part i | in TOMB RAIDER, you are playing as a woman
What was the last good game I played where my character was a female? Emphasis on character. Emphasis also on female. I've played plenty of games where my avatar has been a chick. They were hardly characters or women though. Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect, my "FemShep," Lu Shepherd (named after my bro's adorkable black lab rescue), was indeed a woman -- but she was also androgynous. She was a soldier and a human before she was a woman. The Mass Effect galaxy reacts to Shepherd's good/evil tendencies more than his/her gender, which I suppose is optimistic for the future of humanity. In the future, we won't be as hung up about that. I previously mentioned how Saints Row: The Third was the biggest feminist statement in gaming in years for how your female avatar earned respect for her actions, not because she was a dude or a lady.
What else? Games where you play as a woman? I suppose I should bring up my Final Fantasy XIII-2 review for a moment. You play as a girl in that game. She's awful. Her name is Serah, which is misspelled a bunch of ways. Sarah means princess in Hebrew. Serah is a role model for girls that would rather wait in the car and check Facebook than haggle with roadside ice cream vendor. Don't play Final Fantasy XIII-2. Moment over.
In a lot of ways, Portal 2 is a great game about a rivalry between two women. One of those women doesn't even speak, and the other is a dead woman resurrected in a robot's body (spoilers).
And Portal 2 stands out because those are women and they are characters.
In Tomb Raider, the character you control is a young woman named Lara Croft. She is a modern girl that happens to have her story told in a videogame. It's a good story. It's a fun game. She actually has a character arc, starting as one thing, and becoming something much fiercer and more capable as a result of the things that happen in the videogame. She begins the game as a rather incapable videogame character. She can run and jump and climb, but she can't even kill nearby enemies with an ice ax to the brainstem. She has to earn that ability through experience and desperation after being alone in the wilderness for a span. Shit, forget nearby enemies, she can't even shoot far-away enemies with a gun at first without having a cutscene devoted to her crying. Then time passes. We realize that her time alone and her need to become a learned survivor has bred these capabilities into her. We watch her grow into the role. We help her do it. We players are kinda enablers. We're also going to do what needs to be done in order to not die on this haunted fucking island.
Lara is a female character that you play as in a videogame, and she is the best character I have ever played as in a videogame. Her development as a character is intrinsically connected to your relationship with the world. Tomb Raider might not be The Best Goddamn Videogame Ever Made, but Lara is the character we deserve, and the woman we probably haven't earned yet.
part ii | in TOMB RAIDER, you are playing a videogame
Let's start at the beginning. A short, beautiful CGI-movie shows Lara in a shipwreck. We see her on a beach for a moment before being knocked unconscious. Next thing we know, we're in a cave. You might not even realize it, but you're in control of Lara. This is the way to begin a game. You're hanging upside-down in a ropey cocoon. There is no HUD. There is no further explanation. You don't know why you were on the boat that wrecked, only that you set out for adventure. This is your videogame adventure. Nobody told me this was what it would be like!
On instinct, I jiggle the control stick. Lara, inverted, hanging and cocooned, begins to sway with realistic physics. I knock one of the other, similar cocoons into a nearby funeral pyre. The cocoon burns, then falls into water, not far below.
I am going to light myself on fire.
Success. Fifty-five human seconds later, Lara and I are wondering just what has happened to this voodoo-crucified skeleton. We have one corridor we can go down. We go down it. It's a dead end.
A gray semi-opaque text comes up over the screen. "This can be lit on fire!"
And we're done. When I saw this at first, I cursed the unassailable sky garden that I use for playing videogames and doing push-ups. With that warning about what I can burn, (having just burned myself free from these voodoo freaks' cocoon trap without help from the study hall monitor) it's clear that I am still playing a videogame. Well, yes, and that's a good thing. We can get the posturing out of the way early on. This is a videogame and Lara is your character. I light the blockade on fire and progress.
Escaping the cave, I cross a log to bridge a river. At this point, I notice how great the rumble is in the game. It's a cold, metal object passing by your genitals. It scares the shit out of me.
The climbing tutorial begins next, and rock climbing proves to be as thrilling as doing an IHOP kidz menu maze with a pencil your mom fished out of her purse. At least at first. Later on, you get an ice ax that you have to press a button to make your initial attachment to the wall, or if you dyno from one rock face to another. Dyno is a rock climbing term that's short for "dynamic." There isn't much climbing in Tomb Raider that's dynamic, but I guess it's fun to huck this 90 pound character across gaps and watch her gasp in anticipation before latching onto the rock at the last second. The ice-ax-into-rock noise is like two greyhounds fighting over a piece of loose slate. It's authentic and it makes me cringe.
part iii | in TOMB RAIDER, you are playing a story
Eventually, I find a fire and talk on the radio to some other survivors. They can't come and get me, no matter how much Lara begs. She needs to eat and to hunt. It turns out that exploring the island is interesting. Lara's movement bursts with energy and it gives me hope -- she'll survive this. Killing a deer isn't that interesting. What is interesting is that as important as staying alive is, I don't have a life meter. My only procured, quantifiable resource is this XP that I earn for progressing. To play up my ludonarrative dissonance, I don't know what XP does. I mean, what's this XP shit do? I can't use it keep myself from dying. Can I eat it? Can I use it as soap?
