Analysis, Feminism

I Hate Tombs: When a Reboot Depowers By Race & Gender

Shooting Dudebro #501.
Shooting Dudebro #501.

Real talk: I’ve been a Lara Croft fan for a long time. As in, since the days I’d goaded my neighbor’s son into competitive timed challenges where we’d race through levels in Tomb Raider 2 until the controller indentations on our fingers left week-long marks. He was able to maneuver in water better than I could (I hate sharks), but I prided myself on my ability to scale cliff faces and leap off platforms only to roll and shoot with perfect precision. What a time to be alive, eh? I lived and breathed that game as a kid. Looking back on my experiences, Lara was clearly my introduction to the minefield of “strong female characters,” and I reveled in the power she wielded.

When Crystal Dynamics’ new take on the series released in 2013, I didn’t have the finances to justify buying it, so I reluctantly shelved my dreams of revisiting ancient ruins and ritual chambers, moving on with my life in the real world. It was only very recently that my free time and an online sale gave way to my purchasing the new Tomb Raider. The excitement was real, folks. I couldn’t wait to dig my trigger-happy fingers onto the controls.

How did that go, you ask? Haha. Ha. Let’s just say I alternated between despair, disbelief, and seething anger. Despite the game’s story founded upon the origins of a matriarch in command of unimaginable power, Tomb Raider is entirely driven by men. Full stop. Men direct every new objective, and whether by Roth’s crackling commentary over the radio or Mathias’ merry band of cultists, Lara is the rook being dragged across a very bloody chessboard. One chapter of the game is ironically titled: ‘woman versus wild,’ which would have been delightful if true in practice. Spoilers: It wasn’t.

Tomb Raider at first seems to largely center around unraveling the legend of Himiko and, in turn, Sam’s (repeated) rescue, but in reality, our heroine is only given a new task by the walkie talkie. This eliminates the ‘woman vs. wild’ narrative the game presumes to uphold, thereby handing men all the power. It’s man vs. wild with Lara as the weapon, not a character with any real agency. When the men force Lara into another direction, it jerks me, the player, away from potentially embodying her character. But I guess that’s what the executive producer was going for, huh?

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’” (Kotaku)

Oh, yeah, because a gamer couldn’t possibly relate to an experience when the protagonist is a different gender. Did I just jump into a DeLorean and time travel? Give your audience some credit, bro. I’d like to think men are actually capable of empathy and don’t require gigantic signposts driven into the narrative by the token White Father Figure every time the storyline progresses, but maybe that’s just me.

In the new Tomb Raider, the cultists are only afraid of Lara when she is actively gunning them down. This felt implausible at the best of times and comical at the worst. There’s a lot of shouting, “She’s over there!” but at no point does anyone actually acknowledge the fact that a young person—a woman, no less, though repeatedly referred to as a girl—has infiltrated the stronghold they’ve held for several years, killing hundreds of their people in quick succession. These men only appear passably interested in Lara’s progress, continuously underestimating her abilities despite all the evidence to the contrary. What will it take to be regarded seriously by men twice your age even after you’ve killed all of them? Idk my bff Himiko. Maybe the Sun Queen dealt with ridiculous sexism, too. Now that’s a story I could get behind.

Maybe I can sneak past the rampant sexism.
Maybe I can sneak past the rampant sexism.

Still. There’s something to be said for Lara’s singleminded tenacity as she endures scene after scene after scene of unrelenting abuse, both physical as well as mental. It really drives me up the wall that this game had the potential for being a Sailor Moon-esque girl power fantasy of epic proportions, but fell so spectacularly flat I can barely type the former without laughing moodily into my glass of wine. In a perfect world, Lara would have carved a path across the island with Sam at her side, teaching her a few gun safety lessons and handing her the torch to hold. They wouldn’t have to cleave the Stormguard in half or desecrate tombs hundreds of years old. Their exploration would be purely focused on surviving the fanatical cult with a few awe-inspiring discoveries they could easily capture on their mobile phones without, you know, stealing them straight out of ritual chambers. (Don’t tell me they didn’t bring a portable charger.)

Tomb Raider
#ThrowbackThursday!

While her clothes were laughably ill-suited for raiding caves and deep-sea diving, the Lara from the earlier Tomb Raider installments was never a pawn to be neatly directed by the hands of the men she encountered in-game. That Lara faced some pretty tough shit, too. A couple hundred cultists armed with guns and grenades? Pfft. Oh, please. The original Lara faced down a t-rex with only two pistols and lived to fight another day. Don’t even play, folks. She’ll mess your dinosaur ass right up.

