‘Tomb Raider’: Lara Croft now battling video game stereotypes

Feb. 28, 2013 | 9:00 a.m.
lara then now  Tomb Raider: Lara Croft now battling video game stereotypes

"You can't just create a male character with boobs,” says "Tomb Raider" writer Rhianna Pratchett. At left is Lara Croft in 2006's "Tomb Raider: Legend." At right is Croft in 2013's "Tomb Raider," a March release. (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix)

Lara Croft has been embarking on implausible archaeological missions for more than 16 years now. Whether embodied in pixels or in a big-screen adaptation starring Angelina Jolie, there’s been one constant, aside from her tiny tank top and skin tight shorts.

As a video game heroine, she’s an outlier. Croft is the rare female leading lady in an industry dominated by male characters. Croft returns Tuesday in the simply titled “Tomb Raider,” the first new game in the core franchise since 2008.

But despite the advances made in gaming technology since we last saw her scaling caverns in short shorts, Croft remains an anomaly. Based upon sales data from research firm the NPD Group, only one of the top-10-selling video games in the U.S. in January allowed gamers to play as a human female in its main story, and that was “Just Dance 4.”

Instead, today’s hot-selling games feature military men (“Call of Duty: Black Ops II”), sci-fi men (“Halo 4”), stealthy historical men (“Assassin’s Creed III”) and a gun-toting Angeleno (“Far Cry 3”). As the likes of Merida and Katniss have become big-screen heroines, video game publishers continue to largely leave the action for the boys.

Lara Croft returns in the new "Tomb Raider." (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix).

Lara Croft returns in the new “Tomb Raider.” (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix)

Given this environment, “Tomb Raider” may just be one of the most unintentionally subversive mainstream video games released this year. As Croft reels back on her bow and arrow, her aim seems not just at the fictional male enemies in the game but all stereotypes that have plagued games when it comes to their depictions of women.

Today’s Croft is unlike any other iteration of the Indiana Jones-inspired globe-trotter. Bay Area developer Crystal Dynamics, a division of Japanese giant Square Enix, took over the franchise from Core Design about a decade ago and has taken a page from Hollywood. The series has been rebooted, telling for the first time how Croft went from being a vulnerable, just-out-of-college archaeologist to a seasoned world adventurer. What’s more, her chest-size has decreased, she’s discovered pants and she speaks in full sentences rather than one-liners.

“This new Lara is much less chesty, and she doesn’t wear hot pants and midriffs,” says Rhianna Pratchett, who scripted the latest game. “She looks like a woman who has dressed herself, rather than a woman who has been dressed by a male video game developer. You can’t ignore the fact that she’s female. You have to give that some respect. You can’t just create a male character with boobs.”

More important, this Croft is fleshed-out beyond her looks. She expresses doubts, exudes geeky excitement in discovering artifacts and pleads with enemies not to make her hurt them.

"She looks like a woman who has dressed herself," says writer Rhianna Pratchett of the new Lara Croft. (Matthew Lloyd / For The Times)

“She looks like a woman who has dressed herself,” says writer Rhianna Pratchett of the new Lara Croft. (Matthew Lloyd / For The Times)

Though relentlessly fast-paced, the game takes time to pause and show Croft struggle with having to kill a deer for the first time. She hobbles after an injury, makes known her anxieties, crouches in guilt when she messes up and never stops asking enemies why they’re coming after her, even walking away in tears the first time she pulls a trigger.

But above all else, Croft continually succeeds where her guy friends largely fail, almost single-handedly confronting a male collective that shoots at her, lusts after her, fears her and attempts to deceive her. And as much as Pratchett makes it clear that “we didn’t just decide to populate an island with angry men to highlight the fact that we have a female protagonist,” “Tomb Raider” feels nothing short of brave.

While shipwrecked on an under-explored island, Croft’s quest to escape while uncovering the island’s mystical secrets finds her battling a penal-like community of inhabitants, all of whom just happen to be men. Most of them are white, in their mid-20s, gruff and creepy.

Croft is kidnapped, hung upside down, led into a bear trap, watches her friend get abducted and then kidnapped again. When one of the men on the island traces Croft’s figure with his hand and the game starts to suggest sexual assault, she’s had enough and grabs a gun.

Lara Croft returns in the new "Tomb Raider." (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix).

Lara Croft returns in the new “Tomb Raider.” (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix)

“Tomb Raider” is full of situations with men behaving cowardly or simply saying the wrong things. “Who’s this little fox?” says one of Croft’s pals when spotting a photograph of a young woman. He’s immediately put in his place when he’s told she’s the 14-year-old daughter of another compatriot.

Pratchett, who has previously written female video game heroines in “Mirror’s Edge” and “Heavenly Sword,” admits that she “wanted to reinvigorate Lara in a way I think I would have responded to well when I was a young gamer,” but she stops well short of saying she had grander objectives with “Tomb Raider.”

“I’m sure there will be people who say, ‘It’s Lara versus lots of angry men,’” says the 36-year-old Londoner. “It’s not designed to be a particular statement. It is tied to the mythology of the island. There is a specific reason for that, and it is learned later in the story. We’re not making a statement, but we will get accused of that.”

“It’s not something we approached as a gender story,” Crystal Dynamics head Darrell Gallagher says. “I can only keep saying the same thing. It’s a human question and about making a believable arc for a character. What would turn a character to kill someone? That was a question that was asked, and it was less about whether it was male or female.”

“It’s not something we approached as a gender story," says Crystal Dynamics head Darrell Gallagher of the new "Tomb Raider." (David Butow / For The Times)

“It’s not something we approached as a gender story,” says Crystal Dynamics head Darrell Gallagher of the new “Tomb Raider.” (David Butow / For The Times)

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a question that doesn’t routinely come up. If a game’s box art so much as features a woman — or doesn’t — it becomes a news story. When the first images of art for the upcoming multi-platform game “BioShock Infinite” were released, many wondered why the game’s costar, a female, was relegated to the back of the box.

At a recent interview at Sony’s Santa Monica studios to discuss upcoming thriller “The Last of Us” — a game whose main character is an older male charged with transporting a 14-year-old girl through a post-apocalyptic landscape — game director Bruce Straley was asked if the roles could have been reversed? “Yeah, there’s no reason why not,” he said.

But could he could actually sell that game to a publisher? Asked more directly if making a game with a female would have been more difficult, he said, “Some time, off the record, we could talk about that all day long and can rip on the industry and enjoy that stuff. But we think we’re doing a good job with the characters and the worlds we’re creating.”

Pratchett did have a theory why there weren’t more Croft-like characters. “The industry tends to be risk-averse, and the current climate hasn’t helped,” she says. “They see mid-20s, white, gravelly voiced protagonist in X game, and X game sells boatloads. So they feel safe having that male character.”

Lara Croft returns in the new "Tomb Raider." (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix).

Lara Croft returns in the new “Tomb Raider.” (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix)

Others think it’s a nonissue, arguing that the belief that a female-led game can’t sell is skewed by the massive success of a “Call of Duty” or a “Halo.” Forty-seven percent of all gamers are women, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Software Assn., and “almost half of the games sold on consoles either lead with a female character or there is an option to create a female character,” says Jesse Divnich, a VP with Carlsbad-based analytical video game firm the Electronic Entertainment Design and Research.

Yet Divnich’s figures also include downloadable content and multi-player modes, where a player is more likely allowed to create his or her own character. “In a lot of cases,” he says, the female character “is not branded.”

If misconceptions remain about how women are portrayed in games, “Tomb Raider” in 1996 helped create them. Throughout the game’s myriad sequels and spinoffs, Croft’s look became increasingly sexualized and reviews became more regularly mixed. One of the game’s original architects, Toby Gard, has at times spoken out against the reliance on Croft’s exaggerated features. Gard, who today runs game consulting firm Focal Point, did not respond to emails or calls to discuss Croft’s evolution.

Divnich predicts the new “Tomb Raider” will be a genre-defining blockbuster. “We’re going to see a lot of developers explore with lead female protagonists going forward,” he says. “This game will shatter a lot of myths.”

Lara Croft returns in the new "Tomb Raider." (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix).

Lara Croft returns in the new “Tomb Raider.” (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix)

The writer of the latest “Tomb Raider” does admit games have evolving to do.

“There is a lot to be done with diversity of characters as a whole, not just women,” says Pratchett. “They need to be broader in gender, broader in age, broader in sexuality. We’re still quite narrow when it comes to character creation in games. That is something that needs to be addressed.”

