As a cultural icon, Lara Croft is forever doomed to signify a very particular late-1990s, early-2000s aggro-horndog subculture. You've tried to forget its contours: the glossy, slick pages of a Maxim magazine; the beads of perspiration on a can of Mountain Dew Red Alert; the sound of Fred Durst butchering George Michael; the gleam off the top of Vin Diesel. It's no wonder that the Croft games of the past 10 years failed so consistently; who the hell would want to relive that? Some things are best buried. The Tomb Raider became a relic.
But dust that first game off. Take a look at the way Croft was first presented to the gaming public, in 1996, before she got puffed up by the cultural moment:
Notice that we're not immediately confronted with every polygon of Croft's body; instead, the first shot of her focuses on her face, obscured by shadow, under a pair of sunglasses. She resists viewing. She's sitting down, taking a business request from a man. She sports a superior grin. She's in control.
We naturally compare Croft to Indiana Jones, but apart from her profession, the Croft character has significantly more in common with James Bond. The heroine of the first Tomb Raider was no seat-of-her-pants bumbler, improvising American escapes; she was a one-step-ahead ironist, cool, patrician, planning English solutions.
And that's exactly how Toby Gard, who developed the original game, described his creation, in 2004:
"She wasn't a tits-out-for-the-lads type of character in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. I thought that what was interesting about her was she was this unattainable, austere, dangerous sort of person."
So, by her creator's admission, Croft was always presented as a sex object, but what made her interesting as a character, what separated her from, say, the giggling blowup dolls of the contemptible Dead or Alive series, was the way she seemed to both invite and disdain the male gaze.
The excellent new Tomb Raider game, out tomorrow, asks how, exactly, such a character came to be. And the ingenious answer that developer Crystal Dynamics have come up with is that before Lara Croft became a world-trotting, swaggering superwoman, she was the victim of a 1970s-style female exploitation film.
The most extreme, and some would argue, the most distilled, form of this genre is the rape-and-revenge horror film, of which The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave are the best known. The basic narrative of this type goes like this: Virginal woman is gruesomely mistreated/violated/raped by men and/or her environment → woman, now with nothing left to lose, enacts even more gruesome revenge — often sexual — on the original perpetrators. (These movies are cousins to the "you pushed me too far, man" movies of the same period, like Charles Bronson's Death Wish and the Peckinpah masterpiece, Straw Dogs)
You can feel the influence of this type in everything from the Terminator and Alien movies, in which vulnerable young women emerge from enormous violence as steely heroines, to more recent trifles like Neil Marshall's extraordinarily frightening 2006 horror film The Descent, in which a vulnerable woman spelunker, beset by collapsing rock and murderous proto-humans, turns into a death-dealing Kali.
Indeed, the new Tomb Raider features an unmistakable homage to the most famous shot of The Descent. Trapped with her friends on a tropical island south of Japan where she had hoped to do a little innocent fieldwork, Lara is instead, after a few harrowing hours of pursuit by a band of murderous cultists, plunged into the underground lake of blood and skulls formed by the remains of their ritual sacrifices. She raises just her eyes above the liquid.
This is horrifying stuff, and as a reminder, the screeching noises that accompany Lara's in-game deaths recall the gruesome freak-outs of the Dead Space games.
We start Tomb Raider in pure horror-movie woman-in-danger mode. The game is constantly degrading Lara: covering her in water and blood and dirt and sap and bones and men with bad goatees; stabbing her with branches and knives; flipping her upside down and pushing her to the ground. It won't even let her get comfortable. Despite the fact that Croft spends most of the first five hours of the game with visibly chattering teeth (she's scaling a mountain in a tank top and cargo pants), and despite the fact that she murders dozens of parka-ensconced goons, the game never lets her pull on a layer. It's fair to say that, as an example of objectification, in the sense of being an object on which subjects act, the Croft of the 2013 Tomb Raider is a far purer type than the Croft of 1996. (And please spare me the hilariously gullible sanctimonies about Croft's "redesigned body." As I wrote last week, that is the sound of the game industry congratulating itself on updating its standard of female beauty from Hustler to Perfect 10.)
The moment at which Croft transforms from hunted to hunter isn't as stark as it is in the aforementioned movies; a big-budget video game of this kind can't exactly go hours and hours without letting the player, however harried, commit murder. But at some point Croft stops pleading, "you don't have to do this," as she massacres the bad guys and starts hollering, "I'll get you all," or something of the sort. By the time you're about eight or ten hours into the game, you'll have few compunctions about firing an arrow through the eyeball of a unsuspecting hoodlum and then pelting his concerned friends with grenades. Congratulations: You've arrived as a tough cookie.
As a piece of exploitation, the game is not without incongruities. First, the injuries visited on Lara by the environment are orders of magnitude more vicious than the firebombs and shotgun shells of her generic antagonists. As a result, I found myself much more keen to take some sort of revenge on Mother Nature, perhaps in the form of some industrial-grade pollution, than on the hooligans, who, it turns out, are basically just peeved that they can't get off of the island.
Second, the mechanical imperatives of gaming — and of the Tomb Raider series in general — are at odds with the very simple structure of the exploitation genre. A lot of people most fondly remember the first game for its atmospheric and wonderful exploration, and every now and again this game gives you the option to put on hold your journey from frightened aristocrat to bloodthirsty avenger so you can traipse around a tomb.
As puzzle-platforming homages to the original Tomb Raider games, these levels are lovely and fun, but as narrative they are absurd. (The game is telling you: "Hey. Let's cool off from all that ritualistic bloodletting and frantic escaping and spend an hour trying to properly weight an iron seesaw so you can jump to and clamber up a rock wall and pilfer a priceless Edo mortar and pestle.")
Clunky moments aside, you have to admire what Crystal Dynamics has done here. They've looked coolly at a treasured character and asked not only how to make her relevant again, but how she fits into the popular story of the female action hero.
And the exploitation angle is a good answer to the question of how the Croft character — the 1996 original — became such a complicated mix of object and subject. But as good as the game is, it doesn't leave a lot of room for the thrill of discovery, the sense of wonder and joy that defined the early games in the series. Look: Crystal Dynamics have done a very tricky thing: They have unearthed Lara Croft and made her feel new. But maybe now that we've good and forgotten the embarrassments of our cultural past, we can start having a little fun again?