Tomb Raider

It was the lazy summer of 97 (or maybe 98) when the three of us sat on the cool basement floor, clustered around the TV and swearing like sailors every time Lara died which worked out to be about every 5 minutes. At any given time, two of us would be spectating and shit talking, while the third would be trying to make jumps happen in the game. Whenever the person holding the controller got too frustrated to continue he would pass it over to the next person. This is how my brother, my cousin and me made beat the original Tomb Rider. So I guess I could say I have fond memories of the original game, though I doubt that I would have ever seen the ending it if I wasn’t for the fact I was spending the summer with two very stubborn platformer fiends.

As a whole, the Tomb Rider franchise never really had that much appeal to me because the games were just very hard, and the game-play was designed around around the infuriating DIAS principle. The games were a cult classic, but at the same time they were becoming a niche attraction accessible to only the players willing to put up with the torturous difficulty and more and more sexualized protagonist. It’s no secret that the series very deservedly came under heavy criticism for the way it was portraying it’s protagonist. In fact if you ever read an article about the male gaze in video games, Lara Croft’s picture, with her ever-expanding bust will probably be on page one.

The 2013 reboot of the game promised to “fix” the franchise and make it accessible to a wider audiences by addressing both the difficulty curve and by re-casting Lara as an actual heroine one could relate to and identify with, rather than sex-doll with guns that you are merely supposed to ogle. At least I believe these were the objectives of this project. Were they met? Well, yes – but not fully.

Game-play wise, the reboot is definitely an improvement. I actually enjoyed the platforming and physics related puzzles because they did not insist on punishing me for having no hand-eye coordination. I was able to nail most jumps on the first try, and even if I fell to my death the auto-save system was usually generous enough to put me right before the tricky jump. I don’t think I ever had to back-track more than a minute or two after an unfortunate fall. I also noticed that unlike her predecessor, this Lara actually has a self preservation instinct and automatically stops when she hits a ledge or a hole in the ground. Platformer purists may be unhappy about it, but I was quite pleased with this feature and it saved my life countless of times.

Lara the Explorer

This is game play shot. As you walk around, Lara will actually look at statues or points of interest which is a really nice character detail.

Combat is done very well. There is probably more of it in the game that would be reasonable story-wise, but I didn’t mind. The fights are actually nicely spaced out with exploring/platforming bits so combat fatigue never really sets in. I have really low tolerance for endless combat these days. If you remember my Max Payne review the endless gunfights spaced out only by brief cut-scenes nearly made me quit the game on more than one occasion. Tomb Rider on the other hand has great pacing. A There is a good balance between stealth sequences were you can strike from shadows or silently snipe enemies with your bow, and all out pitched battles when you are expected to doge Molotov cocktails and make a liberal use of the grande launcher attached to your assault rifle. But after each enemy encounter you get some breathing space where you can just run around, hunt, explore optional puzzle-tombs and etc..

In other words, Crystal Dynamics more or less nailed the core game-play. If they stuck to having Lara running, jumping and shooting dudes in the face I would have been absolutely enthralled by the title from purely mechanical perspective. But I guess at some point the development team realized that you can’t make a Tomb Rider title without something that would absolutely infuriate the player. Apparently what the game was missing was quick time events.

With her bow

I actually forgot to take screen-shots of combat scenes because I was having too much fun.

I have a big problem with quick time events because in my opinion they remove agency from the player. In Tomb Rider they typically happen during a cut-scene and require you to quickly press a button not to die. The time window for pressing the button is typically very short, and it is always a random button. Sometimes you have to pres F, sometimes shift, other times you need to mash E repeatedly or alternate left and right movement keys. Frequently you will have 4-5 of these per cut scene, and if you miss one you get to do it all over again.

