The Tomb Raider series has always been scrutinized for its sexy lady adventurer protagonist Lara Croft. On the one hand, she’s a woman, acting like Indiana Jones, kicking much ass, shooting T-Rexes in the face with twin pistols. On the other hand, she wears booty shorts and a shirt that comes to a perfect point at the chest, 1996’s version of protruding nipples. Promotional material sometimes treated her like a pinup, which was disrespectful but pretty much in keeping with her character design. As her series progressed, developers made promises that she would be wearing more sensible clothing and generally being less of a sexist fantasy. It was a frustrating process to watch them fail. The good sides of Tomb Raider are really promising, and, done right, the series could be a touchstone of feminist gaming. 2013’s Tomb Raider was the culmination of past promises and criticism. It rebooted the series in order to redefine who Lara Croft was. Given this blank slate, did the developers break Tomb Raider tradition? Move it past teenaged fantasy and into its rightful place as totally awesome female empowerment murder simulator? No, not really. In fact, it kind of got worse.
Violence Against Women is a Cornerstone of Tomb Raider
Months before release, the game was criticized for a rapey sequence in which a big dirty man gropes Lara and she has to fight back in a quick time event. The game’s executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, said the scene and the brutal survivalism of the game were meant to evoke a feeling of “‘I want to protect her,'” and added:
“There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”
This led to a lot of indignation over Lara’s role in the game being minimized. The global brand director later “clarified” that rape had nothing to do with the game and that the executive producer was a bad spokesman. He went on to say the relegation of Lara to a subject of the player’s whims instead of an avatar was an extrapolation of play test results, not the intent of the developers.
The controversy ended up respun as a tempest in a teapot, where there was just this one sequence that people were reading too much into (there are other parts where gross dudes grab Lara, but only to “get” her). If you fail the QTE, Lara is not raped, but strangled to death. Past this scene, the enemies have no interest in Lara beyond killing her, unlike the mooks in Arkham City and their kinda frightening threats towards Catwoman.
The thing is, though, if you DON’T fail the sequence, it plays out exactly like a foiled rape attempt. The first two prompts in the event come when the guy strokes Lara’s hip (you knee him in the balls) and when he leans in close to sniff her hair (you bite his face). After he drops his gun, you dive for it and the game goes into slow motion and gives you a chance to shoot. When I first played, I was surprised at the limited area you can aim within, and that the game basically wants you to shoot him in the dick. What does it mean from a gameplay perspective that failing to fight back against these advances leads to your death and a do-over? It means that what the game WANTS you to see is the guy trying to rape Lara. You aren’t, strictly speaking, “supposed to” see him dropping the rape act and killing her. If rape has nothing to do with the game, why would it be constructed in such a way that if you play perfectly, you’re given the impression that you just escaped being violated? Cause that PR dude lied, of course! The sequence is totally about rape, and it’s being used as a means of progressing Lara’s character, which is what criticism of it alleged.
[Heavy spoilers ahead; the story is awful so it doesn’t matter]
Whether or not it’s an attempted rape, this is only a small section of the game, as many people are quick to point out, and Lara’s development doesn’t stem just from this. It comes from her being forced to survive on an island controlled by a cult that kidnaps Lara’s friend Sam and burns her at the stake to see if she’s fit to serve as a vessel for imprisoned sun goddess Himiko! So, yeah, it’s not like Lara’s entire arc circles around this one little scene of a woman being victimized. It circles around a long, hard-fought adventure where a literal goddess has been trapped and victimized by gross men and whose continued imprisonment requires female victimization! So calm down, guys, there’s some real depth here.
When Himiko is woken up, she screams and screams and doesn’t stop screaming until you get to her dessicated body and burn it. Why is it that upon receiving a new body — which Mathias the cult leader, Lara herself, and an ancient mural, claim she wants — she seems to be insane with pain and anguish? Why did the developers choose to depict her as a crippled, tortured wretch, instead of some crusty-ass old woman or something who could talk in a creepy vampire voice? By the time you reach the ritual site and kill her, it feels like you’ve saved her, in addition to Sam. Mathias never seemed like a servant of Himiko, but the man who really ran the island. If he was shipwrecked like Lara’s crew and couldn’t escape due to Himiko’s storms, why did he choose to carry out the succession ritual instead of just killing Himiko like Lara did? Because it wouldn’t have let him build a base of power the way he has clearly done. Himiko is the key to a cult that allows Mathias to rule the island. She, too, is a victim.
There’s also the issue of the grotesque deaths Lara suffers when you fail. In a particularly frustrating section where I had to maneuver a parachuting Lara through a forest, I saw her get impaled on a branch about twenty times. The death is painful to watch, a wordless Lara twitching and struggling with the last of her strength. I went through this sequence so many times, falling, pulling the chute, pulling the backup chute, then getting impaled, that I came to think there was some deeper purpose to this section being so difficult, that the purgatory of endless deaths was meant to signify some lesson or roadblock Lara had to move past. I have sort of an unhealthy problem with ascribing meaning to meaningless bullshit, though, and there’s no lesson to be learned by anybody.