No, it's a videogame! XP is for leveling up skills. It's a numerical allegory for Lara's cumulative experience on the island. This is part of the story's presentation.
I hate it at first. It's inorganic, let me decide how powerful Lara is, based on the brutal events we've gone through. Then, I hate it less. It's no different from turning from chapter 4 to chapter 5 in a book, signifying progression at the novel's pace. The numbers in Tomb Raider are progressional beauty. They co-exist with the story's more intangible factors as naturally as humans and math can.
Therefore, for once, bravo on the game design! Bravo, Crystal Dynamics! You may remember Crystal Dynamics as the people that made Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Amy Hennig's Gothic vampire saga on PS1 before she moved over to Naughty Dog's Uncharted franchise, which critics have hailed as "10/10!" and I have hailed, just now, in writing as, "praise-worthy, but comparatively not as good, having played Tomb Raider and Max Payne 3 recently." The worm has turned. Soul Reaver handled the main character, Raziel, with elegance and respect. He was this betrayed half-vampire, demon-imp with a Shakesearean lilt in his voice, growing back into his formerly-familiar world 500 years later (because vampires). He changed and progressed as a character during the game, and this was reflected in the powers he earned, consuming the souls of his brothers, who were actually characters, and I won't go any further into the mythology because it gets into some gnarly time-travel and pan-dimensional rigamarole. The point is, the changes for Raziel were gradual and significant for how you dwelt within the world character, and how the character dwelt within the world. Lara is treated with the same elegance and respect.
For example, that number ticking upwards in Borderlands doesn't mean much because your character isn't driven by a need to survive. You don't see Axton, The Commando in Borderlands 2, literally neck-deep in a pool of blood, gradually morphing from a pristine British grad student into primordial adventurer / young Indiana Jones, as envisioned by Michael Mann. Lara moves like a half-vampire demon-imp -- like a survivor. She scuttles through battle, lunging for cover when you tap the "O" button or somersaulting away, a little clumsy, if there's a motherfucking island-freak with a shield about to brain her like he's in a Roman Legionnaire and she's anybody else in Europe between the reigns of Julius and Trajan.
What Lara does well is vulnerability. I still wish she had a health meter. She is always tasked with what MUST be done, otherwise, she cannot proceed, and like any good character, she evaluates the task and just sorta concludes, "Well, alright, time to do this. Or I'll die." This is the only time there is narrative dissonance. Dying is just a lousy minor setback for the player. For Lara, it's on the tip of her tongue at all times. She's afraid of it. I believe her. I hear it in her voice. I want to do what I can to get her out of danger. I wish I was afraid of the danger too. But I'm still controlling a character in the videogame, and in the same way that I'm not afraid of dying while reading an adventure novel, I can affect the character's terror. That's proof of concept.
For once, the game character's loss, Lara's loss does not HAVE to be mine. That's something videogames usually struggle to achieve, in a positive sense.
part iv | in TOMB RAIDER, you are playing along
There is occasional feature-creep. After hunting, there's a spot of momentary narration in Lara's head, she remembers her mentor saying, "You won't always have a fancy gadget to find your way home." I immediately worry, wishing his advice had been more specific. Then Lara says out-loud that she needs to find her way back to her camp. Then an objective repeats what Lara just said, "Get back to camp." Okay, that's two warnings so far about starvation that I know is imaginary. I recall that I should retrace my steps and go back up river from the direction I came. I do so. A glowing icon in the lower right tells me that I still have the Survival Instinct! I press L2. A marker appears in my HUD, telling me where I should go.
This is almost as offensive as the penguin in Super Mario Galaxy that swam up to me after I swam up to him, telling me that I could "Use The A Button To Swim!"
Then again, Tomb Raider manages to redeem itself. This happens very early on, and was the only instance of it being such overkill. I just stopped using the Survival Instinct button and used my human brain instead. It's a reprieve. I recommend it.
I really wanted to dislike Tomb Raider. Yes, yes, yes! It proved me wrong! Do you know how infrequently that happens?! I wanted to punch holes in it all day and night. I couldn't though. You can't help but play along with it. Lara morphs as you play, deteriorating and also sewing herself back together all at once. Beginning as a whimpering person into a fucking videogame heroine, because of the big videogame adventure you went on, she rescues her friends and shoots the bad guys.
Lara is the female character that I wish more male characters were. Human. Changing. Growing into the world. Evolving because of the world. Overcoming preconceptions of capability. Surviving and helping her friends survive, because that is the best thing a person can do, proving the unerring truth, that no matter what, if you and your friends want to survive, you're going to have play this videogame!
-- @Alex Crumb (originally published 5/15/13)