Doing it Right is a new, hopefully regular, feature I’ll be writing that looks at games that I think are making positive strides in regard to females and representation in games. While it’s important to call out games when they are sexist and reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the games that are succeeding at elevating themselves away from that.
I played through the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 for the first time not too long ago. From a gameplay perspective, I thought it was amazing. It looked and sounded great, and the controls were smooth as silk. It was one of the most engaging and entertaining games I’ve played in a while. But how does it hold up when I look deeper? Through her history Lara Croft has been interpreted in many ways, from strong female role model to virtual blow-up doll. Have Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics re-invented Lara in a positive way or have they fallen back on lazy and sexist video game tropes?
When I think of classic Lara Croft, the above image is what comes to mind. On the bright side, she looks fierce and determined. But she has completely unrealistic body proportions. Besides the huge breasts, which she was always known for, she also had small hips and a teeny, tiny waist. She has an unnaturally wide stance. She was always an ass kicker, but she was also eye candy, with her physical assets at the forefront.
This is the new Lara. She looks just as determined, though maybe a little less fierce (this is an origin story, after all). Her body proportions are much more realistic. She looks like someone who is strong, who can climb up cliff faces and use a bow with a heavy enough draw weight to take down an enemy. Her outfit is a reasonable outfit for raiding tombs. I do have to suspend disbelief a little bit that those skinny tank top straps or her bra straps never slide off her shoulders, but I can get past that. The new Lara makes me believe that her designers thought about function just as much as form.
You can also choose to put Lara in different outfits, which I believe were DLC originally, but were included in the PS4 definitive edition. In most games I find games that the ‘bonus’ outfits for female characters tend to be much more revealing than their original costumes (see games ranging from Metroid to Cool Boarders 2 to Bayonetta). In Tomb Raider, it’s very refreshing to see that this isn’t the case.
The extra skins actually put more clothes on Lara. Her starting tank top is as revealing as it gets. Again, function is just as important as form. She gets the Sure Shot outfit, which puts her in archery gear. She gets the Hunter outfit, which adds camouflage to her normal attire. Three of the six bonus outfits have sleeves. Most of them cover her chest. Lara is still gorgeous, but not in a “we need to make her overtly sexy so men will want to play this game” way.
The new Lara is also smart. Not that the old Lara wasn’t, but here it’s made very clear that she’s an academic. She knows a lot about other cultures, she has good instincts, and is continuously puzzling things out throughout the game. She figures things out when other people can’t. When she finds an artifact in the game she shows reverence towards it. The term “tomb raider” doesn’t really fit Lara, as she’s not going to exotic locales to pillage another culture’s historical artifacts. She yearns for discovery and knowledge. Through journal entries found throughout the game, we see that Lara’s brains and bravery also inspires adoration from the rest of the Endurance crew.
There was a lot of controversy about the Tomb Raider reboot and how Lara is portrayed, and most of that was due to some incredibly dumb things said by the executive producer before the game was released. Things like “we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again” and suggesting that “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character… They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’” I can tell you that’s not the Tomb Raider I played. People will interpret things in different ways, but to me, Lara was never broken. Lots of bad things happened, but she overcame them all. The game occasionally showed that she was scared or in pain or doubting, but she kept going. I can’t fault a game for trying to make the protagonist more emotionally realistic. Most people can’t be in mortal danger, drop hundreds of bodies, or have their friends die without being a little shaken up.
Damsel in Distress
Tomb Raider does use one of the oldest tropes in the book, the damsel in distress. Early in the game, Lara’s friend Sam gets kidnapped. Sam is a descendant of the Sun Queen Himiko, so Lara literally needs to save the princess. However, a couple of things set this scenario apart from the usually problematic cliche.
First, none of the women need to be saved by a man. Lara is the one who does all the rescuing. She saves a number of the men in her crew as well.
Second, Sam is never portrayed as an object or a prize, as the damsel in distress so often is. We learn about her through her interactions with Lara and the rest of the crew, as well as through journal entries. She’s not just a plot device, she’s a real character. The relationship between her and Lara is established.
Women play most of the important roles within the game, from the hero, to the skeptic, to the one who needs rescuing, to the big bad.
The crew of the Endurance is fairly sexually and ethnically diverse. There are 4 men and 3 women. Four characters are white, one is black, one is Japanese, and one is Polynesian.
The nameless bad guys who Lara has to fight are also very diverse. In many games where the protagonist racks up a big kill count the antagonists are the “savage” natives, or just some kind of non-white/non-Western group. As you learn through journal entries found on the island, the Solarii Brotherhood is made up of the people who have crashed on the island, who come from all over the world.
It’s not stated anywhere in the game but if you wanted to, you could absolutely interpret the relationship between Lara and Sam as a romantic one.
In addition to being a whole lot of fun, I found Tomb Raider to be a very positive experience from a feminist perspective. Lara was presented as a strong woman, who only got stronger throughout the game. That’s not to say that it’s completely without problems but, as I mentioned, I wanted to focus on the good things. If you want to hear some more opinions about the game, and hear some discussion of the more problematic things, go listen the episode of Justice Points I was a guest on. I tried not to overlap the article with the podcast too much.