Cultural Criticism: 'Tomb Raider' (Crystal Dynamics, 2013)

When I first discovered Lara Croft of the “Tomb Raider” video game franchise, I was seven years old. I wasn’t a great player—forget any actual violence in the game; Lara’s butler in the tutorial obstacle course level scared me, so I hid from him in her unrealistically deep pool and accidentally drowned about five times. Instead, I enjoyed watching my dad play the game; in this case the game was the third installment of the franchise, aptly called “Tomb Raider III,” released in 1998. Watching someone else play shouldn’t have been that entertaining, but when I saw Lara jump around, shoot some bad guys, avoid a pool of piranha and get chased by a T-Rex, I was hooked. “Tomb Raider III” was strange, but fascinated me endlessly.

In 2001 and 2003, the “Tomb Raider” franchise got so popular it earned a pair of live-action movies. The first wasn’t actually that great, and the second was worse (the sad truth of most video game adaptations), but I didn’t care. The character I knew, the kickass archaeologist Lara Croft, had actually gotten her own movie. To me, that was amazing. Then, flipping through some special features, I stopped on a short about the development of Lara, through games and into film. As developers from Eidos (the original game studio behind “Tomb Raider”) talked about their creation, I heard the words “Lara Croft” and “sex symbol.” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. The more I began to understand, the more it bothered me. I’d always looked at her with an enthusiastic respect, but these people talked about her like a particularly juicy piece of meat that was selling well at the supermarket. For all Lara has been slowly evolving from 1996 through 2008, she was still being perceived much the same way, her status as feminist trailblazer or sex symbol for males contested.

Lara has always represented an intriguing paradox: Is she empowering, inspiring a generation of female gamers, or is she yet another example of sexism and objectification in the game development industry? Lara has had an unusually long life for a game character. Lara’s evolution runs parallel to the way women in pop culture are viewed; she’s been pulled in two directions since she was conceived in 1993. She should be the perfect feminist role model for gamers. She’s brave, and intelligent. She speaks several languages, is an accomplished archaeologist and author, and possesses a deadly skillset with a wide range of weaponry. She’s a leading lady, in a time where females in games were almost exclusively unimportant non-player characters, either one-dimensionally furthering the plot or just getting kicked around.

The problem, then, lies with her being hyper-sexualized at the expense of a personality. You could argue that Lara’s skimpy clothing shouldn’t be problematic, that a woman choosing to show skin is perfectly reasonable, and you’d be right, but Lara was a product of developers worrying that male gamers (the presumed market) would be unable to relate or appreciate their playable character. 

The solution was to put Lara in small, tight clothing, and give her such a large bust and ridiculously tiny waist that she was obviously not conforming to any feasible human proportions. Furthermore, the tiny clothing becomes questionable when placed in context of what Lara does and where she goes—would anyone really want to crawl through dirty, trap-infested tombs, traverse countless rough terrains, and engage in bloody shoot-outs exclusively in plunging v-neck crop-tops and form-fitting short-shorts? If Lara is “practical” then Nathan Drake, her male treasure-hunting equivalent from the “Uncharted” series, should also run around with a low neckline and booty shorts. Does he? No, he very much does not. Clearly, Lara didn’t wear that clothing because it was convenient for her daily routine. She looked the way she did because the developers of “Tomb Raider” wanted to make sure they got a profit from her.

I grew up with Lara Croft, and as it turns out, she’s been doing some growing up herself—particularly three years ago, when a new “Tomb Raider” game was released. “Tomb Raider (2013)” is Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of the long-running original series. The reboot does what no other “Tomb Raider” game ever has, achieving greatness through character development, improving upon Lara’s character by leaps and bounds. Gameplay and story are both an expression of Lara’s journey and development into the tough-as-nails survivor of past games—and this time around she is both given and maintains her humanity and strength of character as well.

Lara’s ship, the Endurance, is torn apart in a violent storm at sea as the game begins. Wasting no time with establishing extra characters or a setting, players are immediately thrust into the shoes of a dazed and half-drowned Lara. Despite being styled as a third-person game, the story of “Tomb Raider” may as well be in first person perspective. The player never knows anything more than Lara does. When the player first fires a gun, makes their first kill, it’s Lara’s first kill too. The origin story of old-school “Tomb Raider” unfolds, as Lara makes one desperate bid after another to escape the island of Yamatai and protect her fellow survivors. 

