Monday, 18 June 2012

The Agency of Lara Croft

A (long) while back, I talked about Lara Croft, and how I think Crystal Dynamics seem to entirely miss the point as to how to make her more "feminist-friendly," "realistic," "relateable" or whatever they think will make their classic game heroine more profitable in the seventh generation of consoles. And it turns out in addition to changing her physique to something less cartoonish (which wasn't a problem, since the other characters in the games were also cartoonish: you might as well complain about Bruce Timm's characters being unrealistic), they're changing her personality and, indeed, the very concept of her status as a protagonist. I was afraid of something like this, but I didn't expect the spectre of sexual violence - in a trailer, no less - to rise in a game which purports to be an origin story for one of the most uncompromising badasses in video games. Obviously, since this is a younger Lara, the change in her physique at least has an explanation. Even if I disagree with the intentions and reasoning behind it, it's at least understandable. The meddling with her character, however, is not as defensible, and certainly not when her character is threatened with violation.

Most of the internet is aflame - rightly so - with this insulting trope, which has already been applied to far too many heroic female characters, now being tacked onto the already perfectly exciting origin story of Ms Croft. I'm not going to talk about that, though I will link to several articles that do which I vigorously agree with. However, I am going to talk about agency, and why changing Lara from protagonist into protectee is every bit as damaging as what Project M did to Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M, and an example of how sometimes - if they aren't careful - when people are trying not to be sexist, they end up just being even more sexist.

How Do You Drive This Thing?

Tomb Raider's gameplay in the beginning was always somewhat problematic: it wasn't a fighting or exploring game so much as a puzzle-platformer. Controlling Lara's movements was a bit like controlling a vehicle, gingerly stepping backwards or sidestepping, requiring to be absolutely precise in your leaps and climbs in order to succeed, aligning your movements carefully so you don't plummet into a black abyss. This led to the very unfortunate side effect that instead of the gamer becoming frustrated by their own failure, they took it out on Lara herself: she was at fault for not catching the edge of the precipice, she jumped at the wrong time, she pushed the wrong button. Thus, the idea of the gamer "controlling" and, by extension, "protecting" Lara as opposed to "being" Lara was there from the beginning, but then, it was an artefact of gameplay, not narrative. (We could also talk about Kurtis Trent, but that would require talking about Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, and I'm not prepared to do that.)

When Crystal Dynamics gained the Tomb Raider license, one of the first things they did was largely remove the grid-based puzzle gameplay and replace it with a much smoother, freer movement system. No longer was Lara a robot clunking forward and backwards, she was now a moving human being, just as much as any first-person shooter or action-adventurer. You weren't punished for being a few pixels off-target, and you could leap and climb and jump more or less wherever you liked without worrying about collision issues. You weren't controlling Lara like a puppet master, you were Lara. It wasn't perfect, and was improved in subsequent games, but it was a step in the right direction.

But even then, the theme of "protecting" Lara in the narrative was starting to manifest. In Tomb Raider: Legend, for the first time, Lara is not alone. She has two voices in her ear: Zip and Alister, who seem to exist to give Lara tips and clues, providing historical and archaeological background data that Lara probably should know already, and removing any sense of isolation and quiet with bickering and redundant assistance. I feel this destroys something absolutely vital in the classic Tomb Raider series: the sense of solitude. Whether in the Peruvian Mountains, the Greek catacombs, or the Egyptian tombs, Lara is completely and utterly on her own: no companions, no network of allies, no safety net, practically no dialogue or music either. Just the sound of her footsteps and breathing, and the movements of whatever lies in the darkness. And yet she is in her element: surrounded by the beauty of nature and ancient civilizations, possibly the only person to have set foot in these places in centuries if not millennia. She lives for this.

So subtly introducing not just two more characters, but two more male characters who watch over Lara and assist her already dilutes her independence and agency to a degree, and introduced the "male watcher/helper/protector" theme in a subtle manner. Zip telling her what levers to pull or where to watch out for enemies means Lara - and by extension, the player - doesn't use their own initiative as often, meaning that Lara will, at some point, get help in exploring a tomb or ruins. Alister filling her in on ancient history means she isn't drawing upon her own knowledge, she's just letting someone talk about what she already knows for the player's benefit. These are things Lara could do completely on her own in past games - but not anymore. Sure, it's ok to have disembodied help in games - Master Chief has Cortana, Snake has his CODEC contacts, tons of games have the narrator fulfilling this function for the first few levels - but Tomb Raider didn't start off with any of those, and there's a difference between covert military assignments or young adventurers just starting out, and a lone seasoned adventurer. It may seem minor, but the fact that you can play the majority of the original Tomb Raider games and never hear the voice of another soul outside of cutscenes added a lot to the atmosphere and mood for me.

Throw in more backstory from Crystal Dynamics, and things get worse. Lara's adventuring isn't because she has a love of exploration and thrill-seeking fostered by a fascination of archaeology, but because she's searching for clues to the mysterious deaths of her parents. That's almost as bad as what they did to Conan in the films, turning a self-determined character into one dominated by things happening to them. Then they toned down Lara's sardonic, dark, mannerisms to make her more sensitive and considerate: she's softer, gentler, kinder. She is no longer ruthless or enigmatic, and is very open emotionally and very talkative. She even expresses regret for shooting attacking animals and people, a far cry from the ruthless veteran of the classic games.  Let me put it this way: how do you think people would react if, say, Master Chief stopped in the middle of a fight, looked at his hands, and moaned "what have I done?" after killing an enemy? It'd be something of a disconnect, would it not?

So making Lara less dark, severe and serious doesn't necessarily make her more sympathetic or "deep," it just makes her more traditionally feminine. Instead of actually introducing more flaws, quirks and aspects of her personality that are compatible with her existing one, they replace them with what society perceives as "feminine" traits - concern for the wellbeing of others, a warmer and more nurturing personality, treating violence only as a last resort. The implication is that Lara's old personality was less compelling because it lacked those traits, and, it is argued, that made her more difficult for gamers to identify with.

Crystal Dynamics' solution to making Lara Croft more relatable is, in my opinion, simply substituting one gender stereotype for another. The original Lara Croft, at least after Tomb Raider II, was perceived, right or wrong, as aloof, unattainable, her sexuality and command thereof making her intimidating to impressionable boys. If Lara was reduced to an object, then it was one that couldn't be touched. The new Lara, with the developers' emphasis on protection, guiding, helping, is just another stereotype - the little girl who needs her daddy to look after her. While the power of a woman's sexuality to inflame a man's desire is something tapped into since the dawn of humanity, the power of a woman's vulnerability to exploit a man's protective instincts is just as potent. That's what makes the "rescue the damsel" routine so popular - not only is it the promise of a sexual reward, it's the reaffirmation that a man is powerful and strong, that they can defend and comfort the weak. And frequently, throughout history as well as literature, it was the woman who was weak.

Lara Croft defied that convention. She didn't need a knight in shining armour. She didn't need a big brother to bail her out when she got in too much trouble. She didn't have her daddy come and save the day when she needed him most. That's the entire point of her character: Lara was entirely self-sufficient. And to see Crystal Dynamics openly promoting the idea of Lara, the game's protagonist, being someone who needs protected - something that should be considered utter anathema to Lara's entire being - doesn't make me think they're in any way improving or even respecting the original character. Legend and Underworld started the descent, but this new Tomb Raider reboot just cements it for me.

Tied to this is the idea that changing Lara from buxom adventurer to skinny lass is an improvement. Like how apparently making a sexy female character with agency into a not-as-sexy female character with reduced agency is better, the thought is one that's attractive to certain people who claim to be feminist but don't really understand what feminism actually means. From the Kotaku article:

The new Lara Croft isn't just less battle-hardened; she's less voluptuous. Gone are her ridiculous proportions and skimpy clothing. This Lara feels more human, more real. That's intentional, Rosenberg says. "You start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character." "The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear," he said.

The implication is that if you do wear skimpy clothing and have a voluptuous figure, you're not as human - not as real, even - than women who dress more conservatively and don't have a full bosom. In trying to be inclusive to female gamers who don't have an hourglass figure - an admirable goal, don't get me wrong -they  do it in such a way that they're still referring to their personalities and worth as human beings by their physique. I'm going to dip back into Kurt Busiek's thoughts on strong female characters, because I find it equally applicable to the idea of making Lara "more human, more real":

My argument, over and over, is that "sexy" isn't the problem. Sameness is the problem. Don't make all women look the same. Don't make them act the same. Give us a range of portrayals, like the men. I think Power Girl's a terrific character -- she's brash, she's loud, she's aggressive, she flaunts her sexuality and she doesn't take any s*** about it. As a result, she's visually distinctive, she's got a strong personality that goes with the visuals -- she stands out. She's a vivid and memorable character, which is pretty good for someone who's core concept is that she's a variant version of a derivative character.
I don't have a problem with Voodoo being a stripper. Could be an interesting world, an interesting background to build on. I don't have a problem with Starfire wearing a skimpy purple metal outfit. It fits the character as Marv and George designed and presented her. I have a problem, though, when the debate is posed in a way that says that either Power Girl should be toned down, or else it's okay for any female character to be like that. Really? If Batman is all grim and dark and obsessive, is it okay for Superman to be the same way? For Spider-Man? Booster Gold? I don't think so.

One of the things that made the original Starfire work so well was that she was on a team with Wonder Girl and Raven. Starfire was the sexy bombshell without any body issues, and that helped her stand out and be distinctive, standing next to the more conventional Donna Troy and the reserved and repressed Raven. There was variety, there was a range, and it made the characters memorable. What was important to Marv and George was making these characters distinctive and memorable, the women as well as the men.

And that was a nice step forward from the '60s, when most female characters seemed to be cut from the same cloth, with rare exceptions. But in recent times, it seems female characters are being cut from the same cloth again, just a different pattern than we used to get. Now, they're all Victoria's Secret models, cocking their hips, arching their backs, pursing their lips and teasing their hair. I saw a team shot recently that looked like a varied bunch of male heroes and three clones of the same woman, just in different costumes. Women should be varied. They should look different, think different, act different, talk different... Just as surely as the men, because they're all individuals and we want the characters we read about to be distinctive and memorable.

Ms. Marvel/Warbird/Carol Danvers: She's ex-military, a tough, no-nonsense fighter who's endured sexism all her life, starting with her own father. Should she pose like a model? Or should she straighten her spine, square her shoulders and her jaw and act like an officer? One's the generic choice, and the other says more about who she is as an individual, so I go with the one that's distinctive.
There's nothing wrong with sexy. I don't want to change Power Girl. She works really well as a character. What's wrong is when everyone's sexy, and in the same way, too. Playing it that way even hurts the characters who are meant to be sexy. If Storm and Kitty Pryde look and stand and act like Victoria's Secret models, then how do you make the White Queen, who is supposed to be strikingly sexy and vamp-ish, stand out? Make her look like a Hustler model? That doesn't come off as sexy; it comes of as ludicrous. But if everyone gets presented the same way, it's harder and harder for the characters to be distinctive, even the ones who _should_ be presented that way, because it's no longer possible to tell that that's a choice, not a default. No range, no distinctiveness. Would Catwoman need to hump Batman on a rooftop to establish how hot and sexy she is if everyone else wasn't crowding into the "sexy" end of the scale?

Mine is more a craft argument than a political argument, but the political statement hiding underneath it is: Women are individuals. The trick to treating them well is to acknowledge that, and seek to bring that individuality forth, rather than going with the generic. It doesn't matter if the generic is "Sports Illustrated swimsuit model," like today, or "fainting overwrought female" like much of Sixties Marvel -- if it's generic, it's lazy and undistinctive and dumb. Let's go for distinctive. Let's go for variety.

Let's see Power Girl and Voodoo and Catwoman, fine, but let's see nerdy women, too -- and funny women and repressed women and confident women and everything in-between and beyond. Give us the strippers, but give us the librarians (and not just the "sexy librarian," either) and the Congresswoman and the cop and the junkie and the single mom and on and on. And even within those roles, not all Congresswomen are the same. Not all single moms, not all biker chicks, not all grad students.

