Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: The Anxiety Of Lara Croft

Adi Tantimedh writes;

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Or should it be “The Anxiety of Her Games Developers”?

What a strange vibe I’m picking up from the new TOMB RAIDER game. I’ve been reading the reviews and watching videos and playthroughs before I start playing the copy I ordered, and while the gameplay is the usual exploration, platforming, jumping and shooting mechanics, but it’s the context of the story that makes for odd and perhaps uncomfortable reading.

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The Lara Croft of the old games had no anxiety at all. In fact, she was so posh and unflappable that she was afraid of nothing. She had no fears, no doubts, no remorse, no hesitation in doing anything. Even in the two movies with Angelina Jolie, you never got the sense that she was ever in any danger. This was great for introducing an empowering fantasy to girls, though she might come off as utterly unsympathetic in her gleeful desecration and trashing of just about every vase, chest and tomb she came across. On the other hand, when you’re a kid, of course you want to smash everything. It’s fun.

The new Lara Croft, on the other hand, is beset with fears and anxiety. If you want to be meta, you could say the old games are fantasies, games that the current Lara Croft reluctantly agreed to lease her name to in order to earn some money to pay off debts, lawyer’s fees and medical bills incurred from her ordeal on the island in the new game.

Screenshot from Tomb Raider (2013)

I sense layers upon layers of anxiety invested in the figure of the rebooted Lara Croft. There’s the anxiety of failure, the fear that the game might not be successful. There’s the anxiety of acceptance, that the rest of the gaming world has moved on and will no longer accept Lara Croft or any female hero as the protagonist of a videogame. There’s the anxiety of proving she can still hack it as an action game hero. There’s the anxiety that players and fans might not find her likable or sympathetic enough, hence the bizarre, excessive need to beat the crap out of her to evoke sympathy in a BATMAN BEGINS-style gritty reboot. There’s an anxiety of realism and believability, the urge to convince players that this is like a movie they’re playing, not the pixilated cartoons of the old games. There’s the anxiety of keeping current, of not falling behind the times. So poor Lara Croft has to bear the weight of all that pressure in what you could squint and call the most harrowing episode of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS ever!

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It takes Lara Croft over an hour of the game, where she’s bloodily impaled, repeatedly assaulted, brutalised and defenestrated before she becomes a relentless killing machine. No male hero in a movie or video game gets put through the wringer as much as she does in this game. Even the protagonist of FAR CRY 3 doesn’t get tortured as much as Lara Croft does, and he’s an utterly loathesome privileged douchebag who deserves it far more than she does. Instead, he goes from, as a friend of mine put it, “pussy to badass in four minutes” without ever looking back. I wish I was smart enough to figure out why women’s bodies have become the symbolic receptacle/punching bag/pincushion for violence and brutality in pop culture. Maybe it’s just a reflection of social realities given how much shit women are subjected to in real life.

Even the death scenes have been overhauled. In the old games, when you failed and she died, Lara Croft would just lie down like she decided to take a nap right there, even in molten lava, with a disappointed sigh that sounds like she just remembered she left the lights on when she left the house. Now the death animations have the feel of full-on 80s Italian horror movie deaths in all their gruesomeness. They’re truly horrible to watch. We’re talking almost Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci levels of nastiness here.

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This puts me in mind of horror movies, and back to Carol Klover’s seminal study MEN, WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS. Suddenly, it dawns on me: the new Lara Croft is The Last Girl. The whole game is what’s usually the final act of a slasher movie where the Last Girl turns from victim to avenger, and here Lara Croft has a whole island full of murderous bogeymen to kill before they kill her and her friends. It makes the most sense to look at the story as a horror story, a descent into darkness, a symbolic death and rebirth as a rite of passage. The amount of torture that Lara Croft goes through in this game, to the point where she emerges from a pool of blood like a goddess of death is not an accidental piece of symbolism.

If there’s any reason not to dismiss the new game as a piece of torture porn, it’s down to its writer RHIANNA PRATCHETT. Apart from being female and therefore able to steer the game’s story away from any creepy moments of misogyny and sexism, Pratchett is a smart, savvy writer who’s fully aware of the themes, subtexts and potential booby traps a story like this contains to, if not avoid them, at least try to mitigate them a bit. What I’ve seen of the game has done its best to avoid sexism but it’s almost impossible to prevent the Male Gaze from intruding, especially when players spend the whole game close up behind and with a full view of her bum whole she moans and groans more than most pr0n videos do. For every Lara Croft fan who celebrates her strength and heroism, there are a lot of creepy dudes who fantasise about seeing her suffering and “getting her comeuppance”. She has been a symbol for both female empowerment and male resentment for as long as her games have been around.

These are the contradictions that the game has to bear. Maybe it’s the contradiction of pop culture entertainment. There are so many dissonant factors smashing up against each other in the game that demand our suspension of disbelief. Lara Croft suffers enough injuries in the first 20 minutes of the story alone to put a real life person out of action for weeks with PTSD. She should not be able to run or jump after getting a spike through her side, even if it missed an artery or major organ. A twisted ankle would not have let her run or jump minutes later. In real life, there is no such thing as “only a flesh wound”. By the end of the game, her body is probably going to be an intimidating map of permanent scars. This is the movie and game version of injury and recovery. If you turn off any notions of realism and treat this game symbolically, then you’re on more interesting and open ground.

The game has been in development for years, but its finally coming out now at a time when gender, sexism and misogyny are a big deal in both videogaming and society at large might make it a timely release. TOMB RAIDER 2013 could be a pop culture flashpoint in that respect. It’s not hard to imagine all the horrible homicidal maniacs she strangles, shoots, garrotes, stabs and blows up as representations of every sexist scumbag internet troll you’ve ever read. It might actually make the game more fun.

And catharsis is always a good thing.

Pushing Lara to kill at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh