There are two sides of my brain active when I’m playing video games. The first part, the gamer aspect, is usually excited, immersed, and enjoying the game. The other part, the analytical side, is wondering what I’m meant to take away from the same experience.
Such is my conundrum with the new Tomb Raider game. I like the game very much, but I have no idea what I’m meant to take away from the experience.
Here’s a scenario: Tomb Raider’s heroine, Lara Croft, is stealthily entering an enemy camp, prepared to kill if necessary. Survival is the purpose of the game here, and while the first kill in the game was hard, emotionally, to process for both her, and for me, a few hours in, it’s almost become easy. Sneaking is my preferred method of approach; one by one, they fall, because Lara has a bow that she’s become quite skilled with, and silence is my ally. She clears the camp with no trouble, save for the last guard; he’s also wielding a bow, but she happens to have a shotgun. Needless to say, he doesn’t put up much of a fight. Satisfied with the outcome, and having cleared this camp for now, Lara moves on.
The gamer aspect of me is quite pleased with this. An open map area, enemies scattered everywhere, and my character is alone, but more than capable of meeting this threat. There is a slight sense of guilt – overhearing dialogue throughout the game suggests that most of these men don’t want to be here, and they’re as nervous and afraid of the spooky things they’re seeing as I am – and I think, briefly, They would have done far, far worse to Lara.
I’ve seen a lot of corpses on this island that I didn’t put there. These are mostly women, tortured before their deaths, burned alive, and then abandoned to the elements. There is no sense in these deaths, no purpose other than to invoke anger, and the desire for revenge for the dead, and for the not-dead-yet. We’re both angry, Lara and I; we both want payback.
These men would do far worse than kill Lara Croft, and she knows it as well as I do. She’s angry at what’s happening, the madness of this island, the insane prophet leading his men to attempt to kill her friends and allies, determined to kill her because she’s fighting back.
That is where the analytical part of my mind steps in: everything Lara does is in self defense. There is that boss fight where a careful approach allows her to finish off her opponent in a particularly gruesome fashion using her climbing axe, but I don’t believe she’s enjoying the act. Yes, he would have hurt her, killed her, but she got to him first. Regardless of how brutal Lara is in this game, it feels forced; she was put in this situation by events beyond her control, and now she has to take control in order to survive. She’s justified in everything she’s doing, because these men – and they are all men – are threatening her and the people she’s trying to protect; to save the ones under her charge, she has to be willing to take those necessary steps.
While I can rationalize all of that, I still want to know what I’m meant to learn from Lara Croft as a character, as a person, and, to be blunt, as someone willing to kill in order to survive where others didn’t have the option. Other games have shown me characters like this incarnation of Lara, but there was a purpose to their development that I can’t seem to find in her.
Lara has some inner monologue in game, but her musings pertain to the story and the madness of her enemies, not on what she’s done. The brief moment where she does reflect is only after another one of her friends dies, and she is pondering his sacrifice, not her own actions. Her reflections are about other people and their sacrifices or feelings, rarely on her own. The strongest insight into Lara’s character is revealed in the very last lines of dialogue she has in the game, and by then, the narrative and her journey have concluded.
I think of Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody, and recognize that his character’s development from scared, spoiled kid to killer is disturbing because he eventually grows to take pleasure in what he’s doing, no matter how violent. He enjoys what he becomes.
Spec Ops: The Line’s Martin Walker develops from nobly intentioned soldier to murderer-in-denial over the course of a few hours. He never enjoys what he does, he’s haunted by it, but his character is asking questions about violence, the nature of people placed in impossible situations, and how far someone will go to avoid looking at the consequences of their actions.
Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops both ask heavy questions of gamers, questions about violence, human nature, and why we react in the ways we do. Is Lara Croft a representation of me, as a gamer in general, or, is she, in her increasingly easy dispatching of her enemies, meant to be a representation of women fighting back against the world depicted in video games?
If military games are meant to represent a male empowerment fantasy, then Tomb Raider might very well be a female empowerment fantasy. Lara has weapons, she has maps to fight through, she has enemies to kill, and at a certain point in the game, she has all the power. Her enemies might have guns and knives, yes, but she has a grenade launcher. If these men come for her, they will die; if they come near her friends, they will die. They stand no chance against the righteous anger that fuels the second half of the game, a completely justified desire to be free from this island helll.
This new Tomb Raider game is an origin story, explaining how Lara became the confident, sassy woman adventurer we know from her earlier incarnations. This origin version of her, seen through modern technology, shows flickers of that other woman beneath her surface, but she’s powered by confidence-born-of-anger. She toes the line between human and madness, but she does it in such a fashion that she retains her humanity. Unlike Far Cry and Spec Ops, Lara has her limits, but she also has enough strength of will to retain her true self, and what makes her a person.
What helps her retain her true self, however, is the situation that she has been forced into. Through application of force, physical and mental, she survives, but unlike other games that push survival as reward for completion of the campaign, I’m still not certain what I’m supposed to learn from Lara and her plight.
While I see shades of the fearless Lara-of-the-future, I also see a woman who is straddling that line between person and shadow-of-a-person. At one point, I started to see Lara as a moral conundrum: kill or be killed; sacrifice or save; rescue or abandon. Later, after watching a particularly disturbing sequence of Lara throwing herself from a cliff into a river filled with blood, and watching her head and eyes slowly break the surface, I wondered if she wasn’t meant to be a metaphor for primal feminine power.
Video games have shown me plenty of male characters in these types of kill or be killed situations, and even the most mentally focused man will still crack under pressure. Lara’s cold exterior masks her rage, her fury at what’s being done to her friends and what might have been done to her. Men want to kill her, to force her to give up her life so they can go on living under their prophet’s demands. Lara intends to force them to play their game on her terms, and if those terms mean terrorizing them and hurting them as they intended to do to her, then she will, and she’ll retain her humanity despite it all.
Force is a theme throughout the game, whether through the forces of nature, the force of a man’s will, or the force that drives a woman to fight back with everything and anything at her disposal. Lara begins the game as a scared, hurt young woman; she becomes a confident, colder person by the end, secure in what she’s done, capable of processing it, and able to move on.
If she’s meant to represent women fighting back against the world, against a group of men who only see women as a means to an end – escape from hell – then I suppose they got the liberation they deserved. The only difference is that while a male savior might have come out of the experience disturbed and disempowered, Lara Croft comes out of the island knowing that she has all the power, and that when her enemies died, they were afraid. If that’s what a female empowerment fantasy is, then Tomb Raider might have succeeded, if the only way to combat fear is to be the instrument of fear, and to make your enemies see their potential victim as their certain executioner. That might be the truth I’ve taken away from Tomb Raider.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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