After nearly 17 years of crawling through dank catacombs and contending with all manner of vicious beasts, Lara Croft has finally ditched the hot pants. While the star of the Tomb Raider franchise was one of the first and most prominent female protagonists in videogames when she debuted in 1996, her trailblazing was always accompanied by male gazing and the burden of impractical clothing and physical proportions that strained the bounds of credulity (not to mention her shirt). Hollywood's two big-screen adaptations featuring Angelina Jolie as the sultry archaeologist didn't stray too far from this path. But for the videogame series' reboot out on March 5 and called simply Tomb Raider developer Crystal Dynamics has attempted to create a more believable Lara, hoping to flesh out her character without making her so, well, fleshed out.
''I've worked on female characters in the past that were compared favorably to Lara Croft,'' says videogame writer Rhianna Pratchett, who was brought on to pen the new Tomb Raider. Pratchett's female-lead bona fides include games like Mirror's Edge and Heavenly Sword. ''So it felt good, like going back to the genesis of videogame action heroines and using everything we've learned since then.'' In addition to trousers, Pratchett gave the character a third dimension, making the story more about her internal development than her appearance. But building a less objectified Croft didn't happen immediately: ''Originally the white top underneath the vest that she had was a bra, and you could see the bra strap,'' says Pratchett. ''Thankfully they eventually changed it to a white tank top.''
It's hard not to view Croft's recent transformation as symbolic of changes in videogaming, a $14.8 billion industry in 2012 (compared with the movie business' $10.8 billion take at the box office) that has expanded far beyond the realm of teenage boys. Today the average age of a gamer is 30, and 47 percent of people who play are women. And yet so few characters are anything but the mold-injected white male action hero with a dusting of stubble and daddy issues exemplified in titles like Gears of War and Assassin's Creed. Women in games are often either nonexistent or eye candy dressed in midriff-baring outfits. There are certain exceptions: Samus Aran, the lead of the Metroid series, is an extraterrestrial-blasting descendant of Alien's Ellen Ripley, and characters such as Mirror's Edge's Faith and Portal's Chell are only incidentally female.
''For the most part, they have just dismissed women's roles, but it's changing,'' says Jennifer Hale, the most prolific female voice artist in the industry. Hale voiced FemShep, the distaff version of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series, one of the few intensely narrative AAA titles that allow players to choose their gender. Many ended up preferring Hale's acting, and she says she's constantly surprised by the number of men who tell her they play as her character. ''It was written neither as a man or a woman but as a human being,'' she says.
But these examples are still rare. ''There are not very many female protagonists that lead their own games,'' says Anita Sarkeesian, a cultural critic working on an online video series titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. ''And when you do have a female lead, it's often in full-body third person and they're highly sexualized.'' This is a hard charge to deny, but certain subsections of male-dominated gaming culture are allergic to criticism. When Sarkeesian posted a Kickstarter campaign last May to raise funds for her series, thousands of male players participated in an organized campaign of online harassment, attacking her with misogynistic messages and death threats, and even creating a game in which you could physically abuse an image of Sarkeesian. The disturbing response only served to further underline the legitimacy of her objections. ''They weren't attacking my arguments,'' she says. ''They were coming after me for merely proposing the idea that there's sexism in games.'' These types tend to see videogaming as the niche hobby it once was man-cave cavemen trapped in the ice of the mid-'90s not the blockbuster medium it is now. They also often draw hierarchical distinctions between ''real gaming'' and more female-targeted ''casual gaming,'' odd considering that the medium's primordial form, the arcade game, was always closer to Angry Birds than it was to Halo.
When it comes to Lara Croft, it's clear that there's some acknowledgment of changing times and, more important, changing audiences. ''She looks like a human being, which is nice,'' says Camilla Luddington, the Grey's Anatomy actress who voices Croft and performed motion-capture acting in the new game (see review, right), a reconceived origin story in which Croft is stranded on a dangerous island. ''I have a niece who plays a lot of games, and I always see her playing ones with male heroes, so I really hope there are more female ones to come.'' Pratchett is also cautiously optimistic. ''Look at TV: The cross section of characters you get there are completely light-years ahead when it comes to games,'' she says. ''But I'm hoping this Tomb Raider will start to change the tide on that.'' One pair of practical pants at a time.