In the past there have been very few examples of female lead characters in games, let alone complex and well-written ones. The gaming world was, and to an extent still is, a male-orientated society and larger titles played to this demographic. Many video games were primarily made to entertain a male audience and female characters suffered as a result, becoming generic, to the point of being sickeningly stereotypical. Generally, women in games fell into one of very few set roles; be it the damsel in distress or scantily dressed sidekick, these were the parts the characters had to play and the players had to endure. However, easy access to mobile and handheld gaming has helped instigate a shift towards the mainstream; video games are no longer seen as just a pastime for the hermit in his mum’s basement. The gaming industry needs to catch up with this shift and adapt to the modern world, leaving behind the backwards idea that, in the end, the male’s story is always more important. Now, in the form of Lara Croft, the industry may have taken its first steps to achieving just that.
Ironically, the original character of Lara Croft was guilty of pandering to some of these stereotypes. A butt-kicker and fearless explorer though she was, it was clear from the start this was a character aimed at male players. If there were three things that were synonymous with the original Lara Croft, they would be her twin pistols, tight clothing and large triangular breasts. Fun though the game may have been, these were obvious indicators that in terms of character design, Lara was all flash and no substance.
Fast forward ten years and you’ll struggle to find any real consistent progression in female characters. While gaming capabilities have allowed us to explore the male protagonist’s story in more depth than ever before, Princess Peach still needs Mario to save her time and time again. You just need to look at any arcade fighting game to realise how little progression some developers have made. From bouncing breasts to beach volleyball editions (with added bounciness being an optional extra), the same sexualisation is present in almost every female any fighting game has produced. But away from these lighter titles, it was the lack of genuine progression of female leads in story-based genres that was even more worrying.
Fighting games never attempted to write strong female leads, but games such as Final Fantasy XIII did. As the first independent game in the series to have a female lead character, Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel Final Fantasy XIII-2 both should have contributed to the modernisation of female protagonists. Instead, both Serah and Lightning can be added to the long list of failed attempts at progression. Lightning is capable and independent, never hesitating to save the one she cares about, yet she never once needs saving and this is a problem in itself. A strong female protagonist is not an emotionless robot, but one that feels the hit and fights on regardless. Serah was the opposite – weak and in constant need of saving; the classic damsel in distress masked by flashy graphics. Add on the fact that Square-Enix included a model pack DLC to dress her in beachwear, and Serah was not going to win any awards for progressiveness.
So, with an influx of female gamers flooding the market, the release of Tomb Raider and a new Lara Croft is a huge marker to determine whether or not games can get it right. If Lara were to fail as a character and become a frightened damsel constantly relying on others to save her, or wearing a tight outfit and never getting so much as a scratch, then it may be years until the gaming industry can consistently produce strong female protagonists. Women gamers would still be left with limited amounts of well-written heroines to support and the industry would still be out of sync with modern society. Fortunately, Tomb Raider seems like a step on the right path.
If there is one word which sums up the latest incarnation of Lara Croft best, it’s badass. She takes hit after hit; bullet after bullet; fall after fall, all of which are conveyed in their potent brutality by the impressive visuals, and still she doesn’t go down (so long as you press ‘X’ in time). Even cauterising a gaping wound in her side gives Lara the idea for making fire arrows, which has to be a prerequisite for the University of Badassery.
However, as mentioned earlier, for any good protagonist it’s not only about being strong – it’s also about being weak. That’s what makes a character interesting; that’s what makes them feel real. There is the sense that showing vulnerability would somehow invalidate the ‘strong’ from ‘strong female protagonist’. This results in a boring and unrealistic character: one who isn’t challenged, can’t get hurt and doesn’t make mistakes.
The fact is that vulnerability doesn’t supplant the strength of a character – they exist together, and Tomb Raider adheres to this notion. Lara Croft, for all her epic jumps, bow skills and climbing expertise, also shows her weaknesses. She feels the horror and loss of her situation for more than the mandatory ten seconds, and often needs the reassuring word of a friend to reignite belief in herself. The fact is, woman or man, it’s impossible to do everything alone. We are, after all, only human.
Tomb Raider is very much Lara Croft’s game: the spotlight is on her and she doesn’t disappoint. The array of beautiful visuals, violent gameplay and classic puzzle-solving all serve to emphasise her character development. The vast settings invoke the wonder of Lara on an expedition in uncharted lands and each kill she makes adds a layer of steel to a person realising there isn’t always an easy way out. Reclaiming the original title ‘Tomb Raider’ is a definite indication that this is a new beginning for Lara Croft; the classic Tomb Raider games will not be forgotten, but this rebooted franchise is one for the modern era and it’s coming out at just the right time.
Is Tomb Raider going to contribute anything to real world gender politics? In a word: No. For the gaming world, however, Tomb Raider provides a welcome change of direction for how female protagonists are conveyed. One who is not defined by her appearance, love interest, or the distress she needs a male to save her from. Instead, Lara Croft is in a world she doesn’t understand, striving to get her friends and herself out alive, a process which also happens to involve kicking a lot of ass and raiding a lot of tombs. She makes mistakes, she gets hurt, she lets her emotion show, she needs help, but she carries on anyway. And that’s what makes a strong protagonist, female or otherwise.
The question remains: is this a foundation from which future games will build upon? Not only in the Tomb Raider franchise, but all games involving female protagonists? As much as Tomb Raider does get a lot of things right, there are plenty of aspects which need work. However, with the next generation of consoles on the horizon, it feels like change is in the air and, personally, we can’t wait to see what the future holds.
- Travis and Simon