Lara Croft is having a very bad day.
I watch Lara Croft swing back and forth. Someone has caught her and hung her up again, for the third time today. At least this time, she hangs by her wrists instead of her feet, like the other two times.
Lara has been crying. Her clothes have been ripped by thorns, rocks, arrows, bullets, flames. She has been through an ordeal.
I have to find a way to get Lara down. If I don’t help her, she’ll be stuck here forever. So I make her swing back and forth. This is all I can tell her to do. Her hands are tied. And my hands are tied too, to just one control: toggle the left stick. Back and forth.
I have spent a lot of time watching Lara Croft from afar.
Tomb Raider keeps me at arm’s length from Lara’s plight. Sometimes, I get to be right behind Lara’s shoulder, lining up her headshots. But much of the time, I feel far away from Lara, peering into the diorama in which she performs. I don’t get to select the angle at which I peer, either. I get unrequested front-row seats into Lara’s fear-stricken eyes, her lean haunches and backside, and her mud-soaked tank top as it wears to wispy ribbons at the seams.
Tomb Raider has many cinematic scenes. Not just cut-scenes, cinematic scenes. I have even watched Lara Croft watching Lara Croft, when she takes a video camera from her pocket and presses play on video footage taken by her best friend and documentarian Sam. I watch Lara watch herself and her friends and her coworkers, gathering on their ship, discussing the archeological mission that might put them all in mortal danger … and does.
They all blame Lara. They all resent Lara. They all love Lara.
She’s hard not to love. The upward lilt in her voice every time she finds a new artifact makes me want to find more pieces of history just so that she can tell me about them. Her youthful optimism, the way her voice catches when she turns an object sideways and sees a new inscription. Lara Croft is a total nerd. A woman after my own heart.
Lara knew sailing through the Dragon’s Triangle would pose a danger to the crew, but she had a hunch that Himiko’s tomb would be there—a hunch that Captain Roth believed. Everyone took a chance on Lara Croft, and it paid off, albeit not the way the crew expected. Lara finds the legendary island of Yamatai—to be precise, the island reaches out and captures them, when its supernatural storms destroy the ship and crash the whole crew on the shore. Lara also finds the tomb of the shaman queen Himiko, but that’s because the island’s cult of Himiko—worshipping murderers kidnap Lara and all of her friends and take them deep into the island’s bowels. Lara doesn’t have much time to celebrate her archeological estimation skills. She’s too busy trying to stay alive.
Lara Croft has always been a performer. But this time, she is a more reluctant actress than the one I recall. The Lara Croft of old performed splits and flips slow enough for me to see every arcing muscle bend, arched her eyebrow at wolves lurking in the shadows, and did all but look over her shoulder through the screen and dare me to admit that I envied her sexy swagger. This new Lara Croft has been surrounded by the same camera crew as before, and outfitted with the same action heroine tropes (although she’s opted for long pants instead of shorts), but she offers no tongue-in-cheek one-liners.
Lara chickens out and wants to go home, and she spends the first hour of the game making that clear. She begs Captain Roth over her radio to come find her and save her. She kills a deer because she’s starving to death, and she apologizes to the corpse. At one point, after she wades through piles on piles of rotting corpses sacrificed by the island’s cult, and when she finally reaches the room that contains Himiko’s burial vault, she exclaims, “I hate tombs!”
Throughout the game, Lara’s stand-in father figure Captain Roth reminds Lara that she is “a Croft.” And even though Lara says she hates tombs and resents the pressure of her dead parents’ archeological legacy, her determined insistence on hunting down the island of Yamatai against all warnings and her vocal excitement upon tripping over a rusty old coin or ceremonial fan betray her uncontainable love for history.
That sweet, nerdy Lara still doesn’t bear much in common with the cold-blooded, greedy, snarky Lara Croft of the first games, though, no matter how tough this Lara becomes as the game progresses. Young Lara’s signature weapon is a bow and arrow reminiscent of The Hunger Games’ Katniss, not the twin pistols that the original Lara preferred. And this Lara’s not in the game for the riches or the adventure—she’s just a scholar with a gift for physical fitness and an eye for what belongs in a museum. She’s more Indiana Jones than Nathan Drake, and she’s more bespectacled Professor Jones than whip-slinging Indy, at that.
In spite of these changes to Lara’s character, though, the fundamental structure of Tomb Raider remains: The player watches Lara perform. The few parts of this game that put me right over Lara’s shoulder—the combat, especially the shooting—feel the least like the Tomb Raider I know. Picking off thirty guys from behind cover won’t be that difficult for most gamers, but it feels out of place here. Both the old and new Lara fare better when leaping, rock climbing, solving puzzles, and excavating. I loved leading Lara through each of the small optional tombs in this game (each of which contains no enemies to shoot and at least one puzzle), as well as leaping about areas once I’d cleared them of enemies to hunt for hidden items.
