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.
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.)
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.
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.)