At my very first E3 many moons ago there was a giant six-story tall poster of Lara Croft on a building on Sunset Boulevard. Game developers had resolved to relaunch the Tomb Raider franchise with a more serious heroine that wasn’t just about giant boobies and graphic exploitative death scenes. Only she still had big boobies and the game was only middling and if you were a gamer and really wanted to play a game with a badass heroine that year you could just pick up Beyond Good & Evil.

There’s always been this concept of legitimacy that Lara Croft has aspired to and never quite achieved. We all like to snicker when she’s mentioned as a “strong heroine.” The boobs. The not so great games. The boobs. The butt. She’s long been less a heroine and more a symbol of the sexism and infantilism rampant in video game culture.

Nevertheless to the layman she is one of gaming’s most recognizable characters. Not even heroines. Characters in general. My friend can’t tell the difference between Princess Peach and Zelda and she’ll blink sleepily at the mention of FemShep or FemHawke but she knows Lara Croft. Odds are you can call up your parents who still think pictures are saved to the RAM in your computer and they’ll be able to tell you something about Croft.

She’s an icon. A problematic icon made popular not because of the decent games she’s starred in but because a miscalculation while programming gave her flotation devices that would surely destroy the back of a mortal woman.

Crystal Dynamics was well aware of her problematic nature. They’ve been banging their heads against the Tomb Raider wall since mid-2006. Throwing all sorts of games against the wall and seeing if any of them stick. Only none of them have. The games have all been met with a shrug. They haven’t been groundbreaking or extraordinary or anything more than an opportunity for Lara Croft to bounce through levels with that massive chest of hers.

Until Tomb Raider. This is a reboot. A game in development for five years. A property the whole industry is watching with bated breath. The success of all future heroines depends on Lara Croft. It’s up to her and her alone to prove a woman can headline a wildly entertaining game with great gameplay and a solid story.

And Crystal Dynamics, when given a choice between making her “legitimate” and giving old fans what they expected chose legitimacy.

Because apparently legitimacy means smaller boobs.

Because apparently legitimacy means smaller boobs.

Now a mere “ordinary” woman with none of her previous assets at her disposal and stuck on an island with ravenous crazy men and a group of friends forever in peril it is up to Lara Croft to save the gaming industry, her friends and, oh right, the world.

As often as the game will be compared to its predecessors the real behemoth it’s facing is the Uncharted franchise, and when it comes to gameplay I dare to say Tomb Raider surpasses Nick Drake. This game is tremendous fun. A third person action platformer with some of the most satisfying gun and bow play I’ve come across recently and a surprisingly deft stealth component. There isn’t any of the maddening frustration of the action part of the game as in Uncharted, but Tomb Raider never feels especially easy either. And unlike nearly every other AAA game I’ve played recently it’s almost completely bug free. This is, without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous and polished games currently available.

Culling from the proven success of design found in the Arkham City/Asylum series (itself borrowing from Metroid) and Uncharted Tomb Raider‘s design is a slam dunk. There isn’t anything big and crazy and controversial in how the game is played.

It’s the wrapper where the controversy lies. Because Tomb Raider has particularly well-known tropes at its core. Little tricks it pulls out time and time again that tie all the games together. There’s the gorgeous, often buxom lead, sure, but there’s also the raiding of tombs and the gratuitous Lara Croft death scenes. The latter isn’t something absolutely required of the game, but it’s something it’s known for, so naturally Crystal Dynamics left in all the death scenes. There’s the triggering one where Lara is choked to death by a sexually aggressive man, the one where she gets impaled on a stick whilst riding through rapids and yes, there’s a drowning one. Lara is brutally killed in any number of fashions in the game. Some I found uncomfortable enough that I was forced to take a break from playing while others were so absurdly graphic I actually laughed pushed so quickly to a point of relieving pressure that the laugh came easiest.

Big crazy death sequences aren’t limited to the Tomb Raider franchise, but this particular game combines them with the emotional and physical degradation of Lara Croft to craft one very exploitative entertainment experience. It reminds me of the 70s radically feminist exploitation film Rape Squad. Like that film there are a lot of really good intentions at the heart of things, but like that film those good intentions are still wrapped up in a genre that immediately neuters them.

Can Lara Croft really be a badass hero if she’s constantly being beaten down, brutalized and exploited?

For the first half of the game I was positive the answer was no. I was dead certain that I was going to have to reluctantly say Tomb Raider was an interesting failure and proof that the video game industry can’t understand how to craft a female heroine. Lara narrowly avoids rapey attackers and she screams and cries and freaks out like an average woman where most video game heroes would have a ready quip. She regularly is stuck teaming up with white men who know better and mentor her. For the first half of the game she is less a heroine and more the basest of video game avatars with boobs stapled on like a Michelangelo sculpture.

Michelangelo didn't understand lady anatomy because he never studied it. He was basically a 16th century video game designer.

Michelangelo didn’t understand lady anatomy because he never studied it. He was basically a 16th century video game designer.

Then she’s caught in an effort to save her best friend. By this point she’s killed hundreds of men. When the bad guys grab her they aren’t eager to sexually assault her and prove their “men” uncorrupted by her femininity. I expected that very traditional route. But instead the men react logically. They just want her dead. So they beat her up and drag her off to an open grave where at the last moment Lara escapes, and plummets a few stories into a pool of bodies and blood. She rises from it covered in ichor, baptized by death itself and armed only with her bow and a single arrow and damn it, Lara Croft is suddenly the coolest hero in video games.

Gore never made someone such a badass.

Gore never made someone such a badass.

It’s frustrating that Lara has to be so savagely brutalized before she can reach this moment of rebirth. It’s bizarre that unless you pay for DLC she’s stuck in only a skimpy and filthy tank top for the entire game (I seriously worried for her nipples during the snowy mountain sequences). It’s downright sexist that until she kills a man she’s a sexual object to the game and the villains.

But it almost–almost–feels worth it when she rises from the blood and bodies ready to unleash hell.

In that instant she is the heroine video games have needed. She’s annihilated expectations and she’s cast off the vestiges of the youthful apprentice beholden to the many men of the game. She’s moved from the reluctant girl to keen hero.

The transformation accelerates at that point as the story turns more and more pedantic. Potential “safe” love interest of the opposite sex are killed off, a “friend” betrays the hero (though the guy has been doing it the whole time and Lara was too dumb to notice), and a damsel is put into distress. Lara becomes more competent with every story beat until she becomes like a superhero and even the savviest and wisest of other characters defer to her judgement.

Yet by the simple act of being a woman it doesn’t feel quite so rote. It helps that the only people still alive are all people of color, that the villains are all white men (finally!) or faceless immortal warriors and that the damsel in distress is…okay she’s still a damsel in distress and that’s ridiculous that the trope has to be employed in Tomb Raider of all franchises, but it does give us this?

They goin' to the chapel. They gonna get married.

They goin’ to the chapel. They gonna get married.

It’s a problem of story. The character beats for Lara Croft herself are nearly resplendent, but the writing, and the frame encompassing those character beats are as middling as 90% of video game stories. It’s left to Lara Croft herself to separate this game from the pack and elevate it to something special. Even with the exploitation Lara does that. By virtue of being one of the rare heroines in a well polished and fun AAA game she makes Tomb Raider a critical piece of video game history.

Notes

  • A big shout out to Camilla Luddington. The Grey’s actress uses her regular accent and carefully balances the very young Lara at the beginning of the game with the stand up and cheer her badassery hero at the end.
  • In a game set on a remote tropical island it would have been easy to make the villains anything but white. Hats off to Crystal Dynamics for making them crazed white sailors. Seriously.
  • And let’s all laugh how the survivors are all people of color…and Lara. I mean it’s still problematic that the rich white girl trumps the experience of everyone else.
  • Square Enix, the publisher of the Tomb Raider have labeled the game a “disappointment” because it “only” moved 3.4 million units. It’s a classic case of “can’t win.” If they’d had lower expectations everyone would have said they wanted it to fail, but by giving it major expectations even a hundred thousand less units sold than desire makes it a failure. To Square Enix and the rest of the game industry intent of fabricating a narrative where women can’t headline games?
Imagine that pole is my middle finger.

Imagine that pole is my middle finger.


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