At no point did the new Tomb Raider make me feel as though Lara was empowered at all. I didn’t feel like I was kicking ass and taking names when I played her. I felt like I was constantly trying to yank her away from certain death—and after the first 11 hours of gameplay? That shit gets boring fast. I’m thankful for the fact that my sister was around for moral support to keep me entertained while I slogged through yet another scene engineered to depower the protagonist.

Hooray! Lara's come to save us from systematic oppression!
Hooray! Lara came to save us from oppression!

All of this says nothing about the systematic racism that permeates the entire game. Of the crew members, only three are people of color—and boy, are two of them specifically engineered to be walking, talking tropes. Reyes fills the token angry black woman with zero personality substance until I hit over 50% in gameplay completion, and by then, I had emotionally checked out. Jonah is the cook who takes up the magical Polynesian mantle, calling Lara “Little Bird” and offering little to no insight apart from vague, spiritual-sounding encouragements. Ugh. I wanted to like them, I really did, but with all the one-dimensional characterization, there was just no saving them. (Dangling cages over molten lava notwithstanding.)

To add to the division of power in the game, problematic subtitles crop up during scenes of peak narrative intensity. They include [Speaking in Russian] and [Speaking in Japanese] mostly to indicate that the angry yelling you hear is, in fact, coming from an enemy who isn’t either American or British. Why bother giving racially diverse characters any voice when you can belittle them to menacing shouts? When these little story markers pop up at the bottom of the screen, they only serve to justify the racist power structure designed around Lara: these people are ‘other.’ You must survive the scary savages.

Now, I’m hardly saying the Tomb Raider franchise is a shining beacon of diversity and positive representation. It isn’t, and I’m not the first person to say so. My anger comes from a place of love and nostalgia for a game that inspired a little girl years ago, and for that, I’m deeply invested in it. But I think the industry could benefit from a sweeping deconstruction of every game in the series, including this one, to see how they stack up against each other. When your fresh take on an old classic delivers an even staler product than its predecessors, I’m thinking you have a problem. Like, a big one. Here’s hoping Rise of the Tomb Raider makes a better attempt at paving the way for more diverse games, just like its source material managed to do way back in the ’90s.

“I hate tombs.” (Actual quote from Lara Croft, 2013.)

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9 thoughts on “I Hate Tombs: When a Reboot Depowers By Race & Gender”

  1. This is the article I’ve been meaning to write for ages but never got around to writing. I’m so, so glad I’m not the only person who felt this way about the reboot or the new Lara. The game had its moments but it felt like one heck of a long misery trip rather than an actual adventure a la Tomb Raider 2 (which, in my opinion, was not just the greatest TR game but one of the greatest games of its generation).

    So much time was invested in making Lara seem more human but I feel this effort completely backfired on me. For a start, it becomes harder to suspend your disbelief when the graphics and overall tone of the game feel so much more real than any of the older games ever did. If I can believe that Lara can take down a T-Rex or some other comical-looking mish-mash of pixels, I’m willing to ignore the fact she’s nigh on indestructible. My overall feeling towards anything this new Lara did was “Yeah, right. Like ANYONE can survive that”, simply because I kept applying real-world physics and the like to the situation at hand. And although I know it’s a game and it has a story to tell within a defined amount of time, I found Lara’s evolution from reluctant weepy killer of deer and potential rapists to psychotic Terminatrix really, really hard to believe. The game could have accomplished a similar character development arc with fewer enemies. There was no need for endless waves of nondescript enemies. As you said, that shit got boring really fast and detracted from my enjoyment of the game…though, to be fair, there wasn’t a great deal of enjoyment. Just one stressful experience after another, occasionally punctuated by finding a few random relics lying around.

    As for Lara herself, perhaps it’s just me, but I found it tough to relate to her, despite the development team and writers constantly reminding us that she’s so human and how everyone can relate to her (no, no, let us decide that for ourselves). Perhaps I was just so upset that a woman I’d previously found so daring, so confident, and so witty had been reduced to a bland angsty heroine that wouldn’t seem out of place in your average dystopian young-adult novel. Sorry, Crystal Dynamics, give me my old “oh-so-sexist” bad-ass Lara any day….

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    1. Yes, yes, and more yes. I felt so hollow after playing it, which is the OPPOSITE experience I was expecting. I think the only moment that felt at all satisfying was fighting the Oni boss, and even then, it was much the same (i.e. endless enemies + sweeping cinematic shots, rinse and repeat). Most of the time, I didn’t know when the cutscenes started or ended. So annoying.

