What role does violence play in the Tomb Raider (2013) franchise reboot? How does it shape Lara, and how does it affect the player’s relationship to her? This in-depth look explores tropes of Otherness and Abjection in our favorite gun-toting archeologist’s origin story.
Lara Croft, protagonist of the Tomb Raider franchise, is probably the single most prominent and popular action heroine of the video game world. In 1996, when the 3D third-person shooters began their rise to popularity, Lara’s physical prowess, gun-savviness as well as her relentless desire to recover archeological treasures and solve supernatural mysteries were essential to establish the franchise as a staple in a predominantly male-dominated genre.
For consumers and critics Lara also became a point of contention, especially in the context of the feminist discourse surrounding representational politics, as she was considered to be both an embodiment of sexual objectification catering to the male gaze – a scopophilic object as posited by Laura Mulvay –, and a representation of female empowerment and the diverse potential of femininity.
All in all, Lara Croft managed to be simultaneously in sync with the demands of the game industry and at odds with what the same industry had come to represent: a male dominated creative and commercial space. In her examination for GameStudies.org on the role of Lara Croft in a feminist context, Helen W. Kennedy states that Lara Croft has always been connected to a sense of Otherness:
[…] Lara explosively take[s] up space within a particularly masculinized landscape – the desert, dark urban landscapes, caves and tombs – and in doing so offer[s] a powerful image of the absolute otherness of femininity within this space. The action genre is typically masculine so this type of characterization is often celebrated as at least offering some compensation for the ubiquity of oppressive representations of women and the preponderance of masculine hard bodies. The general absence of such characters is part of the reasons why fans become so invested in these characters and helps to explain why the popular, critical and academic response is often so polarized. […] Lara's presence within, and familiarity with, a particularly masculine space is in and of itself transgressive. By being there she disturbs the natural symbolism of masculine culture.
Under the auspices of lead writer Rhianna Pratchett, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot of the franchise provides us with the origin story explaining how Lara Croft was turned into the tough, gun-wielding explorer gamers have come to know and love over the course of seventeen years. The aim was to transform what has been called a “Teflon Lara” who had lost her humanity over the years and whom nothing could touch, according to Pratchett, into a well-rounded character by casting her in the role of the survivor (Gibson). By endowing the character with a complex background story and psychological depth, the cultural icon was to be humanized.
The focus of gameplay also shifted, as the shooter elements became more heavily weighed than navigating difficult, often booby-trapped environments; gun fights used to be more of an interlude between the puzzle solving and jump-and-run exercises, a fact that’s been criticized by fans of the original franchise.
A short recap of the plot: The narrative devised for the reboot centers on an expedition led by archeologist Dr. Whi