In 1985, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For inaugurated what has come to be known as The Bechdel Test, a three-point checklist for evaluating how a film represents women. Does it have at least two? Do they have a scene together? Do they talk about something other than men? The fact that so few films pass all of these—even 30 years later—means that many filmgoers keep this checklist in the front of our minds, as part of the internal HUDs that we screen all of our media through.
It is difficult now, at least for me, to play a game without my own internal interface simultaneously replaying bits of Anita Sarkeesian’s ongoing series of videos for Feminist Frequency, “Tropes vs. Women.” The first three (two of which are complete) are about the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. In part 1, she lays out the history of the trope, and some of its earlier incarnations; in the second part she demonstrates how it has been used more recently, including such horrifying variations as the ‘damsel in the refrigerator,’ the ‘disposable’ damsel, and the ‘euthanized’ damsel. The collection of cutscenes and gameplay clips she has amassed in support of these classifications is staggering and frankly, not seriously refutable. So it would not be at all surprising if, in the not too distant future, players and critics evaluate their games by some kind of Sarkeesian test, which might get at whether there are women present in the game, and importantly, whether they are protagonists or allies rather than prisoners or corpses used to drive the stories of stubble-sporting, dark-haired white dudes.
I recognize that this is a strange way to introduce Crystal Dynamics’ excellent new Tomb Raider reboot. The franchise itself occupies a somewhat awkward place in video game history. Its titular protagonist, the English adventurer Lara Croft, is one of the very first women to headline her own game, and the original games helped make the first Playstation into a dominant platform. She has an enormous female fanbase who love her despite the character design’s more exploitative aspects (Lara’s famous bustline—the result of a data-input error that her designers decided to retain—is far less improbable in this installment). Lara Croft is anything but a passive victim. Even so, the figure of the damsel haunts her new game: in the discourse and marketing leading up to the game’s release, and within the plot of the game itself. Its story, written by Rhianna Pratchett, centers around a damsel scenario—a few of them, actually. But it is also very clever, commenting on the trope itself, the franchise’s own history, and, I think, the current state of the mostly male-led action-er.
Early press for the game pre-release was not promising. An interview with producer Ron Rosenberg indicated that the game’s [presumably male?!] players would need to “protect” Lara from an attempted “rape.” Crystal Dynamics officially rebutted the Rosenberg’s interpretation of this scene, which is in the E3 trailer and in the final game itself. The menace is somewhat ambiguous, and could fit within the awful schema that Rosenberg presents for it, or within the game’s actual plot, described further below. But in either case, his comments attempt to make Lara into just another damsel for the player to save, this time without any mediating hero. Worse, actually, because they would turn her into the almost-victim of the cheapest and most vile threat-scenario that creators in all media employ to terrify and disempower women.
Thankfully, the game itself actually works to unmask and condemn the kind of structural, organized misogyny found in games, critiquing the damsel trope by frequently subverting it. Shipwrecked with some fellow archaeologists and filmmakers on a mysterious, LOST-like island, Lara discovers that the all-male inhabitants are ritually sacrificing women who wash up there, hoping to resurrect the ancient, evil, Japanese sun goddess Himiko. She is a Temple of Doom-style Kali figure that, while certainly a version of the monstrous feminine, is also the woman that the head cultist Mathias sees as his own little plot device… the damsel that he needs to save to escape the island. Women are sacrificed so that other women can be used so that men—significantly here the male villain—can get what he needs from them.
Lara Croft saves herself, and over the course of the game’s 20+ hour narrative, evolves from scared castaway to tentative survivor to puzzle-solving and cultist-slaughtering wunderkind. If she is set up as the faux damsel (against, perhaps, Rosenberg’s implication or intention), and Himiko is the deconstructing one, it is Lara’s best friend Sam that operates as the closest analogue to a tower-ensconced princess. Ethnically Japanese, she is the vessel that Himiko needs to be reborn, and whom Lara must save (again, to stop Matthias from saving his own damsel, Himiko: this is a lot less confusing to play than to type.) And Sam is much more than a plot device: she is a developed character in her own right, and a friend to Lara rather than the dependent, near-property of a rescuing husband or father. It is not masculine pride or wounded ego that drives Croft to save her, but the genuine affection of an equal.
Crucially, there is one more helpless figure for our protagonist to save: a male ‘damsel’ whose scenario comments not only on the trope itself, but also on that large subset of the audience Rosenberg seems to be selling the game and protagonist to. This character is Alex, another shipwrecked crewmember, who runs off to perform a mission that he is clearly not capable of 2/3 of the way through the game. Reversing the typical gender dynamic of the hero-damsel relationship, Lara rushes to save him, but finds him trapped under a girder as enemies are piling into the ship. Alex hands over the current plot MacGuffin/device, the tools needed to patch up a different boat, and then expresses his desire for Lara to leave him to die, in a scene mirroring Sarkeesian’s ‘euthanized’ damsel.
What do we know about Alex pre-death? He is a bespectacled, Leonard Hofstadter-ian, socially awkward tech geek, apparently in love or in lust with Lara. He presumptuously sets off on his ill-conceived mission because he, too, wants to ‘protect’ and perhaps impress her. The player of Tomb Raider—so familiar with male heroes trying to save the damsel—is now playing a woman trying to save the dude… a dude that looks and sounds like a fair percentage of that game-playing audience. The usual savior is the one who, it seems, most needs saving. Tomb Raider brilliantly plays in and plays with its own conventions and our expectations.
…but what about the mechanics, you ask? Is it fun? Well, along with some straightforward (even for me) environmental and traversal puzzles, you will spend most of your time Sarah Connors-ing baddies with a saw-ed off shotgun, Ripley-ing them with an assault rifle/grenade launcher combo, and Katniss-ing them with a tricked-out, District 13-worthy bow.
So yes, it’s all very satisfying.
Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis. Read his scribblings on these and other things here.