Square Enix Season – Lara Croft, feminine machismo in Rise of the Tomb Raider

By Neil Merrett

Rise of the Tomb Raider, first released on XboxOne in 2015, published by Square Enix

Squareblind will be looking over the next month and a half at the output of Square Enix – a multinational games developer that has been collectively responsible for publishing some of the most acclaimed western and Japanese videogame series of all time. These range from Deus Ex and Final Fantasy to Dungeon Quest and Tomb Raider.

The videogame character Lara Croft has been defined as a ‘tomb raider’ since her very first adventure was released on the Sega Saturn, PlayStation and PC in 1996

Yet as the character has evolved in line with the changing whims of game design and more powerful hardware, Lara Croft feels less like a Tomb Raider and more a bonafide action hero in the mould of the 1980s biggest, burliest and macho stars. 

Traditionally, this pantheon of ultra-violent, apparently ‘righteous’ heroes that adorned cinemas and video stores in the 80s and 90s were almost always men. However, the new Lara Croft can certainly match the excesses of peak Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in terms of her capacity for violent retribution and body counts.

That’s not to say that modern Lara Croft doesn’t raid tombs in her latest trilogy of games to that began with 2013’s reboot, simply called Tomb Raider, and has so far continued up to 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

All three of these games have a range of tombs to uncover and ransack – often as optional cul-de-sacs for the player to test the skills they have developed in the game in order to solve a range of escalating traps and puzzles.

But the idea that Lara is an archaeologist, scholar and expert on lost worlds and dangerous artefacts feels somewhat secondary to her just simply kicking ass.

In the beginning

The character’s iconography as a video gamer character was built initially on the relative novelty of having an action game with a female main character. Her mid-90s debut came just a few months after the Spice Girls burst onto the UK and then the world’s popular consciousness.

Happily, her original – now somewhat crude – polygon design was matched with a game that was lauded as being revolutionary for the time. It allowed the player to swing, leap and defy death in cavernous 3D levels that over the course of several games included dinosaur infested lost valleys, venetian fortresses and an abandoned London tube line.

It was basically like being Indiana Jones, but with hot pants and a ponytail, not to mention the ability to somersault endlessly both out of, and sometimes into traps.

But increasingly sophisticated game design and hardware has meant that the blocky, restricted worlds of the early Tomb Raider games were superseded by the much more active, expansive and cinematic game settings and set pieces in titles such as Uncharted.

The emergence and huge critical and commercial success of Sony’s own ‘treasure hunter’ Nathan Drake seemingly consigned Lara Croft to being an icon of gaming past.

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After successive attempts to try and update the character for the changing gaming tastes of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era – arguably with mixed success – Lara Croft once again hit the big time by taking a few lessons from Nathan Drake and his more modern adventure game sensibilities.

At first this was done, much like with how cinema rebooted screen icon James Bond, by making the title character a younger, more vulnerable and less mythic character than she was in the original games.

At the start of her latest three adventures, Lara Croft is initially a survivor that pushes themselves bloody and bruised through seemingly endless trauma after being shipwrecked in a cursed jungle environment. It is here where the main game is set, shifting the series from uncovering cursed artefacts to a story of Lara facing a huge number of horrors – both mental and physical – while having to survive on onslaught from the game world’s human and non-human denizens that either want Lara as food or something else.

The reboot courted controversy initially around the fact that the character faces not only mortal threats, but the terrifying prospect of implied sexual assault as part of the game’s narrative.

However, the game’s writer, Rhianna Pratchett, argued in an interview for PC Gamer in October 2012 that she didn’t believe there was a reason for games not to touch on “sensitive topics” with context being an important factor around how they are used.

She said at the time, “That is, as long as it’s not done for titillation, but in a thoughtful way, with integrity and context.”

 “The world doesn’t need any more Japanese rape-simulators. But we simply can’t call ourselves a serious storytelling medium if we exclude topics which are routinely covered in weeknight soap operas.”

The implied threat of sexual assault was arguably part of a brutal game world that the player must learn to navigate and eventually master. In doing so, the player helps shape the new Lara by building her skills through various trials so that the combat, crafting and acrobatic leaps that are essential to beating the game become like second nature.

At this point of her rebooted series, she plays much like Bruce Willis’ lauded portrayal of New York detective John McClane in the original Die Hard. This is a character, at least in the first movie, whose ability to kick ass is underscored by the fact that he bleeds, suffers and struggles with being a questionable husband while trying to save the day.

By the game’s direct sequel, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara is charged with learning new linguistic and combat skills, but she is much more an outright action hero with the bow skills of John Rambo, the physicality of Schwarzenneger in Commando or Predator and the cultured sophistication and cold blooded nature of James Bond.

Lara is now going to war, avalanches, wild beasts and highly trained mercenaries will not stand in her way.

‘A cold blooded killer’

The morality of her actions and the mental toll of taking potentially hundreds of bad guys’ lives is less of a story focus than protecting an ancient power from an insidious cult-like organisation called Trinity, all while safeguarding the peoples of a hidden kingdom in Siberia.  

Reviewing Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015 for GamesRadar, Justin Towell praised many aspects of the title, noting its particularly refined approach to combat, exploration and lurking in the shadows and trees to take down enemies. 

Mr Towell said, “It’s probably no coincidence that the frequency of combat increases here. The first half of the game is rather conflict-light, just maybe because people complained Lara was too kill-happy last time.” 

“Even so, she is very much in cold-blooded killer mode here. You sometimes hear enemies talking about their home life, or arguing about some coins they found… then you burn them to a screaming crisp and take the coins for yourself.”

Rise of the Tomb Raider does touch, via in-game narration, on some of Lara’s doubts and fears around her actions. Yet the player themselves is emboldened in the game to be brutal, bad-ass and extremely macho.  This is a term used to define something or someone that is “masculine in an overly assertive or aggressive way”. Yet Lara Croft is clearly a female character.

Gender identity

Arguably, the importance of the main character’s gender in Rise of the Tomb Raider is perhaps secondary to her competence and abilities as an archaeologist and bow and axe wielding ass kicker.

Perhaps tellingly, in the intervening decades since the original Tomb Raider, character creators have become much more ubiquitous in games – allowing players to select – with varying degrees of complexity – the preferred gender, race and look and build of their character.

Some players may seek to try and faithfully recreate themselves as is best possible within a game that offers eight different hair styles and half a dozen skin tones and eye colours.  

Yet others may wish to experiment with an in-game persona that is a break or escape from the daily realities of their lives or perhaps to give themselves a sense of being an outlier to offset more uncomfortable political aspects of a game built around a more pro-western, pro-military outlook.

The player experience is often highly personal in modern games, so why shouldn’t this be the same for the identity of their avatar?

Gender identity is an issue that is well beyond this author’s expertise as a white CIS male – yet it is an issue that is often flexible in many modern games to reflect an increasingly broad audience of players.

That is not to say that games cannot be contemplative and unique in exploring concepts of gender and who someone is.  Aimee Hart at Gayming Magazine has a solid list of titles exploring gender, identity and the trans experience here.

‘Chewing gum and kicking ass’

But the most recent Tomb Raiders, particularly 2015’s ‘Rise’, aren’t seemingly so much about Lara Croft being a woman as they are about what it would be like to be a true action icon. Lara here is an unstoppable force of nature, regardless of whether the player looks to upskill and make use of her skills with explosives, submachine guns, hand-forged bow and arrows, some sharpened sticks found on the ground or Lady Croft’s handy pickaxe.    

Perhaps, in a way, that is the true revelatory nature of the character in her modern form. Quite simply she just kicks ass. When it comes to badass motherf$%^ers, Lara Croft is the last person standing – a natural survivor, a solid athlete and an unrivalled hand to hand fighter – in essence, a brutal bringer of death. Any man or women who dares oppose her, better look out.  A gamer may be hard pressed to find a more macho experience over the next decade.

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