“Hopefully,” she adds, “‘Tomb Raider’ will change the tide, and people will think more closely about their female characters.”

Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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20 Responses to ‘Tomb Raider’: Lara Croft now battling video game stereotypes

  1. Extrapancake says:

    Theres not a lot of action games with female protagonists because quite simply theres not a lot of females equipped to be the best of the best when it comes to combat. Im sorry you dont like it, its just biological fact. But hey, if you want to live in your fantasy world where both genders have exactly the same capabilities in general thats fine by me, what else are videogames for?

    • Guest says:

      Sexist Jackass is pretty much the only response to this kind of thinking. You can't fix idiots like this, so don't bother trying.

  2. Liam Patterson says:

    Extrapancake – What world do you live in? Biological fact is that in the animal kingdom, quite often the female is much deadlier and prone to combat than the male. Maybe you should actually read about gender differences in nature and not just regurgitate your Male Superior garbage. There is absolutely nothing a man can do that a woman cannot. The reason this exists in video games is the same reason all the characters are White, Average looking males – It's what sells. Sleeping Dogs tried to go outside that formula and present an Asian lead. Great game, horrible sales numbers. NONE of this is based on factual evidence found in biology, it's based on consumer's bias when it comes to a product.

    • Extrapancake says:

      Very true Liam, but we arent preying mantises. From muscle structure to the deepness of the voice, optical processing to emotional responses human males are better suited for combat. This is proven biological fact whether you choose to accept it or not. Am i saying that no female can be good at fighting? Of course not. Thats why we have female protagonists like laura croft and Ripley from alien (my favorite character of all time), but its unreasonable to expect people to pretend that genders are exactly the same just to avoid hurting feelings. For the record i love sleeping dogs and im not really sure what it has to do with me somehow being a misogynist.

      • Sarahsinau says:

        Why all the hate poured over extrapancake ? (for the record, I am female).

        Whilst his initial point is very clumsy- on his clarification I can kind of see what he's getting at: Documenting the relationship between reality, fantasy (in games) and to what degree consumers (who *on average* define what sells) like to see reality reflected in their games.

        I do actually disagree with him regarding the lack of females in games. Humorously I think he debunks his own argument. Video games are a powerful medium- but they need only be internally consistent to be good. So in fantasy worlds: There is no reason why we shouldn't see women who are physically as capable as men and all characters being generally larger than life.

        But as for: Misogyny !, Misogyny !, Misogyny !, Misogyny !, Misogyny !, Misogyny !…..

        …..c'mon chaps/ladies. If extrapancake doesn't hate/patronize women- he is not a misogynist. And funnily enough, women don't always behave fairly towards men, are always helpless victims or are immune to cognitive biases either. Accusations of misogyny may be an effective silencing tactic in an era of political correctness (that's another debate), but in the end you only cheapen yourself by taking the easy way out.

      • buddy says:

        I thought your original point wasn't well displayed but this explanation nailed it. Way to stand by your point while clarifying in a respectful way where it may have been misunderstood. Need more people like you posting online. Most people just argue pointlessly and name call.

    • Just think about it. says:

      Extrapancake is completely correct and if you disagree then you are the biggest dick head in the world. I mean c'mon, I love women but when it comes to combat they are inferior. Intelligence wise, I thing women are smarter. But if it came down to it, women would lose in a physical confrontation. (Besides a couple of special cases). And shooting games, men are not as attached and emotional as women are, so if it came down to killing someone, a man would have the guts to do it before a women would (Again besides special cases). So if you wonder why there are less women in video games then men, there you go. It would be very unrealistic if there were more females then men or an equal amount of both in video games.

      • Marshmallow says:

        "Men are not as attached and emotional as women are." This is actually a proven myth. Males and females experience the same intensity and range of emotions and experience the same level of attachment, though women are encouraged to express theirs more than men.

        Anyway, as far as physicality goes, women are physically weaker but keep in mind that women are also more flexible and agile than men are. Notice how female gymnastics is more versatile than male gymnastics. In male gymnastics, the contestants focus more on feats of physical strength, but in female gymnastics, contestants focus more on agility and flexibility. So if you want to look at who is superior in the physical realm… it only depends on which physical feats you're looking at.

