Aug 31, 2014

The Bizarre Bankshot Feminism of Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider is one of the weirdest games I have ever experienced. The story is hackneyed, predictable, and irritating. Despite having a female protagonist, it has serious issues with sexism. The violence, particularly that directed at Lara herself, is gratuitous and at times smacks of misogynist sadism. And yet, despite all that -- indeed, partly because of those problems, it is one of the most compelling games I've played. One which, for me at least, ended up in a surprisingly pro-woman place.

The game is so dichotomous it could have almost been made by two different companies. There is the Lara of the traditional videogame story moments -- the cutscenes, spoken dialogue, and quick time events. This Lara is largely helpless and repeatedly subject to shocking violence. A very early cutscene shows her being stabbed through the midriff with a filthy stick. The QTEs are infrequent and have fairly finicky timing, so I failed nearly every one repeatedly, thus having to watch Lara be brutally killed over and over as I learned the sequence.

Then there is the Lara of regular old gameplay, running and gunning across a big jungle island. This Lara is a fearsome, almost terrifying warrior who is as hard as a coffin nail. She casually slaughters hundreds of enemy men, with equal facility in hand-to-hand combat or a half-dozen ranged weapons. She is a world-class climber, routinely jumping across huge gaps and sticking on just a single climbing axe. That part is similar to the Uncharted series, but the whiny narrative insistence that this a Serious Game You Guys (though the “gritty” violence often came off as just silly) made me think about just how unbelievably strong Lara would have to be to pull off her climbing stunts. I would say she’d have to have the grip strength of Alex Honnold or Steph Davis, but in reality I doubt there’s a person alive, male or female, who could do half that stuff without dislocating both their shoulders. In short, in-game Lara is a Total Badass, and the play during these parts of the game was smooth and compelling.

But every once in awhile you get yanked out of that smooth experience to endure a hamfisted attempt at drama (basically a corny paint-by-numbers action plot) which usually involved Lara being stripped of all agency, either by being captured or sent on some errand. Compounding this effect was the camera and costume design, which were obviously designed to titillate a presumed straight male player. The camera is constantly leering at her breasts and ass -- the actual very first cutscene features a prolonged stare right down her shirt. Through the whole game she wears a scoop-neck tank top that is cut just exactly as low as the designers thought they could get away with, and as the story progresses her sprayed-on pants are ripped open in the inner thigh.

And the violence is just beyond ridiculous:



These two halves of the game were constantly grating against each other. Two sequences in particular stood out to me. The first is during an extended climb up to a cold mountain peak up to a radio tower. It’s snowing, and the wind is blowing hard, and at several points Lara is overtly shivering and remarking on how cold she is. On her way up Lara kills dozens of enemies, all wearing jackets or at least long-sleeve shirts. But while she can loot the ammunition and “salvage” (for upgrades) off their corpses, she can’t take any of their clothes, obviously because then the camera wouldn’t be able to zoom in on her breasts whenever there’s the slightest excuse for it.

The second sequence was a short cutscene. After fighting her way past yet more dozens of hapless guards, Lara finds her objective: a friend of hers (another woman, natch) has been captured. She is well-equipped by this point, but instead of busting out her shotgun or automatic rifle, she runs out into the open, and tries to snipe the cultist leader with her bow. It's an easy shot that Lara has by now made a hundred times -- the leader is just standing there in plain view -- but she misses, alerting the troops, and then misses again as the goons run up, then proceed to beat the shit out of her.

This contrast between the intimidating, no-bullshit competence of in-game Lara, and the obnoxious, helpless cutscene Lara, created an oddly feminist experience, if you can believe it. Over and over and over, the message of the game, whether intentional or not, was: see? This is what being a strong woman is like. In-game Lara would have slaughtered a dozen deer, tanned her own leather out of a solution of brains, and made herself a bulletproof winter parka, but she can’t because Cutscene Lara has to have her breasts on display at all times. In-game Lara would have made that above-mentioned shot, whipped out her shotgun, and blasted the oncoming goons into red mist without even blinking, but she can't because the story writers couldn't be bothered to come up with a more plausible transition. In-game Lara can hit a nickel with a pistol at 100 yards, Cutscene Lara yells “SAM?!??” through her radio when her friend is obviously being captured.

At all times, the needs of Lara the female character are set below the needs of a stupid story operating in a sexist framework.

And yet, it was a pretty compelling game! Constantly being whipsawed between these two perspectives was quite interesting if nothing else, and I ended up noticing all kinds of sexist garbage that I probably would have missed if the story had been more absorbing (like the ripped pants, I mean come on). I wouldn't say it's great, because this dichotomy is so distracting, and the story is lousy, but it did hold my attention. Maybe next time they can write a story for the real Lara?

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