The other variety of quick time events happen when Lara is sliding, falling, or running away from something Indiana Jones style and you need to mash keys to avoid or destroy obstacles and it is just as bad. It is not that these sequences are difficult to execute – it’s just that they are annoying. Since I could never guess which button was going to be needed I typically missed them on the first try. Since most scenes involved a sequence of 4-5 quick-time events I would frequently have to re-start the entire scene that many times, until I memorized the button order and could execute it in time.

Parachuting

This is not specifically quick-time event, but grazing a tiny branch here meant insta-death. I died immediately after I took this screenshot.

What about the other goal of the game: fixing Lara Croft herself? I have to say I have mixed feelings about this.

On one hand the new Lara is a huge improvement. For one, she wears pants in this game and has somewhat more realistic body proportions. While the camera still sometimes contorts itself to a weird angle to better expose her back-side or let the player look down her blouse it is not nearly as jarring as in previous games. More importantly, she has an actual personality and a rather nice character arc which takes her from wide-eyed and enthusiastic but inexperienced archeologist to an ass-kicking action hero you may remember from the old games. But not quite the same, mind you. The new Lara is channeling her inner Katnis Aberdeen. Her weapon of choice is a bow and she has the same brave but vulnerable vibe likely inspired by and styled after Jenifer Lawrence’s performance. You get to watch her slowly gain confidence, learn survival skills and make difficult choices. When at the end of the game she exclaims “I’m not going home” hinting at the inevitable sequel, you actually understand why. It is a classic heroes journey story, and it is executed almost perfectly. She is no longer merely a pin-up doll treasure hunter but rather a fully fledged character with a back-story, motivations and relationships.

I’m also pleased to report that the game passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, which is something that very rarely happens in video games. With two prominent, named female NPC’s and a female protagonist this game is ahead of most triple A titles in terms of gender diversity. But that’s also where the game drops the ball. Lara’s best friend Sam has a really bad case of the Princes Peach syndrome which makes her susceptible to being repeatedly kidnapped. So while Crystal Dynamics was trying to lift up Lara to be something more, they also decided that she needed a damsel in distress to be repeatedly rescued. It’s as if they were trying so hard to avoid objectifying Lara that they were completely blinded themselves to this other old trope they were writing into the plot.

Lara and Sam

Bechdel test: Lara and Sam, also Lara and Reyes. Also I think this is the scene when you rescue Sam from kidnappers for like the 2nd time.

Actually, they weren’t fully successful at not objectifying Lara either. I already mentioned the occasional creep-shot camera angles, but that’s not really what bothered me the most. It was the fact that Lara’s version of heroes journey had to include a “scared, helpless and alone” phase that you rarely see for male protagonists. At the very beginning of the game she is captured, bound, beaten and completely lost. When she is huddling around a camp fire shivering from cold and trying to hold back tears it is unclear whether the player is expected to empathize with her or feel bad for her and want to rescue her somehow. Then she is captured again, and you have to pass a quick time event to avoid rape. No I’m actually not kidding. Tomb Rider has a “push button to avoid rape” mechanic, and this bothers me a lot.

Climbing

Climbing is like this half the time. Also when you’re crawling half the time you can’t see where your going because backside shots are important apparently.

Before you say that this moment was pivotal scene for the character, please consider that surviving/fighting off a rape attempt is almost never used as a “shit just got real” moment for male heroes. Outside of tasteless prison rape jokes (which are common) the very idea of male character being violently raped is something most writers are just to squeamish to consider, and much less describe. A woman getting groped and about to get raped is often merely an excuse to kick-off a rescue romance or show that the female character “can take care of herself”. This is not ok. Using near-rape-experience as valid character development device legitimizes rape as something “normal” or “expected” for women, and helps to perpetuate rape culture.

I think that the major flaw in the game’s plot is that it relies almost entirely on a damsel in distress trope to generate drama and tension. Lara is always running around trying to save someone. Whenever Sam is temporarily not kidnapped, the focus switches to another character: either the fatherly Roth who gets injured and needs to be nurtured and protected, or the nerdy guy who gets in over his head trying to impress Lara. The opening chapter has a damsel in distress too: it is Lara herself. She is helpless and scared iron woobie in a trauma conga line, and only you, the straight male player, can rescue her from this predicament. At least that’s how it felt to me. I felt as if I wasn’t really supposed to empathize with her plight as much as go “awww, poor Lara, lets’ find you a jacket and get you away from those bad men”. I think this emphasis on innocence and vulnerability is in a way form of objectification.

Sam Rescued

Sam gets rescued for the seventh time. Or eight. I lost count.

Can you imagine a reboot of say Uncharted in which Nathan Drake is is a nerdy school boy who is kinda afraid of heights? Or a Max Payne prequel in which he is an idealistic police cadet who has to overcome his insecurities to make it on the force? Can you imagine a coming of age story featuring Master Chief or Marcus Fenix fighting off a violent rapist? No, because open displays of fear and vulnerability are typically considered to be feminine and thus are rarely written into male protagonist story arcs. Female protagonists however get it in spades.

The writers at Crystal Dynamics set out to make Lara into a compelling female protagonist, which is commendable goal, but maybe this is also their mistake. Perhaps they should have just concentrated on making her awesome, instead of making her an “awesome female” (which I put in quotes because I don’t feel comfortable using the word female as a noun). Perhaps it is better to try writing a the best, most interesting character possible without letting gender infer the plot and the story. Then again, that might be an oversimplification because in real life gender is a big part of one’s identity. It is actually incredibly difficult to write great female protagonists because of the impossible standards we impose on them. Lara Croft especially vulnerable to this because of her background as the poster-girl for the male gaze syndrome in video games. Rebooting her character is not an easy task, and there is an enormous amount of pressure to get it right. Considering the kind of criticism the character gathered in the past, it is easy to see why the team might have been compelled to over-compensate and veer in the wrong direction.

Credits Pictures

This game was brought to you by: men. White, bearded, men. Pages, upon pages of them. This explains a lot.

But that’s not really an excuse on a big budget, high profile project like this. I’m quite amazed that no one on the Tomb Rider team ever went “hey guys, how about we run the script by someone with background in feminist theory to make sure we are not being accidentally sexist or misogynistic”. I’m sure that if they done so, at the very least the rape thing would get axed in the first draft. Then again, this sort of obliviousness is the very definition of male privilege.

The good news is that eventually Lara gets out of her woobie funk, overcomes her fears, insecurities and lack of experience and ends up saving the day and rescuing all the princesses in all the different castles. Despite a few glitches and mistakes and ineptitude of the Crystal Dynamics writing team, she does manage to grow into a very fun and compelling protagonist that I had no problems identifying with. The new Lara is more Everdeen than a Croft but I think that’s actually a good thing. I’ll take a character with strong convictions, relationships and moral code over a rich pin-up girl treasure hunter any day. All things considered, I think the game is a step forward rather than backward with respect to depiction of female protagonists. While it’s not perfect, it definitely could have been much worse.

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10 Responses to Tomb Raider

  1. agn0sis CANADA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    While following your blog, I have seen a recent interest about gender equity. Maybe it has been a coincidence or maybe it is something that you have been thinking about lately. Anyway, I have agreed with you in the majority of the occasions. Nevertheless, it looks like you are judging the developers for acknowledging something that happens in real life. I hope it wasn’t the case, but rape is a crime that women are more likely to suffer. I think it is great that in the plot Lara was able to deal with it by herself instead of needing a man to save her. As in this game they are building Lara as a hero, maybe the next game can offer an story with less gender interference (I think that Metroid games have managed to achieve this if you don’t think about the art in the last game of the franchise), but at least at this point it was something to help to the development of the character. After all, an as you mentioned it, women in real life have to deal with a society that parts from very strict assumptions based on gender.

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  2. Carl UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    Sexual dimorphism. Men and women are not the same. A compelling storyline should not have to be gender swappable, unless it is sci-fi that is exploring an alternative universe. Kow towing to feminism only hurts the verisimilitude of a story.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ agn0sis:

    Yes, this has been something I’ve been thinking and reading about about a lot lately. :)

    Here is my problem with that scene: yes, it is good that Lara was able to defend herself. This is preferable to being rescued by some guy. But you know what would be even better? Just skip the suggestive groping completely. I mean, her life was already in danger. The guy was already holding her at gunpoint.

    Defeating a violent thug who is trying to kill you is just as heroic, character building as killing a violent thug who is trying to rape you and then kill you. The rape bit just adds insult to the injury. It doesn’t really do anything for Lara in terms of character development. The scene would play out exactly the same with or without groping. Her shock and remorse after killing the assailant would be just as intense.

    It doesn’t do anything for the guy either, because he is for the most part just some no-name thug. He shows up, gets creepy and violent and dies shortly after. No point in making him extra evil, or making players hate him any more.

    The rape thing was there for the straight male player. It was put there specifically to feel protective of her. I believe the lead designer of the game said in an interview they specifically put Lara through an emotional wringer so that male players would want to protect her and lead her out of danger, because otherwise he didn’t see how they could possibly identify with a female hero. But she didn’t really need any of that. Men can identify with female characters. I played fem-Shep in Mass Effect and it was fine. My main favorite character in Skyrim is a Bosmer woman. I don’t need extra incentive to identify with Lara.

    Unfortunately adding the rape bit has side effects. For one, it triggers rape survivors. According to some recent surveys in US on average one in five women have been a victim of some form sexual assault. That’s a huge portion of the growing population of female gamers that do not need to be reminded that “hey, rape happens” because they already know that all to well.

    It helps to normalize rape as something that just happens, and we are powerless to stop it. It desensitizes us to it. When it is used for character building, or to add extra drama to a scene, or as an excuse to introduce a new male character it becomes mundane. There is a great Ted talk I watched recently in which a guy talks about role models in for children in movies and television (I can’t find it at the moment) and he touches on rape culture. He had a great line in there – he said something among the lines of “Instead of teaching our daughters that they always need to be careful and scared of getting raped, we should be instead teaching our sons to consider rape something absolutely unthinkable and beyond comprehension”. A good way to do that would be to not use it so casually in our media.

    Now, I’m not saying we should never have stories that talk about rape. I’m saying that the tone and the way characters deal with it is important. It shouldn’t be something that just pops up in every third story for no other reason as to make a point that this or that chick is especially tough.

    And I know – you could make an argument that movies and games desensitize us to other stuff like murder for example. But in real life murder is a very high profile crime, and murderers rarely get away with it. Rapists on the other hand frequently get off with a slap on the wrist or go unpunished, and society is still very keen on blaming the victims. Not only that, but murder is a social taboo, condemned pretty much by every religion there is, whereas rape is a bit of a gray area. There is a lot of misconception as to what counts as rape. Like the fact that a lot of people think that most rape happens somewhere in dark alleys where women are attacked by complete strangers, when in fact most reported rape cases are perpetuated by someone the victim knew and trusted. There are also a lot of men out there who for example think it’s not rape if she is not fighting back, or that it’s not rape if she was to drunk to say no and etc.

    So that’s kinda my reasoning behind the rant. What bothered me was how unnecessary the groping was in the scope of the story. Cutting it out would not diminish the game as a whole in any way, and it would not subtract from the story or make Lara’s character any less awesome. All the rape thing it accomplishes is to alienate some players and send weird, insensitive messages to others.

    Speaking of Metroid, wasn’t that one game kinda terrible in terms of plot as well? I haven’t played it but I remember seeing a review that mentioned that not only Samus model was sexed up to the max, but also the whole game was about motherhood (whereas other games were about being a bad-ass bounty hunter fucking up aliens) and she also gets a forced romantic subplot with some dude who constantly rescues her in cut scenes?

