Why Tomb Raider is an Important Milestone for Women in Gaming
If I were to ask you "is Tomb Raider sexist?," you, being the awful sexist that you are, would probably say "of course Tomb Raider's sexy, I couldn't stand up for hours after watching The Cradle of Life," to which I'd reply "no, not sexy, sexist; is the Tomb Raider series sexist?," and then you'd reply "huh? Uh… probably. I dunno."
Much like the Spice Girls ostensibly supported "girl power" back in the '90s whilst simultaneously being five singing 'n' dancing female stereotypes, Tomb Raider protagonist Lara Croft has been a scapegoat for years when the subject of the underrepresentation of women in video games is brought up, as her intelligence and penchant for shooting things caused her to be labelled as a strong female lead character, whilst she also had the disproportionately-shaped body that would look more at home on a poster on a 15-year-old lad's bedroom wall than on an archaelogical dig.
Throughout the Tomb Raider series' history, more focus has been put on the ever-changing appearance of Lara Croft than it has on the quality of the games – Angel of Darkness was "the one where she's a goth with big boobs," Legend was "the one where she's got more reasonably sized boobs" and Underworld was "the one where she's got smaller boobs and looks a bit older." With each new iteration of the series, there was also a new model hired to take part in photoshoots to advertise the game, who would dress up in Lara Croft's trademark skin-tight hotpants whilst pretending to shoot guns and pouting at the camera. It was this odd juxtaposition between badass Lara and overtly sexualised Lara that made the character so famous, yet for all the wrong reasons.
Fast forward to 2013, a year where Angelina Jolie is no longer punching sharks in the mouth and where the Tomb Raider series has undergone a drastic overhaul in the form of its reboot, the innovatively titled Tomb Raider. The marketing campaign for Tomb Raider has been a questionable one. Trailers have largely depicted Lara as bloodied, battered and grunting, with a lecherous sexual advance by a villain thrown in there for good measure. It all seemed very much like tortune porn, all very Hostel-esque, and I was worried that the finished product would see the Tomb Raider series take a much more sinister route with the sexualisation of its heroine. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Taken out of context, Tomb Raider's over-the-top violence seems in poor taste. However, within the context of the game, it serves to help Lara. The brutality of the events that happen around her causes her to toughen up. She's still vulnerable, but her vulnerability isn't a weakness. She's human, more human than perhaps any other video game character thus far, and certainly more human than any female character we've yet played as. Quite frankly, she makes almost every female character that has come before her, including her own previous incarnations, seem even more embarrassing in retrospect.
The new Lara Croft inspires you to rally behind her, but not in a patronising way – you want and will for her to succeed, but never do you feel like she is incapable of doing so of her own volition. She is vulnerable, yes, but she is also courageous. She's never portrayed as a one-woman killing machine, despite her sometimes clearing out a room of twenty-or-so enemies using nothing but a bow and arrows. Unlike her male peers such as Nathan Drake and co., you never get the impression that she is relishing the opportunity to kill the bad guys. There's no jokes, no witticisms – she's staying on this treacherous island in order to rescue her friends, and there's nothing funny about that.
Essentially, what developers Crystal Dynamics have done is they've set a new standard. They've proven that, despite reports to the contrary, video games with women in them who aren't hyper-sexualised can sell well. Really, really well. They haven't concerned themselves with the theory that making your protagonist a woman might not shift as many units, they've instead focused on creating a great game with a great protagonist, and it's worked.
While we're still some way off completely purging the industry of all of its sexist tropes, Tomb Raider is the most important game yet in the continued evolution of the representation of females in video games, and from here on out will be referred to as "the one where she's a well-rounded, intelligent and empathetic character."
Paul Tamburro is the UK Editor of CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro.