Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Lara the Super Hero

Posted by deckard47 on September 10, 2009

It’s pretty obvious to most people that Lara Croft is not the “everyman” so many developers are mistakenly, humorously obsessed with. Never mind that this everyman is often a gravelly-voiced, shaven-headed, hugely muscled dick who kills lots of people. He’s relatable! He makes jokes!

Ahem. So she’s not a guy, right? That’s one step. That already makes her different than an unpleasantly large number of video game heroes.

Really though, playing through Tomb Raider: Underworld, I’m constantly made aware of the fact that Lara is anything but average. She can kill anything, from tigers to armed goons, she can escape ridiculous, sinking ships, and she can face off against villainous winged ladies, all without a single wince, groan, or faltering step. In other words, when it comes to adventuring and exploring, she’s the indestructible badass to Nathan Drake’s fallible, barely-makes-it-by-the-seat-of-his-pants joker.

Lara encounters two kinds of creatures during her travels: friends, who treat her with respect and care, and enemies who want to kill her, very badly (professionally, though). If it weren’t for the fact that she’s chasing after her long-lost (possibly Underworld-dwelling) mother, her emotional involvement in the story would be almost non-existent. Sure, she cares for her cutout-character sidekicks, Zip and the English guy, but they’re as emotionally resonant as a box of rocks. Why should we care for them, when Lara can’t really muster up more than amusement at their lack of knowledge/expertise in areas she excels in? When they’re in danger, she furrows her brow, and looks a tad troubled. It’s a bit like watching a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie: don’t get too connected to the sidekicks, because they’ll be gone soon enough.

Except that’s not true: even in the most continuity-challenged, misogynist-riddled fictions, side characters at least attempt to perform a level of complexity and depth, along with a connection to the main character. Lara doesn’t actually have to care about Zip and whatshisname, she just has to do a better job at pretending they matter. At the beginning of the game, Zip attempts to kill Lara. The question this action evokes should go something like this: “holy shit, why would Zip want to kill Lara?” Instead, it’s something like this: “Oh, the stereotypically Black guy wants to kill his ‘friend”/’mployer. I wonder when during the game-long flashback we’ll learn of her occult-inspired betrayal/possession, which encouraged his assault!?”

This is not the drama-inspiring, exciting beginning the designers wanted to create, but thanks to Lara’s almost godlike disconnection from the world she inhabits it’s hard to avoid such a let-down. Whenever she admires the beauty of a newly discovered temple or ruin, she just sounds so… bored. It’s like she’s reading the latest “Ancient Temples Quarterly,” not experiencing the thrill of doing the job she loves.

Then again, this is Tomb Raider, right? I’m glad that they’ve created a real, kind of interesting character, I suppose. Think of the alternatives, think of the series’ own history and Lara’s past incarnations. I’m not even asking that she be flaw-ridden. I don’t don’t need her to be like Nathan Drake, and I don’t need her to be like April Ryan. One does not have to be filled with tics, flaws, and quirky habits to be an interesting, empathy-worthy character. But one does have to have more than “idle” and “ass-kicker” modes. Hell, even something more than Lara’s steely cold action/British approach to everything would be nice. Sadly, players mostly see only one other side to her, and that’s her “emotional” side. That’s what happens when A) she’s close to finding out new information about her Mom, and B) her “friends” are in danger. Once again, this is not a problem on its own. If Lara didn’t feel compassion and worry for her friends and family, I’d find her to be even more of a weirdly emotionless automaton than I already do. The problem is that she has no other noticeable character elements. She may enjoy spelunking and exploring, but she enjoys these activities like a cat enjoys the ministrations of its human: she can’t quite dignify the game, or the world, with her complete attention.