    @ Carl:

    Well, fem-Shep in Mass Effect is perfectly exchangeable with dude-Shep and it works quite well. But yes, I agree – you don’t want to make all characters gender-neutral. I think I didn’t articulate that I meant this mostly in context of action hero archetype. That’s a very specific niche, and right now we have a very clear division of what an action-dude and action-chick are supposed to be like.

    Action-dude can be pretty much anyone. Look at the cast of expendables for example: there are all kinds of men out there – big muscular body builder types, grizzled older veterans, tall and lanky dudes, short and skinny martial arts dudes, pretty boys, ugly dudes covered in scars and tattoos and etc. Pretty much anyone can be an action-dude provided they can pull of the “tough, doesn’t give a shit, doesn’t look at explosions” routine. You don’t even need to be especially athletic as long as you can look cool holding a gun. Action-chicks on the other hand have to be young and sexy and not too muscular and wear tight fitting clothes. There is vely little verisimilitude in the way female action hero protagonists are portrayed.

    So I think that a healthy dose of feminism would actually invigorate the genre. I’d love to see some action-hero women who are tough, gruff and awesome at kicking ass, but not necessarily skinny, athletic, lithe, and sexed up martial artists. For example Briene of Tarth from game of thrones is probably my favorite female warrior character because she is actually looks strong, tough and intimidating.

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  4. Tj AUSTRALIA Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    @ Carl: Not sure how a movement championing equal rights for half the human species is something you need kowtow to but.. whatever makes it happen for you XD

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  5. Tj AUSTRALIA Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    @ Luke Maciak: Well said, Luke. I enjoyed reading this post but wasn’t able to comment earlier as I was on a smartphone (nothing to do with the site, I just don’t like typing on the lil’ keyboard). Had a bunch of stuff to say and you’ve covered it all. Thanks for the link to that TED video, the only thing I disagreed with him on was the effect on Disney princesses on little girls being a good one. In my experience it hasn’t been that way. In fact the further all little kids are from Disney the better. That being said I spent most of my life blissfully unaware of all the dreadful subtexts (change for your man, wait to be rescued, if you are special there’s a prince out there searching for you, put up with being a hostage+fall in love with your captor etc) and am quite thankful for that.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Tj:

    Yes, so true. As much as princesses can function as role models to some degree, Disney has a pretty bad track record in terms of reinforcing the gender roles, propping up the patriarchy and etc. Lindsay Ellis does a great job of deconstructing Disney movies and highlighting both good and bad bits in her reviews. She has a great review of Little Mermaid where she shows that despite her being one of the most iconic and beloved princesses the movie’s main message is terribad (hey, it’s totally ok to throw your entire life away, sever ties with your family, reject your ethnic/cultural identity and radically alter your body for some random pretty dude you saw like once from afar, because “true love”) and has almost no redeeming value other than maybe few memorable songs. It’s actually kinda depressing how hard it is to find positive role models for girls out there.

    I have been completely oblivious to all of this stuff most of my life too. It’s scary how privilege works. If you’re a straight white dude like me you can go through your entire life without a shred of awareness of any of the social injustice that affects millions of people around you every day – some of whom are your close friends and family members. And the worst part is that even though you are not aware of it, the subtexts and attitudes do seep in, and do inform your ideas and shape your world view. So I’m actually quite thankful I am able to see it now, because it lets me be a better person and hopefully help to make make a tiny amount of change in my corner of the interwebs. :)

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  7. agn0sis CANADA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I am familiar with the most classic Metroid games. Damn, it is unfortunate that they decided to sexualize the character. I remember a lot of people getting really surprised and exited when they realized Samus was a woman.