[And if your female cop looks indistinguishable from a cop in a porn movie who's about to handcuff the lucky burglar and have her way with him, maybe you're doing something wrong.]

One size shouldn't fit all, because that's boring. So my answer to the question of how comics can do better with female characters is, stop looking for ways to fit the mold and start looking for ways to stand out. Look for what makes them individuals, not what makes them generic. If nothing else, it's a whole lot easier for an orange-skinned babe in a purple metal bikini to stand out as sexy with just a line or two if everyone else isn't wearing as little as possible and looking as breathy and bosomy as possible too.

I don't want to tone down Power Girl, because she's fine as she is. We just need female characters as distinctive as she is in other ways. Let's not limit the portrayals, because that gives us less. Let's have more, instead. More variety, more distinctiveness, more individuals.

There is a definite issue when it comes to portraying women in video games, just as it is in comics - but rather than going back and changing iconic characters, what should be done is making new characters who aren't the same as the others. Lara Croft, being one of the most preeminent characters, male or female, in the history of gaming, is iconic, and for better or worse, that original character from the old Playstation days is memorable. I'd personally rather they made more new female characters of different shapes and sizes than try and muck about with something iconic. Kind of like changing Superman's costume: it never really works out.

 Yes, apparently this Lara isn't sexualised. At all. Right.

And do you know what? Even with all this talk of her being someone to protect, and the alleged de-emphasis of her sexuality, she's still being sexualised!

The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualised version of yesteryear. She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.

Rosenberg, you're still saying that she's enticing. She may not be sexualised in a visual sense, but you're still using terms that are very heavily sexual in connotation, you numpty. And notice, of course, that despite being more "realistic," she's still extremely attractive: I guess making her more "human" didn't extend to making her plain, lanky or awkward. Her bustline may not be what it was, but they're still anxious to put her in a revealing tanktop that reveals her cleavage - once again, something that wasn't even in the original Tomb Raider, where Lara's tanktop had a neckline that ended at the neck. The development team mention with pride that they don't intend unlockable bikini costumes like previous Crystal Dynamic games, but to be frank, why would you have to when we'll probably see her clothes get torn apart over the course of the game anyway?

Lara Croft - adult Lara, in any case - is buxom, lithe and leggy, like more than a few women I could name. That does not define her as a human being, and making her less buxom, lithe and leggy does not magically make her more human or more real.  All it defines is her physique - it's her character, her actions, her personality, her emotions and reactions, which define her as a human. When people talk about how appearances don't matter and it's what inside that counts, they aren't just saying "don't hire a secretary simply because she's buxom," they're also saying "don't assume someone is stupid or loose simply because they're buxom." It suggests that Lara could not be taken seriously unless she looked like a "real person" (a very narrow definition of "real person" at that) - which is just another way of judging based on appearances.

Not The Only One

One of my absolute favourite video game protagonists is April Ryan from The Longest Journey. I didn't love her because she was a fairly plain girl with freckles, no curves, and dressed in trousers and a t-shirt for most of the game. I loved her because her personality, her journey, her character, was so appealing to me. Unlike Lara, she isn't an experienced adventurer-archaeologist, she's an art student sucked into a parallel world of wonder and terror. She doesn't take down eldritch abominations and lost gods with twin uzis, she uses her wits and her guile to survive and discover the truth behind the mysteries of Stark and Arcadia. She's vulnerable, but she isn't a victim - she overcomes the odds and triumphs. But all through the game, even though she was no fighter, even though she was weak and vulnerable, I didn't feel like I was "joining" her on her journey - I felt I was April Ryan. I was seeing Arcadia in its glory and nightmare; I was travelling through space and time; I was unravelling the conspiracy and mystery.