It’s hard to describe the things about Lara that are “off” because they’re not horrible, glaring flaws. She’s not a stupidly violent, senseless killing machine like Kratos and his ilk (though her disrespect for local flora, fauna, and ancient structures is, as always, extreme), she’s not a pointlessly campy sex caricature (see Bloodrayne or Bayonetta) [Edit – as pointed out by Simon, she is a weird, sexist caricature, physically. She’s slightly less oriented toward the pawing mouth-breather set, but all of her strength, badassery and wit don’t make up for the fact that more effort is still spent animating her butt sway than voicing her dialogue], and she’s not a silent, vacant “character” (sorry Gordon!). She’s solid; she takes up space. In this way, she’s infinitely superior to most “characters” in games who take up only as much space as their ill-written, game-necessary dialogue prescribes (for this, see almost every movie-game, most “story heavy” games, and most action games).

Somebody obviously cares about who Lara is, and they care about who we think she is. Still, it’s as if this care was a reflection of the real thing, as if our Lara were some slightly-removed, shadowy reflection of the real one.

Lara’s not connected enough to our world, and the ways in which she connects to it are always vague, slightly unfeeling, and less emphatic than they should be. Even the connections she has are simple, one-dimensional ones. I’ll admit that when it comes to characters, I’m comparing her to Nathan Drake more than I should. He’s the product of a pulpy, self-aware fiction that delights in painting him in familiar, broad strokes, and then taking those familiar facets to their extremes. But he’s over-the-top and cliche in a way that feels honestly relatable, if completely unreal. He may be foolishly disbelieving and mysteriously jovial in the face of certain death and dark magic, but he does it in a way that feels grounded in the world. He’s a caricature of a caricature, a man lovingly, perfectly constructed from the leavings of older, less self-aware scoundrels, but he relates to his world as if he lives in it. Lara, for all of her prowess and newly found pathos, approaches everything like an actor in a play, and a play she only half-likes at that.

All that said, I enjoy Lara’s take on the action adventure genre, and on games. I love the intricate, humongous puzzles, the ludicrously vibrant and “explorable” settings, and the outlandish bad guys and set pieces. It’s like a summer action movie, without the problematic “native people” (well, sometimes) and without the Bruce Willis/Michael Bay racism (again, sometimes). Plus, she’s an interesting, strong character who has a long history in video games. As a character, she’s older than almost everybody else out there, especially if you don’t count “characters” like Mario.

I think she’s important to video games, if only because she has pioneered many things, good and bad, and because she’s still around to tell the tale, unlike so many of her competitors. I like her games a good deal, and it’s too bad that despite Underworld‘s commercial success, a “reboot” was again, deemed necessary. Maybe it will be a good thing? Maybe Lara will reappear, more deeply invested in her own existence, and in the immediacy of her own adventures.

If she does (and if they fix that damn shooting and that damn camera), she’ll be even more of a force to be reckoned with, even more than she is now. Here’s hoping.

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10 Responses to “Lara the Super Hero”

  1. Eric said

    Good analysis. I enjoyed Underworld, the only Tomb Raider game I’ve ever played. But I also felt like there was so much squandered potential in Lara’s character. Granted, I missed all the backstory of the previous games (though they thoughtfully provided a recap), but I felt the same way as you did that Lara was a tourist in her own story. I don’t think Lara needs a reboot– she just needs a writer who can make her character really come alive. There’s a theme throughout the game that should have been a powerful emotional core, but it’s never developed, to the point that I didn’t really notice it until near the end. (I won’t spoil it here since you’re apparently not very far along.)

    That said, I thought the writers of Underworld actually did great things with the mythology that Lara uncovers throughout the game. They basically came up with a Grand Unified Theory of Hell myths. Pretty cool.

    • deckard47 said

      I guess the mythology is cool. I’m just a bit sour about the whole “monolithic ancient culture” thing after Crystal Skull. It seems like cheap historical rewriting, in favor of a boring monoculture. But the game is still fun to play, so I guess I can’t be a complete dick about it.

