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Analysis: On Lara Croft And 'Relatable' Heroes

Analysis: On Lara Croft And 'Relatable' Heroes Exclusive

September 23, 2009 | By Tom Cross

September 23, 2009 | By Tom Cross
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Writer Tom Cross examines the appeal of mainstay character Lara Croft, and assesses where her characterization falls short -- what's keeping her from evolving into a truly compelling heroine?]

It's pretty obvious to most people that Lara Croft is not the "everyman" so many developers are mistakenly, humorously obsessed with. Never mind that this everyman is often a gravelly-voiced, shaven-headed, hugely muscled lout who kills lots of people. He is, after all, “relatable.” He cracks jokes while curb-stomping aliens!

So Lara Croft is not a guy, right? That's one step in a different direction. That already sets her apart from an unpleasantly large number of video game heroes.

Super Powered, Super Predictable

Really though, playing through Tomb Raider: Underworld, I'm constantly made aware of the fact that Lara is anything but average. She can kill anything, from tigers to giant, spitting lizards, to armed goons. She can escape ridiculously climbable, sinking ships, and she can face off against villainous winged ladies, all without a single wince, groan, or faltering step.

In other words, when it comes to adventuring and exploring, she's the indestructible badass to Nathan Drake's fallible, barely-makes-it-by-the-seat-of-his-pants joker.

Lara encounters two kinds of creatures during her travels: friends, who treat her with respect and care, and enemies who want to kill her, very badly (professionally, though). If it weren't for the fact that she's chasing after her long-lost (possibly Underworld-dwelling) mother, her emotional involvement in the story would be almost non-existent. Sure, she cares for her cutout-character sidekicks, Zip and Alister, but they're as emotionally resonant as a box of rocks.

Why should we care for them, when Lara can't really muster up more than a bit of amusement at their lack of knowledge/expertise in areas she excels in? When they're in danger, she furrows her brow, and looks a tad troubled. It's a bit like watching a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie: don't get too connected to the sidekicks and love interests, because they'll be gone soon enough.

Who Needs Friends, With an Attitude Like That?

Except that's not true: even in the most continuity-challenged, misogynist-riddled fictions, side characters at least attempt to perform a level of complexity and depth, along with a mild connection to the main character. Lara doesn't actually have to care about Zip and Alister, she just has to do a better job at pretending they matter.

At the beginning of the game, Zip attempts to kill Lara. The question this action evokes should go something like this: "Wow, why would Zip want to kill Lara?" Instead, it's something like this: "Oh, the stereotypically Black guy wants to kill his “friend". I wonder when during this game-long flashback we'll learn of her occult-inspired betrayal/possession, which encouraged his assault!?"

This is not the drama-inspiring, exciting beginning the designers wanted to create, but thanks to Lara's almost godlike disconnection from the world she inhabits it's hard to avoid such a let-down. Whenever she admires the beauty of a newly discovered temple or ruin, she just sounds so... bored. It's like she's reading the latest "Ancient Temples Quarterly," not experiencing the thrill of doing the job she loves.

After all, she’s not only doing what she does best (and what she lives for), she’s pursuing a lost mother, and following in the footsteps of a dead father. That should elicit just a tad more emotion, I think.

Then again, this is Tomb Raider, right? I should glad that they've created a real, mostly interesting character, I suppose. Think of the alternatives, think of the series' own history and Lara's past incarnations. I'm not even asking that she be flaw-ridden.

I don't need her to be like Nathan Drake, and I don't need her to be like April Ryan. One does not have to be filled with tics, flaws, and quirky habits to be an interesting, empathy-worthy character. But one does have to have more than "idle" and "ass-kicker" modes. Hell, even something more than Lara's steely cold action/British approach to everything would be nice.

Stiff Upper Lip, Stiff Dialogue

Sadly, players mostly see only one other side to Lara, and that's her "emotional" side. That's what happens when A) she's close to finding out new information about her Mom, and B) her "friends" are in danger. Once again, this is not a problem on its own. If Lara didn't feel compassion and worry for her friends and family, I'd find her to be even more of a weirdly emotionless automaton than I already do.

