Feminism in Siberia: Lara Croft & Kate Walker

I love Lara Croft. I’ve always loved Lara. As a kid, I enjoyed playing the role of the intrepid adventurer – swinging from vines, solving complicated puzzles and parkouring across ancient temples before Altaïr made it look cool. She was everything a star-struck kid hoped to see in a hero: adventurous, self-reliant, unerringly cool and eminently badass in a way generations of videogame characters have been trying to capture ever since. And she had a gorgeous pair of… guns, but more on that later.

Plus, she was English. Which meant her accent was proper for a change.

Archaeology like it’s 1899

Of course, when you’re a little kid, excited about jungle temples, ancient mysteries and Lara’s amazing set of… athletics skills, you tend not to care that much about realism or the fact that you’re shooting endangered species and destroying precious relics for the fun of it. Undoubtedly, Lara went to the Indiana Jones School of Archaeology, where Nathan Drake got his degree as well. But hey, it got me interested in palaeontology (it’s more or less the same thing).

And despite all the criticism levelled at the character, from feminists and modern game critics (justifiably so), I found the character to be quite relatable. More than other characters at that time. Despite the obvious… exaggerations, Lara felt real. She was good at the parkour because she was a gymnast; she knew her way around ancient temples because she had studied archaeology (under Professors Indiana Jones, Charles Marlow and Kurtz, admittedly); and she’s good with guns because this is a videogame so of course she is. And she can afford to do all of this because her family’s rich and they live in a place called Croft Manor, for goodness’ sake! You might say this makes her hard to relate to, but she’s still about 6 black belts away from being Batman, so I call that realistic enough.

2013-tomb-raider-game-wallpaper-for-1600x900-hdtv-9-502
A survivor is born.

Put on your feminist trousers.

The 2013 Lara is even more of a real character. Unlike her older incarnation, this Lara shows emotion. She’s vulnerable, but strong of will, and she’s determined. The new Lara is a step in the right direction for female game characters and for games in general.

Let’s talk about the obvious first. 2013’s Lara looks more like an actual human being. The 2016 sequel even more so. She has a normal-sized waist that looks like it can actually support her body, and she no longer looks like she’ll break her back from the weight of her double D’s and I’m not talking about the twin Desert Eagles. Everything about the new character design is great. She’s not sexualised, she looks more realistic and she’s even wearing sensible khaki trousers instead of the signature hot pants of old Lara.

But more than that, Lara starts the game by being insecure. She’s young and inexperienced. We learn that she has quite the shoes to fill, and an impressive name to live up to. Meanwhile, she’s still a young girl with a life ahead of her. That life and all hope of normalcy gets taken away when she and her crew shipwreck on a dangerous island inhabited by a Cult of Demon-worshipping White People on a Japanese Island (let that sink in for a second). Through various trials, we see Lara grow as a hardened individual and as the adventurer we remember her to be.

There is an incredibly emotional moment when Lara has to kill a deer in order to survive. Moments like this are rare in videogames these days, and the care and attention given to it say a lot about this new Lara. The moment is somewhat ruined by how she later proceeds to gleefully murder her way through the entire populace of a small island nation. Despite a certain degree of ludo-narrative dissonance, Lara’s journey to becoming a survivor is believable, emotional and relatable.

Unlike your witty cookie-cutter rogues like Nathan Drake, Lara is a character who shows a full range of emotion. She is an extraordinary human being who nevertheless feels very real, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and her journey is a beauty to behold.

I’m looking forward to playing Rise of the Tomb Raider when it finally arrives on PS4 in October, and I can’t wait to go on adventure with Lara in Siberia. The new setting and the possibility of world exploration are particularly intriguing, and it reminded me that there are a whole slew of female badasses who have explored Siberia under worse circumstances.

Which reminds me…

syberia

Syberia with a Y

While the new instalment of the Tomb Raider’s adventures takes our teenage crush Lara to the cold reaches of Siberia in search of ancient treasures, six years after Lara’s first adventure hit consoles in 1996, another game was capturing my imagination: Syberia. With a Y. Y? Because of reasons.

At a glance, the two games have nothing to do with each other. One is a puzzle platforming adventure game with the shooty-shooty bang bang action, while the other is a point-and click with practically no violence in it. But both feature memorable female leads, and interestingly, both take place in some fictional form of the cold Siberian wastes.

Adding to the list of brave women who’ve explored the tundra is Kate Walker, an American lawyer whose law firm sends her to Steampunkville, France (the town is actually called Valadilene and I don’t think it explicitly says it’s French, because to me it feels more like Switzerland, but anyway). When Kate arrives just in time for her client’s funeral procession lead by automata, she then goes on an adventure across a Steampunk version of Europe and Soviet Russia, to locate the sole heir of the company, an eccentric recluse who is obsessed with finding mammoths, even though we all know they’re extinct. Eventually, she helps him reach the island of Syberia where (spoilers) the last living mammoths are found!

Feminists today might find the character not quite what they expected in a “strong female lead”. She often finds herself helpless in situations where Lara Croft would somersault her way out of trouble. While the Tomb Raider would dive into freezing water to retrieve her quest items, Kate has to enlist the help of small boys, old men and (I kid you not) penguins to be able to move forward. But this is more a fault of the game genre. Try getting Guybrush Threepwood to do anything physically demanding.

But Kate is intelligent. Both in the problem-solving, puzzle-breaking, moon-logic way of the old school adventure games, but also on an emotional level. She empathises with her automaton companion, and manages to relate on a deeper level with the world and the characters around her. She relies on her wits to get out of sticky situations because she did not study at the John Travolta School of Law. The game’s story is quite deep and despite the cartoonish fantasy style, it gets pretty dark at points. In other words, Kate feels like an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances, which makes for great storytelling.

As the main plot unfolds, we learn more about Kate and we witness as her personal life evolves. We get a front row seat to her deteriorating relationship with a jealous fiancé, and the constant arguing with her overbearing mother. Given the trend in videogames today, watching this seemingly mundane story was quite refreshing. I felt happy for Kate when she finally broke up with her fiancé. It felt cathartic, it was a big moment in her becoming an adventurer. But more importantly it showed a curious quality in the character… she was just so damn nice.

And you don’t see that in games these days.

title3
You’d almost be forgiven for saying the kind of look the same.

Militant feminism? Or just joining the boys club?

Just take a look at this year’s roster at E3, broken down by gender of protagonist and percentage of games that rely on violence as a game mechanic. It’s a little disheartening.

Not only are compassionate characters a rarity, especially female ones, but more and more, problem-solving in videogames revolves around unchecked violence and wanton destruction. Lara Croft is a feminist icon in her own right, but she tends to play the same role as a male character would – resolving the plot by shooting her way through it. Some would argue that feminism is about more than just doing the same things that male characters do.

Lara’s old-school sex-appeal and newfound badassery makes her a figure of female empowerment to some, but to others she is a product of the patriarchal establishment. In this sense, Kate Walker is the subversive character – the non-violent, unbelievably friendly lawyer whose only weapon is her razor-sharp wit and her unyielding empathy. In the end, it’s all about agency. Both characters have it, both survive their respective challenges in their own style. It’s up to you to decide which is right.

Syberia 3 is meant to launch December this year, after so many years of wait. And I’m definitely looking forward to it. I played the original games again recently with a friend spectating. We both found it strange and amusing, sometimes infuriating how Kate never said a mean word to anyone, she always helped people no matter who they were, she always listened and understood to all the characters. In other words, she made the world around her nicer and made the people she met feel better about themselves.

You can’t do that with guns, Lara.

