The original version of this article was first published on Girls Got Game!, a website my friends and I tried to set up back in the day for All the Gaming Things.
Full disclosure: when I heard that Square Enix was going to come out with a remake of Tomb Raider, I was incredibly cynical. This wasn’t because I was a fan of the original series – in fact, I never got to play it. And that might have been the problem. My exposure of Tomb Raider was limited to boob jokes, screenshots of said boobs with the occasional boob joke attached to it, and Angelina Jolie. Going on the internet did not help much either, especially since the crowd seemed to be divided between excitement over seeing Lara Croft gloriously rendered in third-generation console graphics, worry over gender representation, and unapologetic cynicism (“Oh god, not another remake!”). I think I fit into the second category. Rare is the game that has a female protagonist that is not objectified, not a result of happening to like picking a female lead over a male lead at character creation, not part of a marketing ploy built to “reach out” to “the female demographic”, or not really a character at all because of a lack of personality. I’ve never had any real issues about not being able to play as a female lead often, but personally? It would be nice to see more digital girls kicking ass, and not being counted as the token female in a beefcake fest.
So yes, I was cynical. It took the cajoling of several trusted friends to make me pick the game up for myself and try it. Now that I finished it (or, more correctly, now that my younger brother and I finished it, because we double-team on some of our games), I have to say that Tomb Raider 2013 is a must-play for everyone, especially if you’re a girl. It’s one of the most intense gaming experiences on the market, it’s one of the finest takes on an origin story that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, and it’s solid proof that developers CAN make a female lead who can kick ass without being just another hot digital body for everyone to fawn over. Let’s tackle these experiences one by one.
Tomb Raider as Tomb Falling Down Shit/Lara Croft’s Life is Pain. The first ten minutes of gameplay can be summarized in alternating reactions of “F**k the graphics are beautiful”, “Mmm, Lara, so pretty…” and “OW OW OW WHAT THE FUCK OW!”. And it doesn’t get better. To my count, there are about five different ways to die horribly at any point in the game, and the death sequences, while at times excessive mostly because of the fact that if you keep screwing up you keep seeing it, are as painful for you as they are for Lara. It is also a case study on the many possible things that a human being could fall off of or into. The environment isn’t the only thing that’s deadly: the people populating the island that Lara’s crew gets stranded on are also out to kill them with whatever they have at their disposal. And they’ve got plenty. I feel, though, that all of this has a real, narrative purpose: it sets the stage for the story of a girl who survives against impossible odds, and starts on the kind of work that will end up defining who she is for the rest of her life.
Tomb Raider as an Origin Story. You can criticize the game for its shortness, occasional cases of game logic (i.e. a lack OF logic) and its apparent deviance from the flavor of the original series (puzzle solving over kill-kill-bang-bang). What you can’t hit it for, I feel, is the way you feel Lara Croft grow up with every step, and perhaps you, as player, growing up with her. Yes, she’s forced into an impossible situation, and – typical to video games – she manages to survive and comes out stronger because of it. But Square Enix also does an excellent job of humanizing her, reminding you, in small ways, of the fact that she feels pain, fear, doubt, loss and regret. Action games have the tendency of making their main characters seem invincible: you play hopscotch on high rooftops with them, swoop down on targets with them and do superhuman feats with them, and they act like they do it all the time. With Lara, however, you’re intensely aware of how she feels about crossing a rotting log over a yawning chasm built of rocks and certain death, or how hard it is for her to kill somebody for the first time. And then you see, later in the game, how she starts fighting back, how every climb or jump becomes easier (but no less frightening), and how she refuses to roll over and die when she’s faced with a gang of gun-toting goons out to keep her from saving her friends. The game marries both of these sides very well, because up until the end, you can still see how human Lara as is whenever she’s alone, or standing on the brink of making a decision that could get herself killed, get someone else killed, or help her press on. The best part about it is that the plot devices they used in order to “toughen” Lara up were rather girl-friendly.
Tomb Raider as a Game for Girls. I understand that this is a rather sensitive topic, but I feel that it has to be said: one dangerous trend in television shows, movies and games is that tendency to emphasize how female characters can only “toughen up” through some form of sexual violation. It is almost as if girls are only interested in the usual Home Economics Triumvirate (Cooking, Cleaning, Looking Pretty), and will only learn how to defend themselves after they’ve been harassed, molested or raped. This is not to say that this motivation is invalid; I simply want to point out that the use of this device in a story happens far too often, and – for many parties – is distasteful, because it belies a lack of sensitivity towards victims of sexual abuse, and also falls back on how the female body tends to be an object that exists solely for male pleasure in media. In Tomb Raider, you never hear unprovoked sexist slurs or spot any unapologetically misogynist moments, and the one antagonist who does attempt to molest Lara is characterized as a sadistic freak who would likely do the same to any person that he was assigned to hunt down. Furthermore, Lara’s motivation in the game is not built around fighting back because of the fear of violation, but because she wants to survive and save as many of her friends as she can. On a less sensitive note, Lara calls the shots throughout the game, for better or for worse. She is not without fault, and she’s forced on many occasions to live with the consequences of her decisions, but she is, at the end of it, a self-made character, not a damsel in distress.
Lara Croft stands for a lot of things as a video game character. She was one of the first strong female leads in video game history, and – because of the natural flaws that came with her development – her character opened up a space for healthy discussion on girls, girls and games, and female representation in today’s media. Tomb Raider 2013 is a beautiful experience, and it does an excellent job of bringing out the best in what Lara has to offer for all of us, gamers, developers and critics alike.
POSTSCRIPT, CIRCA 2015: One of the things I realized after reviewing this article for posting was that my feelings about the game haven’t really changed. I still think Tomb Raider 2013 is a good game to take a look at, and its contributions to the representation of women in video games remain solid. It’s a shame that nothing’s really been done in the direction of a follow-up to what this game could have started. Hopefully, by remembering it, we’ll be able to do our small part in putting it back on the map!