Defending Sam Nishimura

Young documentary-maker Samantha Nishimura is for Tomb Raider fans a love-her-or-hate-her character. Appearing in the 2013 video game reboot, Sam is fledgling archaeologist Lara Croft’s long-term best friend, flatmate – and One True Pairing, if the shippers were to get their way.

In the game, Sam’s naiveté leads to her kidnapping by Solarii cult leader Mathias. Technically twice. The second time occurs when the twenty-two year old is just as trusting of expedition colleague, Dr James Whitman, and falls asleep under his “watchful eye.” (To be fair, Lara makes the exact same mistake the first time she meets Mathias).

During the game, Sam is successfully rescued twice by Lara (there’s a third botched attempt that almost kills them both). Sam also notably manages to shoot off a mounted machine gun in the direction of her friends while trying to prove her usefulness. And she tries to get sympathy from a battered, bleeding Lara by commenting how terrible she, herself, must look… unless she’s being tongue in cheek in an attempt to make her friend laugh, but that doesn’t come through clearly.

Focusing on these examples, Sam appears to be weak, superficial, stupid and ditzy. Unsurprisingly then, there a fair number of people online who want “irritating” Sam eliminated from the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise. That may still happen (more on that possibility later), but I do think Sam is receiving a bum rap from many TR fans. This post is intended to defend Lara Croft’s best friend, and explore her significance in the new universe.

Returning to the game, Sam may be tied up and held prisoner frequently; she may not be an accomplished combatant like her college (or boarding school) buddy. However, on closer inspection Sam isn’t the useless damsel in distress that she appears to be at first glance.

For one thing, Sam manages to steal a two-way radio from one of her captors, and, completely weaponless, navigate her way out of the flaming, heavily guarded Solarii fortress.

For another thing, Sam clearly has multiple character skills and strengths; they just don’t seem centred on physical prowess. Sam is professionally accomplished and driven. And there seems to be very little she won’t do for Lara. In the lead-up comic, Tomb Raider: The Beginning, it is Sam who makes the Yamatai expedition possible by turning to her wealthy uncle to help a disappointed Lara when all other funding options fall through.

In the game, meanwhile, there’s her unwavering support of her best friend. Sam is the only one to physically comfort Lara at the funeral of her surrogate father. She argues with Reyes, insisting that the survivors will not leave the island without Lara. She trusts Lara no matter what.

Meanwhile, Sam’s supportive role extends even further. Consider this extract from Sam’s journal, found by Lara during the game:
Lara doesn't know it, but I've been shooting footage of her too. I really want to make sure she gets the credit she deserves. And besides, she looks great on film. I think she's a natural. That's probably going to drive Whitman out of his mind with jealousy.
Recognising her best friend’s modesty and shyness, Sam is intent on making sure Lara receives the recognition she deserves. She is the only character to consider this.

The support is mutual, for the record. Another of Sam’s journal entries starts:
I suppose on some level I have Lara to thank for this job. She's always believed in me. The academics at college dismissed filmmaking as nonsense. They just saw me as this ditsy American troublemaker with a camera.

Whether or not you support the notion of a romantic pairing between Lara and Sam – or, more probably, one-sided affection from Lara – there certainly is enough evidence that the two women offer an excellent example of what lead Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett describes as distinctly “female friendship.”
It’s quite sort of playful and fun and girlish. And that underlines Sam’s importance in Lara’s life. They both have their differences, but they’re both ambitious women in their field. And they care a lot for each other. Maybe with a female character it’s easier to show those kind of emotions.
In this sense, Sam is valuable in that her presence is diversifying the depiction of love in video games beyond the typical “straight boy-girl thing” Pratchett mentions in the same interview. Here are two character-strong young women who care deeply for each other, whether their love is romantic in nature or not. And that is important in the grand Game Industry scheme.

Actually, the more you look at Sam, the more competent she actually appears. The game's comic tie-in (scripted by Pratchett), and new monthly Tomb Raider book (written by Gail Simone) actually do a lot to rescue Sam’s reputation.

It turns out the “irritating ditz” from the game is extremely passionate about her job, which she treats with dead seriousness. And her resume includes film shoots in extreme locations like Antarctica, the Congo, Red Desert and even volcanic regions to document fissure gas leaks. She may dress like a fashion model; she may not be strong or skilled enough to physically fight off her captors, but she’s evidently capable of keeping up with tireless explorer Lara Croft. There’s discussion in-game of the friends’ “awesome adventures,” backpacking in Eastern Europe and hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. In the comic's first issue, Sam’s room sports a picture of a rock climber, suggesting it’s a hobby she shares with Lara.

Whether you like her or not, Sam is significant in the new Tomb Raider universe. Right now she is the series only source of fun and playfulness. She offers some light-hearted relief in the midst of so much dark supernatural danger, death and despair.

She may be shy and sweet, endearing in terms of her bookishness, and admirable when she fights back and decisively disproves her doubters, but Reboot Lara isn’t a bag of laughs. She’s exceptionally serious – struggling with feelings of personal responsibility for events on Yamatai as well as her guilt over causing so many deaths. Then there’s her own personal tragedy – the disappearance of her parents in childhood and the loss of Roth, the last link to her family. Even Lara’s search for answers is less about burning curiosity and more about redemption, given her years of resenting and doubting her archaeologist father for his obsession with the mystical.