See, there's a difference between silent protagonists like Gordon Freeman, and character protagonists like April. With Gordon Freeman, there really isn't much of a character, and so the player can truly place themselves into the world, the setting, the environment: their choices are, effectively, Gordon's choices. But with games where you're stepping into a role, I liken it more to reading a book written from the first person perspective: you may not make decisions you would make, but you immerse yourself into the world that you feel you become the character who does make them.  While you can be perfectly aware of April, or Lara, or Duke Nukem, or even Mario as distinct individuals, for the purposes of gameplay, you become them. It is, essentially, role-playing: just as children take the role of cop or robber despite not actually becoming a policeman or criminal, so gamers take on the skin of these protagonists. Inhabiting, rather than just playing, a role.

And so it was, and should be, with Lara Croft, but to an even greater degree. The Longest Journey's control scheme meant you were watching April from afar, pointing and clicking the direction she should go, and watching her reactions - but instead of feeling like you're watching a film, it was more like watching yourself in a dream. With Tomb Raider, the camera is behind Lara, so you are always aware that you're playing a female archaeological adventurer, but each input corresponded to a movement. Press forward, step forward; press back, step back. Each time the camera moved, her head moved in its direction: Lara, and you, were looking that way.

There are plenty of games based around the protection of a vulnerable female. Sometimes it was excellently implemented and sensitively handled, such as ICO; sometimes it was frustrating and contrived, like in Resident Evil 4; other times it works despite itself like Portal. It remains to be seen how Bioshock Infinite handles this, but given how effective previous games in the series were in regards to that protective angle, I have high hopes. But the crucial difference here is that the player character is not the one being protected by the gamer, it's a secondary character who the player character looks after. When you're playing a game as Lara Croft, I would've thought most of the appeal would be being Lara Croft.

Once again, Cavalorn has reached into my mind and brought forth a wriggling, tentacled Idea which I was struggling to elucidate:

As a gamer, I do not play Batman: Arkham City to protect Batman. I don't play it to admire Batman, to lust over Batman, to root for Batman or to vindicate Batman. I do not, in short, play the game for any reason that depends upon the relationship between me the individual gamer and Batman the character on the screen.

I play Batman because, ludicrous though it may be, I GET TO BE THE GODDAMN BATMAN. And the game succeeds at that, because the game WANTS you to be the Goddamn Batman. The way the game feeds you information is specifically designed to minimize any intrusion upon that blessed illusion of identity.

Back to the Kotaku article, and the line I want to focus on:

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character."

Now, for one thing, I'd love to know where the heck that supposed information comes from. I know plenty of female gamers who DO project themselves into the character. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose that 'when people play Lara', what's really meant is 'when male gamers play Lara'.

It seems to me - and I could be wrong - that the approach here has been to try to capitalize upon the supposed disassociation between male gamers and Lara Croft. Instead of helping the player immerse themselves in the character (as was done with Batman above), the male player is encouraged to see himself as a sort of benevolent deity separate and apart, a guardian spirit who not only guides Lara's actions for her benefit but protects her from bad guys.

If true, if if iffety-if IF, this is a frigging tragedy. And it's moving in the opposite direction from the one we should be moving in. The game should be doing its utmost, through all the subtle tricks of the games writer's art, to immerse us in Lara's character, because Lara Croft kicks arse. Being Lara Croft should feel as exhilarating as being Batman, or Nathan Drake, or any other character whose skin we really get inside. We shouldn't have our role as The Gamer defined for us as if we were a separate character.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

This transformation of a badass independent female character into one that needs protection, advice or unnecessary hand-holding is something also seen in Metroid: Other M. There, unlike other games, Samus Aran has access to all her weapons - but cannot use them unless explicitly authorized by her commanding officer... Even when there is absolutely no valid reason for her not to be able to use them, even when her life and those of others is in immediate danger, and even when she wasn't directly under said officer's command! She experiences a traumatic breakdown when her nemesis appears, despite her having defeated him multiple times in past experiences, despite having experienced this fear before and overcoming it, and despite being a veritable one-woman army. Not only that, but the preoccupation with "the baby" just further strengthens the traditional gender roles female characters are getting pushed into.

