Lara Croft sits on the chair in the shadows, her face obscured by her hoodie. A man is talking but she isn’t listening. Her leg and hands twitch involuntarily as he drones on. He’s her therapist and he’s telling her important things, but like I said, she’s not really listening. She’s somewhere else thanks to PTSD; a darker place, a place with torrential downpour and arrows flying and blood.
Lots of blood.
When I was sixteen, I went to therapy and I twitched and I was somewhere else as well. And then I was diagnosed with PTSD–the flashbacks not of rainy cliffs and murdered men, but flashbacks nonetheless.
That’s precisely why I’m excited for Rise of the Tomb Raider which was announced at E3 today. I mean, in addition to the amazing gameplay, graphics, and unique story it will undoubtedly contain. I’m excited because it’s nice to see the series continuing the path on which it started in making video games’ first dynamic and realistic heroine.
At least, as realistic as a fictional character with infinite lives can be anyway.
Video games have spent a long time being childish and immature. Moreover, they’ve laughed in the face of carnage and lived in a digital world without consequences. Nathan Drake dispatches foes with a quip; Niko Bellic kills a prostitute after he’s finished with her; and in BioShock Infinite, Booker DeWitt destroys lives without even flinching. These fictional characters never have to deal with their emotions and their violence. They feel next to nothing and make those controlling them feel even less.
As such, we’ve spent decades apologizing for these emotionless protagonists–explaining their body counts, defending our hobby. We’ve reasoned with our families and the media to come to an understanding that video games aren’t murder simulators, desperately trying to justify the violence each megabyte contains. We tell ourselves video games are an art form, but we undermine it by calling it a young art. A misunderstood medium coming to age with a lot of growing pains.
With a sigh, we’ll say video games have a lot of growing up to do before they can compete with other mediums like television and literature. But they’ll get there someday. Somehow. Sometime.
Yet when they finally do show small signs of evolving, such as the case with Tomb Raider’s upcoming sequel and its shocking debut trailer, we reject them. When faced with a trailer showing realism—an experience millions of men and women will go through in their lifetime—we flinch. We get defensive. We go on attack mode. We try to stifle their growth.
After watching today’s trailer, someone says it’s sexist because Nathan Drake never needed therapy like Lara Croft did. Someone else says it’s too close to home and it makes them uncomfortable to look into the mirror. Another person explains that women are only strong thanks to trauma in fiction and it’s a stereotype.
As a group of gamers, we immediately look ways to tear down Tomb Raider rather than embrace its progress. We look for ways to preserve our medium’s narrow focus and unrealistic image of emotionless violence while then condemning it in the next breath. As much as we say we want video games to grow up, we also want to be helicopter parents, giving disapproving looks while hemming and hawing over the matter in which they attempt to mature.
What Crystal Dynamics is doing in their announcement trailer is good. It’s real. It’s art. It’s the human condition and Lara is experiencing it firsthand while taking us along for the ride.
I mean, of course, Rise of the Tomb Raider will ultimately be a game. Lara will kill hundreds before her sequel is over and she’ll break lots of her own bones in the process and the violence won’t mean entirely too much. If I control her poorly, she might even die a few dozen times. Its focus is exploring tombs, gathering up an arsenal, and kicking a lot of ass. It just happens to have a secondary focus running in the background. It’s an unnerving focus, showing Lara Croft’s emotional side and backstory as she journeys through her life.
And it’s a start. Including a meaty narrative within the game compliments it and adds depth to the gameplay. The simple act of a protagonist not walking away unscathed is a tangible weight, something rarely seen in video games. It’s been several decades since the first video game and there still isn’t a video game that conveys the transformation Buffy Summers experiences as she becomes an adult and saves the world. There hasn’t been a video game character who goes through the wide range of emotions Walter White succumbs to as he eventually breaks bad, either. No one cried when Steve Burnside died in Resident Evil: Code Veronica like they mourned the death of Ned Stark. Gamers deserve something better in their stories they play. Even if it’s a little too close to home. Even if a woman has to do it first. Even if she had to face some trauma to get there.
When looking at Uncharted’s protagonist, the infallible Mr. Drake and prodigal explorer (sorry Ezreal), there’s not a lot of substance. He kills and he adventures. He doesn’t really break down and he doesn’t really falter. He exists. A blank slate acting as a vehicle for players to act out their big screen fantasies of explosions and exploration. In direct contrast, Lara Croft is a landmine of energy and strength. She cries, she fights, she stands up, and she doesn’t just simply exist. She survives. She overcomes. She thrives in the face of adversity and she stands up to it.
The best part? She takes us along with her on her journey—every step of the way. Through the pain and through the healing, she took us through it all during the first game and undoubtedly will continue to do the same in the second title.
While it’s unfortunate a woman character had to be the first to go through such an evolution, it doesn’t mean such an origin story is any less needed in video games. She doesn’t need to be as stoic as Nathan Drake to be as valid or as strong as him. The old Lara Croft who was little more than her physical appearance and two pistols doesn’t need to make a reappearance either.
Just because she’s the first video game character to show such humanity doesn’t mean she’s a cookie-cutter female character that’s a victim of violence.
In fact, Lara Croft was always strong before the trauma–surviving her parents’ deaths just like Bruce Wayne survived his own. But now she’s even stronger with this reinvention of her past. She keeps taking the punches and she does more than roll with them. She fights back and always overcomes, just not without a few scrapes and bruises. Some emotional, some physical. Ultimately all that does is make her more real and easier to identify with.
Much like the initial outrage a few E3s ago about the trailer showing tons of violence ravaging an innocent Lara Croft which I defended last year, I hope people can eventually see it for what it is. I hope people can see this is what video games need. I hope they can see this is the maturing of video games, one back story at a time.
I hope people can see Lara Croft for who she is: one of the better fictional characters of the past decade. A character as deep as any leading lady or gentleman in any movie. A character worthy of her own novel, comic series, or Broadway musical.
Above all, however, I hope they can see what Lara Croft is besides a video game character.
Never the victim.