Lara Croft Is Dead, Long Live Lara Croft: Reflections On Tomb Raider
On Tuesday, I sat in front of my computer, not playing the new Tomb Raider. I had preloaded the game on Steam days before. I was wearing comfy pants. I had prepared some snacks. I was alone in my apartment. Nothing was preventing me from clicking “Play.” Yet my attention was focused away from the screen, just a few inches from my keyboard. You see, on my desk, I have five small pieces of artwork, each featuring a game character that serves as a touchstone for my personal history. The second of these is Lara Croft.
I was eleven years old when my grandma handed me the PlayStation she’d won in a raffle. It came with two games — some sports game I never played, and Tomb Raider, which I devoured. I had been raised on point-and-clicks and early ‘90s edutainment games. None of those had thrown snarling wolves and fast-moving death traps at me, or punished my mistakes with the sound of crunching bones. No game had given me such a visceral sense of adventure and danger. And no story I had seen — movies, books, or otherwise — had ever told me that a woman was allowed to be cast in such a role. She was Indiana Jones, but witty, measured, sophisticated. She shot first and asked questions later. She screamed only when seconds from death. She never, ever needed saving.
She could do anything.
But something had changed by the time I got my hands on Tomb Raider 2. I had changed. Two things had come into my life in between those games — the internet, and puberty. My knowledge of sexuality was flimsy, but I had come to understand that a woman with large breasts and skimpy clothing meant something. I vividly remember digging through Tomb Raider fansites, trying to find help for a puzzle I was stuck on, when all of a sudden, there was Lara, sprawled naked and winking at me. In that moment, my hero transformed. The feeling that I was treading into forbidden territory grew as I continued through the game, and in that final scene, with Lara poised to take a shower, saying “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” — I understood.
Lara Croft was not meant for me.
As I grew older and her name became synonymous with video game cheesecake, my admiration for Lara faded into conflicted nostalgia. I loved how I had first seen her. I did not love what she had become. But in late 2010, a friend sent me a piece of concept art from a new game by Crystal Dynamics, still in early development. It showed a young woman, reasonably dressed and realistically proportioned, wielding a bow and arrow. Her skin was covered in dirt, blood, bandages. She looked back at me with gritty conviction. I stared at the screen for a long time, a smile spreading across my face. She did not look like the Lara I knew. She looked like me. The Lara I had imagined, the Lara I had always wanted — she was going to happen.
That was the belief I was holding onto when controversy hit E3 last year. I read the offending remarks, and watched the corresponding trailer. Though I couldn’t pass judgment on a game I hadn’t played, I was deeply concerned. That concern grew when I saw the gameplay trailers of a screaming, struggling woman tossed unceremoniously through gloomy passageways. What about that was heroic? And where were the puzzles, the pistols, the places to explore? With a sense of resigned disappointment, I became convinced that the game would probably suck.
I preordered it anyway, partly out of stubborn curiosity, mainly because I knew I’d be writing about it one way or the other. Some extended gameplay footage and promising interviews with lead writer Rhianna Pratchett encouraged me, but I remained dubious, afraid of getting my hopes up. In the run-up to release, I played Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a polished repackaging of the original game. It took no time for me to remember why my younger self had adored Lara. She’s cool and cocky, fearless to a fault. But it was clear, too, that I had filled in a lot of blanks on my own. The original incarnation of Lara Croft is not a layered one. There’s no backstory, no real motivation beyond thrill seeking. I didn’t need anything more than that at the age of eleven, but nowadays, I am not so easily satisfied. And so, with equal parts hope and dread, I held my breath, and finally clicked “Play.” Having long since exhaled, I can now say this with certainty:
The new Tomb Raider is absolutely fantastic.
Forget everything you’ve read about Lara needing your protection. Forget about her needing to be “broken down.” It’s nonsense, all of it, the remnants of some truly misguided remarks about a character who is, without a doubt, one of the best action heroes I’ve ever seen. Not female action heroes — action heroes, period, full stop.
This is not the Lara Croft of old. That Lara was a treasure hunter, a bored rich girl who saw archaeology as a sport, who reacted to charging monsters with a raised eyebrow. Her successor is a devoted scholar — a history geek if ever there was one — resourceful, empathetic, and yes, very much afraid. But worry not, this is Tomb Raider’s masterful trick: It manages to show Lara as frightened and vulnerable without ever taking away her power. Her fear is not weakness. It’s humanity. It’s what makes you cheer her on all the more as she fights ever onward, as she yells, “I’m still alive, you bastards!” Giving up never crosses her mind, not once. She didn’t need me to push her along. She was the one pulling me.
As for Lara being “broken,” what I saw was quite the opposite. This isn’t a story about a person coming undone. This is a story about a person discovering the strengths she’s had all along. By contrast, there are broken people in this game — the island’s inhabitants, who responded to adversity by becoming less than human. Lara, on the other hand, chooses to become something more. I mentioned this to a friend after we both finished playing. “If she had broke,” he said, “the game would’ve ended.”
The interplay between Lara and her crewmates further cements her place as a laudable female protagonist. Not only does the game pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but it does so with a multiracial cast. Her friends respect her, but they also question her, for they, too, are human. When they doubt her, it is not for her gender, but for her inexperience. No one hits on her, or comments on her appearance. When they admire her, they speak of her instincts and intellect. They are the final brick in the old Lara’s tomb.