Anyone familiar with the Tomb Raider of old (starting in 1996 and going all the way to 2008) will know that she didn’t always have a real personality. She was sassy and savvy, and most of the games had a storyline. Some even built on her background, as “Tomb Raider: Legend” did in 2006 with a plot concerning Lara and her mother. Nevertheless, for most of the time, Lara’s personality took a backseat to her violent exploits and her looks, coming up one-dimensional. Lara was there to explore, kill bad guys, and look good doing it, when factoring in her blatantly hyper-sexualized figure. 

As a kid who hadn’t seen any other examples in games (because they didn’t exist yet), none of this registered with me. I didn’t notice the flat personality, the ridiculously large breasts, tiny waist and skimpy clothes, because I was too busy being enamored of the anomaly: a strong female character who was the star of her own story ten times over. She should have been more widely recognized as such, but Lara, in her early days, was still a product of game developers selling sex appeal to male audiences. Despite her apparent strength, skill, and smarts, it seemed that was all she would ever be given credit for. If the Lara Croft of the 90s’ was an anomaly, the Lara Croft of 2013 is even more so, because she looks, sounds, and acts like a human being.

 “Tomb Raider (2013)” is an origins story, so Lara is completely in over her head at the start. Her lack of experience and idealism is established, and her initial vulnerability gives her depth, but never translates into weakness. Rather, her idealism and vulnerability are what allow her to continue making moral choices in a kill-or-be-killed environment. Lara is still easily one of the strongest and most brutally efficient characters out there, but she’s also designed to feel authentic and relatable. If Lara has to cauterize a deep open wound with nothing but a lighter and a metal-tipped arrow (spoiler alert: she does) then she’s going to wince, take a deep breath, and yell in pain afterwards. Lara cares about the people she travels with and does not hesitate to prove it, leaping to their defense, mounting rescues, and making decisions that place her in the line of fire to keep her friends safe. 

Lara throws up after her first kill, but steels herself to learn handy combat tactics until she’s a deadlier opponent than all the other inhabitants of the island put together. For all her misfortune, she maintains her zeal for adventure and discovery at the end of the story. Lara Croft is an incredibly human character for a role-playing game’s protagonist, and this makes “Tomb Raider” that much more gratifying.

Fantastically choreographed action sequences carry Lara from area to area of the game, making for impressively seamless transitions, while the action itself is fast-paced and intensely hands-on.  Above all, the installment capitalizes on the growth of the franchise by presenting a complex, and overdue, origin story of one of the most iconic video game protagonists of all time.

Consequentially, this new version of Lara was the first cosplay I ever made (cosplay being the act of making or sometimes buying a costume and dressing up as a character from pop culture, usually at a comic convention, because you’re a huge nerd about it). I had a great experience, for the most part, as a gigantic gathering of people who unabashedly love things can be. I got my share of genuine compliments—one guy turned, saw me, actually went bug-eyed and jumped before saying, “whoa, great makeup! You scared me, I thought you were actually hurt for a second.” (I had covered myself in roughly the same patterns of fake dirt and blood that Lara sports in the game.) 

I took one big picture with a bunch of other Laras at the con, both reboot versions and those wearing costumes of her previous iterations, all the way back to the 1990’s Lara…and they were all fantastic. Inspired. Badass. This, more than anything, was proof to me that my admiration as a kid hadn’t been misplaced no matter Lara was intended to be and that any Lara could be empowering—that every Lara was empowering. We wore our costumes with pride, because something about emulating such a smart, capable lady made us feel the same, even if on every other day we felt utterly banal. And then, of course, the group was catcalled. The act itself was stupid, just a lewd suggestion. At the time, it felt equal parts enraging and humiliating, but now, if anything, that moment just solidifies the point.

Gamers who have reduced Lara to her clothes and her figure aren’t our problem. Yes, they should know better, just some developers should know better, and hopefully with time (and more hours logged with the “Tomb Raider” reboot), they will. The truth is, Lara has always been intelligent, tough, and capable, a character towards whom we felt respect and admiration. Lara’s lack of significant character development made it easy for her empowering qualities to be overlooked, but no longer. Lara Croft has always been more than sex appeal and a pair of handguns, especially to we female gamers who have spent years following Lara’s adventures. The difference today is, she’s got the humanity and the in-game material to prove it.