Ms. Pac-Man may have kicked things off with her audaciously gender-specific bow and sassy single honorific, but ever since Lara Croft's debut (trudging up a snowy monutain in short shorts if I recall), Tomb Raider has been the central talking point for how women are portrayed in videogames. And although this has tended to overshadow other discussions of the series and has undoubtedly influenced successive videogame heroines, it's never been settled whether the portrayal has been a positive or a negative one. On the one hand, Lara Croft is a strong, independent woman who can kick ass with the best of them, which set her strongly apart from the gaggle of damsels in distress dominating the medium prior. On the other hand, her wardrobe and proportions (and marketing) present her as a sex object right from the start. So is Lara a feminist vanguard, or a demeaning symbol of the old guard? (or not a type of guard at all?)
I think an important thing to keep in mind in all this is that “sexism” does not exist in a vacuum. Lara's cold femme fatale attitude undoubtedly had more clout back before it became the go-to method for ensuring that female characters be regarded as more than just eye candy while not having to actually give them much character (because making your female character a real person is also dangerous, as we will see). In the same vein, there's (in my male opinion) nothing wrong with creating a female character intended to titillate; the problems come when all female characters in a medium seem to be designed to be most ergonomically ogled. It's all about context, is what I'm saying.
So now we come to the gritty reboot/prequel ambiguously titled Tomb Raider in which we find a very different Lara. Rather than an idealized sex toy, we find an attractive but realistically proportioned human. And rather than a hard-edged femme fatale(/cold-blooded killer) we find a realistically scared young woman in over her head. And yet her thorough transformation has done anything but allow her to escape the realm of gender politics. The controversy kicked off when an early trailer showed a scene in which Lara is threatened by a group of ruffians with what could without too much imagination be construed as rape. This, combined with a statement by the developers that the game would make players want to “protect” Lara, unsurprisingly provoked a Himiko-level storm of internet backlash.
So is the new Tomb Raider sexist? Having played through the story, I can say that the “rape” scene barely registers as a thing, though rumor has it that it was toned down in response to the fan outrage. Admittedly I have never personally been in a situation in which I feared being raped, so perhaps some might find the sequence more disturbing (though were I marooned on an island with a gang of murderous cutthroats, I imagine I would be more worried by all the shooting and knifing directed at me that by a little suggestive pawing). Failing the associated Quick Time Event actually results in Lara being choked to death rather than being raped, so that's better(?) As for Lara's characterization, I can unequivocally say that Lara is a more engaging and fleshed-out character, and certainly more well-rounded despite the smaller cup size (*badum tush*). But depth alone does not determine whether a characterization is sexist. Again I would say it's largely a matter of context. I do not see anything wrong with casting Lara as scared and inexperienced, and tasking the player with protecting her. If the concept took off and henceforth every heroine in gaming (and only heroines) became scared and inexperienced and in need of protection, that might start to become troublesome.
As it is, the dynamic feels fresh. The most obvious comparison is with the Uncharted series (which as others have noted is an ironic comparison, seeing as the Uncharted series clearly took inspiration from the Tomb Raider series to begin with, and yet improved upon the formula in enough areas that the flow of inspiration has seemingly reversed, at least for the time being), but in Uncharted the player is never “protecting” Nathan Drake. Here, through an impressively realized combination of scripted and emergent narrative, voice and visual cues, and yes probably cultural issues surrounding violence against women, the game does an impressive job of making you feel bad about allowing this poor girl to come to harm, and cheering her on in the occasion that she doesn't. The experience elicited an impressive number of squeamish “egad” moments from me after a slip of the controls would doom Lara in some brutal fashion, often impaled through the neck by something metal and sharp (with enough consistency that an armored scarf would be an extremely useful wardrobe upgrade). Even the regenerating health, of which I'm often not a fan, serves this aesthetic purpose. Whereas it always felt a little jarring for Gears' Marcus Phoenix, hardened convict/soldier, to find himself huddled in a corner sucking his thumb and waiting for his health to regenerate, Lara hiding scared in a corner with gunfire all around fits the characterization and doesn't feel like an interruption of the action.
Yet despite this “protection” dynamic, Lara is anything but a delicate little flower. In fact she goes through more punishment than probably any videogame character I've seen, to the point where it starts to become kind of silly. Tomb Raider's gameplay mechanics are commensurable to those in Uncharted, but I feel that the cinematic style works less well here. Where Uncharted's tone purposefully evokes an escapist Hollywood blockbuster through and through, Tomb Raider's tone has strong leanings towards gritty realism, and it starts to be a problem of wanting to have one's cake and drop it off a waterfall too. The game desperately wants us to feel like Lara's a real person in real danger, yet it also heaps on so much spectacle that Lara would most likely be a quadriplegic within the first 20 minutes of gameplay. I'm not saying videogame characters can't do unrealistic things in a game with a realistic tone, but I'm not sure the unrealistic things should also be emphasized with frequent “look how crazy and over-the-top this all is” cutscenes.
The frequent mini-cutscenes bring forth another issue that I feel plagues a lot of recent games. When the old Tomb Raider games would introduce something new, it would just sort of be there and consequently would be much more surprising. Tomb Raider II introduced spiders of unusual size (S.O.U.S.s) as an enemy near the end, but rather than heralding their arrival with an introductory cutscenes, you just sort of ran into them while exploring a dark cave, making them extremely unnerving and memorable despite their being animated with about four polygons. Conversely, modern games throw all sorts of well-rendered and novel threats at the player, but their consistent introduction by flashy cutscenes completely undermines their impact. Not only am I expecting something “craaazy” to happen whenever a cutscene starts, but because videogames are an interactive medium, I know that for as long as my control is taken away Lara is in no danger, so for the entire three-second sequence in which the roof starts to collapse or the wolves first appear, I jarringly feel less tension than when I had control and was doing something mundane. If Tomb Raider II were remade today, there would be a little cutscene introducing the spiders with a horde of them crawling out of something in all their many-polygoned glory, and I would be sitting back calmly waiting to play again. At least in a movie there is some miniscule chance that the character might get eaten by the spiders while you are passively watching, but with a game you know you're safe until the cutscene ends, or at least until a quick time event icon pops up. Indeed one of the few moments in the reboot that gave me genuine anxiety was the one time a new enemy was introduced without a cutscene. I'm not against cutscenes in principal, but too many games nowadays are using them to try and amp up tension in a way that does the exact opposite. Stop it!
Aside from that, I found a lot to like in the new Tomb Raider. Combat feels tight and transitions from stealth in an organic way, and enemies behave in a believable fashion. The bow is really fun to use whether you're picking off confused enemies from the bushes, shooting ropes to traverse the environment, exploding/igniting things, or murdering various animals (which feels more justified with Lara as a hungry castaway rather than merely an eccentric tourist). The “survival instincts” ability works nicely. It functions much like Arkham Asylum/City's “detection vision” to highlight important features, but because you can only use it while stationary, you aren't incentivised to ruin the pretty graphics by simply keeping it on at all times. The leveling system doubles as a sort of built-in tutorial as you learn various skills, and it doesn't feel shoehorned in *coughangelofdarkness*. And I like the way that tombs are integrated as optional side-puzzles since it makes you feel clever for finding and completing them.
Overall my impression is mixed, but I feel this is an impressive first go at reinvigorating a waning icon. (Certainly I'm more optimistic of Lara's future than Sonic's.) I'm excited to see where this reborn franchise goes, and I'm pleased that it contains a reasonably fleshed-out protagonist regardless of gender. Really I'm happy they didn't just make her a female Nathan Drake.