By Imran Khan
WATCH: The trailer for the new Tomb Raider video game.
For: Xbox 360/PS3
It’s sometimes incredibly hard to admit I am an avid gamer.
But before I get into reviewing my experience with the new Tomb Raider video game, let me give you a little context regarding this growing industry.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 68 per cent of gamers are 18 years of age or older (the average age of a gamer is 30 years old). Forty-seven per cent of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics. These numbers show an interest and growth from the female market that has not been seen in the past. However, what they fail to show is the high level of misogyny, sexualization of female characters and overall neglect of female representation that is still prevalent in the industry.
Recently, God of War: Ascension, a big-budget game made by Sony Santa Monica for the PlayStation 3 sparked controversy due to a scene where the protagonist, Kratos, gruesomely kills a female enemy by smashing her head and impaling her. The player is rewarded after the scene with a trophy entitled “bros before hos.” Due to public outcry and disgust from well-known video game journalists, Sony Santa Monica issued a statement indicating the name of the trophy will be changed in a future patch for the game.
Sony Santa Monica’s studio director is female; however, situations like these show the industry still caters to an all-boys’ club. Female representation in the video game industry is nowhere near the number of males who run these companies. And this lack of female influence shows when one looks through a shelf of video games at a local store. Female characters often play love interests or the role of secondary characters. When a female character is the main protagonist, often the gamer is beaten over the head with sexual tropes and gender stereotypes that bring the point home that he/she is playing a one-dimensional female character created by men.
In 1996, the world was introduced to one such character named Lara Croft in the video game Tomb Raider. The game introduced an English archaeologist in search of ancient relics and adventure. What left more of an impact on gamers than Croft’s back story, however, was her physical portrayal. Croft spoke in sultry English accent and did acrobatic manoeuvres, while her gigantic breasts took up more real estate on a video gamers TV screen than her face. The game became a runaway success and Croft became the poster women of a new generation of gaming. Croft started branching into video game sequels that played-up the racy sexuality of the character, comic books, magazine cover spreads and eventually two live action Hollywood movies starring Angelina Jolie.
Throughout this decade and a half of success, Croft has polarized an audience. On one hand, some view her confidence and wit as a form of sexual empowerment. But on the other hand, some have not seen any growth of the character beyond her bust size, and dismiss her as a potential positive female character. Regardless of where one stands on the argument, there is no escaping the fact that Croft’s sexuality has provided ample amount of revenue and discussion to make her a pop culture icon.
Recent iterations of the video game series have received lukewarm reviews from the press and Croft fandom has cooled down. With a one-dimensional character exhausting all avenues of sexuality Crystal Dynamics announced they were rebooting the character of Lara Croft in a video game prequel. She is now a young 21-year-old who is fresh out of university and on her first adventure with a team to discover a lost kingdom. Crystal Dynamics were quite clear that they wanted Croft to be taken seriously as a character providing a very unassuming Croft to the world. Gone were the short-shorts and perverse camera angles. The only angles Crystal Dynamics wanted to provide were to Croft’s character. So how does the new Tomb Raider fare?
In the beginning of the game, audiences are introduced to an average young woman whose ambition and naivety provide intrigue to a character audiences believe they already know. She is quickly thrown into an environment filled with danger, unsettling sounds and even creepier sights. Croft is scared, insecure and often provides a monologue on how she is feeling while she talks herself through situations. What gamers soon realize is Croft is no generic hero, or for that matter, not a hero at all. What Croft does provide in the early going and what many can get behind is the drive to push forward, despite the obstacles ahead. Often Croft says to herself: “I can do this.” And despite setbacks and missteps, she continues to pull herself back up and press forward. She is believable as a character who slowly gains confidence throughout the game to tackle the tasks at hand. That shift in character when Croft decides to stop running and stand her ground happens organically (as much as it can in a video game). Some may argue Croft’s turn from a terrified individual using her surroundings to outsmart and maneuver is where the gamer gets to know her the best and provides the most intrigue. When Croft crosses over into full-fledged gun-totting, badass screaming at her enemies, the game falls into the run-of-the-mill third person shooter, albeit a really good one. By the end Croft has killed an entire island of men and savage beasts without blinking an eye. It takes away somewhat from the believability that just a few short hours ago our heroine was distraught at the idea of killing a deer for nourishment.
Another point worth mentioning is Croft does not look for help or saving throughout the game. Often, she relies on her own wit and the tools at her disposal. Croft does not call out for help to other members in her crew. On the contrary, Croft is the one looked at by her crew for rescues, as she tries to save her college friend Sam. Sam somewhat resembles a stereotypical young female by mentioning her hard partying days in college and addiction to tanning in her journal entries. However, the character of Sam plays off Croft incredibly well, often showing the gamer what this new version of Croft has to offer and why we should be interested in her origins.
Lastly, throughout the game there is no attempt by the Crystal Dynamics team to sexualize Croft. This is a serious environment that Croft must traverse in order to survive. At no point is Croft objectified and simplified to her physicality. What draws the gamer’s intrigue to Croft is her constant physical and emotional expression. It can be seen through her facial expressions, body language and often experienced through her inner thoughts. As strong as the portrayal of Croft is throughout this reboot, it’s the supporting cast that falls flat. The antagonist is forgetful, as are most of Croft’s shipmates with the exception of Sam.
Tomb Raider shows how a reboot can be done right. Gone are days where a Barbie-esque character prances around, knocking off sexual innuendoes as often as she can while the audience sits back idly and humours every scene. The demographic of gamers has grown-up and is more encompassing. Much like Tomb Raider, the video game industry should do the same.
So, where do we go from here?
As great of a step forward Lara Croft has taken, the video game industry still needs to take some giant leaps. Let me preface this by saying it’s unfair to blame an entire industry when it comes to the issue of misogyny and the sexualization of females. Games – such as the Mass Effect series, the Uncharted series, and Assassins Creed 3: Liberation – have all shown how female representation can be done right and have success in doing so. However, there is still a reason why a dismissive snicker or rolling of the eyes from a non-gamer is prompted when one admits to being a gamer. The video game industry’s prevailing voice is spoken by men that cater to the lowest common denominator with guns, explosions and misogyny. This wouldn’t be a concern if a strong variety existed to counter these demeaning games. Much like the movie industry, if one does not like gory scenes and over-sexualization of characters in a Quentin Tarantino film they can turn around and find many alternatives. Gamers unfortunately do not have that luxury. The answer is not the sanitization of the video game industry, it’s a much needed dose of variety. It’s going to take time, but the industry is on its way in shedding a prevalent male agro identity. M