics from southern France.
While the Catharist heresy (which was theologically descended from Paulicianism) wasn’t a seminal influence on the Remnant side, it proved vital for Trinity. The image of fanatical knights pursuing a religious minority became the central drive of the game, and the villain Konstantin comes, in part, from the infamous abbot and crusade leader Arnaud Amaury. In fact, Amaury’s method of separating Catholic peasants from heretics -- “Kill them all, the Lord knows his own” -- appears in Rise, inscribed on a Trinity soldier’s bullet.
Taken separately, these historical inspirations are merely interesting trivia. But all these allusions serve a purpose, giving the game’s invented faiths an air of authenticity. The Tomb Raider team took a historical theme the audience was familiar with -- the medieval struggle of orthodoxy vs. dissent -- and filled it in with historical details that, though obscure, feel plausible because they’re drawn from life. While the average player may not know about the Paulicians or Cathars, they can sense that the game’s made-up religious chronicles have a logical chain of cause and effect.
It’s not real history, but it dances to the same steps.
Excavation and Secrets
If Rise of the Tomb Raider only used historical templates in its backstory, it would still be head-and-shoulders above most games. But the game goes one step further, using fictional primary-source documents and artifacts to reveal the history of the Remnant’s valley, and how the group’s faith adapted over time.
When the Remnants leave Constantinople in 976 CE, they march out of a strict historical setting and into the territory of legends. According to Stafford, the writing team pegged this as the exact moment their invented faiths diverged from the historical record. From there, he says, the team had to account for how these religious groups might change over a millennium.
“For the Remnant, we realized that there were several key areas of their history that were invented and we had to tell explicitly,” he explains. “At first they build a city that is an echo of Constantinople, and while they struggle with isolation and a lack of infrastructure, they soon reach a sort of Renaissance period.” But Kitezh trade goods filtering out of the valley alert Trinity agents to the Remnant’s presence, spurring the knights to attack Kitezh along with the Mongol horde. “After the fall of Kitezh, the decimated population has to shift to survival.”
But rather than telling the player about these shifts, Rise of the Tomb Raider turns the player into a virtual archaeologist, letting them discover these details through finding and studying artifacts. And like a real archaeological excavation, Lara finds layers of habitation stacked on top of one another.
“There’s the initial Kitezhian layer, the Mongol Invasion layer, the Remnant layer, a Soviet layer, and a newly accreting Trinity layer,” says Stafford. “The simulation of archeology is not unintentional -- we always want to celebrate Lara’s knowledge, but also give the player that thrill of discovery.”
What’s particularly special about this system is that it lets the player infer things about a historical period based on physical evidence. For example, artifacts from Kitezh’s Renaissance indicate that the city was home to skilled artisans. Glass decanters and Byzantine-style jewelry indicate a culture reaching back for its roots, while also evolving a uniquely Kitezhian style. After the city’s fall, however, these luxury objects become modified to fit the Remnant’s village lifestyle -- Lara finds metal vases converted into buckets, and a notched coin used for removing nails. The Remnant’s ritual objects follow this same path, progressing from simple twig crosses in Syria, to embossed chalices, and back to crude bone icons.
Collectable documents chart the arc as well, discussing -- in incremental eyewitness journals -- the Remnant’s doctrinal transformation. Over time, the group’s simple faith builds layers of dogma and hierarchy, culminating in a period where they become as unyielding and cruel as the persecutors they fled centuries before.
When Kitezh falls, the ensuing crisis of faith re-centers the Remnant on their core belief -- that the divine speaks through the natural world. “Their religion has had much of the pomp and circumstance scoured away by time and hardship,” says Stafford. “The identity and the cultural imperative remain, but the ceremonial details have largely been abandoned.”
This transformation is the final element that makes the Remnant’s Prophet-worship stand out among in-game religions. In reality, belief systems are changeable things that people alter to suit their personal or societal needs. Great events, or even the march of history, will cause worshippers to reinterpret doctrine to suit their own times. The fact that Rise of the Tomb Raider highlights this process speaks to how deeply the writing team understands how to portray spirituality in a more authentic light -- one that’s personal, historical, and evolving to meet the future.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.