Jonah Maiava and Polynesian Representation in Tomb Raider

*This is a section from an ongoing work that I had to edit out for the sake of word count. I still often think about it though, and perhaps I will flesh it out into its own work soon*

In Square Enix’s reboot of the Tomb Raider series, there is the NPC Jonah Maiava. Jonah begins in Tomb Raider as the cook of the ship Endurance as it journeys in search of the island Yamatai. His role as an NPC is supportive and cautionary: he senses the island’s evil and supernatural elements and the storms surrounding it, advising the Endurance crew to avoid it where possible. As tragedy befalls the Endurance and the team is scattered across the island, Jonah supports Lara in providing tasks to complete and being a peacekeeper between crew members.

Jonah Maiava with the survivors of the Endurance, Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013)

Jonah makes a return in Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) as well as Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018). He is one of the few characters to have appeared in every Square Enix game and the accompanying comics. As a result of the character’s continuous presence, the reader/player is given ample opportunity to discover aspects of Jonah’s backstory, including his whakapapa.*

One of the most interesting aspects of Jonah’s character is his Polynesian heritage: he was born in Aotearoa New Zealand and raised in Hawa’ii. Tomb Raider provides journal entries from Jonah which catalogue his life and upbringing, including the importance or oral storytelling from his grandmother and his Ngā Puhi whakapapa. Rather than the standard vague references to an NPC being brown, Jonah has a specific iwi affiliation.** The backstory is still vague, as he is an NPC and therefore does not hold much screentime, but it is certainly more specific than what one has come to expect from the medium.

The characterization of Jonah Maiava is both a more nuanced representation of Polynesian people in gaming, and one that holds familiar tropes. Specifically Māori representation used to be scant and certainly intended for a different audience: The Mark of Kri (2003) and its sequel Rise of the Kasai (2005) springs to mind. The protagonist Rau is meant to be inspired by Maori, but not directly Maori himself, and therefore is both vague and appropriative. There has been greater Māori representation in gaming in recent years, including the inclusion of Maori people in Civilization VI (2016) lead by Kupe, the character Matuku in Bleeding Edge (2020), and the entirety of Umurangi Generation (2020). Jonah Maiava is not just vaguely Māori, but Ngā Puhi. Yet with an iwi affiliation comes attached caveats not too dissimilar to the Magical Negro trope. Jonah is the most spiritually aware of the Endurance crew. He is the most attuned and weary out of the crew towards the island of Yamatai, including an actual descendent of the people of Yamatai. Jonah is a supportive constant to our white protagonist Lara, guiding her in her journey and protecting her from the anger of fellow crewmates. He provides enough support and guidance to Lara, without being directly involved in the plot.

Yet Jonah’s specific characterization is a far cry from previous Polynesian representation in the Tomb Raider series. Core Design’s Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft (1998) provides a picture of the South Pacific where ‘tribesmen’ inhabit a dinosaur-infested island, have a well-documented history of cannibalism, and attack outsiders with spears.

One of the ‘tribesmen’ of Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft

The major boss of the South Pacific portion of the game, the chief-god Puna, has been made immortal by a fragment of a meteorite that was carved into the ‘Ora Dagger’ that can summon monsters. These people are a combination of every bad trope of 19th-century colonial travelogues and adventure novels, and are meant to be viewed as additional enemies by Lara Croft and the player. They are referred to generally as ‘Polynesians’ in the ‘South Pacific’, with as many different ideas and images tacked onto them to evoke whatever ‘Polynesian’ is meant to be. They are both vague in their origin and specifically insulting.

The stark contrast between Core Design’s tribesmen and Square Enix’s Jonah Maiava shows the change in the representation of Polynesian people in the Tomb Raider series, but also draws attention to the distinct explorer settler narrative at the heart of every Tomb Raider game. It is a lot easier to disregard the colonialist undertones of the Tomb Raider series back when you would be fighting a T-Rex or locking your servant in a freezer. There was a ridiculousness built into the early games that distracted you. The raiding of different cultures is merely world-building for the action-puzzle series, invoking the adventure of Indiana Jones (yes, including the aliens). Now, it is more difficult to disregard when you as a player are confronted with fleshed-out depictions of the indigenous cultures in the areas you explore, are siding with societies that wish to remain hidden, and promoting the protection of said societies. Lara Croft is not merely preventing a series of deranged cultists and scientists from transforming themselves into monsters and taking over the world, or searching for artifacts of dead societies, but she is also engaging with living indigenous societies and trying to ensure their survival. There is a greater ludonarrative dissonance, made starkly aware by specific characterization and greater inclusion of indigenous peoples. In providing Jonah with a more specific backstory that is meant to be thoughtful or authentic, it underlines the old ideas and tropes of the romantic adventure genre from which the series was conceived.

I cannot work out whether my foray into Games Studies has made me more critical of the titles I play, or the many years I have been playing games has allowed me to see the progress we have made over the past few decades. Perhaps it is both. I remember the enjoyment I felt in shooting T-Rexes on the PS1 when I was much younger, the elation in solving puzzles whilst staring at a tiny CRT screen. But as a Māori games researcher now, I cannot help but reflect as I help a rebooted, ‘realistic’ Lara save the world, and question the choices that developers made back then and now.

We have gone from mutated, spear-wielding cannibals on a dinosaur-ridden island to named NPCs with iwi affiliations and backstories. The change in Polynesian representation within the Tomb Raider series is encouraging, but also highlights the central narrative basis of the Tomb Raider games. If this is how far we have come within one series, I wonder how far have we progressed across the industry as a whole? And how far will we progress?

*Whakapapa is often translated to ‘genealogy’, but as a concept in Te Ao Māori it is much more than that. A person’s whakapapa is their lineage, their connection to those who have come before, the context surrounding their identity. It is one of the immutable parts of yourself that allows you and others to understand you. Jonah does not provide a full breakdown of his whakapapa here, but the paratext providing his iwi and upbringing, alongside his character design with moko, provides specific glimpses at Jonah’s cultural identity.

**Māori are not a monolith, and as part of one’s identity often comes an affiliation with one or several iwi/hapu (often translated as ‘tribes’). Jonah being Ngā Puhi would mean he traces his lineage to those from ‘up north’, the Northland area of Te-Ika-a-Māui/North Island of Aotearoa.

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