Tomb Raider Works to Improve the Image of Women in Games

The first lady of video games. One of the most recognized gaming icons. The incredibly (read: incredulously) sexy archaeologist, with an impractical figure and athleticism of a thousand gold medalists, the one and only Lara Croft is about to get a make-or-break remake. The winded path to tomorrow’s March 5th release of Tomb Raider has been defined, more than anything, by a Promise: a Promise to redefine, rebuild, reinvent the equivalent of Indiana Jones in a skirt.

To tell her story from the beginning, show us whom she became in the original adventures – at once a trip to the past and a creation of an entirely new persona that will set a tone for future games. If this fails, there may be no rescuing Lara from her bottomless pit of endless remakes and promises.

 Although there’s lots to fill about Lara herself, she hasn’t been an entirely blank persona, though she was branded too much by controversy. Her overly large breasts were a mistake in design, her figure often a point of ridicule or a sexual focal point, which even spawned the infamous nude Lara mods. She became a multitude of things to the game and entertainment industry and another household name (maybe only Mario and Pac-Man could have competed back then), entering the popculture scene in an unprecedented way. Her multi-polygonal self even appeared in Spanish commercials for a drink and a waterboat.

Lara was most often one of two things – either an overly-sexualized caricature of a woman chasing lost artifacts or a kick-ass heroine, idolized by young girls. While her looks were under the scrutiny of the entire world, Lara is a notably cool and assertive character. She beats villains (male and female), won’t let anyone take advantage of her, and uses her trademark pistols with style. Lara even got into grenade launchers and rocket launchers. Her mansion is fit for a classy lady, with libraries, gardens, and artifacts. The shooting range and an afternoon reading both fit in the calendar. She was sexy, yes, but not an airhead.

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Her essence got washed out in the multitudes of games, released nearly every other year. Each one getting varied responses in spite of technical advancements. Crystal Dynamic’s more recent entries, Legend, Underworld, and Anniversary, while fairly good games, failed to foster much of a return to the throne many fans expected. This is where the “new” Lara comes in.

Her trajectory is marked by controversy. Discussion centered on Lara herself – a young, innocent woman, hardly the adventurer the world knows – who, after her ship is destroyed and her crew is lost has to brave the unfortunate island. The inhabitants that greet her are wolves, deranged tribal locals, and bands of bandits. She’s practically a 21-year-old girl in a land full of grown, scary men.

This is where gender comes into play. In an interview with Kotaku last summer, executive producer Ron Rosenberg described the design ideas of Lara this way: “[the players would say] ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’ She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper. When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”

He mentions that the island scavengers will hurt her, kidnap her best friend, and try to rape Lara.

The above started a firestorm that began in the comment section of Kotaku and spread to the corners of internet. There are quite a few avenues that Rosenberg opened, probably unintentionally.

For one, he’s implying that Lara isn’t a character with whom to identify. He’s suggesting that she isn’t good enough for that. Projecting oneself into the protagonist is a meaningful experience for any gamer who wants to delve into a story with a multi-dimensional character. He sets her apart by saying “you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.” Rosenberg is playing up to the male-dominated market, saying “no one really wants to be a girl, they’d rather be the invisible guardian angel next to her.”

Since the whole philosophy behind the game is that Lara’s character gets built up by her frequent scars and scares, mentioning rape seems to imply that she needs to, or will be, raped as part of her building experience. Just two days after that interview, studio head Darrell Gallagher clarified the messages, explaining that there is a scene where Lara is forced for the first time to kill a human, and that moment has some sexual undertones.

“Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game,” Gallagher assured fans.

Well, nice save, Crystal Dynamics. This was rather a matter of word choice, because their design is what will communicate more. Their philosophy is echoed in every single bruise and wound Lara takes, as they slowly break her down only to build her into her glorious future self.

It’s notable that there’s no longer a clash between her attire and her environment. She wears survivor’s clothes, dirty and tattered, instead of an invincible tank-top and ridiculous shorts. Miss Croft goes from a caricature to a true survivor. She becomes more human, and we will feel that in every kind of gasp, breath, and shriek she makes, as she will be much more reactive to her surroundings. It’s hard to judge whether all she goes through will border on a masochistic spree. The previous games have always been filled with death traps, but we never had to contend much lasting wounds on our character.

In the Promise of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, there lies a new Lara, a rebirth of the Queen. With it, there’s a chance for a more dependable, unifying, real strong-female lead. She may become the girl all girls (and guys) embrace, or she may fade into forgetfulness forever.

Reviews all around have generally been very positive, and it looks like a great game. However, it’s also very important to look at what it will do for the image of women in the future than just entertainment right now.

the author

A young man hailing from the distant lands of Poland, Europe, Luke started his video game writing career with school publications and is continuing it with GameNTrain. When not putting in hours into Blazblue or other fighting games, he enjoys kittens, helping old ladies, and lifting weights. Follow Luke on Twitter: @LukeShooty