For the past few weeks, all I’ve been able to talk about is Tomb Raider. At work, I will tell people about Tomb Raider. On Facebook, friends and I will compare how far we’ve got in Tomb Raider. I was late to my partner’s birthday party last week because I knew there would be people there, people who had completed Tomb Raider, and I could not go until I had completed it, too.
My only real memory of any Tomb Raider game prior to this is a universal one, the memory of running through TR2’s mansion level away from a tirelessly devoted butler, eventually shutting him in the walk-in freezer and watching his face clip through the door as he tried to follow you away again. For whatever reason, I remember not getting too far into the main plot of that game, and haven’t played another since then. Perhaps because, even as a young girl (I was seven years old when I first shut the butler in the fridge in 1997), before I began to identify as a feminist, the series, and especially its buxom protagonist, represented a darker, sleazier side of gaming that I didn’t really understand, but at the same time still felt uncomfortable with.
Really, I should have found Lara Croft entirely empathetic. In a world almost entirely lacking any powerful female role-models, here was a lady who was as rich as Batman, as smart as Spock, as adventurous as Indiana Jones, and better looking than the whole lot of them all together. She should have been my hero.
Instead, I remember the ‘excitement’ over her figure. I remember my friends manipulating the game’s camera angles in order to zoom in on her breasts. I remember the ‘Nude Raider’ cheat code rumour. I remember her, naked, on the covers of various magazines. The objectification of Lara’s pixels was not restricted to the insular gaming community, it was a worldwide phenomenon, something we all knew about, something we didn’t do anything about, something that made me ashamed of what, in a few years, puberty would make my body naturally become. As a child, I shied away from Lara Croft and her games, disgusted with her, disgusted with my future, in an attempt to shy away from comments that I knew would someday apply to myself. I’m not saying that the gaming community’s reaction to Lara Croft’s figure is the sole cause of my own unease with my body from puberty onwards, but it was, perhaps, my first indicator of some sort of gendered double-standard in gaming, and certainly had an effect on my young, impressionable mind.
When, many years later, the Tomb Raider reboot was announced and the new, realistic, redesigned Lara Croft was revealed, I immediately became interested. It was 2011, I was 21 years old, identified as both a gamer and a feminist, and was still somewhat uncomfortable in my own skin, but very eager to see if the Lara of the new generation was treated any differently to the Lara I knew as a child.
Visually, at least, it appeared that all my previous concerns about her physical appearance were gone. In the concept art Lara stands face-on, looking directly out at the viewer with a face-off stare. She looks determined, and desperately in need of a bath. All this and the bow slung over her shoulder, she looks positively adventurous. Yes, the tank-top she’s sporting was perhaps a bad decision for a foray into the wilderness, but she was asleep when her ship sunk off the coast of Yamatai, so, at the time, I let the impracticality of it slide. I was feeling good about this new Lara. I didn’t feel, as I did as a young girl, that she was made for someone else to ogle any more. This Lara, with her badass glare, adventure-worn appearance and confident stance, this Lara was made for me.
Then, I watched the teaser trailer, and all my concerns began to return. Lara hanging upside down from a hook. Lara getting set on fire. Lara getting impaled on a spike. Lara finding another woman, crucified. Lara screaming. Lara barely escaping what looked like a sexual assault. A lot has already been said about the marketing of Tomb Raider. About the fact that the trailer did not show a competent adventurer like the concept art promised, but a terrified young woman being put through every sort of pain imaginable while we watched on, helpless. The phrase “torture porn” was thrown around a lot. It was probably accurate. I was reminded of how Lara was treated when I was seven, but meaner, nastier. That Lara was a beautiful, powerful woman, and she was objectified for it. This new Lara, it seemed, was instead being punished for it.
As if the trailer was not already controversial enough, then the executive producer of the game, Ron Rosenberg, in an interview with Kotaku, told us that Croft’s redesign was not in an attempt to right the sexist wrongs of the past, but because “the ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualised version of yesteryear.” Watching a more realistic version of Croft descend from human to “literally a caged animal” was “enticing” to the producer. “She literally goes from zero to hero… we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.”
