Lara Croft's evolution gives gamer girls reason to celebrate

Call me sexist, but I never really paid attention to the arguments about gender equality in video games.

So many games centered on space marines rescuing princesses or the like that the idea that game companies ever considered girls might play their games didn't register. Tailoring choices to females was downright laughable.

Sure, there was the option of playing female characters in multiplayer arcade games like Gauntlet or Xenophobe. There were even watershed titles like Metroid, in which the big reveal that Samus Aran was a woman was a minor thrill for a child of the 8-bit era. But those exceptions were only window dressing, blips in the landscape that didn't affect the industry as a whole.

Perhaps the only notable instance of a female character being more popular than her male counterpart was Ms. Pac-Man, who, besides being either an unfortunate widow or fortunate divorcee, simply featured her predecessor's gameplay on superior mazes.

But in 1996, Eidos brought us Lara Croft.

The Tomb Raider avatar became an industry unto herself, thanks to those big guns she carried — and I'm not talking about her twin .45-caliber pistols. To this day, Lara reigns as queen and inspiration of countless "sexiest women in video games" lists. Despite her origins as a gunslinging millionaire archaeologist daredevil, she still inspired nude pictorials of video game characters in Playboy magazine, much to creator Toby Gard's consternation.

But I, like most gamers of the era, went along with it. The Tomb Raider franchise offered a novel game design, but suffered from inferior 3D controls and polygon graphics until later installments by Crystal Dynamics. Meanwhile, Lara inspired the Joanna Darks and Jill Valentines and Raynes of the gaming world — tough gals, to be sure, but always managing to pick a wardrobe incapable of zipping above the bustline. I may have been aware of Lara's influence, but I can't say I cared beyond choosing Princess Peach as the superior character in Super Mario Bros. 2.

Then I had a daughter.

In the two years since her birth, I've paid plenty of mind to what I would think my child would want to play. If she enjoyed my favorites, she'd be subjected to a steady diet of testosterone — Halo, Gears of War, Dead Space, Uncharted and so on, all of which aren't age-appropriate, but omnipresent and universally feature male protagonists protecting female NPCs. In very few places do we see women featured in positive ways, not subjected to kidnapping or torture until a man comes to rescue them.

The problem is so pervasive, some gamers have reprogrammed existing titles to cater to their X-chromosome offspring. Mike Mika, chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive, reprogrammed Donkey Kong so his 3-year-old daughter could play as Pauline and rescue Mario. Before him, Toronto tech entrepreneur Mike Hoye altered a build of Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to turn Link into a girl, even changing all in-game dialogue, because his daughter was beginning to identify with her onscreen counterpart — who was male. That sounds like a lot of work for no defensible reason, because those girls should be able to play games with a female lead.

That's why I'm so enamored of Crystal Dynamics' new Tomb Raider reboot, released March 5. In it we see a younger Lara Croft, before the globe-trotting and grave-robbing and boulder-dodging turned her tough as nails. We guide her through the perils of a shipwreck and a bloodthirsty cult and any number of natural obstacles, in a manner owing in no small part to Rocksteady's 2009 megahit Batman: Arkham Asylum. And we also are spared the air pump when it comes to her character model.

That last part is especially important, partly because while Crystal Dynamics is breaking its arm patting itself on the back for a more realistic body shape, it should be noted Croft is still an idealized woman, in athletic form rather than voluptuous. She spends the entire game in a body-hugging tank top and camisole, never once managing to swipe a parka from one of the countless killers she gets the drop on, even when climbing a mountain in a snowstorm. Adding a flight jacket for a couple stages, even if it's conveniently dropped later in the game, shouldn't require costume DLC.

But that's a niggling point in a game designed to track a young woman's progression from reticent bookworm to full-fledged adventurer. I couldn't help but crack a smile when Lara switches her keyed dialogue from "please leave me alone" to "I'm going to kill all of you" as the game progresses.

That's quite a change from executive producer Ron Rosenberg's ridiculous comments to Kotaku last year (since repudiated by his company) that players had a tendency to want to protect this Lara, instead of identifying with her, because they made her so vulnerable. That line of thinking is a crock, because this Lara is a high-flying, mountaineering, genius bloodletter by game's end.

Tomb Raider has its issues, chiefly the incredible violence Lara visits on her antagonists and not the other way around. But no one will go into this game expecting warbling songbirds and happy trees. The best parts of the game involve Croft's physical prowess and problem-solving, negotiating somewhat minor puzzles by scrambling up mountain faces, flying down ziplines and muscling through barriers. The fact she, also, is basically rescuing a princess is an argument for another time. At least she's the one doing the rescuing.

For me, there were few moments I even registered Lara was a woman. That's good news for my daughter, who will one day play games like these and most assuredly will notice.

Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Lara Croft's evolution gives gamer girls reason to celebrate 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 5:29pm]

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