The game space is a controversial place to be right now. A perfect storm of people exploring sexism in games, gamers being misogynist fuckhats, and clueless developers talking excitedly about how they’re going to treat their female leads in new and excruciatingly terrible ways have all come together and now the treatment of women in games is a big topic that’s getting tons of discussion. Which is swell, even if much of that discussion is shrill and irritating right now, because in the long term that will probably lead to better games with more strong female leads, which is something I approve of for reasons that aren’t entirely non-prurient.
Much of this storm has centered around the new Tomb Raider game, creatively titled… Tomb Raider. I’m not even going to get much into the meat of this controversy, because I’m actually going to be talking about how the entire stupid thing has emerged from sloppy decision-making. But, just so you’re all caught up, here is the story thus far: Basically, a developer of the new Tomb Raider game is interviewed and glibly, naively, idiotically babbles about how Lara Croft is a character who players want to protect and how she will be threatened with rape and how this will ultimately show how she came to be the rich globe-trotting thrill-seeker we all know and are vaguely apathetic about. So, in short, it is the dreaded gritty reboot.
Now, obviously and deservedly people took issue with this approach to the character. It is a pretty ham-handed marginalization of one of gaming’s only prominent female leads to say that the player wants to ‘protect’ her, and using the threat of rape to develop a character has been a hallmark of lazy writing for some time. Both of these, though, are at least hypothetically defensible. The first, saying players want to protect Lara, was a telling but ultimately harmless gaffe. And, as uncomfortable as it makes us, in a realistic universe, in a dangerous setting, rape is a plausible physical threat. However, retconning rape into a character’s history is very different from making it one of the threats they’re actively dealing with in the present. Saying that overcoming these physical threats is what made Lara who she is is worse than offensive: It’s nonsensical.
Full disclosure here: I haven’t played much of the Tomb Raider series. I haven’t played any of the Tomb Raider series. Sorry. However, my understanding of the character of Lara Croft is that she basically jets around the world trying to steal artifacts for kicks. Why exactly would beating the shit out of her and killing her friends for an entire game lead to that character? Who leaves a situation where they get savagely brutalized, nearly raped, barely survive, and says “yeah, I could go for some more of that“? This actually leads one to suspect that the Lara of the new Tomb Raider is suffering from some kind of deranged masochistic death wish. I’m not sure if that’s what they were going for, and it would be kind of hot if it were, but I suspect it wasn’t.
So now I’m going to, as someone who’s never played Tomb Raider before, talk about the Tomb Raider story I’d like to see. Lara’s objective is to find her way to some crappy backwater country and steal what is probably only thing keeping its economy afloat; what she’s trying to steal isn’t important, but it belongs in a museum. First, she needs to fly to various interesting locations around the world to find clues to the exact location of the generic treasure. She heads to the initial clue, whatever it may be, in her jumbo jet full of gold-plated butlers. That is a joke, but is nevertheless indicative of what I want to see, which is bigger and weirder and more over-the-top.
So she lands in a crapwater backdunk country, and is met by a guide or something. The guide isn’t important. We see suspicious-looking men in black suits following her, but nothing comes of it until later. Relatively early on, we’re introduced to another treasure hunter, a charismatic asshole with an absurd(ly awesome) name… let’s say, I don’t know, Alfredo Vividalfofo. Apparently he’s some kind of Italian or something. He stymies Lara at every turn, getting to vital clues right before she does and riding away on a hummer-heli-jeep-copter, or driving by her, laughing, as she pulls a potato out of her tailpipe.
Somewhere along the way we pick up a white guy. He’s probably a researcher or something, I don’t know. In any case, he’s almost offensively unobjectionable and ends up following Lara around as her sidekick/puppy/bland love interest. Let’s call him Brent Burbeson. He can be the exposition-pet, and Lara can explain what the treasure is (unimportant) and what they know thus far about how to get it. They’re pursued by the shadowy men in black, who Lara explain are from the SHADE organization, who have been trying to get her for years.
The plot progresses- the specifics really aren’t important here. One clue leads to the next, etcetera. Lara Croft and Burt Brentson have to evade SHADE agents while collecting clues to find the treasure, all the while getting harassed by Alfredo in spectacular, outrageous, douchebaggy fashion. Of course, there are also numerous opportunities for Lara to give as good as she gets, and sabotage Alfredo’s vehicles or snag a clue right before he gets there or fart on his waffles.
Anyway, eventually they find their way to the powater slamdunk country with the artifact and just as Lara is about to grab the treasure Alfredo snatches it away, and a climactic chase scene follows, with Alfredo being chased by Lara being chased by an entire continent of justifiably angry natives. Lara catches up and she and Alfredo are wrestling for the artifact on, I don’t know, maybe a giant stone statue of a face, when a volcano erupts. The natives all clear out (on account of the lava), and with all of the shaking Lara loses her balance and begins to fall. Alfredo grabs her wrist and pulls her to safety, and the priceless artifact falls into the lava and is destroyed.
Alfredo and Lara lie atop the statue, exhausted, with lava flowing all around underneath. A shadow falls over them, and they look up and see two SHADE agents standing over them. “Hello, Mr Vividalfofo, Mrs Croft, we are with the Society for Historical Artifact Discovery and Examination, and you’ve both been served,” hands them each an envelope, and walks away.
Eventually Lara says, “Well, I guess that one was a draw,” and both start reminiscing about how they almost had it and comparing it to past adventures and trying to figure out what the score is. By the time Bob Bibbleson drives up to rescue them, Lara Croft and Alfredo Vividalfofo, famed adventurer couple, are having passionate make-outs on top of a stone face surrounded by lava. He is devastated, and not far away we see a generic white girl drive up and burst into tears.
Oh wait, I still have some stuff I wanted to say though. First, I know that I didn’t say anything about gameplay here. I just wanted an appropriately awesome and ridiculous story to go with someone who does adventuring for fun. Second, it isn’t an origin story, though I think it would be fun to explore the college years of a pathological thrill-seeker like Lara Croft, getting expelled for bank robbery and vigilantism. Eventually her parents would take her aside and explain that her grandfather, too, had been an incorrigible thrill-seeker and had eventually channeled that into treasure hunting. In fact, he had had the uncommon foresight of using his vast wealth to create likely-looking artifacts and giving them as gifts to tribespeople so that he and future generations would have priceless historical artifacts to hunt.