We’d seen the “breaking down” of a hero before in video games, of course. Most recently, we’d seen it happen to Isaac Clark. The events of Dead Space leave Isaac clinically insane, barely stable, and visualising his dead girlfriend wherever he goes. Isaac’s break down is not “enticing,” it’s terrifying. The gamer gets no glee from his descent into madness, only ghastly cut scenes and jump scares as The Marker slowly overpowers Clark’s weakened mind. The fact that Rosenberg focused on Croft’s “breaking down” with such excitement was an indicator of a key difference between the marketing of Tomb Raider and that of other games. Rosenberg said that, over the course of the game, you’d learn to want to “protect” Lara. His words came from the idea that a (male) gamer can’t fully relate to a female protagonist as an in-game extension of themselves, that the closest one can get is wanting to “protect” her, like a helpless child. You never wanted to protect Isaac Clark. Neither him, nor Lara Croft, not Batman, nor Altair, nor Link, nor Snake, nor Chris Redfield were helpless. What’s the difference between the one you want to protect, and the ones you want to be? Hmmm.
The fact that the marketing focused so much on Lara’s “breaking down,” on her getting horribly tortured, is another indicator of the creepiness of the games advertising. If Dead Space had wanted to focus on a character’s break down, on the fragility of the human condition, then they would have included the Eye Poke Machine in the trailer. Not to say that Dead Space is entirely free of sexist advertising (Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2), but the trailers generally focused a lot more on destroying monsters, than the destruction of the protagonist.
In between buying the game and playing it for the first time, I had a seven hour shift at work. In this time, I realised just how nervous I was about Tomb Raider. Or, specifically, about Lara Croft. The game could either add a new heroine to a small list of non-sexualised female characters, or be a creepy, torture-porn laden misogyny-fest in a year after Miranda Pakozdi dropped out of a fighting game tournament after being sexually harassed by her own teammate, Jennifer Hepler was threatened for saying she’d like to ignore fight scenes in video games, and Anita Sarkeesian was subject to one of the largest online harassment campaigns in history for daring to analyse tropes in video games. I had fears about Lara Croft’s portrayal, how the other characters would react to her, how gamers would react to her, and how much butt she would kick.
Thankfully, the answer to that last one is a lot. As I played through the plot of Tomb Raider, I felt my fears slipping away as I realised that this Lara Croft is the Lara Croft that I have been waiting for since I was seven years old. And here’s why.
Firstly, the fact that Lara Croft is a woman does not matter at all to anyone in the game. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever mentioned or commented on at all. Never does one of Lara’s fellow survivors say “you can’t do this, you’re a woman,” instead, the repeated phrase is “you CAN do this, you’re a Croft.” Not that I really think traits like courage are genetic, but, hey, it’s a lot more progressive.