The problem is that she has no other noticeable character elements. She may enjoy spelunking and exploring, but she enjoys these activities like a cat enjoys the ministrations of its human: she can't quite dignify the game, or the world, with her complete attention.

It's hard to describe the things about Lara that are "off" because they're not horrible, glaring flaws. She's not a stupidly violent, senseless killing machine like Kratos and his ilk (though her disrespect for local flora, fauna, and ancient structures is, as always, extreme), she's a bit less of a pointlessly campy sex caricature than she used to be, and she's not a silent, vacant "character" (sorry Gordon, sorry Isaac!).

She's solid; she takes up space. In this way, she's infinitely superior to most "characters" in games who take up only as much space as their ill-written, game-necessary dialogue prescribes (for this, see almost every movie-game, most "story heavy" games, and most action games).

Somebody obviously cares about who Lara is, and they care about who we think she is. Still, it's as if this care was a reflection of the real thing, as if our Lara were some slightly-removed, shadowy reflection of the real one.

>As "Relatable" as Nate?

Lara's not connected enough to our world, and the ways in which she connects to it are always vague, slightly unfeeling, and less emphatic than they should be. Even the connections she has are simple, one-dimensional ones. I'll admit that when it comes to characters, I'm comparing her to Nathan Drake more than I should. He's the product of a pulpy, self-aware fiction that delights in painting him in familiar, broad strokes, and then taking those familiar facets to their extremes.

But he's over-the-top and cliche in a way that feels honestly relatable, if completely unreal. He may be foolishly disbelieving and mysteriously jovial in the face of certain death and dark magic, but he does it in a way that feels grounded in the world. He's a caricature of a caricature, a man lovingly, perfectly constructed from the leavings of older, less self-aware scoundrels, but he relates to his world as if he lives in it.

Lara, for all of her prowess and newly found pathos, approaches everything like an actor in a play, and a play she only half-likes at that. Lara doesn't need to be relatable, she just has to relate to something, anything; she needs to convince us she cares enough about her world and her quest, so that we can care.

Reborn, Stronger than Before?

All that said, I enjoy Lara's take on the action adventure genre, and on games. I love the intricate, humongous puzzles, the ludicrously vibrant and "explorable" settings, and the outlandish bad guys and set pieces. It's like a summer action movie, without the problematic "native danger" (well, sometimes) and without the Bruce Willis/Michael Bay racism (again, sometimes).

Plus, she's an interesting, strong character who has a long history in video games. As a character, she's older than almost everybody else out there, especially if you don't count "characters" like Mario.

I think she's important to video games for many reasons (some having to do with her gender and representational evolution), but specifically because she has pioneered many things, good and bad, and because she's still around to tell the tale, unlike so many of her competitors. I like her games a good deal, and it's too bad that despite Underworld's commercial success, a "reboot" was again deemed necessary.

Maybe it will be a good thing? Maybe Lara will reappear, more deeply invested in her own existence, and in the immediacy of her own adventures.

If there’s one thing Lara suffers from, it’s a strange combination of age and invincibility. It’s hard to take a character seriously who never falls in the mud, who is so terribly effective and successful, we never get to experience the thrill of bringing her back from failure, as strong as before.

It seems likely that the reboot will horn in on this issue specifically. Lara will be turned into a scrappy action hero (hopefully, one well-divorced from Mr. Drake's hapless adventurer in as many ways as possible), using her wits and skills to survive, not her private yacht and humongous mansion.

Then again, part of Lara’s character is subject to that same Bruce Wayne appeal: she’s skilled and smart, but she also gets to fiddle with loads of gadgets, thanks to her wealth. It’s no surprise that Batman is at his most popular when he “goes back to basics” and proves that even without his bag of tricks and money, he’s still a convincingly powerful, fun character. Here’s hoping Lara emerges from the ashes of her most recent series a better, more human action hero. Oh, and fix that gunplay while you’re at it, Eidos.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, is the Associate Editor at Sleeper Hit, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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