Published on March 15th, 2013 | by Anders
Tomb Raider: Is Lara Croft a champion in feminism?
Boobs and sexual innuendos.
Those are the anchors that game developers Core and Crystal Dynamics have used to develop one of the few, and most popular, female protagonists in video games: Lara Croft. After nine major entries in the series and a slew of spin offs for mobile consoles, Lara has always remained scantily-clad and ever so flirtatious.
While this shallow character may have sold well against equally shallow characters of the ‘90s (ahem, Duke Nukem), video games have changed drastically since Lara’s PSOne debut. Now, games require budgets that rival movies and capture audiences that far surpass those of ‘90s.
More importantly, or at least I would like to think, we expect more than cleavage and sexuality from female characters. We want to see characters develop, their struggle and their eventual victory. When developers are too focused on refining boob physics and writing lines of sexy banter to create a deep character, the result is a flashy gimmick, not a protagonist.
There are so many opportunities that are missed by relegated females to supporting roles and making them objects to be saved. Leading ladies in movies like Zero Dark Thirty, Kill Bill, and the Alien series are groundbreaking and feature powerful characters that, I’d argue, are much more captivating than their male counterparts.
While there admittedly there are some standout roles in video games for female supporting characters, gamers are hard-pressed to find a strong female protagonist. Alyx Vance from the Half-Life series is beyond charming, but she’s still a sidekick. And yes, she subtly flirts with the silent Gordon Freeman throughout the game.
One of the only notable female stars is Samus Aran of the Metroid Prime series, was portrayed as a man throughout most of the original game until she finally takes off her armor. The result is shock value, not a breakthrough in video game feminism.
After Tomb Raider was announced by the new publisher Square Enix, I was hopeful. Covered in blood and dirt, this new Lara seemed tougher yet fallible. Her movement and animation was poised but aggressive. She no longer had the showy flair of a gymnast as she scaled rock faces and slid down a mountain, dodging flaming debris from a crashing plane.
There was no sign of campy flirting or any slow tilts of the camera showing off Lara’s figure. And while the final product is not without character development flaws, it has delivered one of the finest female protagonists that I have seen in a game.
Sure, many have cited Lara’s abrupt transformation from innocent survivor to stone-cold killer as one of the game’s major flaws, but we should focus on what Crystal Dynamics did right: create a protagonist that can stand-up to the adventure game greats such as Nathan Drake and Lee Everett.
In the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara is captivating because she is human. The initial escape scene where she is impaled by a piece of rebar is harrowing and wince-inducing. Player’s feel for her as she cries out in pain, and cheer her on as she collects herself and manages to keep moving forward. At first she runs and hides from enemies. By the end of the game, she’s facing them head on, jeering and antagonizing them as thousands fall to her arrows, bullets and climbing axe.
Not once does Crystal Dynamics portray Lara as an object of sexuality. She has no love interest in the game and no vampish dialogue. Her primary motivation is saving her platonic, female friend, Sam.
As players, we are attracted to Lara as a character because she is a badass, not because she can cartwheel while shooting dual pistols in a tight bathing suit. There is no sheen of overt sexuality that keeps us from appreciating the humanity of Lara.
While games have a long way to go in terms of improving the stories they tell and the characters that they develop, this new Lara is a step in the right direction. Because few developers have attempted to create strong female characters, there are so many opportunities to explore and so much potential.
I believe that by creating deeper characters, both male and female, video games can become more than a pastime of male twenty-somethings. It’s my hope that they will become narrative works of art, that can have as much of an impact on our society as films and literature.
And one of video game’s bustiest broads is spearheading the way. What beautiful irony.