posted by Chr156r33nTags: cystal dynamics, edge, featured, lara croft, reboot, square enix, tomb raider
“She’s human” is pretty much the unique selling point of Lara Croft in Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of Tomb Raider franchise (quoted issue 228 of EDGE magazine). This change of direction, from the hyper-sexulised “action-babe”of days past to the (very) slow realisation that the impossibly sexist curves couldn’t really be offset by any sense of “girl power”, lead to Lara as we know her being made more “real”.
Until now Lara was more about the gadgets, her mansion, acrobatics and adventuring than anything else. With this in mind, a little humanising clearly wouldn’t go amiss. The following remark made by global brand director at Crystal Dynamics, Karl Stewart is, for me the source of a new issue; “she’s not that Teflon character any more”. Whilst Crystal Dynamics appear to be making an effort to changes things, I’m not so sure it’s all for the better.
For those who weren’t aware, the Teflon remark essentially means that Lara is now a fragile human being, like the rest of us. Initially an idea which really piqued my interest, but having seen a series of alarmingly brutal concepts and early screens where Lara is raked in pain, bloodied, dirty and usually trying to tend to serious injury, has left me a little concerned.
Humanising characters is no bad thing. There have been many games recently which have raised the bar by making the protagonist easier to relate to because they’re not all super heroes any more; think the Uncharted series, Heavy Rain and to some extent the Metal Gear Solid titles. Whilst all those examples provided very different play experiences, the technique was similar; it is one which resonates with Crystal Dynamics assertion that the “[new Lara] is human” by showing the protagonist in moments of agony, wearing the physical signs of the ordeal they are facing.
What is so discomforting about seeing Lara in such a state of duress? Well, despite what people my have you believe, not everyone saw her initial incarnation as the “perfect” woman; large breasts, gun play and acrobatics may sound alright on paper, but I can make a list of qualities infinity more important. The idea was that Lara was the perfect fantasy played out in a game – the rather cringe-worthy cliché “girls wanted to be her, men wanted to be with her” was used a lot. This post-feminist creation of a strong, sexy and empowered woman was very popular, but also extremely contentious.
I find something about the new Lara very unsettling. The old Lara, whilst extremely inflammatory, was at least very much an in control and powerful woman – the many issues there notwithstanding. The new Lara is completely at the mercy of her new and dangerous environment, but we still are to cast our gaze down at her, trying to bandage a wound, or clutching limb in agony.
Considering Lara’s history, this younger, slightly more anatomically correct lady in such a horrific state, does strike me as weirdly perverse. The once pin-up who was the object of many a fantasy is still on show for us for all to see, but rather than waving a pistol and pair of breasts in your face, it is now open wounds and great angst which seem to be the order of the day.
As I’ve mentioned, it is not unusual to see a protagonist of a game getting injured throughout the course of an adventure. Although relative to the amount of games released, it is still rare to see protagonists wear their scars on show for any period of time. Three recent experiences come to mind; Nathan Drake takes all kinds of beatings throughout his journey in Uncharted 2, Ethan Mars gets near-fatally wounded on a number of occasions in Heavy Rain and Aya Brea has a damage mechanic based around her clothes being torn off and cuts and bruises showing through in The 3rd Birthday.
Since seeing the first shots of the new Tomb Raider I have voiced my concerns about her portrayal and on every occasion someone has suggested that it’s alright for it to happen to a man, yet not a woman. Well, that’s apparently sexist, isn’t it? Surely female protagonists have every right to get bloodied and beaten as any man? In a word yes, yes they do, but that misses the point entirely. I know the (above) list of examples of protagonists taking visible damage is relatively limited, I could have picked about five or six other examples of male protagonists, yet I still struggle to recall any more female protagonists who find themselves in this same situation.
The reason I bring this up is that I see a fragile female lead as creating a slightly conflicted relationship between the player and the player’s character. Even from the early previews it does appear that Crystal Dynamics’ new Lara Croft is going to be a considerably stronger lead than 3rd Birthday’s Aya Brea, but from what we’ve seen, the emphasis on bodily damage can really detract from the strong female character and puts her in an even more compromised position than before. This differs from portrayals of male characters such as Nathan Drake in that the use of damage in is done to make them look more believable, but also tougher and more resilient. Whilst Drake was shown to have been dishevelled, and a little battered around the launch of Uncharted 2, the idea was to show a character who was “deeper”, brooding and mostly, human.
For further comparison, when we look to the male protagonists in film who take a beating, they’re either the silent, yet always strong type such as Jason Bourne or the comedic hero typified by Indiana Jones. Female representation in films is mildly more progressive than in gaming, inasmuch as you have The Bride from the Kill Bill films and Alice from the Resident Evil films. I say mildly, whilst they are both strong female leads, they’re also extremely vulnerable at times and at others still overtly objectified for the audience’s pleasure. The question here is, can Crystal Dynamics make Lara both strong and human? I suspect there’ll be no comic relief to detract from her plight and from what we’ve seen so far she’s not exactly going to shrug off getting stabbed or hit around the head.
Belinda Parmar, Founder of Lady Geek, crusaders for gender equality within the digital sphere, believes the issue goes beyond Lara and has more to do with the fact that female characters are heavily under-represented within games and the gaming community. She states:
There is too much attention on Lara Croft as the pinnacle of a female character on games. The issue is not just whether she is “real” – (since she is a character in an action-fantasy) but that there is a general lack of variety of female characters in games. With a few notable exceptions females are there to be rescued or fought over, or more commonly their gender is immaterial to their role in the game. This denial of gender is a step up from the traditional stereotyping, however still leaves a long way to go before games have the depth we might expect from good literature and film”
Belinda suggests that until we get anywhere near proportional representation within gaming, the focal point for our attention is on the hyper-feminine Lara Croft-types or the candy floss and cuteness of Princess Peach. Whilst neither representation is perfect, it’s worth considering they wouldn’t be nearly so damaging if they were part of a larger spectrum.
When all is said and done, I can’t really comment too heavily on what effect the new Tomb Raider will have, and whether smaller breasts and trousers will change anything. What I am saying is that in Crystal Dynamics’ search to create a “real” and “human” Lara, it seems that they have strayed from one set of sexist, design clichés into a less explored and potentially more subversive set. I am certain that there’ll be less of an outcry at the new Lara, after all, who can disagree with their intentions? The game does sound really interesting and the new Lara is far more appealing as a protagonist. But, is having her break limbs and getting impaled really a way to show she’s a deeper and more “valid” character? In fact, the idea that to make a more “valid” Lara they have to show her at her lowest point is a knee-jerk reaction and is akin to using a mallet to crack a walnut.
Whilst I have no doubt that Tomb Raider has the best intentions and a team of highly skilled creative people, creating an arresting, yet problematic image is simply not enough – and in fact it could become worse.