What's also puzzling, insane even, is that there are many examples of games with female protagonists that don't have this insulting and patronising "protective almighty gamer" theme. What of Portal, where you are cast as the silent Chell, whose gender is largely immaterial to the story save for a few catty jabs from GladOs? What of Faith Connors from Mirror's Edge? Jade, the heroine of Beyond Good & EvilNo One Lives Forever's Cate Archer? Heck, even Silent Hill 3's Heather Mason - surely that game out of all the series would foster those sort of protective themes for the player?

Lest Anyone Get The Wrong Idea...

I am not saying Lara shouldn't experience emotions, vulnerability or whatnot. Get that infernal strawman away from me. What I am saying is that fundamentally changing her personality in a way that makes her more "feminine" is insulting and patronising, making her "vulnerable" by utilizing prolonged sexually-tinged violence does not mean the same as making her nuanced and relateable, and changing her proportions doesn't make her more "human."

This article highlights some of the things I am not saying:

Jeroen: Go across some news comments, Reddit and some game boards. People are actually mad that she’s not stoic. They’re angry with the combination of brutal circumstances and Lara showing emotion. Just look at this comment on Kotaku, the highest rated one there. Well, that’s if you can make heads or tails of what she’s saying. Choice lines: “So lets see…let’s remove Lara from being fully badass to weak ‘Whedon-flavored female hero’ bullshit because you know…that’s exactly what I want to see in Lara. Not a confident badass fully aware of her sexuality. Nope, can’t have that, might scare the boys are TARGET DEMO.” Yes, nevermind the massive popularity the earlier games with the Lara she described had. Those were scaring the boys. Besides, I thought Whedon was famous for writing good female characters?

Yes, somehow someone read "So lets see…let’s remove Lara from being fully badass to weak ‘Whedon-flavored female hero’ bullshit because you know…that’s exactly what I want to see in Lara. Not a confident badass fully aware of her sexuality. Nope, can’t have that, might scare the boys are TARGET DEMO" and concluded that they were actually saying "I am angry that Lara is showing emotion, for that is a feminine trait, and I want Lara to be stoic and masculine." If that's what Jeroen thought, no wonder he couldn't make head nor tail of what she was saying.

Brief aside: someone may be famous for writing good female characters, but that doesn't mean they actually wrote good female characters. I mean, Whedon did, but I'm pretty sure that comment was in reference to River Tam, who's pretty notorious as being a badass character who is also incredibly vulnerable (not to mention has that big brother complex going on) and having undergone incredible suffering in her life before mastering the art of Waif Fu. Of course, Whedon's actually a pretty good writer who can make characters like this work most of the time: I don't know if the same can be said for the Crystal Dynamics team.

Johanna: The problem is this: for a woman to be strong, she has to act like a man. The minute she stops being a man, she’s reduced to helplessness. 

No, the actual problem is that some behaviours are still seen as "acting like a man" and some are seen as "acting like a woman." Cringing in fear of aggressors is perceived as feminine; being stoic and emotionless in the face of adversity is perceived as masculine.  Career-mindedness and working alone is perceived as masculine; family and community-oriented behaviour is perceived as feminine. Thus, Lara's stoicism in the early games is perceived as masculine, and "acting like a man," while making her more overtly emotional is perceived as making her more traditionally feminine - in other words, bringing her back to rigid gender roles. And these two commentators are applauding it. If you can't see the problem with this appraisal, then I can't help you, but considering half the appeal of Lara was that she was openly acting against gender roles in games when she first appeared (being one of the first female characters who wasn't a damsel in distress), it should be obvious.

This particular delineation between male and female behaviour is also a load of tripe, in my opinion: obviously they're stereotypes for a reason, but there is no justification to perpetuate them any more than ghettoising the toy aisle. Was Ripley in Aliens "acting like a man" when she took command of the APC and rescued the marines, or delved right into the aliens' nest to find Newt?  Consequently, was Kirk Douglas "acting like a girl" when he wept in Spartacus? No, stoicism isn't the domain of men any more than emotional openness is the domain of women, and the idea that the old Lara was "acting like a man" and this one is "acting like a woman" just shows how the gender divide is working, at least for these two commentators. Besides, since when did being stoic and not wearing your emotions on your sleeve make you a less compelling character? By that logic Spock would be the least memorable character in Star Trek.