In short: Reboot Lara isn’t fun. She doesn’t seem to enjoy life or even really what she does any more (“I hate tombs!”). This is decidedly unlike the Classic, thrill-seeking version of the character (“I only play for sport”), or party girl Sam. Take Sam away from the franchise and Tomb Raider would be all gloom, doom and grim, brooding heroine.

This said, should Reboot Lara at some point discover a joie de vivre like her former iteration – “An adventurer is born” as opposed to “A survivor is born” – it wouldn’t be unprecedented. If Sam’s comments in this video are to be believed, Lara wasn’t always so serious… even if it’s evident Sam has always been key to Lara accessing that part of herself.
Most people can use a little trouble in their lives. And deep down, I know Lara wanted to just cut loose sometimes. She just needed a little help unlocking her inner party girl.

We had so many awesome adventures together. That insane backpacking trip through Bulgaria, I was always dragging her out to clubs. And the hiking trip on the south face of Kilimanjaro; all Lara wanted to do was explore ruins, but who knew we'd run into so many cute guys? Certainly not Lara, haha!
It may be somewhat controversial to say this, but right now Sam is the more interesting and fleshed out of the two young women. Reboot Lara is a tad one-note by comparison. 

Anyway, it will be interesting to see where games studio Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square Enix want to take Reboot Lara. I suspect Sam will be instrumental to those plans – particularly if the franchise’s custodians want to create some sort of bridge between new, young, vulnerable Lara and her older, snarky, emotionally aloof self.

Out of interest, the original ending of the 2013 game required Lara to kill Sam if she and the other Endurance crew members were to get home. It’s an action that adds significance to Roth’s otherwise cryptic comment, “Sacrifice is a choice you make. Loss is a choice made for you.”

The decision-makers at Crystal Dynamics concluded that Sam’s death robbed the player of a sense of accomplishment, and ended the game on a depressing note. But this doesn’t mean Sam’s death couldn’t still happen in the near future.

If the franchise owners wanted to “break” Lara, and send her off the emotional edge so that she’s a lone wolf adventurer – completely isolated in the world and disinterested in meaningful relationships forever – killing Sam is the way to go, given what she represents to Lara:

1) Sam embodies Lara’s old life

Personality differences aside, Sam remains what Lara was pre-Yamatai: A fairly ordinary, somewhat naïve graduate with a desire to make a mark in her field, have fun and find adventure. Kill Sam, and Lara has nothing left that represents her old optimistic life before she was forced to do dark, brutal things to survive.

2) Sam is “the person Lara loves most in the world”
As this shipper-bait panel from Tomb Raider #3 makes crystal clear, Sam is the only real friend (or possibly more-than-friend) that Lara has left in the world. Our heroine places Sam on the same level of importance in her life as her parents and Roth. Eliminate Sam and Lara has nobody left to truly care about.

The conclusion that can be drawn from the above two points is that Sam – consciously and unconsciously – is the major motivating force in Lara’s life. Certainly up until this point in the rebooted series, the fastest way to get a fiery, no-holds barred reaction out of Lara is to threaten Sam. See below, also from Issue #3.

The young archaeologist will go anywhere and do anything given what her friend embodies. The following extract from a post on The Toast goes a bit overboard, but there are some good points made.
Sam is the fire who drives Lara to take a break from her books and seek real-world experiences. Sam is the one who encourages Lara when others would naysay her because of her youth. Sam is the driving force behind the entire Lara Croft origin story: Lara will take risks on behalf of Sam that she might never be bold enough to attempt otherwise. Lara will go to any length to see Sam safe and back by her side. Without Sam, Lara would never have become the beautiful, magnificent arrow-shooting cliff-jumping axe-fighting gentleman of a lady she is today.
Again, imagine eliminating Sam from the mix. What would that do to Lara – particularly if Sam’s death were somehow related to the activities of the archaeologist? Sam’s elimination, or, less dramatically, sidelining in the series would likely liberate Lara from her current reactive approach to supernatural mystery-solving. Free from concerns about protecting Sam from her enemies, Lara could become a proactive adventurer, in line with her “I’m not going home” declaration at the end of the 2013 game. However, the form Sam’s departure takes would also determine what Reboot Lara evolves into – something more like her Classic self, perhaps, or something entirely new, darker, angrier and more melancholy? That end result is a matter of personal preference.

I’m personally curious to see how the issue of Sam is resolved in the franchise. Right now, given the massive dramatic impact it would have on the series heroine, the filmmaker's fate is looking ominous. At the same time though, I can’t picture her and Lara becoming a cheerful tomb raiding doubles team in future games.

Either way, this is exactly why Sam – whether you can stand her or not – matters in the rebooted universe. It’s not that the first Tomb Raider game wasn’t loads of fun, but moving forward it would be great if the series lead character was allowed to have fun along with the player. Sam, I suspect, given her pivotal role in Lara’s life, will be instrumental in how, or if, that plays out.

Note: You can also read my original Is the rebooted Lara Croft gay? article here.


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