In October, the video game world celebrated the anniversary of the arrival of a certain archaeologist to the industry – 22 years ago, in 1996, Tomb Raider, featuring Lara Croft, was first released. Given the release of Lara’s newest adventure, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, now seems like a perfect time to reflect on the character’s development, and reception, over time.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third game in Lara’s ‘reboot trilogy,’ following 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Shadow takes the successful gameplay elements from the first two games whilst also taking inspiration from the older entries in Lara’s canon, such as new abilities, and a greater emphasis on exploring ruins.
Should those of us hoping for the return of the back-flipping, dual pistol-wielding, wise-cracking Lady Croft adjust our expectations? It certainly feels odd for the makers to have left out some of Lara’s previous attributes, especially as the game presented itself as the end of the character’s origin, where she would ‘become’ the tomb raider we all know and love. But, it is 2018, after all, an era that seems to represent a new wave of feminism, with movements such as #MeToo and the public demanding new and interesting female characters in various media. And, while Lara has always had her devoted fans, she’s also a contentious figure.
While many claim that Lara should be lauded for being the most famous and successful female protagonist in video game history, and a strong and independent one too, there’s others who claim she’s an oversexualised, unrealistic representation of a woman, and is purely a male fantasy. The recent reboot trilogy attempts to address these concerns by replacing Lara’s shorts for trousers, making her a vulnerable and inexperienced university graduate who has to learn survival skills through hardship, and even downgrading her more ‘sexualised features.’
I can’t help but wonder if this rebuilding of an iconic female character is really necessary. The rebooted variation of the character is great, of course, as it’s interesting to witness the origins of a character as iconic as Lara. But was the original Lara truly as regressive and harmful as her critics would have us believe?
It is true that when the character first became popular in the 1990s, her sex appeal was exploited by the media, with sexualised ‘photoshoots’ of the character being produced. But is this really all there was to the character? I don’t think so. Of course, it’s not wrong to dislike her sexualisation, or to think that it undermines her overall value as a strong female character, but it’s also not fair to focus on her sexualisation alone.
Those of us who grew up with the character in her original incarnation found her empowering and inspiring. When I was playing Tomb Raider in my early teens, I was inspired by the character’s dedication to accomplishing her goals, her proficiency in gymnastics, foreign languages, and history, her intelligence, and her unapologetic femininity, which was a rarity in the action genre, where heroines are often deliberately masculine in order to ‘emphasise’ their strength and ability.
The debate is multi-faceted, much like Lara herself, with many of the criticisms and praise of the character being equally valid. Lara is sexualised, and undoubtedly popular with many for this reason alone, but she’s also dedicated, resourceful, smart, skilled, and more than capable. Perhaps the problem runs deeper: rather than focus solely on a female character’s sex appeal, maybe we should also consider her character traits and development, because it is those, above all else, that have kept people coming back to Lady Lara Croft for more than 20 years.