Video games are not exactly known for being grounded in reality when it comes to portraying the fairer sex. We’ve seen cardboard cut-outs of women, women devoid of any realistic personalities, or even worse being depicted as nothing more than sexual objects for horny adolescents to fawn over.
Whilst all of the aforementioned still unfortunately rear their heads every now and then developers have finally matured and have recently delivered some pretty close, not perfect, but close enough cases of heroines being elevated to an equal standing to that of their male counterparts. I am of course thinking about the Tomb Raider, developed by Japanese legends Square-Enix, which has just hit store shelves.
It’s been about 17 years since gamers were first introduced to Lara Croft in her first outing on the Sony PlayStation. When we first met her we didn’t know a whole lot about her. She had a meager back-story published in the game’s manual, but on screen the majority of gamers saw nothing more than a pistol-toting woman in skimpy clothes, with a waist about the same width as one of her thighs and an genetically implausible pair of breasts. Suffice to say the instant objectification of Lara Croft was not the intention of her designer Toby Gard who wanted to create a plausible feminist alternative to the legendary Indiana Jones. Unfortunately from her first outing onwards all gamers could see whenever they popped in one of the many Tomb Raider games was an object. When the status of Lara Croft descended to blatant objectification and possibly even parody it was time for a do-over, developers could do better than this.
When Square-Enix stepped up to re-boot one of gaming’s most famous icons they promised to do to the series what Christopher Nolan had done for Batman, who likewise fell from grace after becoming a joke. Instead of an older Lara Croft already in full-flow of her tomb raiding antics we would instead be shown her “official origin”. In this story Lara is a 21 year old postgraduate having just completed a university course in Archeology and History who is embarking on her first expedition to try make a name for herself. The expedition turns sour when she and her research team are shipwrecked on an uncharted island and find themselves being pursued by crazed cultists. Fighting for her very life Lara must use all of her wit, endurance, and willpower to survive her perilous situation.
If Angelina Jolie represented the Lara Croft of the past then Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games has surely influenced the new gritty direction Square-Enix are taking with this reboot. This re-imagination of Lara shows us a young woman clearly out of her depth but rather than shrivel away in the face of adversity she does all she can to survive and overcome any and all obstacles she faces. Players see Lara acquire and hone survival skills over the course of the story: hunting, foraging, climbing, free running, and hardest of all… learning how to take a life. She goes from an understandably scared young woman to becoming a hardened fighter armed with the skills to overcome anything. The comparisons and mirrors with Katniss Everdeen, who is herself a fantastic character by the way, are unavoidable but not unwelcome at all. However, she still has moments where she shows vulnerability. An early section of this reboot sees Lara kill one of her attackers intimately and is absolutely distraught over doing so. That’s right, rather than merely walking it off immediately like some inflated stone-faced heroine she emotionally breaks down and wears a chip on her shoulder for a while until she desensitizes herself to the experience through repetition.
Before I move on I feel I should briefly address the apparent connection between heroines and archery. If I were to pinpoint where I think the connection between women and the bow & arrow started I would hazard a guess at Greek Mythology. Many of the heroines and goddesses of the Classical world are depicted as being sound in mind, skillful with a bow, and possessing immense willpower. Penelope is shown as being the only one other than her husband Odysseus being able to string his grand bow in Homer’s Odyssey, the Amazons featured during The Twelve Labours of Hercules are shown to be both physically and dexterously superior to most men, and the bow is the weapon of choice for the goddesses Artemis and Enyo. Or maybe it is because archery requires an intense amount of focus and finesse to master and women are more prone to using that particular part of the human brain.
Any ladies reading this care to share their thoughts on this connection? I’m really interested to see what you all think about it.
Where developers keep falling short in writing female characters is when they fail to separate societal constructs from reality. When writers create characters which conform to all society’s pressures they run the risk of essentially writing characteurs. Most women will outright tell you that not all women like the color pink, are not ‘airy’, are not obsessed with diamonds, and are especially all not submissive to men. Granted, recent female-centric media such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight have not done feminists any favors but that’s still no excuse for writers outside of such media to embrace such material. When one is using a characteur as a template there is nowhere else to go other than make the character even more of an offensive parody by putting them in a scantily clad outfit and essentially making them a comedic piece of eye candy. Men in games are sometimes depicted no better, with muscle-clad meatheads still on display in more recently titles such as Anarchy Reigns.
Was the re-imagination of Lara Croft the right call? Hell yes it was!
Here we have a heroine who comes close to becoming the benchmark that all future female characters should aspire to. As the industry matures and begins to include more female producers we will begin to see the playing field well-and-truly leveled. We’re not quite yet there as an industry but this contemporary reboot of Lara Croft’s image is a sure-fire step in the right direction.