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

Feb. 28, 2013 | 9:00 a.m.

"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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