Saturday, June 15, 2013

TOMB RAIDER: Woman in a Man's World

I don't often talk in-depth about video games on this blog, but having finished Crystal Dynamics' TOMB RAIDER reboot some time ago and finding that it's still holding as one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year, and that it feeds into a interesting discussion occuring in the gaming industry right now, I thought I'd look at how this franchise has grown, and why the newest entry is a great step forward for the title's main character.

First, some history. In the mid-1990's, Sony's brand-new Playstation console was in search of an icon to call its own, an answer to the legendary Mario or the still-popular Sonic who were synonymous with their own parent companies. And for a moment there, it seemed that the Playstation's search was over with the arrival of archaeologist/action heroine Lara Croft. Debuting with 1996's smash hit TOMB RAIDER, Lara was an immediate sensation, but not because she was a compelling, relatable character, but because. . . well, because of two obvious reasons:

Lara was Indiana Jones with boobs, a hyper-sexualized male fantasy who, through a half-dozen games, two movies, and a comic series, has been eye candy first, and a character a distant third (sorry).

But then something changed. A couple years ago, Crystal Dynamics decided to take the franchise in a completely new direction and redesign the game-play mechanics and the franchise's main character from the ground up. Going back to Lara's roots, they delivered a younger, less experienced version of the popular heroine to show her violent and heroic origins, and in doing so created easily the most adult take on the character - and one of the most clever female protagonists in years - that the medium had ever seen.

The obvious changes to Lara are surface-level, but no less welcome. The Barbie-doll physique and short-shorts were replaced with actual pants and the body type that many actual human beings can claim. The supermodel glamorous looks are still there, but buried in the blood and dirt of the struggles that she endured to survive her trial by - literal - fire during the game's narrative. She's hurt, harried, and hardened, and even though she looks like she's been dragged down 40 miles of bad road, she's infinitely easier to identify with than her porcelain predecessor.

But that's not even close to the most impressive part of her character's re-imagining. To delve into that, I'm going to have to spoil pretty much the entire plot of the game, so (if that matters to you):

**********SPOILER ALERT**********

The first thing the writers of 2013's rebooted TOMB RAIDER did to distance their Lara from her previous self was to obliterate even the simplest original description of the character - "Indiana Jones with boobs." Gone was the aloof, confident, and constantly capable worldly Lara, and in her place was an inexperienced, overwhelmed, and vulnerable woman who has no idea of the ferocious survivor that she'll become. When shipwrecked on a mysterious island with deadly scavengers, separated from her friends, she seeks help, rescue. As any sensible person would. Any of us playing would be just as - if not far more - terrified in this sort of situation, so we're immediately investing empathy in Lara's plight.

This more humble - and frankly, vulnerable - take on the character makes for both a compelling transformation to witness and a stronger link to the audience through the actual mechanics. Lara is terrified, panicking, and flailing in her early conflicts with the islands savage inhabitants. She's not a super-soldier who can wade through waves of bullets, and because the game starts the player off with a bow - a powerful but slow and cumbersome weapon - there's a sense of desperation to early encounters that make surviving battle a hard-fought triumph. The player's arsenal of weapons and abilities increases even as Lara's own strength and determination grow during her journey, making for an impressive symbiosis between the character development and the steadily growing sense of player empowerment. By the time Lara picks up a grenade launcher and begins chasing after her enemies (instead of running from them), screaming threats at them, the player feels this ferocious power so intensely that it's hard to keep both hands on the controller instead of pumping a fist into the air.

However, what's even more impressive is how TOMB RAIDER plays with gender expectations in the genre and the medium as a whole. It's worth noting that the "scared and vulnerable protagonist who becomes a fierce fighter in a trial by fire" archetype is rare indeed to see in video games, whose primary way of connecting to an audience for decades has been by providing male-centered power fantasies. Introducing "Bald McBigguns" as someone begging to be saved would never fly in the AAA gaming scene. Which is stupid, but it makes for an interesting take on some familiar territory.

But by embracing other genre conventions from a slightly different perspective, TOMB RAIDER shows perhaps its greatest strength. Lara ends up going through what I call the Frodo/Luke Skywalker version of the archetypal "Hero's Journey." She starts as "one of us" until introduced to circumstances that force her out of her comfort zone. Initially she reacts as we would, looking to escape the situation rather than overcome it. But she becomes more and more sure of herself, going from seeking advice to following her instincts and making her own decisions, and even loses her mentor. As she struggles to help the surviving members of her crew and get them off the island, she becomes the de-facto leader of their group, coming up with the plans of escape and acting as the "muscle" whenever trouble hits or they need to grab gear/supplies.

As this is going on, we see the game invert the "women in refrigerators" trope by having MALE characters die off (both the "mentor" and the "young suitor") in order to further the heroine's development. This is something you almost never see happen, especially in video games (though it's notable that the 2001 LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER feature film pulls something similar). Lara is constantly struggling to overcome the next challenge and test her own limits, and the game isn't afraid to put her through the wringer. This is also a game that sees multiple strong, active female characters, that passes the Bechdel Test, AND goes full-steam ahead in placing a woman in a "traditionally" male role in a familiar story structure. Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Games series shows how rare this is, and while TOMB RAIDER does feature a damsel in distress, it's Lara who goes after her.

What's more, the way this story plays out, even with these familiar elements, keeps the game's focus on making Lara a powerful female in a man's world. The crazed Mathias captures Lara's friend Samantha, believing she can become the new vessel for the ancient Japanese Empress Himiko, the "Sun Queen" whose spirit is trapped between life and death. This is the sort of scenario that we've seen play out in countless games (especially JRPG's like the Final Fantasy), where the "Chosen One" must be protected/rescued from her fate by the young male hero. But it is the capable young woman that Lara has become that undertakes this task here, ending in a scene of her bearing the senseless form of the rescued maiden away from harm:

If that looks familiar, it should:

Gotta say, it's NICE to see this kind of reversal in a major release like this, especially given the worrisome gender issues that the gaming industry still suffers from. In a year where Anita Sarkeesian got serious threats just for pointing out sexist tendencies in games, it becomes only more clear that this sort of subversion or reversal of gender roles needs to happen as often as possible.

It shouldn't be so impressive that we see a game putting a woman in this sort of role. It shouldn't be noteworthy that this kind of action heroine exists in such a predominately male pool of protagonists, especially not in a medium that has become one of the biggest entertainment industries on the planet. But it is.  And to be fair, she's not the first (fans of Metroid will be familiar with Samus Aran), but the field is still very low on double-X chromosomes these days. Placing Lara Croft in the shoes of the likes of John Carter or Superman, especially given her previous history and the steps the new game takes to make her as human and relatable and believable as possible, is very welcome indeed.

Here's hoping we get many more women in this traditionally male world.

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