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April 25, 2013

Lara Croft Gets New Breasts and … Feelings?

By Spear's

Lara Croft gets a makeover in the latest version of Tomb Raider. And feelings. And a slightly dubious concession to political correctness. What’s the story, asks Sam Leith

Have I Got Boobs For You

Lara Croft gets a makeover in the latest version of Tomb Raider. And feelings. And a slightly dubious concession to political correctness. What’s the story, asks Sam Leith

THE FIRST THING you notice about a Tomb Raider game is Lara Croft’s breasts. This, unfortunately, applies across the board. Ever since the first game, in which our wasp-waisted heroine appeared with a gravity-defying, pyramidal mono-bosom, these virtual mammaries have been the locus of discussion about the game’s sexual politics and, by extension, the state of gaming as a whole.

On the one hand — and it was for Lara Croft that the term ‘cyberbabe’ is thought to have been minted — here was, or seemed to be, a golden example of the adolescent male sensibility that made video games so uncongenial a place to real, grown-up women. She was a crude male fantasy object, there to be backed into corners for a better view of the front during the rare moments when her rear aspect was not bobbing in front of you like a cybernetic descendant of Anneka Rice in Treasure Hunt. Sniggering teens exchanged ‘Nude Raider’ mock-ups of Lara reclining in her birthday suit and a porn parody called — naturally — Womb Raider made its way into the world.

On the other hand, Tomb Raider was one of the relatively few console games that women did play. It didn’t have a bunch of Doom-style blood, gore and heavy breathing: it was a platform game with an emphasis on striking locations and intelligent problem-solving. Camera angles and bizarre anatomy aside, there was not the slightest hint of sex in it: the character, indeed, was practically asexual. She climbed up stuff, jumped over stuff, pulled switches, unlocked doors and shot wolves. She was a female games character who wasn’t there to be rescued or menaced or to simper over the boys. You could just as easily read her as a riot grrrl role model, her shape simply being there as a charitable sop to the teenage boy constituency.

Lara double-wielded semi-automatic pistols. She was empowered. And yet, still, the breasts were the talking point. With each successive game the detail of them, the physics and above all the size were the subject of heated and confused debate. Was this game about her shooters or her hooters? It’s been remarked that the statement ‘this is not political’ is a very political statement. The same applies to Lara: saying, ‘Can we just ignore her breasts and talk about the game?’ is, inescapably, another way of talking about her breasts.

SO LET’S CONSIDER the new game. This time the breast issue has met with cautious approval from the non-FHM crowd. Lara isn’t exactly dressed in a chador. Nor has she been hit with the ugly — or even the average-looking — stick. She’s still smoking hot, as imaginary electronic artefacts go. And the player still spends a lot of time contemplating her glutes. But she is — ta-da! — a plausible shape for a human woman. There’s room in her waist for internal organs, and if she needs to wriggle down a narrow corridor she’ll be able to turn sideways to do it. This is progress.

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At the same time, the dry but absorbing problem-solving premise of the original game is mostly gone. This one is much more interested in telling a story: it behaves like a film, with the player following the dots between cinematic cut-scenes, shooting up wolves and baddies. It runs, in all the important respects, on rails. The game shows us Lara before she was Lara: in her early twenties, marooned on an island filled with death-cultists, scavengers, skulls and candles. She’s smeared with mud and blood, wounded and frightened.

In the first games Lara was a sort of cipher. She didn’t look like a human being and she didn’t have much in the way of emotions. The new game makes her a human being, or that’s the idea. It is interested in her reactions: pain, exhaustion, fear, and, as one foolish executive boasted ahead of the launch, in showing her ‘turned into a cornered animal’. In an early scene the young Lara makes her first kill: a Russian dude is menacing her, so she shoots him in the face. Afterwards, she cries.

Now here’s the paradox. Narrative forms — novels, films and so on — work as they do because they’re fixed and immutable; the defining point of video games is the opposite one: they’re interactive. The more a video game seeks to tell a story or investigate character, the less actual agency it can afford its protagonist. And the less agency the protagonist has, the more of an object — a thing to which things happen — that protagonist is.

So the new Tomb Raider gives us a Lara who resembles a real 21-year-old girl, who we are encouraged to believe is capable of being traumatised, and then immerses us lovingly in her trauma. We can’t choose not to have her cry.

So, in making her more like a real woman (or, in this case, a terrified girl), the makers of the game disempower her, objectivise her and pornographise her more profoundly than any adjustment in bosom dimension could manage. It’s a great game, mind you — but the breasts for once aren’t the issue. Like I say, progress of a sort.

Read more from Sam Leith

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