Tombs; Raiding

 Alternate title: Ass Quest.

The Tomb Raider series will always conjure a set of very specific, somewhat awkward memories among young men who reached sexual maturity in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The 17-year-old gaming franchise is defined by two hard and fast rules:

1)   The protagonist, lady archeologist/gunslinger Lara Croft, has enormous tits, and
2)   The games are almost always terrible.

Take it from someone who played a few Tomb Raider games in middle school: The main draw was never really the gameplay. The first couple of games got good reviews, but over the course of the next decade or so the developers spent most of their energy making the franchise a state-of-the-art cleavage simulator set against a backdrop of tombs to be raided. No matter how buggy or repetitive the games got, though, they were almost always big sellers.

In fact, the franchise was so popular that the Guinness Book of World Records named Lara Croft the ‘Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine.’ That’s kind of impressive until you realize that Tomb Raider is basically the only successful gaming franchise to have a female protagonist.

As of 2012, 48% of video game purchasers were female, yet the vast majority of major video game protagonists remain male (and white!), reflective of the fact that video games are, at their simplest, computer programs based on Dungeons and Dragons, and you don’t find a lot of women in that line of work.

Lara Croft has been something of a hero to a lot of female gamers, like a buxom, gun-toting Susan B. Anthony with an affinity for ancient treasure. In a market choked with games about angry, ‘roided out dudes massacring thousands of people (Gears of War, God of War, Modern Warfare…) Lara Croft was a beacon of hope that one day society would recognize that women could carelessly massacre thousands of people just as well as men.

The main reason Lara Croft became a hero to female gamers, though, was because there was no competition to speak of. Taken on her own, Lara isn’t a terribly interesting character – her most defining characteristic is the fact that she was the first video game protagonist that it was possible for men to masturbate to.

Thanks to the third person perspective, Lara’s ass is front and center of the frame for virtually the entirety of every game. Lara lets out a tortured, sexualized grunt every time she clambers up a rock and moans almost orgasmically whenever she drowns, falls to her death, gets impaled on spikes, is riddled with bullets, or is mauled by angry monkeys.

Even though her line of work often sees her fighting heavily armed mercenaries and mystical creatures she still goes into every adventure wearing tight short shorts and an equally tight T shirt. In later games, more powerful processors allowed Lara’s tight shirts to have plunging necklines and realistically modeled cleavage, which often received more attention from both the developers and the media than the lackluster gameplay. One of Croft’s co-creators was drummed out of the company early in the franchise’s history because he refused to add a code that would allow you to remove Lara’s clothes.

I’m kind of on both sides of this issue, because I hate the idea of women being reduced to mindless sex objects almost as much as I love boobs. I eventually quit playing Tomb Raider games because they sucked and because the Internet offered me many cheaper options to see a wider variety of boobs that were actually real.

Earlier this month, though, a new game developer shocked the gaming world by releasing a gritty, realistic reboot of the Tomb Raider series that against all odds is extremely good. Lara has been noticeably de-sexualized – her breast size in the latest game is at an all-time low – and recast as a recent college graduate shipwrecked on a cursed island, forced to find inner strength to survive the elements and defeat an army of crazed cultists who want her dead.

I bought the new Tomb Raider (appropriately titled Tomb Raider, not to be confused with the original Tomb Raider or the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider, based on the game Tomb Raider) right after its release, and I’ve really been enjoying it. As someone who’s concerned with how women are portrayed in the media I love the fact that Lara’s struggle to survive is matched by her struggle to gain confidence in her abilities and discover who she truly is, and as a disgusting pervert I love the fact that even though they’ve reduced her breast size she’s still clearly a D-cup with a thin, waiflike frame, which is just delightful.

What makes me a little uncomfortable is that despite all the progress on Lara’s character, the game seems to take an almost fetishy pleasure in causing her harm. Cutscenes throughout the game show Lara having the absolute worst luck – she breaks through rickety floors and crashes unceremoniously onto the hard rock below, painstakingly removes a sharpened stick that’s pierced her side, gets beaten in the face by a gang of men, and is nearly raped, all in the first hour or so of the game.

A number of critics have called this out as a case of Same Misogyny, Different Game – Lara’s constant peril and pain is eroticized so a male fanbase can get off on damsel in distress fantasies. In a pre-release interview, a member of the development team stirred controversy by opining that players “will want to protect Lara,” because, y’know, women have to be protected by men.
Viewed as a whole, I think the Tomb Raider franchise says a lot more about men than it does about women. It’s the story of a tough, strong woman as told by a bunch of bookish, nerdy men who – while I hate to generalize – probably haven’t had an abundance of experience with women in their lives. This is what men in the late 1990s thought female empowerment was: Short shorts, huge tits, a shower scene at the end of Tomb Raider II

I think that the latest Tomb Raider game is a really big step for men’s perception of women. Yes, men did sort of fetishize a young woman getting injured, but we got the body proportions right and nailed the ‘compelling character’ thing!

So be patient, ladies. Give it a couple more years and I’m sure we’ll have all the kinks worked out of your role model.

Truman Capps thinks that ‘Tomb Raider’ is a really, really terrible name for a major gaming franchise.