The impact that the original game had in the ’80s was so groundbreaking that it has a videogame sub-genre named after it: Metroidvania, and has spawned 14 sequels with another on the horizon. The latest game in the series was released last year and, thankfully, doesn’t strip the character down to her underwear.
One of gaming’s most iconic and controversial characters, Lara Croft, was visually de-sexualised as the Tomb Raider franchise grew in the ‘90s and early ‘00s.
I looked up to Lara as an aspirational, hardworking bad-ass thanks to the individualistic girl power feminism of the ’90s. Yet I knew why this woman had been accepted into the male-dominated game world. She was the epitome of the male gaze, flaunting long hair, a large chest and tight clothing.
When the franchise was rebooted in the 2010s, the game developers visited Lara’s origin story, reimagining her in a grittier, more proportionate (and more clothed) light.
But they attempted to make Lara more relatable by utilising vulnerability, introducing a playable moment of sexual assault. Executive producer Ron Rosenberg hyped this tonal shift in an interview stating: “She is literally turned into a cornered animal… She’s forced to either fight back or die.”
Fans of the Tomb Raider series were understandably uncomfortable with this choice. On release, the game presented a situation where Lara is being touched inappropriately and if she fails to fend off the leering attacker, she’s murdered.
Lara’s journey has been in survival mode for almost a decade now, but the developers plan to jump ahead for their next game and show her as a seasoned adventurer. A change that may reflect progression in gaming, as we move into an era with more diverse female narratives.
Feminist Frequency has been tracking the number of female protagonists in new game releases each year finding an increase from 3.4% in 2016 to 18% in 2020. This almost matches the amount of solo male protagonists in annual game releases, with the majority of games having multiple character options.
Games that tell compelling stories and treat women as humans, offer a glimmer of hope. Life is Strange: True Colors, released in 2021, centres on a young woman who uses supernatural empath powers to solve a mystery in a remote mountainside town. The game has built-in zen moments to help you digest and reflect on the story, which I found gave me a deeper enjoyment of the world I was immersed in, as it released the pressure to keep pushing forward through the story.
However the game does portray a tortured past for our hero, so even the most empathetic stories are not completely removed from using violence on female characters.
As for character design, we are seeing development that focuses on aesthetics that fit the story. Ellie in the Last Of Us series sports typical survival horror garments and explores romantic storylines in the 2020 second instalment, without needing to appear sexualised. More and more female characters are being dressed for the setting and story that befalls them.
However, there are still modern depictions of women that uphold an objectifying culture. You’ll find large-chested bikini-clad fantasy women in the Japanese spin-off franchise Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. The backstory of the series is that the female characters of Dead or Alive, a fighting game series, are playing mini-games on a private island resort. It’s largely understood that the series is closer to playable soft porn than to an actually entertaining video game.
Gamespot called out the Dead or Alive developers for having “set the game industry back about 5 years.” But with the latest iteration released in 2019, I’d say it’s set us back even further. Any franchise that uses jiggle physics – a specific feature that makes a woman’s breasts exaggeratedly bounce when she moves – is crossing the line from realistic to creepy.