Lara Croft and the Knight in Shining Armor
I’m a little behind the rest of the world but I finally finished the reboot of Tomb Raider this weekend. The delay in completing it wasn’t because it was a bad game. If I was to give it a rating, I would probably give it an 8.0 or an 8.5. There was just something about the game that meant I put it down after a few hours last year.
Playing it through over the last couple of weeks made me conscious of what I disliked about Tomb Raider. It wasn’t the gameplay or the plot but the portrayal of Lara Croft throughout the game that I found odd and off-putting.
Normally, I’m the first person to dismiss criticism of a game because of ludonarrative dissonance. It seems like a games critic/reviewer saying that “I’m too much of a highbrow intellectual to appreciate a game for trying to be a game.”
In Tomb Raider, though, I found that ludonarrative dissonance wasn’t so much a factor of the gameplay being very disparate from the story element. The problem was that the Lara Croft in gameplay was a completely different character than the Lara Croft portrayed in story cutscenes. It’s as if they were twins who were identical in every way but their personalities.
Let’s call the first character Gameplay Lara. Now, Gameplay Lara is smart, tough, willing to be violent when the occasion calls for it and always sure of herself and her actions. If it wasn’t for that other Lara, I would say that Gameplay Lara is a positive portrayal for women as lead characters in video games. She can do anything that, say, Nathan Drake does in Uncharted with the exception of lifting heavy objects.
On the other hand, there’s Cutscene Lara. If they didn’t look the same, you would swear that Cutscene Lara is a completely different person. She’s relatively meek, uncertain of herself, constantly getting hurt and needing the support of others to will herself to do anything. Cutscene Lara and Gameplay Lara act as though they’re two different personalities in the same body.
Lara Croft, however, does not have a multiple personality disorder. She’s just written as though she has one. I think that the problem is that Gameplay Lara isn’t really meant as a symbol of female empowerment or to somehow demonstrate that women can stand up to the boys.
I think that she’s a symbol for the relative empowerment of the player. All game characters are an avatar for the player to a greater or lesser degree. Greater tends to be in games with choices and morality systems like BioWare games. A lesser degree is in linear games where there are no decisions to be made by the player and you just carry on from objective to objective with only the most minor of deviations.
Tomb Raider sets itself up so that Lara isn’t much of an avatar for the player. Apart from the occasional side quest to raid a tomb, the course is charted very specifically for you. You, the player, are just a bit actor in the story of the origin of Lara Croft. You don’t get any say in the story. You are just there to run, jump and shoot when instructed.
This is where I find the ludonarrative dissonance of Tomb Raider. You are not a bit player in Lara’s adventure. You’re the one that empowers Cutscene Lara. Gameplay Lara is only really empowered because you are the one empowering her. The story of the game is not Lara overcoming adversity, saving her friends, surviving and realizing her true potential but how you are the catalyst to help Lara Croft over come the various injuries, numerous enemies and seemingly hopeless conditions.
Without you, Cutscene Lara is weak and, at times, unwilling to keep going. She needs you to motivate her to carry on. You are Lara’s knight in shining armor. No one might physically be there to rescue here in a manner similar to Mario and Peach or, to use a more genre appropriate example, Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher. However, you are always there, controller in hand, to save her every time that she’s hurt or outgunned. You are Lara’s Mario or Drake.
Sure, Lara does grow into the kill everything in your path in a shower of blood character that you expect of an action hero but she doesn’t reach that point until the final hour of a 10-ish hour game. And it’s not like you see that change happen gradually. Every time she shows an inkling to being more aggressive, she regresses to meek. Her character development is more akin to a light switch being thrown than a character arc.
And this dichotomy between Lara in cutscenes and Lara in gameplay ties into something Square Enix said before the game was released. Executive producer Ron Rosenberg told the press that players were going to want to protect Lara. They did that by killing her in brutal and painful ways, injuring her repeatedly and having her nearly raped by a mad man.
I really feel bad for the developers at Crystal Dynamics. They built a great game around the framework of a terribly written lead character. The lazy way that Crystal Dynamics went about making you care about Lara by torturing her so that you, the gamer, will be the one to empower and protect Lara borders on being misogynistic. The game repeatedly demonstrates Lara being incapable of helping herself so you have to do it for her for her to survive.
What we get in Tomb Raider is a twist on the classic Knight in Shining Armor trope from fiction. You don’t play the knight in shining armor that we often see in games and movies. You’re never seen on-screen but you save her like any other on-screen hero.
Before playing Tomb Raider, I didn’t really wade into matters of the portrayal of women in gaming. However, the portrayal of Lara Croft, a traditionally empowered woman (if comically sexualized), as a weaker protagonist has brought me off the sidelines.
I’m not saying that a character can’t be developed but Tomb Raider didn’t have character development as much as it had a switch to change Lara’s character. Obviously Lara Croft has to have an origin story that explains how she became among most powerful women, literally and figuratively speaking, in gaming.
Last year’s Tomb Raider didn’t succeed in making Lara a powerful woman because it made the player, not Lara, the powerful figure. In that, Tomb Raider missed its mark.