A russian henchman pins Lara Croft against the plyboard of a shantytown hut, pawing his hands down the curves of her breasts. The man murmurs something in Lara’s ear as his hand twitches over her hips, and Lara cringes. But before he moves any further, she knees him in the groin, bites off his ear, wrestles him to the floor and, eventually, shoots him between the eyes. Lara wails and chokes, staring at the gun in her hand. It has stopped raining in the base camp where she sits, and the blood on her body is rendered thickly.
This sequence—Lara’s first kill in her career—was the centerpiece of the newest Tomb Raider gameplay demo at its E3 2012 debut. That day, executive producer Ron Rosenberg explained in an interview with Kotaku that the new game was constructed as an “origin story,” a prequel to the Tomb Raider games released in the ’90s. The game, he explained, sought to “humanize” protagonist Lara Croft. Lara is “definitely the hero, but—you’re kind of like her helper… When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way you might not root for a male character,” Rosenberg said. “Towards the end, we really start to hit her, and to break her down… she’s taken hostage, she’s almost raped… She is literally turned into an animal.”
Rosenberg’s statement and the demo frustrated the hell out of me as a long-time player of the franchise, and unsurprisingly precipitated a furor among parts of the gaming community. How could a franchise so vested in its female protagonist stoop to sexual assault as a marketing ploy, a contingent of gamers wondered, and I agreed. But the question that the sexual assault poses isn’t a new one. Debates over the representation of Lara, her body, and her femininity papered gaming magazines as early as the franchise’s release in 1996. Lara was either too sexy to be a feminist icon, or too intellectual to be smutty—as if the two concepts are mutually exclusive. What the sexual assault in the new Tomb Raider recalls from previous debates—and what the rest of the game reiterates—is this: What is it that makes the Croftian hyperbody, “boundless, multiple, prosthetic” as Mary Flanagan defines it, so endlessly fascinating for gamers?
Tomb raider debuted in 1996 to immense critical and commercial success and, for one reason or another, tanked in 2003 with the release of its fifth game. Development and production were kicked around to a few different companies, and Tomb Raider games cropped up on the market erratically and to poor reception over the next seven years. In response to the franchise’s abysmal sales rates, the developers of Tomb Raider released a “reboot” of the franchise on March 5, 2013. The reason for the franchise’s sharp decline, publisher SquareEnix argued, was Lara’s “Teflon coating.” She was a tight-lipped, big-breasted ex-aristocrat who took no shit: she was as stone cold dodging the leering limbs of mutant human experiments as she was when she read her dead father’s journals. She was eminently unrelatable. If the reboot “humanized” Lara with a kind of Bildungsroman, their logic went, then the market sales would follow.
It would be generous to say that the developers’ intent to “humanize” Lara’s body proved a red herring. By the logic of the game, “human” (read: relatable) bodies are traumatized bodies, bodies in pain. As I navigated Lara through a (paltry) 14 hours of gameplay, her body—the clean, polygonal surface of her toned thighs and trapezoidal breasts—was beaten and bludgeoned and burned.
The game opens with a pan shot of a shipwreck on an island in the Sea of Japan. Lara, separated from her crew, is clocked over the head and kidnapped by an island-goer. She wakes up swathed in a cocoon of fabric and strung up by her feet to the ceiling of a cave, presumably left for dead. She panics—Help! Help! I’ve got to get down! and I pick up my controller. A torch is (serendipitously) scorching by her side, so I swing Lara into its flicker. This is going to hurt! she gasps as I swing her back and forth across the cave’s length, the cocoon hovering in a slow burn. The fabric snaps, and Lara hurtles down the length of the cave and pierces her stomach on a rusted nail. Her moans pitch into shrieks the longer I tap the triangle button to guide the extraction of the nail. She wrenches the nail from her abdomen, and the camera fizzles into a grayscale double-vision (to really hammer home her blood loss, I suppose) as she hobbles through the rest of the cave. For the next ten minutes of gameplay, Lara slips the hands of crazed indigenous men, detonates an old carton of gasoline, and dodges falling boulders as she snakes her way out of the crypt, whimpering the whole way through.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with Lara’s reaction to her kidnapping. I can guarantee that should I (by some awful and invidious strain of happenstance) find myself in the same situation, I would scream myself into a dark corner until exposure got the better of me. Lara is realistic in the sense that most people in her position would freak out like she does, but herein lies the problem. I cannot think of any of Lara’s male counterparts in other gaming franchises that narratively “require” an origin story, much less one that requires their relentless subjection to obscene amounts of bodily torture for the sake of relativizing their experience. The operative assumption for developers, then, is this: gamers cannot “identify” with, or otherwise assume the position of Lara Croft like they could Solid Snake or Max Payne, and so must instead be situated as Lara’s “protectors.” The assumption is shored up by another, which is that the gaming demographic consists almost exclusively (and developers cater to the interests) of men.
Frustrated that the game foists the mission to “protect” a woman who had, until this installment, never needed protecting and who, by virtue of the closed system of video game narratives, I knew was going to be subjected to a stupid amount of violence no matter how many henchmen or rabid wolves she shot, my enthusiasm waned. The image of the resilient Lara I had grown up with was ruined, and for what? The gratuitous affirmation of presumptive male gamers’ baser instincts. The “realism” of Lara’s pain, here, belies a much more disconcerting reality: that media producers writ large shill their product on the back of the derogated female body.