    Going back to the rape thing, and believe me, I think it is one of the most heinous crimes that a human can commit, it is very important to teach the children that rape must never occur, but not alerting them that it is a danger is not going to help. In the case of Lara, being a woman that has to deal with people of “relaxed moral” must increase the chances of being the victim of a sexual crime.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ agn0sis:

    Well, original Samus thing was a fluke I think. Designers just made a silly bait and switch at the end where she takes of the suit and stands there in a bikini for a cheep thrill and whaaaaa-no-wai moment. So it didn’t really come from a place of tolerance or concern for gender equality – it was still mostly done for objectification. But side effect of the bait-and-switch routine that all of a sudden there was this hyper-competent, awesome and fun space hero who is also a girl. They accidentally created a female character who was not defined by her gender but by her skills and actions. And by the time players found out she was a woman, they already identified with her and respected her as a awesome ass-kicker. Thus by accident they made a female hero who was truly equal to her male counterparts. And then the more recent games went “wait, no – she is a girl, make her do girly stuff and have girly concerns and stuff”. :(

    As for the rape: Tomb Rider was rated M in US so it’s not really going to be useful as object lesson for children. Also, it’s not really doing anything useful in terms of education.

    If you talk to rape survivors you’ll realize that often “fighting back” like Lara did may be actually extremely dangerous as it escalates the violence and will likely result in more severe injuries and possibly even death of the victim

    Also, the type of rape depicted in the game is rather uncommon IRL. Here are some stats (source):

    - 70% of reported sexual assaults have been perpetrated by non-strangers
    - 40% of rapists are victims friends or acquaintances
    - 30% were someone victim was intimate with
    - over 50% of rapes occur in victims own home or within 1 mile from home
    - only 11% of reported rapes involved use of a weapon
    - less than 3% of victims were raped at gun point

    So the scenario depicted in the game is very much an outlier and something that most women will thankfully never have to deal with. Ironically this uncommon scenario is what we predominantly see in movies and TV over and over again. Overexposure of this specific rare scenario often convinces people that when we discuss rape related issues or legislation that has to do with sex crimes, this is the biggest threat women face. It’s not.

    But you are right – we do need educate young women about rape. But I think perpetuating this atmosphere of fear and dependence is not really productive. I think it’s better to empower young women, teach them self respect and self value (so that they can’t be pressured into thinking they for example “owe” a guy something), show them how to clearly establish boundaries, how to deal with pressure tactics, how to say “no” without risking escalating situation to violence, and how to act and how to seek help if something does happen. We can also help to create safe environment for victims so that it is easier to them to seek help without being blamed shamed and etc. Action-chick power fantasies unfortunately don’t help much here. And the usual “don’t go out alone at night” and “don’t wear revealing clothing” type advice is silly and outdated and counter productive because they disempower women.

    Young men on the other hand get almost no rape-related education, and astonishing number of them grows up to perpetrate these crimes. They are picking up all kinds of wrong messages somewhere. In fact half the dudes on reddit think that “rape culture doesn’t real” or that “patriarchy is fake and made up by misandrist lesbians” and etc. I mean, it would make a lot of sense to spend at leas the fraction of the resources we spend teaching girls how not to get raped, to teach boys how not to grow up to be rapists, no? :)

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  9. joek UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    One comment on the infamous rape-as-character-building:
    You asked whether it would have been too much for game designers to ask someone who was qualified to comment on these things whether it was used appropriately. In fact, it was much worse than that: when it was first revealed that attempted rape was going to be used as a way to give Lara ‘character development’ (and I believe that the designer in fact made a comment about how it would make the — straight, male — player feel like she needed protecting) there was in fact a large amount of concern from feminists, especially feminist gamers, which was essentially dismissed and brushed aside. It’s interesting to know that as you describe it, the scene has turned out in exactly the way which was predicted by its detractors…

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  10. StuartB UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Bored at work and trolling through old posts.

    Where do you want to see the next Tomb Raider game go? Through most of this game, she’s dealing with death, turmoil, needing to escape the island, etc. As a result, Lara is not really a calm, confident woman through most of it, always needing to run or escape or fight. Where can they take her in the sequel so that she’s a more stable, confident, adult (more mature) character, closer to the Lara from the original games?

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