  2. I wonder if all your problems with Lara would go away if she had an American accent instead of a British one? I hate voice acting across the board (Nathan Drake being one of maybe three I can tolerate), so I don’t even hear anything when she enters a new room and comments on it. I just started looking around and going “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod it’s ____” in my head so loud it drowns everything else out. I suppose one problem with the extended series thing is that, they’ve covered her emotional backstory before (The Last Revelation being the most important I think?). If they did it in every game, you’d get sick of it. I think in Underworld we’re really seeing a character who is about to ascend to the Heaven of Game Characters Who Got Rebooted. She’s too powerful, too perfect after all she’s been through. Time to put her down and add a time-travel conceit involving Spock and red matter.

    Only statement you made that gave me a “huh?” was where you hold that she’s not as campy as Bayonetta. Really? Mud gets all over her under-butt and her boobs flop from side to side visibly on viewing her from behind! I’d be surprised if Bayonetta undulates more than that, really.

    • deckard47 said

      The acting isn’t great, but I don’t know if an American/any other actress would make the dialogue better. maybe just getting someone who sounded like they cared? I’m sure the reboot will have her with no guns, just pointy sticks and rocks, fighting dinosaurs using QTEs, or something, and she will be less powerful, as you say.

      It is a ridiculous game, but I guess she doesn’t use her hair to fight/get undressed, right.I didn’t notice the mud… Maybe my computer doesn’t show it? My graphics card doesn’t love the game. As for the bouncing… I’m not surprised, but again, it’s not something I’ve noticed. Then again, I’m obsessed with pinging all of the maps using the mapping feature, so when I’m not fighting or jumping, I’m going into corners that I haven’t mapped, pausing, and pinging them. Which makes the game very slow, but I like it.

      Oh, and time travel will have to be in the next one, absolutely. She’s like Brosnan’s Bond. She’s too fucking fancy, and doesn’t give a shit.

      The real question, in their attempt to make her more “relatable,” and more “women-friendly” what weird shit are they going to do?

    • deckard47 said

      I’m also curious. Which other voice actors do you like? I like the actress who plays female Shepard (the male one is boring), I hate, hate, hate the guy who plays Carth and Kaiden, and I’m pretty much annoyed by everything else.

  3. So, wait, you’re writing about what happens to characters when they get rebooted? Like they go from gods to children all of a sudden? We need to think about all the things that have been rebooted recently, since we don’t know much about the Lara reboot except that her polygons are changing.

    So we have:
    (in film)
    Star Trek
    Batman Begins

    (in games)
    Need for Speed (new one is called Shift)
    Prince of Persia
    I’d say Zelda, but it looks like that just got split into two series of child/cel-shaded & adult/3D
    Sonic is getting a 2D reboot
    Mega Man 9 is a retro reboot
    Castlevania is getting a 3D reboot AND a retro reboot
    Wolfenstein

    Here’s a post from the UK Guardian just about the fact of rebooting, but they don’t really go through what it means for a narrative structure or for a character. Good kicking-off point:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2009/jul/27/games-gameculture

    • The lame thing is that I typed all those out before finding the article, which pretty much names most of them.

      • deckard47 said

        Well, it’s the thought that counts. Amusingly, I’m actually doing a reboot piece for Sleeper Hot right now, and my next GSW article will be reboot specific. The present one is less in-depth (read: less good), but it’s done and being edited, so I’ll have to live with it.

        You’re right about the narrative and character changes made in reboots. People don’t talk about this. It’s an interesting question: if the latest PoP is a PoP game only in that it has a prince, how can you claim that it’s carrying on the IP? Your characters, setting, and mechanics are all different. It’s the same in that you play a guy who hops around dusty Orientalist-type castles. People just talk about how it’s “fresh,” because you time your jumps differently, and the art is prettier.

        Reboots should be about making interesting, radical changes to narrative and characterization: we have precious other areas where that kind of evolution is allowed. Now I really need to get these next two pieces done so I can see what you think of them.

      • deckard47 said

        Also, funny that he says he’d like a modern version of BG2. Dragon Age, for all of its pandering crap, seems like that’s what it is going to be.

      • deckard47 said

        And I meant Sleeper hit… Obviously!

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