Tomb Raider - Rebooting The Heroine

Lara Croft is back in Crystal Dynamics reboot of Tomb Raider. No doubt that this is a less fantastical revision of the classic heroine. But is Crystal Dynamics capable of rebooting one of the few iconic female video game heroes without leaning too hard on the sexist tropes of yesterday?

By Tony Walter | May 30, 2013

There's a division going on in the gaming community right now. Any comments section on any article that attempts to talk about sexism in games will make the split clear to you. There are those who are acknowledging the problems with the way women are represented, or lack of being represented, in video games, and there is the camp that exists to fight that movement. The fear of change is understandable, but when it comes at the detriment of social equality, it might be time to look inward and get over the phobia.

If it's not completely clear, I'm coming from the place that acknowledges the problems - thankfully, I am beginning to feel like most of the vocal games community is. This hasn't always been the case for me though. I would be the first to admit that growing up I made plenty of mistakes that stemmed from ignorance. I suppose it's not easy, men are quite literally bred into misogyny via music, movies, television, advertising, social tradition, and even video games. At a certain point though, you can no longer shirk the responsibility of being unaware of these problems simply because mainstream media taught you poorly. It's the responsibility of each person to understand and draw upon what they see in art, media, and society, and formulate their own ideas and opinions.

That being said, I would encourage anybody who is of the mindset that there is not a problem with misogyny to continue reading. Change isn't made by preaching to the choir. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I think discourse on this subject, aggressive debate even, is a constructive thing.

The ways in which sexism infiltrates video games ranges from the way we perceive female characters to the way female employees are treated by employers, and to the way we trash talk during fighting games to the way we toss threats via Twitter, from ubiquitous tropes like the 'damsel in distress' to having men as the one true protector, and even the way our consoles, games, and accessories are marketed to us. There is no one facet of gaming that is completely unmarred by misogyny. Even the scant few iconic female heroines are based in a reality of objectification and brutality against women.

SoulCalibur's Ivy remains vaguely recognizable as a human female. It gets worse with each iteration.
That brings me to Lara Croft, the hero of Tomb Raider. The Tomb Raider franchise has existed for longer than much of the current gaming audience has been alive. Heck, even I was barely out of the fourth grade when Lara Croft made her first appearance.

It was a very different environment in 1996. Women weren't playing games, well, that's what the advertisers and publishers believed. Since women weren't a target audience - and the only target was young, straight men - Lara Croft was marketed and designed appropriately lazily.

Roughly seventeen years later, two movies, countless comics, and nine games in, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix released and rebooted the franchise with this year's Tomb Raider.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that much of the initiative was based in the feminist movement that picked up a lot of steam last year. The cynical might even believe the publisher saw a marketing opportunity in the movement. And based on some of the strange - and sexist in a different way - wording during some interviews, that might be a valid argument. Regardless, this game is absolutely attached to the feminist movement, for better or worse. Tomb Raider features a younger, more relatable Lara Croft. No longer marketed strictly at straight, young men, Lara was modeled more realistically. Well, okay, it's not perfect. She's still the ideal body-shape for women as portrayed by Hollywood. But she behaves, dresses, and looks slightly less like a mainstream porn star. Crystal Dynamics true push for Lara though, wasn't a body-positive image, but rather one for female empowerment.

The original iteration of Lara Croft. She has seen many transformations since 1996.
Society expects different things of the sexes. This isn't to say what is expected is true, but it is what is encouraged, or in some cases even allowed by society. Women are to create, nurture, love, be cherished, be weak, be sexual, but not too sexual. Men are to destroy, fight, be respected, be feared, be strong, fuck, fuck a lot. Female empowerment - but this can go for males too - isn't simply one sex playing the traditional role of the other. But rather, empowerment is defined in the context of the role. Defying what is expected, breaking from tradition, but for the sake of growing, and encouraging growth. Simply put, it is to give power, where it was lacking.

Tomb Raider tends to work in two different directions. That being, Lara Croft as a survivalist, and Lara Croft as a video game action hero. In order to gain an understanding of the empowerment of Lara Croft, you must understand the differences in these two faces within the context of this narrative. The survivalist identity seems to work toward furthering women as central characters, while the action hero perpetuates video game tropes, and pays no mind to character, regardless of sex.

Quick time events are a mechanic used in video games as a device to create tension during cinematic moments without sacrificing player involvement. The ability for quick time events to succeed, as with most things, swings largely depending on context. One problem with quick time events is that the mechanic has become trite over the years. Brightly labeled buttons popping on screen is ubiquitous in modern boss fights. This nature, combined with the jarring aspect of a button appearing over your character, hurts the emotional and cinematic connection a player will experience during these events. Thus, using quick time events works to trivialize, to an extent, whatever events are happening during the action.

Perhaps then, it should be no surprise the concern that some showed when the sexual assault/potential rape sequence was masked with a quick time event. You'll never hear me argue that something is out of bounds for video games. And I think there is an absolute value in art discussing such things as traumatizing as rape and sexual assault. Though, proper steps should be taken to elicit an understanding, and respect the serious nature. An attempted rape painted with brightly colored buttons is trivializing the event. Afterwards, the player does not feel the trauma or stress that should have arrived from the event because it was turned into a cheap gimmick. And regardless if you succeed or fail in the event, it will be punctuated with a gunshot. I should note that though no rape takes place regardless of the outcome, the intentions are clearly implied.

