Spend any time near a serious discussion of video games, and sooner or later the question comes up: “Where are all the women?” The latest figures show almost half of the video game industry’s audience is female, a huge market which, the narrative goes, is poorly served by testosterone-packed franchises such as Call of Duty. There’s an oft-touted piece of research by tech forecasting firm EEDAR that showed in 2012, less than four percent of titles sampled were fronted exclusively by female protagonists. However, I don’t believe that’s a particularly useful thing to measure. Instead of the number of women in video games, it might be better to think about how they’re treated within those games.
I bring this up because I’ve just finished playing what should have been one of the titles to fight back against that trend, Tomb Raider, featuring the latest incarnation of globe-trotting big game hunter and archaeologist, Lara Croft. The narrative of the latest Tomb Raider is supposed to be the birth of a superhero — the transition of Lara Croft from fragile adolescent to the gun-toting adventurer we met way back in 1996. However, this incarnation of Tomb Raider is less an adventure game than a survival horror. In the opening minutes, we watch as our heroine is drowned, mysteriously resurrected, half-drowned again only to be washed ashore in the midst of a triage and beaten unconscious, bound in canvas and hung upside down like a joint of meat, impaled on a piece of rebar, attacked by a crazed man and crushed to death under a boulder. And all this before she sees daylight. Presented with a vulnerable Lara Croft, playing Tomb Raider feels like an exercise in voyeuristic sadism, a chance to watch a beautiful woman being endlessly brutalised. As we progress, she is broken on crevasses, skewered, stabbed, sliced, and shot, the camera leering in on her at every death vignette, her face blood-splattered and wracked with torment but never disfigured. This is Tomb Raider by way of Eli Roth.
Having recently completed Telltale Games’ triumph, The Walking Dead, in which the player does their best to shield a vulnerable female character from harm, I found it deeply upsetting to play a game that forces a similar character to suffer endless rounds of violence. Why should I feel this way any more than I do about Nathan Drake, the male lead of Uncharted, who suffers equal amounts of violence (although without the sexualised glorification)? The only answer I can give is that the latest Lara Croft is an unwilling protagonist. She doesn’t set out to be marooned on an island with several hundred homicidal men, and indeed there’s a definite change in tone when the narrative arc finally shifts her from survival to offensive. It’s that agency, rather than her increasing capacity for violence, that dispels her vulnerability.
I struggle to think of any game featuring a male protagonist that undergoes a similar transformation. Male characters are often weak at their outset (gaining power throughout the course of the game), but rarely vulnerable. To wit, I can only think of one example, Amnesia, which left protagonist Daniel with nothing to safeguard his sanity with but a lantern as he descends into a nightmare.
In cinema, there is a notable genre outside rom-coms in which female protagonists are the norm instead of the exception, and that’s horror, particularly in thriller and slasher flicks. Directors from Hitchock to Argento have defended this trope, arguing that women in peril elicit a stronger reaction from the audience than men would.The female protagonists of horror films almost always triumph against the monster in the end, but their role is to be tortured for ninety minutes first. I wonder if this is any better than being resigned to the default victim status that so many of Lara’s counterparts are, as highlighted by Anita Sarkeesian in this video. Boosting the number of female protagonists in video games ought to involve more than making the damsel in distress a playable character.