      Honestly? You summarize the issue better than I could: “So much time was invested in making Lara seem more human but I feel this effort completely backfired on me.” Her circumstances were so widely implausible and the character development so heavy-handed that I just couldn’t get into it. I like how you suggest fewer enemies, because that absolutely would have 1. added to the ~mystery~ of the atmosphere by allowing more exploration and 2. just seem more true to life. But, no. We needed thousands of dudebros calling Lara a girl.

      lol I love it when people claim the original Lara was sexist. Yeah, she killed things in booty shorts, but AT LEAST she had agency. No one controlled her. Not so with the reboot, though I’m hopeful that it’s at least semi-decent. 😐

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Let me preface this by saying that I do not mean to write this as a means of igniting a comment war.

    I see where this is coming from but I have to respectfully disagree because I had the exact opposite experience playing this game. I really enjoyed the combat and the story especially since it’s a reboot geared towards developing how Lara became the Tomb Raider we remember from the older games. There was always going to be that first adventure that was the turning point for her and this is what they created to represent that. This particular story was written by Rhianna Pratchett, a woman who had hoped to make Lara Croft gay but also a woman who understands the issues you discuss in length in your argument. I highly recommend reading her interview with killscreendaily.com if you haven’t already.

    http://killscreendaily.com/articles/interviews/tomb-raider-writer-rhianna-pratchett-why-every-kill-cant-be-first-and-why-she-wanted-make-lara-croft-gay/

    As for her constantly taking direction from men in the game via walkie-talkie I don’t believe that had anything to do with her being disempowered. She was stranded on an island after being ship wrecked, trying to save her friends, and they needed to communicate somehow. It worked for the story, this was a tale about her first major adventure. And let’s also look back on all of the times a game with a sole male protagonist has had a female character over a walkie-talkie or remote comms device reciting mission objectives, does that lessen the masculinity of those characters? Does Cortana make Master Chief any less of a Master Chief if she tells him what his next move should be?

    And screw whatever that executive producer said, he’s not the one writing the story. Lara could have been doing all of the things you talk about wanting her to have done in the reboot and I bet he still would have said that BS. I projected the hell out of myself into Lara when I was playing as her and never once saw her as a damsel in distress. I mean by the end of the game she’s taken out a ton of enemies single handed AND she gets the girl. That’s right I don’t care if it’s canon or not she’s totally in love with Sam. The end.

    I definitely share your concerns for the upcoming game since there have already been headlines talking about how stark she appears in promotional materials so far but I really loved the reboot and I think it is laying the groundwork for a larger character arc we have yet to see play-out fully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I truly don’t fault anyone for liking this game. And honestly, I think my expectations were pretty lofty to begin with, which could have contributed to my rage haha. I can’t really speak to the combat in terms of how well it technically worked; I just wasn’t jazzed about how it fit in with the narrative.

      RE: The writer’s intensions, I’m sort of glad I didn’t read any of that before playing the game. While I appreciate when writers INTEND to be inclusive, this wasn’t addressed at all in the story itself. I’m really tired of having to squint at things in order to see it. The only time Lara was involved in an openly consensual romantic scene (because lol of course she had to be the victim of sexual violence), it was when she kissed Alex’s cheek. As a gay woman myself, it really irks me when people claim they ~intended~ to add something that is basically impossible to decode unless you, yourself, are a queer person and have had to reinterpret in popular media just to feel normal/like you’re represented somewhere (I’m looking at you, JK Rowling). We’ll have to agree to disagree on the walkie talkies.

      That said, I’m very glad you had an empowering experience while playing the Tomb Raider reboot, and I don’t at all want to devalue that experience. I respect that you felt that way! There are too few games out there that offer an experience like that to women. Tomb Raider 2 was that way for me, despite it being problematic, so I get it. Like you said, it’s possible the second game will build on a larger character arc, but I was focusing on the game that I played in my analysis, and I just wasn’t feeling it.

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  3. I can’t say much about the game either way, having not played a Tomb Raider since…well, since the first one. The only point I have to make on this article is that I kinda disagree with the phrase “Square Enix’s new take on the series” as Square Enix was only the publisher, having bought the original publisher, Eidos. The new take aspect of the game should lie squarely (really, no pun intended) on Crystal Dynamics, who have been developing the series since 2006. Sorry if that sounds like nitpicking, but Square Enix likely had very little to do with the game’s direction, and I just wanna point the finger in the right direction (also, not supposed to be a pun, damnit).

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    1. You’re totally right! I’ll add that in now, and I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to comment. I feel like nitpicking isn’t bad when everyone’s civil about it. Puns help, too 😉

      Like

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