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12 thoughts on “Feminism in Siberia: Lara Croft & Kate Walker

  1. You find a orphaned billionaire, acrobat, archaeologist, relatable, you’ve lead a interesting life Mr. Gates. She’s vulnerable, the woman can take down a fully armed military trained platoon, she keeps her cool under a incredible amount of stress, takes bullets like a KV-2, excellent marksman, a pro in archery, incredible physical condition, intelligent af and she takes out what i cal only describe as a human flamethrower tank, what is she vulnerable to … a supernova ? the games is the same as any other power-fantasy. Emotional moment when killing a deer, it’s good to know that killing a smorgasbord of people doesn’t dull her little heart … she still has time to cry for the deer. It’s the same power fantasy with with out of place cut-scenes. Personally i would appreciate then accepting that and turn it into a plus, most recent example would be the new Doom rubbish story but the narrative is masterfully done. PS4 dang if you had a 3 i would recommend Persona 4 newest example of relatable characters that are more than just a set of adjectives. Just fo strong character development, For straight up character development MGS 3 (think you can get it as a pack), hell the entire series is just a analysis on how everyone interprets the Boss’s will incredible stuff if you can handle the length and Kojima being a teenager from time to time. You must have a pc Undertale

    1. You make an interesting point. Though I meant that she is relatable as a person, as a human being.

      Videogame characters tend to be in a league of their own when it comes to physical prowess, and even on that note, Lara still is more believable than others.

  2. Cool. I enjoyed reading this. Now I remember vaguely from silent films class, the professor once compared Lara Craft to an old actress (I forgot her name) who did her own stunt and everything. But sadly, Lara Craft is not real.

    But quite frankly, even though Lara Craft is a cool female character, I always admired Aya Brea a bit more until Third Birthday. She is a female cop. It was her strong personality that I looked up to when I was a kid. Her outfit was appropriate in Parasite Eve 1, a simple white-t shirt, black jacket and jeans. And what I like about her is that she is independent, but still feminine. It’s more realistic for some female gamers to relate to.

  3. [[Spoiler Warning]]

    I just finished playing Syberia 2. I was more moved by Syberia 1’s ending precisely because of what you say – we saw her personal life, the mundane bits, in great detail, and her decision to choose her own life. Syberia 2 was more about Hans fulfilling a dream. It wasn’t about Kate. I wish we had more of a chance to see her reflections on helping someone fulfil a dream at least. Kate was living for someone else (although that someone wasn’t a boot-strapping hunk, and possibly someone with a developmental disorder, so I can’t really criticise anything heh).
    I can’t wait to see Kate in her own adventure.

    Thank you for the article. Nice reflection to end a lovely game.

    1. Thank you kindly. I’m glad you liked the article.

      Good point about the second game not being really about Kate.

      But you know there is a third game coming out. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

      I miss Kate 🙂

  4. An interesting read up. I haven’t actually played much of the Syberia games myself, mainly because I just find the puzzles too hard. I did watch playthroughs of them though, including some of the newly released Syberia 3. I felt that Kate was very weak and submissive a lot of the time, and it kind of bothered me. After reading this, I do have more appreciation for her empathetic kind of characterisation, but I still felt there were times when it would be better if she acted more rebellious towards certain people. There are other puzzle games like Still Life and Cognition, that have female leads, who simply don’t take as much shit from male characters, and are a lot more physically capable.

    1. I still haven’t played Syberia 3! But I definitely will and there will be a post about it when I’m done.

      Still Life and Cognition are definitely good examples of female leads. The Longest Journey too.

      The whole thing about Kate is that she was different. She responded to hardship with kindness, which is refreshing. Especially if you’re tired of violence in videogames and the old debate about “strong” female characters being just like their male counterparts. Which was the main idea behind this post.

      I’m so glad you liked it and that it made you appreciate Kate. She deserves more love!

      1. I suppose you’re right. I just like when they’re physically competent too. The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 is probably my favourite game character. She’s empathetic and motherly, but also the strongest fighter. I liked that her commander, Volgin even feared her, as he knew she could Crush him at at any moment.

        Also on the subject of real life female badassery, have you heard of Nancy Wake? She led many men into battle and was more capable than most. She even killed a Nazi with he bear hands. I don’t like the stereotype that women can’t be seen as women, unless they’re doing only “feminine” stuff.

  5. Actually, the whole thing about what’s “feminine” and what’s “masculine” is a debate of its own. And a very important one.

    Personally, I’d like to believe that violence isn’t inherently “male” and that dealing with an issue in a peaceful and kind manner is not solely “female”.

    That said, I do enjoy seeing a good female badass character. We need more of those too, for sure. Good ones, anyway.

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