I can imagine the retorts. “But, as a female gamer, don’t you identify with Lara’s struggle? Isn’t her pain somehow emblematic of the pain all women experience at some point or another?” To which I say definitely not because a) that’s a false consciousness and b) identification is not an identitarian process. By which I mean, playing a female protagonist as a female gamer does not eventuate some kind of voodoo moment in which I somehow understand Lara’s experience as an extension or iteration of my own. This isn’t to say, however, that I don’t “identify” with Lara the character, and that, in contradistinction to developers’ assumptions, other gamers don’t either. As a gamer, I am responsible for her every move on screen, and so Lara’s interests are necessarily aligned with—identified with—mine: if Lara dies, the game ends and I have to either restart at a checkpoint or go write my thesis. This dynamic has proven much more tendentious for male gamers, who are often vocal about resenting their “forced identification” with a female protagonist (i.e., “tomb raider sucks i hate to play a female char”). Male gamers are adamant about this point: they don’t play “as a woman” when they play Tomb Raider; they play as men controlling a woman. The distinction, for them, is important, and it’s telling that developers across the board (with good reason, to an extent) are open about assuming a largely male player-ship. The reboot of Tomb Raider in particular, I find, anticipated the male knee jerk reaction to this “forced identification.” Tomb Raider, until this installment, was famed for its sexualization of Lara (inviting the deluge of nude codes, Tomb Raider porn, the ads featuring Lara in a bikini advertising sports drinks), but clearly the tact of overtly sexualizing Lara had maxed out its market capital. The games stopped selling, and Lara’s objectification and sexualization became the problem for developers to solve, the mystery to unravel.
If you can’t fuck the woman who invites your desire, the logic of the Tomb Raider franchise goes, you might as well save her, and nothing antes up the paternalistic drive like watching her suffer. Throughout the game, Lara’s body is immersed in violence: she whimpers as she quietly swims through a river of blood, knocking aside errant limbs; she cries as she’s strung up (again!) by her feet next to 30-some naked, rotting corpses. The more I played through the game and the more I listened to Lara scream and whimper, the more I wanted to toss my controller on the couch and stop playing. It became clear to me that the impulses that developers mechanize in order to sell games—the impulses to both fuck and save Lara Croft—are twin responses to a female hyperbody, a body that, in its virtuality, is a fantastical body; the prime site of male gamers’ anxieties and misgivings about the female form.
If presumptive male gamers are reluctantly situated in some form of identification with Lara because the very mechanics of gaming demand such an identification, then those gamers must be afforded some form of control over this feminine hyperbody (that, or the game simply won’t sell.) The game proves that the formal and narrative devices affording gamers this control—“humanization,” which is really traumatization, and sexualization—are cleaved along the lines of sexual difference. They depend on the assumption of masculine gamer for their efficacy. I was done “protecting” Lara and I never wanted to bed her in the first place, so by hour 13, I found the game buckling under its clichés. That said, these narrative devices and their sexual determination don’t prescribe all male players’ experience of the game (or female players’ experience, for that matter). There is room for alternative, non-narrative modes of game playing (no one says that you can’t ditch the idea of raiding tombs and spend hours shooting the crabs on the beach); but that’s beside the point. The point is that the game and the game’s narrative presumes a non-reflexive, masculine gamer. Until this presumption is both recognized and interrogated, debates about the representation of femininity are damned to dance around each other and across the mainstay of identification.
In its alleged project to unravel the tightly woven fantasy of Lara Croft’s body, the rebooted Tomb Raider becomes the very send-up of its own methods. It tells us that there is, of course, nothing “real” behind that killer pixelled bod, that what motivates gamer interest in Lara are gamers’ own anxieties and projections triggered by half-baked narrative pot shots like sexual assault. Tomb Raider, then, sells gamers on reality by underhandedly doubling up on fantasy. After all, virtual reality is just that: virtual. Even the most graphically nuanced and realistic games never prescribe straight shots of realism for gamers—everything virtual is always chased with the ever-ready shot of phantasm.
In the case of the Tomb Raider franchise, male gamers can always return to Lara’s body, the theatre for their simultaneous paternalistic and carnivorous affirmation. But as a woman playing the game, I did not want to be reminded that this Lara was the inchoate incarnation of the Lara I grew up with, because to be inchoate, in this game, is to be victimized. Which means here: crudely feminized.
My frustration with the game, though, is an outlier on the operative bell curve. Female bodies that don’t suggest their own destruction or penetration don’t sell. By so laxly deploying identification as the viniculum through which trauma is trafficked in as humanization, the developers of Tomb Raider have turned Lara’s body not into a site of a nascent, resilient femininity, but of garish violence. It is no secret that the video game industry has long capitalized on stereotypes about women and their bodies. But by cracking open Lara’s body in the name of revealing her emotional interior, the developers have only re-fetishized that body, snapping into clarity the trenchant impulses to police and fuck a heroine who, by some other set of rules, in another world, could have been unstoppable.
EMMA JANASKIE B’13 is a “woman.”