As a thoughtful gamer, the Tomb Raider series always posed a bit of a cognitive dissonance problem for me. On one hand the games were generally good; full of fun adventures, challenging puzzles, semi-interesting stories, cool environments, and a highly capable, acrobatic protagonist who could hold her own in the exploring and shooting things departments. On the other, you had to spend the whole game staring at a highly sexualized female character with unrealistic physical proportions as she ran around half clothed, no matter what weather or environmental conditions she faced. As of last week however, I may finally be able to enjoy a Tomb Raider game dissonance free. Why? Because as part of a series reboot, one of gaming’s most iconic characters, Laura Croft, has finally been redesigned.
Much has been made of this new Laura we see in the just released Tomb Raider, a game by Crystal Dynamics that uses the origin story approach to reboot and show new sides of a character known for fearlessness, confidence and a bit of attitude… not to mention her barbie doll like proportions.
As you can see, the developers wisely addressed her unnatural proportions first, leaving us with a more human looking, appropriately clothed character. In fact, in an interview on GameInformer.com the game’s designers had this to say about the new look:
“All of the character design decisions came from trying to make her believable. We didn’t want to make her a sexual object. She is a character that we want you to believe in.” -Brian Horton, Crystal Dynamics Global Brand Director
Later in the interview they added this:
“We did some initial tests where we brought in the vision for the new Lara Croft, and then we matched it up against the previous iterations. In the tests of the previous iterations it was clearly evident that people moved around the image more to the items [she is carrying] and her chest and her waist size. But with the new image, people spent most of the time piercing her eyes.” -Karl Stewart, Crystal Dynamics Art Director
Let me just tell you, I almost shit my pants when I read those quotes. Male game developers aware of objectification? And they’ve chosen not to continue objectifying a famously objectified character?!? Be still my cynical heart!
In this Tomb Raider reboot, we see a Laura Croft who’s younger, less confident and inexperienced as she heads off to her first big adventure. Of course things go horribly wrong on the way to the mystical island of her archeological dreams, but it’s under the ensuing extreme circumstances that we see the stuff this new Lara Croft is made of. It’s also this aspect of the reboot that’s sparked the most debate. Again the developers:
“…what dropped away pretty quickly was the hardness that she had. She is strong and we love Lara Croft for that strength, but she was almost so strong that we were always one step away from her. That was one thing that we all agreed on right away – to try and soften her up enough so that you could step into her life.” -Brian Horton
Most of the complaints I’ve heard about the reboot center around this added “softness.” When you play the game (as I have been for the past week) it quickly becomes clear just what the developers meant. The first time Lara kills and skins an animal for food she apologizes. The first time she kills a man she breaks down and cries (sadly and rather oddly the game forces players to turn Lara into a remorseless killer as the game progresses. A poor design choice if you ask me). She’s also constantly giving herself positive affirmations, saying things like; “ok Lara, you can do this.” Generally speaking, in the early stages of the game players are given plenty of verbal and non-verbal cues that Lara is nervous, hurt and scared. As the game progresses however, she gains confidence and becomes quite the skilled adventurer.
Now you’re probably assuming that as a self-described feminist I would take issue with this “softer” Lara Croft. If so then I’m sorry to disappoint you. First off we need to get rid of this absurd notion that showing emotions like fear, remorse and doubt are signs of “softness.” If you ask me it’s quite the opposite. Depicting Lara as someone who feels fear but pushes through it, gets nervous but doesn’t let it deter, and continues to push herself, often reluctantly, through difficult challenges makes her more heroic to me than some over-muscled jackoff that wisecracks while killing his enemies. Give me more heroes like this new Lara Croft and make some of them male too please.
And it’s not like they’re taking it easy on Lara either. Nope, she’s been thrown into a pretty fucked up situation. Throughout the course of the game Lara is repeatedly impaled, starved, shot, bitten, strung up like Luke Skywalker in a Wampa ice cave, and generally battered, bruised and broken in every way imaginable. At one point a man corners Lara and gets very handsy (according to journalists, in a preview version of the game this scene is worse. It was apparently toned down in the final version of the game). In all my decades of gaming, I have a hard time remembering a game that puts it’s hero through a more viscerally harrowing set of experiences than Tomb Raider does to Lara.
Yes, there are aspects of the new Lara Croft that are a bit too couched in stereotypes of the overly emotional female. And yes, the fact that they did this with a female character is, if not expected, certainly not all that surprising. And yes, there’s an implied all men are potential rapists thing going on (although unlike the games I mentioned in this post and this one, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone call Lara a bitch yet). These facts aside, I have to say that this version of Lara Croft is one of the most human video game characters I’ve ever played.
How much of an effect will a character like this new Lara Croft have on the game industry? I don’t know, but reviews have been great and hopefully strong sales will follow. With any luck Tomb Raider will help push the game industry forward and not just in terms of character depictions. Remember that the Crystal Dynamics team chose to fundamentally change an iconic yet highly sexualized character to make her more relatable… a brave step in a play it safe industry. How awesome would it be if more developers were this thoughtful when it came to depicting both their female and male characters? I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be doing more than just imagining the possibilities. In the mean time, I’ve got a game to finish!