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Lara Croft and the Case of Progressiveness in Video Games

Is Tomb Raider's 'makeover' proof of a more mature gaming industry?

Considering that video games are straying further and further away from the negative stereotype that they're played exclusively by acne-ridden basement-dwelling virgins, it's almost comical that developers are still incapable of creating a female video game character without feeling the need to sexualise her or undermine her in some way. 

Ever since Lara Croft first courted controversy in 1996 with her disproportionately sized mammaries, the focus of the character has always been on the shifting shape of her breasts which, considering that she is inarguably the most famous female heroine in video game history, doesn't exactly reflect well on the industry that she represents. 

But now the Tomb Raider series has undergone another makeover, with developers Crystal Dynamics altering her image once again and transforming her into a young woman who wouldn't grow to suffer debilitating back problems by the age of 25. Surely this is proof of a more mature video game industry?

Oh.

Above is the 'Zombie Bait Edition' of the upcoming Dead Island: Riptide. It features an exclusive downloadable weapon pack, a steelbook case and, oh yeah, a statue of an horrifically mutilated woman. It is the kind of misogynistic idiocy that prevents video games from being taken seriously, the kind of shameless, sickening publicity stunt that would only be greenlighted in an industry that, despite its exponential growth over the past two decades, still pictures itself as marketing towards a roomful of easily titillated 15-18 year-old boys in the '90s. Dead Island: Riptide's marketing team will label it "controversial," but we should acknowledge it as reprehensible. 

The issue with the video game industry changing its immature viewpoint on how to best represent females in the medium is that major companies typically shy away from taking what they perceive as financial risks, and as the most financially profitable games in today's market stand to perpetuate the idea that we're all just these 15-18 year-old gun lovin' dudebros, it's no surprise that releasing a game with a statue of a dismembered corpse is considered a more logical business idea than, say, putting the female Commander Shepard on the front cover of Mass Effect.

In business, progressiveness will only be allowed if it is profitable. Speaking of Mass Effect, the option to engage in a same-sex romance with an NPC was only introduced in Mass Effect 3 after fans tirelessly lobbied for it, with BioWare openly admitting that their decision to include it was based upon fan feedback, rather than the company taking an important political stance. "We got feedback from players that they wanted more choice," BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka told Kotaku. "We respond to that feedback and try to make our games better based on what our players are asking for." The same fan feedback has also led to them creating a "gay planet" on The Old Republic which, unsurprisingly, will be introduced as paid DLC, effectively meaning that fans will have to pay to be gay in the Star Wars MMO.

Which brings us back to the Tomb Raider reboot. The series had, up until the announcement of said reboot, become stagnant. While Lara Croft remained the most popular heroine in video games, this was due to lack of competition more than anything else. The last retail release in the series was 2008's Underworld, which underperformed in terms of sales. For publisher Square Enix to financially back another game featuring the sassy, ass-kickin' Lara Croft would've been illogical. So what kind of Lara will we be playing as this time around? 

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character, they're more like 'I want to protect her.'" Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg told Kotaku at last year's E3. "There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

"She's definitely the hero but you're kind of like her helper," he continued. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

So if a woman cannot be ogled, she must instead be saved? I hope that Tomb Raider is the important milestone for female protagonists in video games that is so sorely needed, but when industry heads refuse to stray from conventions that are decades old out of fear that today's gamer will not buy a game that doesn't feature a white male on the box art, I remain pessimistic.

It's been almost 32 years since we first rescued Pauline from the clutches of Donkey Kong, but the video game industry refuses to believe that we've grown up.


Paul Tamburro is the UK Editor of Crave Online. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro.