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.

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 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.

You’d even 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.


The legend of inclusivity

Or Korra and the struggle for more inclusive writing.

Recently, Dark Horse have announced a comic book series continuing the stories of Avatar Korra, focusing on her relationship with Asami (here‘s the Mary Sue article for more details). Now, if this sounds like gibberish, I’ll explain. The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a 2005 TV animated series that some people liked. Vague? Alright. It’s basically Kung Fu meets magic in Mysti-China. A world inspired by various Asian mythologies that featured a cast of ethnically diverse (but predomninantly mystic-Asian) characters (who were played by a bunch of white guys, but we’ll get to that in a minute). It touched upon topics of spirituality, peace and loving the environment. At the same time it was essentially an American coming-of-age story starring the most white-American mysti-Chinese character I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, it captivated audiences worldwide and inspired a lot of people to… do Kung Fu and love nature, I guess?

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t watch the original series until much later. Oh, what’s that sound? It’s my geek cred slamming against the floor. Bear with me. I actually watched the original series only after having watched the sequel, The Legend of Korra. The peer pressure finally became too much so I agreed to watch “that silly cartoon”, but I guess the female protagonist just appealed to me more.

Fast forward to 2010 and the film of roughly the same name (The Last Airbender) was – what’s the polite way of putting it? – not well received. It featured a cast of mostly white people in mysti-China which already looked dumb. They threw out a lot of the mystic and spiritual topics in favour of shadow-punching and choreographed Dung Fu that looked plain silly. I love M Night Shyamalan and generally think he gets too harsh criticism on most of his films, but I can’t defend this one.

Hope seemed lost until two years later when “Legend of Korra” hit the screens. And Holy Shyamalan Shaolin, Batman, was it good. Alright, I’ll admit, I thought the first season (or book, whatever) was quite… what’s the word? Meh. The second one was ok… ish. We were still dealing with a white-American coming of age story, only this time of a girl from an Inuit-like tribe who really, really liked sports. Hold on, Nickelodeon, I’m not giving you points for originality just yet.

It was nice to have a female protagonist in a children’s cartoon, since, well… we really should. Right, that’s the end of that discussion, what do I talk about for the rest of this post? Oh, I know. The series, I felt, really came into its own when they ditched the boring romance that Korra (the protagonist) was in (hint: it’s with a sports jock, it was awkward at first and then they fought, then they kissed, then they broke up again… wow, so original) and turned the story over to some really interesting villains who pushed Korra’s limits. In the end, she won, but the main bad guy broke her. Bane vs. Batman style. In the fourth season (book, give me a break), she had to rebuild a Kingdom whilst thwarting its dictator all on her own. No pressure, Korra dear.

But that all pales in comparison to that last episode (and the build-up to it), and that scene between Korra and her friend Asami (who used to be her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend… talk about complicating things). In that scene, after they left a party together they… wait for it… they… still waiting… they… hold hands.

Yeah, I know. The writers later went on twitter to confirm that “Korrasami” (as fans have dubbed the relationship) was officially “canon”, otherwise known as “a thing” (See IGN for more details). And that’s… great? I guess?

Personally, I felt robbed. Like they didn’t go far enough with it. Here, we have a perfect story for the new age. A story of diversity, inclusivity and pushing boundaries. A children’s cartoon with a female main character who is not white and, in the end, a bisexual. This is so great. On the one hand, we’ve blown away the “white male” standard with an uppercut straight to its bearded hipster chin, and not only do we have a main character who is not straight, but she challenges the simplicity of “straight or gay” in terms of sexuality. So, why is my reaction to it lukewarm at best?

First of all, the shortage of minority actors. You could argue that it’s voice acting, so the colour of the characters is what’s important, regardless of the voice. Fair point, but allow me to expect more. Take the Southern Water Tribe from whence Korra came. It shows Native/First Nations and Inuit influences in its culture. It is a highly spiritual society with a deep connection to the spirit world (and in this Universe, that means something). Why not hire some Native actors to do the voice? I’m sure Adam Beach is dying to get another gig, or recruit others too (Sorry, Adam, you’re great, but you’re fast becoming the Samuel L Jackson to Wes Studi’s Morgan Freeman of Native actors, give others a chance, eh?). I guarantee you, an actor with that cultural background will bring a whole new dimension to the character that transcends the boundary of the TV screen, reaching out to the audience in a way that a white actor cannot.

But it’s not that the actor voicing Korra is white. (Way to create jobs for minority voice actors, Nick.) It’s not that it was yet ANOTHER coming-of-age story (like we don’t have enough of those already). But it’s that last scene. Them just holdings hands. I loved it the first time I saw it. I still do. I thought it was sweet, innocent and hinted at something great for children’s TV (i.e. no longer pretending like other sexualities are not a thing). But it was vague enough that it let “fans” take to twitter in a storm and say “no, she is not. I’m taking my strictly hetero marbles and leaving, yo.” But I wanted more. I wanted them to embrace and kiss while rose petals fell from the ethereal planes and spirits danced in a spiral around them, while violins played in the background and sparks flew. If you’re wondering where the sparks came from, it would be from the screens of all the homophobes watching. I mean, keep it PG-13, but give me something! Go full Hollywood with it, just to rub it in everyone’s faces. “Yes, she’s bi. Deal with it!”

I’m not blaming the authors. I guess what they did is already pretty bold by today’s standards (which is a sad statement in and of itself). I just want a bisexual non-white female character in a children’s TV show to be seen as something perfectly normal. Why? Good question, I don’t know, because… it is? I want that to be the shtick of a popular TV series and not cause a fuss. And I want to be able to stop praising people for writing “inclusively”. Because inclusivity implies that there is exclusivity to be fought.

The inclusion of a scene with two girls holding hands in a way that may or may not be romantic may be seen as a step forward from nothing. But is it enough? For me it was wishy-washy, non-committal, maybe-maybe-not-maybe-bother-someone-else. What I’m asking is… own it. Commit to it. Embrace it. Make sweet, sweet love to it and let it bear babies. Diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, polyglot babies who don’t go “ewwww” when they see two girls kissing on screen. A next generation of art that acknowledges that someone’s sexuality does not need to fit neatly in a box, that girls kissing girls is normal and that we’re all free to be what we want.

And, in the end, Korra and Asami are perfect together, and you know it!