Look at it this way: can you imagine the furore if someone suggested that a female video game protagonist looked too "masculine," and so designers decided to make her softer and more traditionally feminine - even though the idea of what is masculine and what is feminine is completely arbitrary and changes throughout the ages? Again, in today's society, soft and curvaceous - feminine; hard and strong - masculine. That's what CD is doing with Lara, but to her personality as well as her body. And proportions aside, they're certainly feminising her body:

What dropped away pretty quickly was the hardness that she had. She is strong and we love Lara Croft for that strength, but she was almost so strong that we were always one step away from her. That was one thing that we all agreed on right away – to try and soften her up enough so that you could step into her life.

What it came down to is that we wanted to have certain proportionality when we put her next to the men. We wanted a clear size difference. She isn’t going to be as tall as the men around her – about a head shorter. This reinforces the feeling that she’s against all odds. The relative proportion is more important than the actual number [5’ 7”] – making her feel like a scrapper of sorts, even though she will always find a way through her self-determination. She will find a way to survive even if she doesn’t have Amazonian proportions in the game. The emphasis on acrobatics isn’t nearly as important as the fact that she is capable. 

The bone structure was important, but we also didn’t want to get a model that was too sculpted. We wanted a little bit of that baby fat – just a little bit of roundness on the face to give her that more youthful look.

So in addition to smoothing the rough edges of her personality, they're also smoothing the rough edges of her body and features. She's no longer "Amazonian," no longer as acrobatic, no longer as physically strong. She has baby fat, even - baby fat! Which seems as preposterous to me as making a Batman game before Bruce Wayne dons the cape, frankly. Does it really matter what her brassiere measurements are when you're essentially turning Lara into a child?

Imagine if they did this for Kratos:

What dropped away pretty quickly was the hardness that he had. He is strong and we love Kratos for that strength, but he was almost so strong that we were always one step away from him. That was one thing that we all agreed on right away – to try and soften him up enough so that you could step into his life.

What it came down to is that we wanted to have certain proportionality when we put him next to the men. We wanted a clear size difference. He isn’t going to be as tall as the men around him – about a head shorter. This reinforces the feeling that he’s against all odds. The relative proportion is more important than the actual number [5’ 7”] – making him feel like a scrapper of sorts, even though he will always find a way through his self-determination. He will find a way to survive even if he doesn’t have Herculean proportions in the game. The emphasis on acrobatics isn’t nearly as important as the fact that he is capable. 

The bone structure was important, but we also didn’t want to get a model that was too sculpted. We wanted a little bit of that baby fat – just a little bit of roundness on the face to give him that more youthful look.

Doesn't that sound a bit patronising for an action hero? Once again, a game with a protagonist who isn't a badass fighter is fine, there are plenty of games like that. But that's not what the Tomb Raider games are about.

I don't really have that much invested in the future of the Tomb Raider franchise. The original games are still out there and easily obtainable, after all, so anyone wanting to go back to the old days can do so. At the same time, I lament how all this talk of making Lara more "feminine," "realistic," "relateable" and "human" just strikes me as making her more normal. More mundane. More boring. Lara in the old days was remarkable, powerful, dominant, enigmatic to an extent: new Lara looks like she's just going to be indistinguishable from all the other committee-led pseudo-feminist portrayals that sacrifice real character flaws for ones that are "acceptable" for their given gender role.

I just wish we could have more female characters that were neither gratuitous eye candy - and there's a place for that, as long as you're honest about it - nor essentially clones of the same "empowered, but only up to a point" type I'm fearing this new Lara Croft may become. I fell in love with Lara because she was something different; this Lara just feels like more of the same, another River Tam, another Red Sonja, another female character who has to be brought down low and ground into the dust before she can arise - a compelling trope, but one that's ridiculously overused for females.

