Redefining female protagonists.
While watching Anita Sarkeesian’s video, I thought it was interesting that one of the damsel’s traits was the inability to effect the predicament that she was forced into. Damsels in distress are either unwilling to escape, or are incapacitated so that they can’t break out on their own. This obviously puts all of the weight on the protagonist, because the damsel can’t help herself.
In the 2013 remake/prequel of the game Tomb Raider, you play as a young archaeology graduate named Lara Croft. This game is the first in a trilogy of prequels that tell the story of how Lara Croft eventually becomes the titular tomb raider, but it also gives an interesting insight into the male perspective in the game’s development. The basic premise of the game is as follows: Lara Croft and her friends are stranded on a mysterious island in the Dragon’s Triangle off the coast of Japan when their ship crashes. Lara must use her survival skills to protect her friends and uncover the mysteries of the island.
I absolutely love this game, and when the game launched it received many awards from critics and gamers alike. But as is often the case with media that has female protagonists, the game was criticized for having a “ludonarrative dissonance” by many players.
Ludonarrative dissonance is a concept that exists in games where the narrative or the motivations of the characters are at direct odds with the gameplay. In this case, the writing and voice acting behind Lara Croft’s personality is almost a direct opposite of the actions that the player must take to complete the game through Lara. When I was younger, I felt as though every word that comes out of her mouth seemed to be algorithmically perfected to make her seem like the weakest, most useless woman ever created in fiction.
When you compare this with the actual gameplay, you wonder if the dialogue writers even knew what the game was about. Lara Croft shoots grappling hooks through enemy goons with a bow and arrow, using their impaled corpses to zipline across deep chasms while simultaneously laying down suppressive fire with her endless arsenal of improvised firearms and explosives. She nimbly and seamlessly weaves her way through more whirling blades and poisoned darts than Indiana Jones could ever manage, all while dealing with a gaping lower abdomen wound.
When I looked into the writing team behind this game, I saw that there were two women credited as lead writers, one of them being Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of acclaimed sci-fi novelist Terry Pratchett. This struck me as odd, because I had assumed that Lara’s dialogue had been written by some man who wanted to make a strong female lead come across as whiny and petulant, and not a well-published female author.
As I thought about my own personal definition of a strong female protagonist, I realized that I was mistaking “strong” for “hardened”. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that in order to be strong, a female character has to be superhuman, instead of just being human.
This is a common misconception among men, that women need to be hardened badasses in order to be female leads. Too much emotion is seen as feminine, which is then associated with weakness. A large perpetrator of this trope is the Marvel cinematic universe, where the females are usually depicted as hardnosed and humorless in order to seem super cool. Females in the MCU often fall under the damsel in distress trope, but we forget about it because there was a girl power moment in Endgame.
In contrast, Lara Croft is a real superhero. She may scream and cry as she cauterizes her own wound with a road flare, but that doesn’t make her a damsel in distress. I really hope that I can examine my own biases and start to understand more when it comes to female characters in video games, and I have started compiling a list of games I need to revisit with this newfound perspective.