Perhaps in a better context, a scene like this could have served to strengthen Lara as a character.
A more unfortunate choice, one I simply do not understand, is the blatant emphasis of Lara's failure scenes. I feel I should reiterate, I do not believe in putting restraints on art, and violence absolutely has a place in video games. But this isn't a horror game paying homage to classic slasher flicks. An emphasis on the death of Lara does nothing but trivialize the number one enemy in a survivalist narrative - dying. Failing the attempted rape scene - as mentioned before, does not result in a rape - simply has Lara being shot in the head, and slowly toppling to the ground before the camera focuses on her lifeless face. This is one of the least gratuitous death scenes I've seen in the game. During one scene Lara will suffer a lengthy mauling from a wolf, if you fail a quick time event. Another scene has Lara tumbling down a waterway, if you make the wrong turn Lara will be strung up through her chin by a pipe that pierced her skull. A cinematic filter is applied and the camera lingers on her corpse during each and every one of these events before allowing you to retry the section. By the end, deaths turn into more of a joke than something to be feared. This further harms attempts to empower Lara by making her greatest threat seem like something not to be taken seriously.

Scenes like these provide zero value to the narrative and only serve to withdraw the audience from the experience.
The Tomb Raider series is well rooted in a long storied history of action games focused on shooting people. Though this series has always offered more than what most of these shooters have. Tomb Raider was somewhat regarded for its environmental puzzles and exploration of - well - Tombs. It is a shame then that Crystal Dynamics did choose to focus a little less on these elements than previous entries in the series had. There are a few abandoned tombs scattered throughout the island (more on those later), but the narrative structure mostly focuses on you getting from one place full of bad men to the next place full of bad men, shooting and stabbing them all, with some mountain climbing spread out in between. You certainly don't get any impression that Lara is incapable in these situations, and as a video game that maintains violence as a central mechanic - as much I am personally growing tired of that - it doesn't work to actively impede the empowerment of Lara as a character. Though, after you become desensitized to the danger of the situation, and the power of these opponents, it doesn't actively empower her either. It's just sort of there. A hurdle to jump in between narrative progression. And a means to upgrade Lara's abilities.

One of the most effective means of empowering Lara stems from her character's capability progress. That is, as you progress throughout the game, complete goals, kill bad guys, Lara gains experience to upgrade her abilities. Lara comes from a family of adventurers, and a lifestyle that would not have it unrealistic for her to have a base knowledge of, say, mountain climbing or bow hunting. So these upgrades feel narratively justified, in that she is remembering past lessons, is a quick learner, and an adaptable person. If left unjustified, it might feel similar to just handing the heroine a gun and letting her shoot men. While there is nothing innately wrong with that idea, it is not empowerment. Lara is breaking from the role that she might normally fit in, in a more typical action game. Even within the narrative, Lara is told what she can and can't do before it becomes apparent she is the most capable person on the island. The ability upgrades are a practical game mechanic that emphasize the growth of her character.

The most harrowing and powerful moments in the game do not usually come from the outright shootouts that Lara breezes through. Rather it's the exploration and sense of hopelessness provided by the island. The tombs mentioned earlier, provide a very claustrophobic and mysterious atmosphere. It is clear that the antagonists of the game hold interest in these tombs, but have failed to traverse them as effectively as Lara can. This is a subtle reinforcement of an empowered character. You're tasked on a few specific occasions to attempt a distress call from the island. When these attempts are marked in failure, Lara persists, despite the general sense of discouragement. The character on which other characters much rely on to persist through failure and overcome is - generally speaking - always male. This is empowerment.

The actual tombs also provide the most interesting intellectual challenge in the game.
Too often we simplify female empowerment to slapping a weapon in a woman's hands, and letting her kill a handful of men. Without any driving force, this is not empowerment; this is murder. If you're ever wondering if a character is being empowered, ask yourself this question: would it matter if she were replaced with a male character? The knee-jerk reaction is to accept that having female characters do the things the male characters do is empowerment. While this might be a generally progressive idea, in that it would be nice to see more female characters, it is not doing anything to further women in games. Just as it is not doing anything to deconstruct the destructive portrayal of men in games. Which, believe it or not, is a big part of feminism because so often that negative portrayal of men is at the overall loss to women (i.e.: men being violent, men rescuing women, men being stronger). The reality is, in a female empowerment narrative, it absolutely does matter to the character that they are female or male. This is because empowerment is playing directly off of a deeply rooted idea of what society expects from women.

Tomb Raider is a little too rooted in action game tropes for its own good, and occasionally the game doesn't take itself as seriously as it should. The narrative is sometimes tossed under the bus to appeal to a larger, younger, and more violent audience. And, the hyper violent segments only serve to perpetuate the violence against women in games and trivialize the struggles Lara is facing throughout the rest of the narrative. However, these flaws are - for the most part - relatively insignificant in contrast to the majority of the game. In some weird way, the game benefits from an easier difficulty because those jarring death scenes aren't frequent enough to be too bothersome. And since the feelings of the struggle are largely coming from an atmospheric place, the easier gameplay isn't working against the survivalist themes. The most prevalent flaw is that the game simply has Lara shooting an unjustified amount of villains, and this is mostly only a negative because it's not always actively working to progress her as an empowered character.

Ultimately, the new Lara Croft was reasonably well recreated. Though video games are in many ways a more collaborative effort than any other medium, I'm sure in no small way we have Rhianna Pratchett to thank for this more respectable heroine. Pratchett has proven herself time and time again as a valuable, progressive writer in games (Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword). And an asset to game fans seeking a more feminist appealing industry for the future. Tomb Raider is not the perfect female empowerment piece, but nobody was expecting that to happen. Unfortunately, we probably won't see mainstream games manage something like that for some time. However, Tomb Raider is important in that it is a step in the right direction. In fact, it may be the first time I've ever seen a powerful, intelligent female character represented in a gritty and realistic, mainstream video game. Lara has been crafted to be every bit as much of a hero as the Nathan Drakes and Master Chiefs we see populating the game store shelves. And she had to fight a hell of a lot harder to do it.

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