When Lara Croft and her comically-proportioned breasts first came into general view, video games were undergoing something of a transition.
In the late 1990s, the audience was changing, and the idea of hammering at a joypad as an acceptable activity for anyone other than a bedroom-bound teenager was just beginning to get some purchase; but somehow, even as the demographics of game players transformed, the stereotype calcified.
More than a decade later, that acne-ridden adolescent image has proven hard to shake off, even though 47 per cent of gamers are now female. The Tomb Raider titles, and the persistently bonkers nature of their protagonist’s physicality, stand as a frustrating symbol of the industry’s inability to take the more mature position in the cultural landscape that a large proportion of gamers might appreciate, if only – and I write from a position of wounded experience – to stop their friends sniggering at them.
With that in mind, the latest iteration seems like a refreshing one. Lara’s hotpants have become trousers, her crop top a vest. Her breasts have shrunk to a more realistic size, such that you might now believe her capable of standing on the edge of a ravine without toppling into it. “She’s beautiful,” the gamer’s writer Rhianna Pratchett says, “but ultimately she looks like a young lady who has dressed herself.”
This is fine, and although I haven’t played the game yet, the reviews suggest that Pratchett and her colleagues have made something enormously entertaining. But the Tomb-Raider-as-an-engine-for-gender-politics bandwagon is a rickety one, and however brilliant the gameplay, the idea of Croft as a new feminist icon doesn’t bear scrutiny.
Lara is, after all, still a notably voluptuous figure; the political motivations for her transformation are rather less credible than those predicated on a changing expectation of realism from gamers. She is still somewhat under-dressed, apparently because she happens to be in bed when the game begins – a misfortune, to be sure, but not one that has thus far befallen Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, her closest male equivalent. And as Maddy Myers wrote for Paste magazine, Lara is still, and perhaps above all, designed to be looked at and protected, not identified with. If you don’t believe Myers, ask Tomb Raider’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg, who said last year: “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her’.”
Well, Ron, if by “people” you mean the 53 per cent of your target audience who are men, you may have a point; if you mean the 47 per cent who are not, you may have rather less of one. That half of gamers will bomb through Lara’s latest adventure with the same enthusiasm as their male counterparts. But only the very credulous among either group will seriously imagine that this reimagined heroine represents anything more than the sum of her digital parts.