Lara, at various turns, is impaled through the throat on pointed debris, throat-stabbed with a machete, and arrowed to death. The game is gritty and “realistic,” and these deaths can be hand-waved away as an attempt to illustrate the danger a real person would face in real life. But the fact remains that I saw this happen twenty times in fifteen minutes:
What it boils down to, intention aside, is that the game is completely fucking full of women getting destroyed. The story hinges on it. Lara’s development is spurred by it, and you will be seeing a whole lot of it, again and again.
Lara Croft is Still an Empty Sexual Fantasy
Unsurprisingly, Lara is still really hot. Through all the damage and stress she experiences, she remains really hot, and her tiny wounds and dirt splotches just add to the hotness, like Padma Lakshmi’s arm scar. This isn’t problematic in and of itself, but becomes so when you get to the gameplay, which involves a lot of camera angling that showcases Lara’s funky stuff. It’s a tough issue, because what’s Tomb Raider without a bunch of jumping and shimmying on ropes and deep crouches? Tomb Raider is pretty much always going to have a creepy voyeur aspect to it. It will probably never get past that. Like her attractiveness itself, that’s not really such a bad thing, but it’s important to keep in mind the series tradition of objectification.
Lara Croft is thrown into a situation where she must fight to survive, and that’s pretty much the only thing she does, aside from raid some optional tombs and hunt down stupid collectibles. Tomb Raider is the story of Lara becoming a survivor, which, contrary to Crystal Dynamics’ PR, resolves completely during the rape scene. She realizes she must fight, and fight dirty, to make it off the island. There is no further sacrifice or realization needed to develop Lara’s character. She just has to kill several hundred men and upgrade her toolkit of murder skills, and then she’s the badass we all know and love. The only plot elements necessary to forming Lara’s character were the rape scene and some excuse to have a township of dudes she could pickaxe in the back of the head.
Her only concern in the game is staying alive and saving her friends, and is given no motivation whatsoever aside from that. Everything she does is a reaction to something else. She never makes a decision, not even “I am going to fucking kill that creepy cult dude.” It happens, but only because he’s in the way of her survival and her way off the island. Even her rescue of Sam isn’t a decision or act of heroism. Lara’s means of getting off the island, i.e. killing Himiko and ending the storms that prevent anyone from leaving, is twenty feet away from Sam. Getting off the island cannot happen without Sam being rescued. Not because Lara loves her friend and resolves not to leave her behind, but because it’s literally impossible. Not a single action Lara takes is motivated by her character, mainly because she doesn’t have one.
Late in the game, we’re shown a character really putting others before themselves, making a sacrifice, and being a hero. But it’s not Lara, it’s some pasty nerd dude who’s along on the expedition as tech support, who’s basically one third of a single “those other guys who were on the ship” character. His leg is trapped under a pipe Lara could probably lift somehow with her survivor skills, and they’re under attack by armed men like the ones Lara has killed eight hundred of. He hands her the tools needed to fix the little motor boat they’ll use to reach Himiko, and tells her to go on without him. “How often does a guy like me get to be a hero?” he asks. Lara rewards him with a kiss on the cheek and runs away. This scene is so hilarious that I have to assume the game is trying to tell us something, and unlike the branch impalement, I think there really is something here.
Everything Ron Rosenberg said was true. The player of Tomb Raider is the real hero, not Lara. Lara is an unattainable object of desire. We want to protect her, both because she’s super cute and because she faces such horrible dangers. The game revolves around violence against women because we’re meant to save them from it. We save Lara through our skill as gamers. We save Sam through Lara. We save Himiko by killing her. Lara, like Sam, is an empty vessel, a body for us to be inside. She has no desires or motivations of her own — the game specifically caters to the desires of the audience, which, let’s be honest, is men.
Tomb Raider is in a really special spot. Lara Croft is one of the most recognizable and famous female game heroes. The gameplay is fun as hell. The setting is “anywhere in the world that is awesome.” The franchise will (almost) never put out a game that is ignored. It has the potential to be a fixture of feminist gaming, to have a fleshed-out female protagonist who’s got a rad job and murder skills that rival any male character. But yet again, the opportunity was wasted.
Instead of exploring Lara’s relationship with Sam, her sense of worth as an archaeologist, or her family, the game chooses to explain how it is that this pretty lady came to be the fearless dual-pistols beast of previous games. Raise your hands, who really wanted to know what made Lara Croft become cool? Not this guy. Tomb Raider, like Metroid: Other M, feels that the most interesting story you can tell about a female badass is how she became a badass. Male heroes just are. They may have tragic backstories, but they’re expected to be heroic and don’t have a whole game devoted to them becoming so. Even if one could point to a prequel game that attempts to justify a male hero’s heroism, why is it that the two most famous of female heroes in gaming have been questioned in this way?
It’s a serious bummer. It’s so easy to get excited about Tomb Raider and what could be done in a game about a lady adventurer, and it’d be pretty easy to actually make a good one. My conclusion that Lara is an empty vessel for the player would be completely remedied by decent writing. This game has shit writing, and while it doesn’t ruin the game (I give it a B+ on the 1Up scale), it’s apparent that the series hasn’t gotten any better at dealing with a female character and her story since the first installment.