In Episode 02 (coming soon) of our podcast, we spend time at the end discussing narratives in video games, and I mention my recent foray into Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition on PS4, which, without any interpretive lens interrupting the gameplay itself, is an absolute joy to play. It’s a remarkable production, replete with surprisingly rich tension and uncommonly fluid pacing. Simply put, I ripped through it. The game urges you through its world, but it does a good job of making you care about the characters, or at least Lara, along the way. Everyone else is relatively forgettable, experiencing minimal growth and serving as plot devices for Lara’s arc. But this is where the game should be commended, especially given the history of Lara Croft’s character.
I’m hardly in a position to track the actual history of her character, since this is the first Tomb Raider game I’ve played, but I am all too familiar with her initial primary strength: sexuality. But to be truthful, her sexuality was most associated with her boobs, which were absurdly large, round balloons that pandered to the worst common denominator of the series’ stereotypically imagined male adolescent audience. Video games developers have long struggled to break free from their worst assumptions about this demographic, and if you look at the video game world economically, this makes sense. These should-be abhorrent decisions are justified by profit margins, though to be fair, when you do one thing and experience success, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that alternative paths could yield equal (or even greater) success. Denying female characters autonomy and depth and a central role in stories (and so following the societal/cultural trend) is not why games sell. Hopefully, moving forward, it’s why games won’t sell (GamerGate didn’t leave too many people optimistic on this front).
This version of Tomb Raider, though developed by a mostly male crew, did promise a brighter future for female characters (and female gamers as well). Although still very much sexualized (in the sense that Lara fits, virtually, our culture’s standards for beauty), she is no confined princess, unable to fend for herself. Indeed, as the game’s motto suggests, in this story, a survivor is born. Out of the tomb, out of her father’s shadow, out of all patriarchy’s shadow, Lara is born. At the game’s start, she’s a relatively confident cartographer and researcher, but once the conditions become extreme enough, it’s clear that she’s not ready for the challenge. Lara is like the audience, trained to expect some male figure to save the day. She’s constantly crying and desperately seeking salvation from any external source; she never pauses to think with much faith that she could save herself (as well as her shipmates).
She starts small, urging herself through turmoil by saying, “I can do this.” The supporting cast serves the same role. The entire game is about ushering Lara into her own profound power. And it’s certainly interesting that the main sacrifices toward this power are white males. The game ends with an impressively diverse crew of survivors, all of them normally marked in the margins by gender or race (three girls live, two of them not white, and one male, not white). Their victory is a call to all gamers to not let such barriers diminish what you can do if you trust yourself; Lara is careful to distinguish trust from faith, as the game does delve into pretty wild mythology.
Lara not only overcomes a very real mythology on the mysterious island on which she and her crew are shipwrecked, she triumphs over the mythology pervading her sense of self, specifically regarding the artificially constructed limitations of her gender. If the audience is savvy enough, or reflective in any sense, and not the depraved neanderthals the media would lead us to believe about video gamers, then this game is a beacon of hope. Yes, it has lingering issues, but it’s refreshing to see the industry make meaningful moves toward more favorable representation for all. Although it’s impossible for the audience to fully identify with Lara, the fact that she is a female and takes care of herself, saves the day, and does it in a bad-ass-but-compassionate way…it opens a door of possibility that has been forcefully locked for a long time. Ellie in The Last of Us, which I also spoke about in Episode 02, is another recent example of progress.
Anyway, I could go in with this for quite a long time, but I’ll conclude with this: the Lara in this game ends up being cooler than Indiana Jones. That’s right, Dr. Jones, I’m checking your privilege at the door, and I’m privileging Lara’s earned awesomeness.