Even the enemies don’t really draw attention to Lara’s perceived gender. In fact, it’s incredibly satisfying to hear the mooks battlecries change from ‘she’s just a little girl’ to ‘where the fuck did she get a grenade launcher?!’ to ‘holy shit she’s killing us all!’ over the course of the game. Unlike Arkham City, a female protagonist does not condemn you to having to listen to sexist slurs for the whole game. No-one in Yamatai calls you a bitch, and the character-building rape that Ron Rosenberg referred to prior to the game’s release was either toned down after the uproar his comments caused, or an over-exaggeration on his part. The actual moment itself is, yes, very scary, (I died twice) but, thankfully, very far from the “press X to not get raped” QTE we were all worried about. The sexual tone of the scene is questionable (nothing is said, but the perpetrator does put his hand on Lara’s waist at one point before she escapes), and the devolution from woman to “cornered animal” is, thankfully, entirely made up. Instead, in fact, we see an evolution in her character from scared to strong. Which brings me on to my next point…
Lara Croft is not weak. I’ve seen words like “vulnerable” tossed around when discussing her character. A much better word, I think, is “inexperienced,” or “green.” Lara begins the game scared (who wouldn’t be? She’s been shipwrecked and kidnapped and nearly crushed by rocks in the space of about thirty minutes) but there is forever a mantra of “you can do this” to every challenge she faces. Croft repeatedly tells herself to “remember Roth’s training,” and Roth, her father-figure within the game, reminds her multiple times that she can do this, that she’s “ready for this.” Lara is not some scared, weak little girl, plonked on an island full of rapists and left alone to defend herself. She’s smart, strong, and determined. She’s had the combat training, she’s good at climbing, and really knows her shit when it comes to tombs. It’s just that she’s never used all that knowledge and training in a real situation before. Once she gets into her stride – just after she’s killed a person for the first time, something which she admits was remarkably easy – she is unstoppable. And that is incredibly satisfying. A good friend of mine commented that Lara had, over the course of the game, gone from interesting and relatable, to a boring, stock action hero. Perhaps there are people who wanted a more empathetic protagonist rather than Just Another Hero, but really, I like that about her. I like her anger at what is happening on the island of Yamatai. I like her knowing, almost snarky feminist quips about the island’s queen, Himiko, “if a woman holds that much power, sooner or later someone’s going to start calling it witchcraft,” and I like her desire for revenge as, slowly, more and more of her friends are taken from her. I certainly don’t think that a hero who regrets their actions is a bad idea, but also, I’ve been waiting a really, really long time for a video game with a female lead who storms into an enemy camp, firing bullets wildly and shouting “run, you bastards, I’m coming for you!”
[mild spoilers below]
So the rebooted Lara Croft is a rare example of a badass lady in a video game who isn’t sexualised. That’s the other thing about Tomb Raider that’s exciting: its rejection and subversion of certain stereotypes and tropes. First of all, in a game that revolves around a cult of creepy dudes who sacrifice women to an evil lich queen, I was surprised and pleased that not one woman is fridged to further Lara’s story-arc. In fact, all three of the game’s female survivors manage to escape the island alive. Another trope that the game manages to subvert, to an extent, is that of the Damsel in Distress. In Anita Sarkeesian’s recent first episode of Tropes vs Women, she talked about the Damsel In Distress stereotype, where power is taken from a female character, usually in the form of a kidnapping, and given to a typically male protagonist, who appears to be the only one who can free her from her peril. Lara Croft is kidnapped or captured multiple times over the course of Tomb Raider’s plot, but she never has to rely on a male character freeing her. Lara is always the arbiter of her own rescue, more like Link in Gerudo Valley than Zelda, Peach, or Pauline.
Not to say that the trope is absent entirely, though. Lara may be self-reliant herself, but the role of Damsel in Distress is still present in the form of her best friend Sam, who she has to rescue twice over the course of the game, reminding me that, whilst Lara is everything I could have asked for, the game itself is not perfect. There are moments where the camera angle seems to switch from an over-the-shoulder view to a completely third-person view, seemingly detaching her from me in a way reminiscent of Ron Rosenberg’s suggestion that players would rather “protect” Lara than be Lara. There are moments when you miss a quick-time event trigger, and are punished with violent death scenes that seem more at home in survival-horrors like Dead Space and Resident Evil than an action-adventure game, focusing on Lara’s struggling for just slightly too long. There are moments where, as Maddy Myers remarks in her Tomb Raider review for Paste Magazine, you “spend a lot of time watching Lara Croft from afar,” the voyeuristic tendency of the camera to switch angles at certain points in the game acting as a reminder of the past, a reminder of the game’s sleazy marketing, a reminder that Lara is still, in some ways, an object to be looked at rather than played as.
Thankfully, these moments are relatively few and far between, and for the most part, the newest instalment of Tomb Raider is a leap, scrabble, and pull-up in the right direction. The new Lara Croft is the one I wanted as a role model when I was a little girl, someone strong, realistic, deeply protective of her friends, and hella nerdy. Someone not made as an object for men to salivate over, but for me to look up to. She’s a little too late for seven-year-old me, but just in time for a newer generation of gamers, who desperately need more self-reliant, capable, non-objectified women to be inspired by.