The following is a guest post from Daniel Bullard-Bates:
Daniel Bullard-Bates is a feminist and an ally with a degree in religious studies. He works at the American Civil Liberties Union and writes fiction when he isn’t playing video games and writing about them. He previously wrote and edited Press Pause to Reflect, and he can now be found on twitter.
Lara Croft has become the most sympathetic, charismatic protagonist in action gaming. Admittedly the bar isn’t set very high – most first-person protagonists are ciphers, and the very nature of any gun-oriented franchise turns its hero into a mass murderer. A few of these sociopaths are made more charming by a talented writing staff: Nathan Drake of Uncharted springs to mind, and John Marston of Red Dead Redemption is charismatic and self-effacing enough to be in competition with Lara, but Lara Croft comes closer to being a real human being and a believable action hero.
One of the greatest successes of the new Tomb Raider is its redefinition of bravery. In most action games, bravery is depicted as either nonchalance or wrathful determination. Nathan Drake quips and snarks his way through armies of mercenaries and supernatural beings. Kratos of God of War fame just seethes and snarls, hurling himself into battle with no regard for his own life. But Lara responds more rationally: when she is being hunted, when she realizes the terrifying thing she has to do, she shows trepidation and fear. In the midst of a firefight, she breathes heavily and sounds appropriately stressed out. In other words, she responds more like any one of us might in similar situations.
Showing fear is not a sign of weakness, and Lara Croft is no less impressive for being emotionally affected by her dire circumstances. In A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, young Bran witnesses his father executing a criminal, and the following conversation about the nature of bravery follows:
“Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says he was afraid.”
“What do you think?” his father asked.
Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.
Obviously the same is true for a woman. By showing her fear, Lara shows herself to be human, to be rational, to be actually experiencing the traumatizing events of the game. Even better, she offers a model of bravery that can teach us something about ourselves and our lives: we may not have superpowers, we may not have trained since youth to fight crime or have adventures, but when we are afraid we can recognize that as an opportunity for bravery. This makes Lara a more impressive and realistic character than most action heroes, and it also makes her a better role model for women and men alike.
It is also a great relief to me that Lara never seems to enjoy killing. She doesn’t gloat when she shoots a man in the head, she doesn’t cheer when she sends an explosive into a group of enemies, and she rarely takes the time to speak or taunt enemies in the middle of combat. When she first kills someone, she has a violent physical reaction. There is a bit of a disconnect that comes from her swift transition into a killing machine, as this scene is followed by a series of deadly encounters, but she never stops sounding upset and stressed out as she is forced to fight for her life and kill over and over again. It’s still a very violent game, and the mechanics encourage a sense of pride in the player’s and Lara’s combat skills, but Lara herself is only doing what she has to do, and she never expresses excitement or joy that this is what her life has become.
While Tomb Raider is well ahead of its competition in the realm of video games, it still lags behind other forms of popular entertainment. The game humanizes Lara by showing her being injured repeatedly, taking a page out of 1988’s Die Hard playbook to show that an action hero isn’t just an invulnerable killing machine. And despite the advances made in her characterization, she is still an impossible superwoman – more human than most, certainly, but she has no clear flaws that are not universal to the human condition, and she seems to be capable of any incredible feat. And, unfortunately, she is largely defined by the men in her life: her father’s teachings, her mentor’s training.
In many ways, the game is a conventional action story, filled with gunfire, explosions, and set pieces. It shows an over-reliance and fascination with gore and extreme violence, especially in one scene that completely beggars belief. (How many people must have been on this island in the first place for such a vast quantity of fresh corpses to be lying around?) Most of the other characters are completely sidelined in favor of Lara’s story. There’s even a damsel in distress, subverted only by the fact that she is being rescued by a female friend instead of a male lover. But between the female lead and the advances in characterization, Tomb Raider feels fresh and exciting.
We’ve seen evidence that many mainstream video game publishers are afraid to release games with female protagonists. This seems to stem from an outdated idea of the audience for video games; publishers believe that video games are still predominantly a pastime for straight young men, and those same straight men will not be able to identify with a female avatar. But the video game audience just keeps getting broader, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to identify with a character as much as I could with Lara Croft. Let Tomb Raider be a challenge to other game designers. While the majority of the industry is wallowing in adolescence, Lara Croft is growing up.