During my awkward, identity-seeking high school years, Tomb Raider was quite the role model for me. Through other’s experience and my own I have learned that it is many things that draw us to this American sex icon. For me, it was her bravery, vulnerability, and eagerness to solve a good puzzle. For many others, it was her breasts. Quite the discrepancy, right? It’s one that gives me pause whenever I pick up my PS4 controller to dutifully ensure that Dr. Dominguez doesn’t take over the world. I ask myself, is it justified (healthy, even) as a God-fearing individual who seeks to be led by the Holy Spirit to engage with a product that was first created with the intention to feed lust and an ideology that hypersexualized pixels? A difficult question to answer, but one that nonetheless must be answered.
Tomb Raider is a franchise that now spans four different decades. This American icon shaped much of the video gaming industry and has gone through multiple content shifts in response to American culture. Albeit consistently releasing a form of media or game, the developers’ last release date for a new console game in the franchise was the Sept. 14, 2018. Since then, the development studio that released the last three games, Crystal Dynamics, was sold by Square Enix, Netflix announced the production of an Anime-styled Tomb Raider series, and the sequel to Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft was dropped. Whisperings and promises of a new game are commonplace, but this hope has as of yet to actualize. I have now replayed the entire reboot trilogy two and a half times over and eagerly await a new game.
As I wait for news, I’ve begun to analyze my love for exploring as an archeologist/butt-kicking martial artist within a trilogy that possesses roots in a foundation that objectifies women. Lara Croft helped me to work through my fear of heights, zombies, and (most importantly) the instability of the unknown. On the other hand, she also served to perpetuate lust in many. Can one redeem highly controversial (one might say subversive) background and intentions of the Tomb Raider franchise with the positive messages and truly cathartic emotion that Lara Croft conveys? I feel obligated to say yes for the personal growth and enjoyment I have experienced, but I also refuse to dismiss that which is inherently objectifying in nature. I find myself at a crossroads, seeking the best path, and require further reflection.
My father first introduced me to the Tomb Raider video games in the summer of 2019. It was the summer after my high school graduation and I was preparing to venture into the unknown that was Shanghai, China. I was headed that direction for a gap year and had no idea what the next few months would bring. Knowing my propensity to enjoy a good story and understanding my mounting fear, my father bought me the first game of the reboot trilogy. It was almost like a rite of passage; he had already played the game and wanted to watch me engage culture and a playable female character on a meaningful level. I played for hours that summer, my sister watching, and we together screamed through the trials and tribulations that our brave Lara faced. I had earlier that year finished playing Horizon Zero Dawn and loved being able to play a female character a second time. Lara was vulnerable; she had a sensitivity that Aloy, from Horizon Zero Dawn, did not, and I identified heavily with this. I felt braver through watching Lara face her fears and, a couple years down the road, I endeavored to try new things like rock climbing and Jiu Jitsu in an effort to embody her sense of adventure. Lara Croft became my hero. The reboot trilogy advocated for strong, intelligent women, and I felt empowered through the gameplay. Imagine my discomfort when I was introduced to the beginnings of Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft was first created with inspiration taken from Indiana Jones, Neneh Cherry (a British singer) and Tank Girl (a comic book character). Arguably a pioneer in the videogame industry, Tomb Raider was simultaneously a reprieve from the male character-dominated game world and a sex icon that catered in form and style to men. Lara’s developers were conscious of what they were doing when they placed her deep in the Peruvian jungles in a pair of booty shorts. They also were aware of their growing female fanbase and their need to represent women accurately in order to grow and maintain this audience.
What a conundrum.
Highly sexualized with inadequate weather-wear and inaccurate breast size, Lara Croft was controversial. It took a number of years for her creators to reimagine her character to more accurately represent (and appeal to, for that matter) the female sex. The reboot trilogy portrayed Lara quite differently, highlighting her sensitivity, willingness to learn and solve problems, more accurate body proportions, and reliance upon friends. These are all things that I’ve learned to value, and I applaud this shift in representation. That being said, the new games still retain winks and references to their predecessors. For all of its lovely advances, Shadow of the Tomb Raider (the third and final installment in the reboot trilogy) still acknowledges the original games and offers a playable model of Lara from Tomb Raider 2, unrealistically large breasts and all. The skin’s description reads, “teal tank and brown shorts. More nostalgic than functional.” The game simultaneously caters to two groups. It labels the skin as “nostalgic” instead of what we all know it to be, the sexualized version, while also acknowledging that the skin is impractical and a thing of the past. Granted, this is a delicate line to walk. What I find to be more important, however, is whether or not I violate my conscience and grieve the Holy Spirit through consuming something I’ve come to love.
At the beginning of this article, I asked if playing Tomb Raider was justified considering the controversy surrounding the objectification of our dear Lara. My conscience has aided me in answering this and I believe that Tomb Raider (at least, the reboot trilogy) is indeed redeemable. In spite of all Lara’s developers’ attempts to hold on to what they and other fans believe is necessary nostalgia, and all the things that I disagree with, I am indebted to those same developers for their desire to create a good story that challenges its players to be better. I can honestly argue that I have grown because of what Tomb Raider has represented. Lara encouraged the sense of adventure that I hoped to develop as I transitioned to China, and she continues to inform many of my decisions regarding the unknown. I hope that her new adventures, whenever they are released, weave those same threads into the fabric of her story. With this in mind, here’s to the banishment of sexualized polygons, the hope that they won’t return, and the ever-present desire to go raid some tombs.