‘Hey Lara! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!’: Scraping Lara off the ‘boot’ of her gaming Reboot.

IMAGE: EIDOS

In 2013 Lara Croft will be reborn anew, emerging from the chrysalis of the old to attempt to reclaim her place in the pantheon of gaming heroes – but you’d be forgiven for thinking that at this point that the birth pangs have been a little excessive.  Admirably, developers Crystal Dynamics have recently announced that they are going to delay the release of their new iteration of the classic game until next year, taking extra time to polish their work rather than rushing out an unfinished product for the holiday purchase period; but it is not only the development process that is proving painfully excessive in this rebirth.  Lara herself has been taking a physical pounding in the pre-release advertising, culminating in a controversial trailer for E3 in which it appeared the she was also under threat of sexual violence.

The Lara Croft of old was an impossibly fantastical creature.  Statuesque, resourceful, quippy, with a handful of PhDs in pseudo-psycho sci-history and fabulous wealth and beauty.  She was proportioned like a Greek goddess and capable of 5-foot standing flips while shooting dual pistols.  Part Angelina Jolie, part John Woo, part Indiana Jones; it was as though she had been concocted in some Weird Science-style lab, drawn from the design specs of …well, of me when I was a 12 year old boy.

And because of this she felt curiously alien, almost inhuman.  She felt no pain, did not get dirty, never ran out of bullets, could take down a freaking T-Rex without breaking a sweat (yet somehow had an extraordinarily underdeveloped special awareness that would send her plummeting to her death off a rocky edifice every thirty seconds).  Even in the realm of videogames she seemed to sit firmly outside the bounds of reality, in a fantastical narrative nether-space reserved for the likes of James Bond, Superman and Dorian Gray – attractive, impervious and eternally young.

In the previews and trailers for her upcoming return to popular culture, however, Lara, and we the audience, are being reintroduced to the frailties of humanity.  Bruised, beaten, starving, chilled and lost; this is not the traditional superhuman Lara Croft with whom we were first acquainted.  Indeed, developers Crystal Dynamics seem a little obsessed with showing us that this Lara bleeds.  And vomits.  And cries.  She’s also breakable.  And flammable.  And impale-able.  And makes for some tasty meat for the crazed, psychotic cannibals stalking her in the wilderness.  …Oh yes, she’s stalkable too.  And can be shot.  And it has been confirmed – as the E3 trailer controversially implied – that she can even be subjected to an attempted rape (a danger that the studio head Darrell Gallagher has thankfully made clear will go no further than the depicted threat).*

Indeed, the footage was starting to get to be a little gratuitous for me, reminiscent of those scenes in the Superman films where Lex Luthor would inevitably throw some kryptonite into the mix and start beating the snot out of the Ubermensch:

‘You’re not so powerful now, are you Ms Croft?’

(* boot *)

‘You thought you were immortal?’

(* knifey-stabs *)

‘Where’s your grapple-thingy now?!’

(* backs over her with a car *)

(* flicks cigarette in her face *)

(* writes unkind things on her facebook wall *)

There’s an almost borderline fetishistic quality to the pre-release material.  So much so, in fact, that you start to wonder whether this is some kind of triple-A title snuff film.  I kept expecting the sound of slow banjo music to come drifting through the trees…

Thankfully, after several minutes of torture porn and petrified fleeing Lara grabs a bow and arrow and the dynamics finally begin to change.  And hopefully this will be indicative of where the majority of the game is headed: toward an affirmation of power.  Not because of some ridiculous notion that she must be broken down in order to earn her agency in this tale; and certainly not because of some ludicrous notion (as has been suggested by producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku**) that by showing Lara in such physical and emotional peril we as players will feel the need to ‘protect’ her; but because she, like any other protagonist – female, male, alien, cartoonishly exaggerated plumber – has the right and capacity to be the champion of their own tale.

We should not be being manipulated into wanting to tuck Lara into our pocket and warm her fluttering heart like a bird with a broken wing.  Crystal Dynamics may want us to empathise with their re-imagined titular character – to remind us that unlike the creature of old she has frailties that make her human – but this should not necessitate gratuitously stripping her of the agency and drive that define her as a hero.

Hopefully this is merely a miscommunication in the publicity cycle that will be clarified with the release of the game.  Certainly as the current commercial goes on Lara ends no longer the trembling figure that she begins.  Sleazebag McRapeington gets both deservedly kicked in the crotch and shot, and then Lara makes a break for it.  In the flurry of scattershot imagery we see the Tomb Raider in action, even carrying her signature pistols – no longer shivering and weak, no longer cowed, but tempered, newly resilient; hopefully ready to tear that island, its assortment of mercenaries, murderers, wolves, any (as-yet-unconfirmed) lingering dinosaurs, and anyone else who might make the mistake of trying to dominate her, apart.

Just as she always should.

* http://www.tombraider.com/gb/base/brandsite?refer=19&

** http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft

(Originally published at WhatCulture.com)

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