        A woman could easily beat up a man if she was learned in how to hit his weak points and topple him over. She may not be able to outright knock him cold, but women learned in physical combat can and have been very proficient at taking out men singlehandedly.

  3. guest says:

    Extrapancake, you are an uneducated misogynistic moron.

  4. picolo says:

    Another article about how men should create games for women. I've been hearing about girl power since I was a little kid. That was 30 years ago! When are women going to pull their own weight and just create their own games already? Seriously. I'm getting sick or all the whining. Look at all the indie 1-3 people game companies being created out there. Where are the women? You don't need men to show you the way do you?

    • Serene says:

      The women are in the 1-3 people game companies. These game companies just arent making tomb raider. You cant make a game of that scope with a small team.

      • picolo says:

        What!? You realize games companies are very similar to tech startups don't you? Even the original Tomb Raider started with a small team before being bought by Eidos. Just like Bungie(of Halo fame) was a small team later bought by Microsoft.

        It reminds me of a little company called Facebook. Young boys created a small company from a dorm room. Later becomes big and goes public. What do we hear? YOU NEED MORE WOMEN ON THE BOARD!!! Whine! Seems like they did just fine with the number of women they had.

        You want to be equal? Just go do it. Stop asking for handouts. There are so many great companies that started small in the last decade that are big today. You'd think more would have been created by women. STOP MAKING EXCUSES!

      • picolo says:

        The way I see it. Men just go out there and build/create what they want. Women complain to have what they want built.

  5. saje says:

    Sleeping Dogs was a GREAT game. And, frankly, those of us gamers who are emotionally older than 14 don’t have issues with female leads in games. And why not? You don’t think women can be tough or dangerous, Extrapancake? Women are MORE dangerous than men, and I dearly hope you never actually have to discover this for yourself. A guy will generally call you out. A women will simply do her best to destroy you.

  6. @Ostercy says:

    "Gard, who today runs game consulting firm Focal Point, did not respond to emails or calls to discuss Croft’s evolution." Probably thought "Got binned for not drinking the Kool-Aid when they were first discussing this vandalism of an iconic British character. Better keep my mouth shut about my general feelings of disgust in case I get sued."

    • Conane d'Barbara says:

      " . . . vandalism of an iconic British character. . . " no less by the daughter of an iconic British Knight (OBE). Can you even imagine what it would be like growing up calling Terry Pratchett dad?

  7. Ben says:

    The overriding reasoning why there aren't more female protagonists in video games is simply because they're more difficult to write for without being criticized for sexualization. Men are sexualized in spades without a second thought. We've just recently started to praise and reward games (with sales) for genuine character development.

    The Gears of War franchise, which is filled with male stereotypes, succeeds with crude jokes and half-assed characters because it can. Don't read into it too much. It's easy. It's accepted. It's status quo… but only so long as the games star male protagonists. This gets interesting when one considers that those stereotypes have nothing to do with the game's success. IMO Gears could have had a lot more success with decent characters.

    I really hope that this game encourages other game studios that can afford a legitimate writing staff to take more chances with female protagonists. I would actually argue that a well developed female protagonist holds greater potential for a game than a male protagonist does. Tomb Raider's history of sexism aside, sub Nathan Drake in for Lara Croft in this same crazy-island origin story and suddenly this game looks a lot less appealing.

    As for Lara's future, I am absurdly excited. I haven't played it yet but everything I've read suggests that they're establishing her as a person, not just an action hero. Think about how successful the Batman movie reboot was. Bruce Wayne remained the Batman we know and love, but this time we could better relate to his story. Thus the strength of an origin story. As it went with Batman, this seems like I game that can be built upon in future titles. With her "realism" established, she stride forth as a bad ass who happens to be female. I wouldn't want her any other way.

  8. Matt says:

    As an aside from all of the pandemonium over gener roles–does anyone see notice the very blatant ripoffs of the Uncharted series in the screenshots above? A whole lot of the scenery looks like it is particularly copying visual elements of Uncharted 2. There's even an image with Croft hanging off the edge of a plane edging its way over a cliff, which is EXACTLY what happens at the beginning of Uncharted 2, except with a train.

    • Ben says:

      Except the context is totally different. Lara is climbing a crashed plane to cross a crevasse where Drake wakes up hanging off a cliff.

  9. Maybe next time they can get her a shirt.

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