The game juxtaposes a surprising variety of structured forms of play. Lara’s journey includes structured shooter set-pieces inspired by Gears of War, stealthy segments in which Lara must use her Arkham Asylum-like “Detective Mode” (called “Survival Instincts,” in this game) to pick off enemies in silence, plus Diablo-esque leveling systems for both Lara’s abilities and her weapons. Cut-scenes transition seamlessly (and, often, unexpectedly) into quick-time events, or into sequences so cinematic that I didn’t realize right away that I had regained control of Lara once more and that I needed to press the joystick to move her up the crevasse, or the ladder, or over the bridge. At times, the spectator-focused nature of these transitions confused me—at one point, Lara had to run away from a group of men, but the camera positioned me across from Lara, and several yards away. I kept pressing forward on the stick, not understanding that I needed to press down. I had identified with Lara, but the game didn’t want me to. The game wanted me to pull Lara towards me.
The camera, and the game, takes more interest in different aspects of Lara than I do, which contradicts its aims by accident at times. The central intent of this reboot, I believe, is to present Lara as a vulnerable, naïve young woman who grows into a tough-as-nails bad-ass. She does not exactly grow into the Lara Croft that gamers remember from their youths, but she does turn into a hero that I can respect. But I also respect the Lara at the game’s outset: a terrified young woman taking leap after leap of faith into the darkness, until finally she learns to jump so well that she does it by instinct instead of luck. I think I respect Lara much more than this videogame does.
I don’t want to see the camera behind her backside as she crawls through tunnels. I want to look ahead of her, through the tunnel. I don’t need to see down the front of her shirt as she falls from high places or drowns. Worse than that, I don’t want to see the camera linger for a long while on Lara’s death scenes. I can relate to Lara Croft in this game enough that I want her to pick up a coat when she shivers or rips her shirt. I want her to land on the ground smoothly after parachuting down from a waterfall, as opposed to breaking every branch on the way down, as the cut-scene makes her do, no matter how carefully I tried to steer her before the cut-scene set in on us.
The big awful question on my mind before I played this game was whether the game sexualizes Lara Croft’s vulnerability. The answer is more complicated than a yes or a no, and that’s due in part to the fact that submissiveness and vulnerability are all coded as “sexy” behaviors for a woman to perform, but not so much for a man. I assume that’s why Gears of War hasn’t done an origin story that describes a young, lithe, clean-shaven, vulnerable Marcus Fenix coming into his own while wearing tight pants and just so happening to never get a black eye or a huge swollen lip.
Some players will sexualize Lara Croft, and the fact that she spends much of the game stressed out, in pain, and in danger will not deter them. The videogame’s camera, by lingering in equal parts on Lara’s backside and on her breasts, often seems to be on the side of the people who might do this. And perhaps Lara’s pain acts as a selling point, for anyone who likes their women wounded and non-consenting. There is one man in the game who restrains Lara and strokes her face with a gentle, loving hand before he begins to choke her. I know this man’s story without being told. He gets off on fear, and, perhaps, in an earlier iteration of the game, this scene ended differently than it does here. The camera does linger on the man choking Lara for a little too long before the screen fades to black, and goodness knows what happens after that. It’s not clear what we’re meant to take from this scene, other than that one man among hundreds gets off on Lara’s pain. As for the rest, who knows? It seems that Lara’s in more danger than the game even dares to show us, but I already guessed that. I don’t need a reminder, but I guess if the game wants to be realistic, this scene hits that mark.
Speaking of grim realism, the real enemy of the game is Lara’s male professor, who undermines and undercuts her at every turn. He’s older, he believes he’s better than Lara, and he cares only about himself. He gets his comeuppance, but not without Lara’s shipmates questioning her for not trusting him and accusing her of creating drama for no reason—up until the moment she turns out to be right about him, and everything else about the island. I’ve seen several reviewers complain that these characters are cliché. On the contrary, they seem quite real to me.
Lara Croft’s reputation as a woman character who can fight as well as her male videogame counterparts while also performing sexy femininity seems, nowadays, like a cartoonish, campy relic of the past. This reboot of Tomb Raider, with its experimental juxtapositions of different kinds of play, as well as its attempts to redefine Lara as a human being rather than a caricature of a sexual femininity, feels like the first step on a shaky path towards a better franchise. It feels shaky because Lara still retains much of the trappings of her old self; she still seems to be performing, except this time, her brand of femininity is more Virgin than Whore, and it could use a bit more nuance than that dichotomy affords.
I doubt that Tomb Raider will ever fully abandon its roots as a game in which the player protects and watches over Lara from a variety of far-off angles, as opposed to playing as her in first person (like in Mirror’s Edge or Portal) or, at least, over her shoulder (as in Gears of War). But perhaps the success of this Tomb Raider will allow the next iteration to be a little less hard on Lara. Perhaps she can shiver a bit less, and maybe even wear a coat. Perhaps she can study a tomb that’s packed with puzzles and historical artifacts instead of fresh corpses. Perhaps she can go on an archeological expedition without having to murder anybody. I’d like to watch her do that.
Maddy Myers writes a column about video games for the Boston Phoenix. Her work has also appeared in Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.