Tomb Raider reboot gets real

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Susan Arendt has been with Lara Croft since the beginning.

“I have a deep affection for the character,” Arendt told the Georgia Straight by phone from her office in Durham, North Carolina. “I love her character, I love her independence, I love her self-reliance. I love that you get the feeling that Lara would do what Lara does whether anybody was looking or not.”

But the editor in chief of The Escapist, an online video-game magazine, said that the reboot of the character in the forthcoming Tomb Raider game, to be released by Square Enix on March 5, was desperately needed. “She was a victim of her own success in many ways,” Arendt noted.

Arendt explained that the protagonist of the Tomb Raider franchise, which began with a 1996 video game, is an interesting character regardless of gender. “Here was this digital person that they almost accidentally made sexy,” she said. The fact that technology was able to render polygons in such a way as to make the character look real was “extremely exciting”.

Turning Croft into a sex symbol helped launch the franchise, which now encompasses books, movies, and more. But, as Arendt noted, “Once you become a sex symbol, that’s a very difficult bell to un-ring.”

Certainly, the new Lara Croft looks more like a real woman. Despite the “ample cleavage” that is part of her new character design, Sophie Prell thinks that it’s the most realistic representation of the female form she’s ever seen in a prominent video game. Prell, who writes for the Penny Arcade Report, is one of a handful of journalists provided with an opportunity to play the first few hours of the game during a press trip in December. It gave her a chance to get important context for an early section of the game in which Croft is assaulted.

Crystal Dynamics, the studio developing Tomb Raider, opted to use the new game to tell Croft’s origin story. It begins with the protagonist, who is young and inexperienced compared to other versions of the character, being stranded on an island populated by what are described as “scavengers”. One of these men chases Croft and accosts her. She escapes only by shooting the man in the head.

Since that sequence was first shown publicly, at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, it has sparked wide-ranging discussion of its construction and the decision to include it in the game. “I think that in context it works,” Prell said in a phone interview.

An assault on a woman, sexual or otherwise, gives rise to strong emotions and reactions, Prell noted. But having had a chance to talk with the creative director of the game, she doesn’t believe that the decision to include the sequence was made lightly.

Arendt thinks that it would be disingenuous not to include the scene because it’s realistic. “If you want to scare a woman, one of the easiest, fastest ways to do it is to threaten her with sexual violence,” she explained. “So if you put that in the context of a bad man, wanting to subdue or terrify a young girl, the idea that he would threaten her with that is completely realistic.…The threat of sexual violence is something that women deal with every day.”

What goes further in establishing Croft’s heroic nature in the new Tomb Raider, Prell believes, is the other obstacles the character has to overcome, like a fear of heights. “Problems, and overcoming them, are what make a hero,” she said.

This origin story is about Croft growing up, Arendt suggested. “It’s about her realizing that the world is not glamorous, that there isn’t always someone coming to help you, and the only person who is going to save you at the end of the day is you.” That’s something that everyone has to realize at some point in life, said Arendt. We don’t all have to survive a ship crash and fend off wolves and bandits, as the character does, “but then she also comes out being Lara Croft on the other side”.

“I think that a big part of why this Lara Croft will work is because she is being portrayed as a human,” Prell said. “We all have bad things and we all have problems and we all have fears. And we like to think that we can overcome them.”

Arendt agrees that we want to be able to relate to our heroes as real people. “By humanizing them we can see ourselves in them, and we can see the heroism within ourselves,” she said. “When we make them more human they are slightly better versions of ourselves.”

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