I remember Lara Croft. I was 8 years old and I thought she was, for a lack of better term, the shit -- and I didn't even really understand how to play Tomb Raider.
I'd run around for hours with Lara, making her flip about, volley off walls, shoot at birds and dive from buildings only to escape unscathed. She'd masterfully balance over tightropes and swim down into the darkness with onto the light of a glow stick to guide her, her breath held for as long as the little bar on the screen would allow her. Lara could leap across ravines and backflip over traps with the expertise of a star athlete, and could haul ass carrying a priceless ancient artifact with the urgency of Indiana Jones himself.
Yet, I was 8, and I don't think I was really mature enough to be playing Tomb Raider just yet. God bless my parents for disregarding classifications and age warnings, lest I miss out on the many games that shaped me as a person, but I was terrified of anything that even looked like it wanted to hurt me. I'd run from the attack dogs and as much as I tried to shoot them to make them stop, my petrified little hands couldn't aim my pistols well enough. I'd do just about anything if it meant sneaking around any guards or thugs that might be watching me and one time I shut off my PlayStation because I was mortified that a small swarm of bees could actually kill Lara. I later learned this swarm of bees was actually fire, but I digress.
Without having shot a goddamn thing or even play the game properly, I loved Lara Croft. I'd play the tutorial levels for hours on end just to watch her effortlessly overcome just about any physical obstacle in front of her, and when my father pointed out there was an actual game beyond the tutorial I responded with a 'so?' I wanted to be Lara Croft, I wanted to be agile and strong and be able to carry what seemed like an infinite amount of glow sticks in what I'm assuming was my boots. I was 8 years old and Lara was one of the few women in games at the time who appealed to me to the point where I had a glimmer of something to look up to.
Needless to say, despite my waning interest in the Tomb Raider games and my realization that Lara's sex appeal was often made out to be her most redeeming feature, I never really stopped liking her. Sure, Tomb Raider: Underworld was lukewarm and the movie was bad even by video game to film adaptation standards, but even when people presented Lara Croft as an example of 'more bust than brains' (please, she's like if Indiana Jones and Batman had a baby,) I still harked back to the days of walking over a tightrope and wishing I could actually be her.
Then E3 2012 happened.
I was probably one of the more vocal in my expression of concern for what Lara would be 'rebooted' as. Sexual assault? A 'cornered animal?' I may not have played Tomb Raider ‘properly’ but I knew that Lara Croft was very rarely, if never, a victim or a damsel in distress. I certainly couldn't recall Lara Croft needing rescuing like Princess Peach or Princess Zelda, and I really, really didn't want to wind up associating a happy childhood memory with sexual assault. I'm not going to lie and I'm not going to skirt around it: I was a little scared. I was scared that I was going to see a childhood figure go down the same path as Samus in that horrible Metroid revival. I was hoping that Lara would empower, but I had a sinking feeling that it would be another ‘love story’ dressed up as an adventure.
I will admit that I ate my words. I went into the game on release prepared for the worst. I was ready to see Lara crawl off that boat and sniffle and cry and wait for someone to rescue her. But she never waited. Lara landed on a spear that went through her side like a kebab and kept going. She killed a deer despite her own disgust and kept going. She dove into a literal river of human blood to avoid being captured and kept going. When Lara climbed up that radio tower I held my breath, totally lost in the moment. She'd slip and I'd grip at the controller, but she hardly slowed down long enough to let herself take stock of the danger she was in and when she got to the top of that tower I actually let out a chuckle of relief and pride.
I picked up Tomb Raider thinking that being a victim at all made you weak, but I realized something important when Lara picked up that grenade launcher and started trash-talking her foes: being a victim isn't something that leaves you doomed to weakness. Becoming a victim is often the start of a story, and what you do with that beginning is what makes you strong. Lara started off her story tied and strung up, crying and confused and needing others with her, but it's not long before she takes total control and agency of the situation. When her crewmates find themselves in trouble, without even asking, Lara is the first to help them. Lara steps up to the challenges ahead of them and although she shows and expresses emotion at the situation -- which is human -- she does it without allowing lamenting, complaining or bemoaning to hinder her and puts herself in power.
I once thought that Lara Croft and I had nothing at all in common. She was an archeologist adventurer with a hot body and a butler that didn't press charges for locking him in the freezer. I was a writer living paycheck to paycheck who can't climb a rope and couldn't even get her own cat to like her.
But we've both been victims. We've both been at points where things seem hopeless and useless, but we've come out of it and not only survived but taken control. Maybe one in a more literal sense than the other, and one slightly more condensed instead of over the span of 5 years, but I digress.
Lara Croft used to give women a video game character to relate to based on little but gender. Now, she gives women a video game character to relate to based on taking control and overcoming the seemingly hopeless, based on strength and will.