Above: The portrait of immaturity.
About two hours into the new Tomb Raider game, I let myself give in to what seemed like the developer’s intentions. “Die, man!” I’d shout, helping Lara Croft pump a round of buckshot into yet another dude crawling out from behind Buddhist statues and rotting Japanese torii. “How’s that for suffrage,” I’d yell as arrows zipped from Lara’s compound bow and produced bloody splashes from thugs’ heads. I’d come to Tomb Raider hoping to find proof that video games had grown up (whatever that means), and here I was treating it like the basest Call of Duty fling. From a gaming point of view, that means it’s fun, but at the same time, it betrayed a reaction that seemed out of place with the new Tomb Raider’s goals.
Tomb Raider: Survivor
If you haven’t heard, the goal of the latest Tomb Raider game is to show us the human side of gaming’s favorite dungeon-crawling heroine; to show us her early days as a bookish academic before she learned to wield her signature twin pistols. Put bluntly, they want players to see there’s a human behind the rack. In practice, that means we no longer watch Lara cockily sniping baddies while strutting about in shameless cutoffs; instead, we see Lara slapped around like a rag doll, and if you’re unlucky enough to die in certain scenarios, impaled on tree limbs and pesky pipes jutting out from the environment. There’s undeniable empowerment in her saga, but the way it’s handled, it unfolds like what you’d expect from someone parodying the ideals of feminist writers.
Consider the setting. Lara and her archaeological buddies get shipwrecked on an forgotten Japanese island that’s teeming with hundreds of crazed, desperate, and (presumably) sex-starved men who haven’t had their sausage fest disturbed by femininity in decades. Their leader’s a raving lunatic; his followers mindless simpletons.The men among Lara’s crew don’t fare much better; they’re either subject to greed, pride, or petty love-struck impulses that get themselves killed. No, the only people who possess of modicum of sense in this whole affair are the women, and only one man–a mass of muscle rather than brains–survives by the end.
Fastest gut-impalement injury recovery ever.
We’re also supposed to be impressed that Lara’s bra size shrunk a size or two, but for all the focus on Lara’s conflicted reactions to killing deer and her pitiful looks that would put Margaret Thompson of Boardwalk Empire to shame, only a fool would argue that the new Lara isn’t sexualized here. Considering her ordeal, there’s something slightly disturbing about the way the camera lingers on her assets as she fights for her life. It’s like a cheap horror movie in some regards. We see it when Lara inches sideways into the crawl spaces of caverns, unfailingly revealing a generous view of sideboob outlined with her form-fitting tank top. (At one moment, when she runs through a snowy area, I found myself wondering why she didn’t nab the coats of one of her latest victims. As she sidled into another tomb soon afterward, I thought, ah, that’s why.)
We see it in the numerous ass shots as Lara makes her way up ladders and climbs over ledges, and we see it in overhead shots that permit us to look straight down her shirt. I spent over seven years studying history and fraternizing with archaeologists in a university worthy of the projects undertaken by Lara and her crew, and never once did I see a women sharing my vocation with a figure like that. It’s not impossible, but if Tomb Raider truly wants us to witness an academic morph into an unstoppable huntress, her figure would be more shaped by hours in libraries than in gyms. Here, Lara’s hair might be tousled, her face might be smeared with blood and grime, but clean her up a bit, and she’d look right at home in a Smoking Jacket pictorial alongside Sofia Vergara.
I mean, seriously.
It doesn’t help that there’s something off about Lara’s whole party girl turned mass murderer routine, and it manifests itself nowhere so acutely as in Lara’s reaction to her first kill. It’s meant to be a powerful moment, brimming with pathos as we watch Lara’s eyes fill with horror of her act, but it fails because a few minutes later she’s ramming pickaxes into dudes’ heads as though she were born doing it. Any realistic sense of transformation evaporates in those moments, and indeed, the concept as a whole may have fared better if Lara’s journey had focused on stealth rather than assault. This initial sense of anguish tries to reassert itself throughout the story, but only in Lara’s incessant whimpers as she takes hits or finds herself surprised by passing patrols.
The key difference that separates Tomb Raider from earlier Lara Croft games is that it’s not out to make us (as males) lust for her. Instead, it’s determined to make us fall in love with her. Unintentionally comical man-killing storyline aside, it largely works. Lara is the perfect package: she’s smart, she’s tough, she’s resourceful, and–let’s face it–she has a body to die for. (And many, many do.) She’s no longer cold sexuality; she’s the girl next door. That’s unfortunate for the supposed coming of age of video games as it also means she’s still largely an object, and she probably always will be unless Tomb Raider breaks with its long running third-person perspective. Fortunately for us as gamers, that means we still have a future for a franchise that was always rooted as much in fun combat as in the constant screen presence of a female badass in shorts.
I wish they’d taught me how to jump like that in graduate school.
This new Tomb Raider’s conclusion suggests that she’s now on the path toward the confident treasure hunting mistress we used to know, and perhaps that’s for the best. While endlessly fun, this new incarnation reminds us that projecting serious ideals into endeavors meant for fun is as precarious an act Lara’s sprints across the decaying bridges of the lost kingdom of Yamatai. Whatever Lara’s future, the series might benefit from a shift away from showing the mental evolution of a formerly weak woman who takes up slaughter as a hobby. After all, Kill Bill did that far better than this.