Monday, 28 October 2013

Lara Croft: Two Raider

The most popular thing I've made on Tumblr is an (admittedly flawed) series of pictures detailing the decline in imagination in character design for video games. At least in regards to the main protagonists, the people whose faces are on the cover. Many people chimed in. Some of them made some very shallow, idiotic responses, as is expected on the internet. There's been a lot of denial, and a lot of hand-wringing for the sexism and racism apparent in the industry today.

But I also heard from some people who made compelling arguments that there ARE still interesting and diverse character designs in video games. Yes, even in the main protagonists. These people weren't denying that things are bad, but I've been reminded that it's not all doom and gloom for this industry. So I can admit that that even though the original post is a misfire, at least I got it out of my system. And at least I was reminded of some interesting games I still need to try out one of these days.

But the one thing I do protest is this: the sheer number of people insisting to me that the new Lara Croft is “badass”. You know, the one who brutally murders and sets fire to hundreds of dudes, and regularly has to slaughter dangerous wildlife...

…but then immediately becomes a helpless, whimpering crybaby over a deer?

I think the problem is that when people talk about “Lara Croft”, they’re really referring to two different characters in the same game. And I’m not sure which one they want me to think is a “strong, independent character”.

Look, if you’re going to be a Kratos-shaped tornado of violence, fine. If you’re going to be Princess Peach, fine. And if you want a physically ferocious character who can also sometimes show stores of sympathy and caring, great!


But that’s not what happened in Tomb Raider. I totally get what Rhianna Pratchett was trying to do. They wanted her to survive and to have to do some gruesome things to become stronger than her antagonists, I understand that. And they wanted her to be sad when her friends die, to show she’s not completely heartless. A badass can have feelings and sympathy too, and it’s understandable to react to trauma realistically.

But the game presents two versions of the same character, and they never gel together. There is an observed gulf between "Story Lara" and "MURDER DEATH KILL Lara", but not in a “The Incredible Hulk”, dual-nature kind of way. The sheer amount of mooks Lara has to gun down in the new Tomb Raider reaches ridiculous cartoon levels of violence, to the point that it borders on masturbatory. But then, the moment a cutscene comes along she suddenly becomes this weak and defenseless human defined entirely by her frail dependence on others. She feels less like a well-executed character and more like a clueless male executive's misguided -idea- of a "strong, independent woman".

I know what the scenes are supposed to be saying. I'm not faulting Pratchett for trying. But I'm not going to intentionally deceive people by telling them that this is a good example of how to write a female protagonist.

The Two Laras in this game are oil and water. The game failed to convince me that the person speaking in the cutscenes and the person the player controls were the same. A character divided against herself cannot stand. That's why I didn't consider her a positive example of characterization in games today. By propping up a character like this as “Badass”, or a “strong representation of women in games”, you’re just telling game designers you want less human beings and more inconsistent, badly-written mood-swings.

And no, I'm sorry guys, but she doesn’t get points from me just because she’s not Captain White Guy. It’s not enough to just not make the other game’s mistakes. We have to have clear ideas and goals when it comes to designing characters. They have to be consistent. We have to find better ways to reconcile the violent, arcadey action of modern games with our yearning for cinematic approval. And we have to stop clinging to whatever desperate, shallow, pandering attempts at feminism we can find.

We've got to aim that bow a little higher.



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