Defending Lara

A number of critics (including myself) have reacted with some trepidation to some of the preview coverage of the reboot of the Tomb Raider series. Early previews of the adventures of the new Lara Croft tended to focus on the idea that the vulnerability of a younger, less experienced Lara would be a big part of the effort to tell the story of Lara’s origins as an archaeologist and all around stoic bad ass.

One such preview described how in the early parts of the game, as she has her first encounters with violence “she bleeds and bruises, trembles and cries, but ultimately pushes forward” (Meagan Marie, “Tomb Raider”, Game Informer, January 2011, pg. 44) . These images of vulnerability describing the video game icon seem unusual, though they make some sense in terms of the game’s storytelling goals, which seem to be, as noted, seeing how Lara became the character that we have come to know only as a mature and highly competent heroine over the last 15 or so years. This is “Lara before she was Lara”, after all.

The emphasis on bruises, trembling, and crying, though, in many descriptions of the game and art from the game that accompanied those descriptions did seem to speak the language of exploitation cinema as well. Exploitation cinema has frequently connected the idea of female vulnerability to violence with that of images intended to also express sex appeal. And some of these ideas even seemed to be possibly reinforced by comments by folks, like Tomb Raider art director Brian Horton, when he described a kind of relationship between the idea of Lara’s image as sex symbol and this grim vision of survival: “Ultimately, what I think is going to be compelling about this — and what our version of sexy is — is the toughness through adverse conditions, seeing her survive through these moments” (Meagan Marie, “A Survivor Is Born: The New Lara Croft”, Game Informer, 9 December 2010, p. 44).

Early gameplay footage at E3 further compounded concerns as Lara spends an amazing amount of time during a brief demo grunting and crying out in pain:

So, I was curious when Crystal Dynamics released the first part of a new behind-the-scenes series of videos (see below) of the final hours of the making of this Tomb Raider about whether or not this video would in any way address the issue of Lara’s new, more vulnerable image, especially because the first video focuses on the actress behind the new iteration of the character. Crystal Dynamics is certainly aware of concerns raised over some of the earliest images of the new Lara, and I wondered if they would in any way attempt to defend their vision of her through an explanation of how the character would be acted.

The new voice (and body — at least in terms of serving as the basis for the character’s animations through motion capture technology), Camilla Luddington, doesn’t exactly project the same image as the six-foot-something busty brunette that has become video gaming’s first sex symbol. Instead, Luddington is a rather slight and petite brunette whose previous acting work includes playing the role of Catherine Middleton in Lifetime’s television movie William & Kate.

Luddington does almost immediately address the new, more vulnerable Lara in the video when describing how we are “used to seeing” the character and how this contrasts with seeing her struggle in the reboot. Later on, she even more explicitly describes her own expectations of the character and how she was surprised by the new version of Lara: “When I got this role at first, I did not even know I would be crying this much. I just thought I would be kicking butt. That was the Lara that I thought I’d gotten myself into.”

In the past, Lara may have provided a male audience a figure to admire or even leer longingly at, but she did not serve the normative video game role of that “princess in another castle”. I was especially struck by the oddness of this idea when interviewer Zachary Levi watches a bit of especially emotionally troubling footage of Luddington’s performance with Luddington herself standing by, and he actually extends a hand to touch Luddington’s shoulder as if he wants to console her.

While complimenting the authenticity of Luddington’s performance, Tomb Raider creator Creative Director Noah Hughes says, “People ran over to her [Luddington] like, ‘Are you okay?” Like, she’s got mascara running and tears streaming down her cheeks. And she’s like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And you’re like, ‘Wow.” While certainly one admires an actor for being able to demonstrate emotional range, the idea that Luddington’s performance evokes a desire to defend and protect Lara is, again, a real reversal of one of the few female video game characters that normally projects only self possession and fearlessness. Princess Peach and Pauline (of the Donkey Kong franchise) are characters that are established to motivate male players and male characters to rush to a woman’s aid, not so with Lara Croft.

Levi, who also narrates the video, ends it by saying that “Camilla Luddington is our new Lara Croft, strong spunky, gorgeous, brave. How did she get so brave? Excellent question. We’re going to cover that in our next installment when we sit down with the writers who crafted the origin story of Lara Croft. Don’t miss it.” I know that I won’t be missing it because this still remains the question in my mind. I am still curious to understand how this vision of the character is intended to be received by audiences.

I understand the concept of bravery as a character trait being produced by persevering through both fear and suffering. But I also am still not quite sure what to make of the images that I have seen that seem so unfamiliar to players of the Tomb Raider series but more familiar to what is often seen in cinema that makes a point of exploiting female vulnerability for the purposes of titillation.

Perhaps, there is a fine line between providing a psychologically realistic explanation of this character and exploiting the sexiness that has come to define her. With this video, I remain unsure of what side of that line Crystal Dynamics is leaning towards.

Judging the end product would ultimately be a more ideal way to understand how this image is ultimately projected. However, we are still being teased with images that leave one wondering. So, I continue to wait to see.