Lara Croft: Vulnerable, Insecure, And Finally Meaningful
The original Tomb Raider was a seminal title. Female protagonists were almost unheard of at the time; Lara Croft quickly became an important shot in the arm for the video game industry, propelling to her icon status as she graced the covers of magazines, advertised sports drinks and made the jump across mediums to Hollywood and the silver screen. A woman in a video game? A novel concept for the time, one lauded purely for the fact she was a playable female. But she wasn’t a real woman, far from it. Her characterisation was non-existent, left to stand alone as a polygonal sex object of ridiculous proportions. More cartoon character than a real person. Her rise was an important step, for sure, but one that still had a long, long way to go before she was anything more than a voyeuristic giggle for 14-year old boys and their nude cheat codes.
Crystal Dynamics’ recent reboot of the beloved heroine looked the part but pre-release chatter and a misguided marketing push painted a wholly different picture. Lara was shown as being battered and bruised, moaning and groaning. She was someone us masculine men would apparently want to protect and shield from danger: a helpless damsel in distress in a dangerous world, successful because of more capable, male hands. It seemed as though not much had changed since 1996 but her proportions. Sit down to play it, however, and the marketing angle couldn’t be further from the truth. This new Tomb Raider is a stunning triumph, let down by questionable pre-release tactics that should be discounted altogether. Lara may still be an attractive young woman, but she’s now so much more than that, finally giving her character and the Tomb Raider franchise a meaningful purpose – something the video game industry so desperately needs.
She inhabits a bleak world, shipwrecked and trapped on a mysterious island with seemingly little hope of survival. An imperious army of people want her dead, her friends are in danger and she’s scared as all hell. The cold weather lashes her injured body, leaving her alone and shivering by a dank campfire. Her injuries almost seem like too much to bear; she’s vulnerable and unsure, hesitant to move on and face the looming struggles. It’s not often we encounter a protagonist who lacks the overblown confidence of her action hero contemporaries, and she’s instantly relatable because of it. Imagine yourself in the same situation and it’s easy to embody Lara’s emotions, her trepidations and her fears.
Upon killing her first enemy she’s distraught. She did it to survive but it wasn’t an easy choice. There’s some narrative disconnect here as she proceeds to kill hundreds of more men with little issue (this aspect of her characterisation could have been handled a little more slowly) but it never feels like she enjoys doing it. Traditionally in video games we’re supposed to glean satisfaction out of shooting the bad guys, but in Tomb Raider it becomes a necessary evil. Lara doesn’t like it but she has to do it, you have to do it. You step into her boots and her gender almost becomes a moot point as her characterisation becomes the focal point of the experience. Every kill feels regrettable, building to a torturous killing spree that eats away at her very soul. There are fleeting moments when she shouts back at her murderous foes: “Take that you bastards!” she yells at the top of her lungs. But these outbursts are born out of anger and frustration. She’s at her tipping point and lays it all on the line.
There’s a preconceived notion that seeing a woman beaten and groaning is exploitative, sexualised violence. Taken out of context it can feel that way, and the game’s marketing sure took advantage of this. But within the context of the narrative those perilous moments where Lara is thrashed this way and that are important points in her development. She’s in a terrible situation but she’s determined: a survivor. She may lack confidence but that builds up inside her as the narrative progresses and she discovers her inner strength. The rest of the cast may be a stereotypical bunch and the story lacks the twists and turns you might expect, but Lara is always the shining beacon at the centre of it, built on purposeful writing and inherently interesting character development. Lara is a strong lead, a worthy hero, not because she has the biggest muscles and the largest guns, but because she’s real and unsure of herself, and she grows from this in a believable way.
She’s so much different than any other gaming protagonist, wearing her vulnerability on her sleeve. This isn’t dictated by her gender but by a fascinating character arc that establishes this re-imagined Lara as someone meaningful for everyone. She’s no longer just a symbolic force for women purely because of her gender, and she’s no longer a pair of breasts to be ogled by men. She shows what you can do with characterisation in video games, creating a strong lead who voices her insecurities and anxiety, finally redefining Lara as a character who extends far beyond her physical appearance. Perhaps it’s her gender that allows people to accept this, but this Tomb Raider should hopefully become an important building block that unlocks the door for other writers to mould similar female and male protagonists, without fear of backlash.
We need more characters like this Lara Croft. We need more adventures with this Lara Croft. Forget her debut in 1996, now she actually means something. Now she’s genuinely a gaming icon.