Yes, the game is violent, and yes, Lara gets the living daylights kicked out of her, again, and again, and again. Bear with me, here — I saw that as a good thing. Put a male character in Lara’s blood-spattered shoes, and no one would so much as blink. Have you seen what Issac Clarke has been through lately? (Don’t click that link if you’ve got a weak stomach.) And for every injury Lara suffers, she returns the favor tenfold. During a fight, I heard an NPC yell, “Is it her?” Another replied: “I’m not going out there!” Lara’s badassery cannot be called into question. The violence in Tomb Raider is on par with what you’ll see in Dishonored, or Assassin’s Creed, or any other mature action game (not to mention that the gameplay mechanics are smooth as butter, and exactly my cup of tea). By putting Lara in an environment every bit as brutal as those of her contemporaries, she can stand proudly as one of them.
That is not to imply that Lara is a male character placed in a woman’s body. I believed Lara as a human being, but I also believed her as a woman. Something within me related to her almost right off the bat. This is a character who manages to retain her femininity — oh my god, I can’t believe I’m about to write this about Lara Croft — without becoming objectified. There are times when the camera frames her differently than it might a male character, but in a broad sense, I felt that Tomb Raider lets its players decide whether or not to sexualize its protagonist. Unlike its predecessors, it does not make that decision for us.
As for that scene, it is true that last year, the game’s executive producer stated plainly that Lara faces characters who “try to rape her,” implying that it was a defining moment in her character development. I don’t have room here to explain the plethora of things that are wrong and insulting about that (and if you really don’t understand, I’d suggest starting here). Thing is, nothing of the sort happens in this game. There is no rape, attempted or otherwise, in Tomb Raider. What does happen is the clip everyone has seen, in which a man strokes Lara’s side and a struggle breaks out. That raised some major red flags for me when I first saw it, but having played the scene in full (several times)…honestly, in a world where those comments had never been made, I doubt I would be writing about it now at all. For those who don’t mind some light spoilers, here’s how it goes down (highlight to read):
The island Lara and her comrades are shipwrecked on is home to a bloody, murderous cult, whose handiwork Lara has been crawling through from the first playable moments of the game. These people don’t just enjoy killing — they revel in it. Pools bobbing with corpses, bone-stacked altars littered with gore, the whole nine yards. Shortly after Lara finally catches up with members of her crew, they’re rounded up by the cultists. And then the killing begins. In what was one of the most harrowing stealth sequences I have ever played, Lara has to get out of the camp without being seen — hands bound, no weapons, people dying in the background. It is a tense, terrifying experience, made all the worse by having seen firsthand what these people will do to Lara if they find her. And one of them does. He briefly runs his hand down her side and whispers in her ear. If you do nothing, this sharply transitions into him strangling her. If you fight back, and fail, he shoots her in the head. If you succeed, Lara gains control of the gun, and kills him. The only reactionary thought I had during the scene, even having seen it before, even with months of controversy and concern rattling around in my head, was “Oh shit, get away, he’s going to kill you.”
The impression I was left with was not of a rapist, but of a madman savoring a kill. This is a type of scene I’ve seen in many movies and TV shows — a villain caressing a victim right before murdering them (interestingly, I think you’d be more likely to see that with a female villain). That’s a trope we could pick apart at length, but in terms of this story, I found the scene inconsequential alongside everything else that happens. It does not define Lara, it is not what makes her a hero, and it is not what drives her. Without the hullabaloo, it would not have made much of an impact on me (the creepy guy, that is; the stealth sequence was brilliant).
Now, I’m sure there are others who may see it differently, and some who won’t want to play through that scene no matter what the context. That’s okay. To argue against someone’s personal comfort zone would be grossly unfair. At the same time, I strongly feel that the comments made at E3 did not accurately reflect the content of the game, nor the narrative effect of that scene. As far as I’m concerned, the controversy can be filed away under misrepresentation and bad PR. (Oh, how I wish this trailer had come out sooner than a week ago. Freaking chills.)
Returning to the game as a whole, I must point out that there are indeed a number of ways in which Lara is portrayed differently than a man would be. You’d be hard-pressed to find a male action hero shown panting with fear, shaking with cold, holding his best friend’s hand reassuringly, or any of the many other emotive things we see Lara do. That’s not a mark against Tomb Raider. That’s a mark against how other heroes are written. What I found here was a character far more believable than all of the gravely-voiced, iron-jawed, emotionless dudes out there. Lara felt flawed and mortal, and for that, I admired her perseverance all the more. After the countless times I’ve wished to see a leading lady given the same chance as the gents, now the shoe’s on the other foot. I’d love to see a fixed-gender male protagonist portrayed with as much honesty and depth as Lara Croft.
There’s a glorious moment near the end (which I will not spoil) where it’s made clear that this Lara has fully taken up the mantle of the one who came before. I realized then that this game had given me more than I could’ve hoped for — not redemption for the girl I was, but resonance with the woman I am now. As the credits rolled, I thought back to an earlier scene, in which one of her crewmates laughs triumphantly and says, “Lara Croft, you’re my hero.”
Mine too, buddy. Mine too.