And it's a shame, because aside from all these elements, I like certain aspects of the game that I've seen so far. I love the fact that Lara's covered in dirt and blood, as if she's really been scrummaging about in the jungle. I love the idea of doing something different, even if I'd rather it didn't lose sight of the globetrotting charm of the previous games: it's Tomb Raider, not Island Escapee. I like the idea that they're trying to push out the boat. I don't mind games tackling heavy subjects, or making alterations to classic properties, and certainly not attempting to address feminist issues in gaming - I just mind it when it's done in a lazy, generic, or ham-fisted manner. I just think they've gone in a direction which is at best one that doesn't interest me, and at worst one that ends up being offensive - not to mention threatens to undo a gaming icon and alienate the core fanbase.

Ah well. All the best, Crystal Dynamics: I hope you prove me wrong.


  1. Great post. Well articulated. I have mixed expectations about this release. I generally enjoy the Tomb Raider franchise for a variety of reasons. Most of my continued following of the franchise is that I am a lover of the adventure genre and good story/character development in games. And even with its flaws, Tomb Raider generally does a decent job in putting out an interesting story/character driven game with interesting gameplay (though I do admit that it has felt rather "samey" in recent iterations). Mostly I continue to applaud Tomb Raider for helping keep the genre popular and letting lesser-known titles have the business justification to make games for the adventure-loving marketplace.

    I'm with you, I hope Crystal Dynamics does a good job with this one...but I'm on the fence.

  2. Thanks, Chris! I'm in your boat: my love of Tomb Raider is primarily because it's an adventure game. Lara being appealing is nice and all, but I wouldn't care about her if she doesn't have an interesting character: I found her character through the first games was compelling, while the new CD Lara is just bland and uninteresting to me.

    I just really hope they don't forget that the franchise is called Tomb Raider, and they don't forget to put a little, well, tomb raiding in the game. If I wanted to play Uncharted, I'd play Uncharted.

  3. I can't say I've played a lot of the Tomb Raider games but the designers seem to be badly overthinking all this. Lara Croft is who she is and as far as I'm concerned, the only changes they should be making to her is to update the graphical presentation (those 1st generation 3D graphics didn't do any game characters favors). Beyond that, just get on with it! Lara Croft: woman who runs around jungles, climbs and shoots stuff, steals treasures...okay, got it, shut up and let me play.

    If they want to explore some other kinds of female characters in games, they should go ahead and create those characters. As you say, some have already done this. I'm quite fond of Cate Archer, myself.

    1. Yes, exactly.

      I think I've narrowed down my problem with this, and it truly isn't just a matter of gender issues, it's simply an individual character issue.

      I can see a game where a 21-year-old girl fresh out of college crash-lands on a jungle island and has to deal with pirates in ways that may be deeply unpleasant. I just can't see that being a Lara Croft game, because that's not what Lara is about, that's not what her backstory's about, and that's not what the people who actually liked Lara Croft liked about her.

      Busiek's quote is instructive. I love Batman's origin story, of a pampered young rich boy who encounters tragedy in a dark alley, and eventually decides to strike out against the sort of petty crimes which ruin lives. That's fine - but if they try and do that with SUPERMAN's origin story, I'll be incensed, because that's not Superman's story.

      Lara Croft's story is that she is a remarkably intelligent and fit woman who developed a love of archaeology and thrill-seeking from an early age. She was not just another girl who magically turned into a superhero after a traumatic event at the age of 21.

    2. That's very true. Today, it seems that every hero needs a "dark past" or a "great destiny" in order to be believable. That's an stupid statement. Heroes are heroes because of their actions! Why is not possible to see an adventurer that just love adventure or a crimefighter that just hate crime? Crom!

    3. Indeed. Even Captain freakin' Marvel (oh, sorry, "Shazam") has a dark and stormy past.

  4. When Other M was first unveiled I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I don't think narrative based games are the final destination of gaming and certainly not somewhere I ever hoped to see Metroid end up. On the other end, I was definitely excited as a fan of action games. Other M certainly looked like a fun take on the genre. Collet it for mine at PIJ. They looks perfect to me.