Lara Croft, Bravery, and Humanity

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.

An illustration of the new Lara Croft. She is shown in a gray tank top, wind blown brown hair.  She is staring at the viewer, standing in front of a rough looking sea with sinking ships.  She has a bow/arrow strapped to her.

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.

20 thoughts on “Lara Croft, Bravery, and Humanity”

  1. Lara Croft has become the most sympathetic, charismatic protagonist in action gaming.

    I hope you didn’t just invite the wrath of Metal Gear fans…

  2. One of the many great things about the Batman: Arkham series is that they make absolutely sure that Batman does not kill. Throw a guy down a pit and you hear a splash. Invisible walls prevent your from punching people off of buildings. Stuff like that. But that’s an Action-Adventure; it’s too bad that Shooters require you to kill thousands of sentient beings.

    1. I would prefer if I had a choice either way – both to make it through a shooter by only using non-lethal weapons (while still having access to lethal ones), and to leave a trail of destruction and thousands of corpses in an action adventure if I choose to.

      1. In other words, basically what MGS does. I always liked that system – the game often subtly rewards (even if the rewards are only aesthetic things like ranks) nonviolent methods. It’s like it’s saying “here, you can either run around killing everyone, or do it the challenging way.” Of course, most of those games give you some pretty powerful nonlethal weaponry (usually tranq pistols) but they still tend to be significantly tougher to use correctly. If you screw up in a pacifist run, you can’t just whip out a submachine gun and mow down your enemies.

      2. I like having the choice, too, but because usually it’s harder to do it the pacifist way. I find most games these days extremely unchallenging, even on the so-called hard modes, so anything that ups the ante is something I want.

        1. Ever played Planescape Torment? You can get through almost all the game without ever having to fight/kill someone, including the final battle. There is only one spot where I haven’t figured out how to not fight someone, and I think I just need to fine the right set of answers to her questions.

          There are random monster encounters and quests to clear out grab something from monster infested dungeon, but you could technically sneak around the whole place as a thief to get through it and they arn’t required for the main plot of the game.

          1. Oh sweet! Torment’s been highly recommended to me by a few people, but I have no idea where to get it.

            That sounds right up my alley, though. Especially if it’s challenging to figure out how to pull it off.

          2. I second that recommendation, Planescape Torment is one of my all time favorites.

            By the way the kick starter for a new torment game ends in 11 hours if any one is interested: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/inxile/torment-tides-of-numenera

            Another good game if you like having the option to go non-lethal is the Deus ex: Human revelation multiple ways to do things and one of your first choices is to take a lethal or non-lethal weapon with you on your first mission.

    2. Batman is a great example but again the source material established Batman as never killing (they still did a great job of really integrating into the game). So what I’m wondering is how likely is the average developer to make such a non-lethal character if they were just given the gameplay mechanics and asked to make a game? I have no way of answering that but I felt the question was worth asking.

    3. I believe that one of the requirements of the Batman license is that Batman can never kill anyone. This was an issue in the DC/Mortal Kombat crossover, I recall,and was mentioned in interviews before the release of Arkham Asylum.

  3. “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.”

    For me it is HUGE disconnect. Personally I don’t even see a point in making such contradiction between story and gameplay. Especially since story is a cliche and boring while actually cover shooting is one of the best i encounter in games.

  4. There are so many conflicting feelings and thoughts I have over Lara and the game. On the one hand, making characters that are more empathetic, burdened by the horrors of death and killing, and encounters having real and lasting effects on a person and his/her psyche are humanizing points and can help flesh that character out. On the other hand, I feel this sense of, ‘Why does it have to be a woman protagonist?’ We have a sheer lack of women protagonists in gaming as it is, yet the one few protags we have is placed into this kind of territory. Humanizing, sure, but at the cost of all the assault imagery and situations and gaspy crying and so forth… I dunno. Conflicting.

    If there were plenty of women protagonists out there already representing the broad spectrum it would take some of the scrutiny and intense analysis off the title, I think. It’s just that there is no comparable dude protagonist (that I can think of) that goes through such things, and the humanizing, and the empathy, and the imagery, and the vulnerability and so on. It’s nice that such a side of the heroic spectrum is out there. And it is nice to see violence (the act of doing it) and killing treated in such a manner, as it is rarely treated seriously at all in games.

    (Admittedly, I’m still waiting on and wanting lady versions of Kratos, Assassin’s Creed (console main sequel), and other action/action-adventure titles to live out power fantasies.)

    1. “Humanizing, sure, but at the cost of all the assault imagery and situations and gaspy crying and so forth… I dunno.”

      I must say that it felt like I was playing a diffrent game, in my game camera cheered me with gratutios shots of gore violence when Lara hit bad guys with her pickaxe and then literally riped their throuts out for a stealth kills and then give me bonus XP for headshots and close up of shotgun fatalities and again and again and again and then a cutscene comes showing Lara trembling or something and then back to buisness. Humanizing… not for me, rather the same trick MW tries to pull out, mix between stupid and manipulative.

    2. I admittedly haven’t played the game, but my thoughts on this article are the same as yours.

      I think it’s great to have an action game protagonist show fear and weakness: after all (and here I agree with the article) a character can’t demonstrate bravery and strength if they go through battles like normal people go grocery shopping. But there’s something potentially unpleasant about the fact that mainly female game protagonists have to deal with fear and weakness.

      1. Yeah, if I never hear that ‘male character with boobs’ number again it’ll be too soon.

        Rhianna aside – I have had to constantly deal with having mentors and instructors suddenly drop the order to write pro-active player-characters the second that player-character becomes a woman. I’m tired of women – and only women- *always* having to broach adventure narratives as survivors instead of prime agents.
        All things being equal I wouldn’t mind them taking the hatchet to Lara Croft.
        But then, we always get people criticizing action film heroines for being too ‘masculine’ when other genres have plenty of non-violent women at the forefront, so. Perhaps that’s a general pattern.

        1. “Yeah, if I never hear that ‘male character with boobs’ number again it’ll be too soon.”

          Seconded.

          In fact, scratch that. I second the entirety of your post.

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