I am currently playing an incredible game – one of the first real contenders for game of the year. Bethany, the stellar lead character, is one of the best-developed characters in recent memory. She successfully manages to bring a girl's perspective to an action role that we rarely see done well. As my friend and colleague Ali Rapp blogs, we have in the past had female protagonists that act as either men or genderless archetypes – Samus (ignoring Other: M which has problems outside the scope here) and Mass Effect’s FemShep are two of the most popular.
Bethany reminds us that girls behave in different ways than men. She is an incredibly strong person, but she engages in heroic behavior on her own terms, not the terms put forward by the myriad of male heroes that have gone before her such as Ezio Auditore and Nathan Drake. Through Bethany, players are invited to remember that great heroes are not merely merciless killing machines (though she possesses near super-human ability along these lines just like Ezio and Drake), but compassionate individuals thrust into situations beyond their control. It is Bethany’s willingness to both admit and have emotional responses to the events at hand that help set her apart from a history of poorly written women in videogames. I'll mention that the phenomenal voice actor behind her does a great job communicating this to players -- it's top notch work without a doubt.
And now, the point of this short rant: Replace the (purposely) erroneous “Bethany” above with “Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft” and I still believe every word of what I’ve written. If we think anything else about the character, then it is our previous baggage with the Tomb Raider franchise and the Lara Croft character being cast onto the new release. Taken on its own terms, it is almost impossible to deny that Crystal Dynamics has knocked this one out of the park. When you play, dismiss everything you think you know about Lara Croft, and you'll find not just a wonderful game, but a wonderful character that demands a place for women in gaming more strongly than any woman in recent memory. That being said, I acknowledge the near-impossibility of seeing Tomb Raider with fresh eyes, which is why I employed the Bethany subterfuge above (which was inspired by an excellent critique along similar lines). We are trapped by Lara's past, both in the sense of her previous titles, and in the bad PR that Tomb Raider received prior to its release. Both are pitfalls all of us should strive to dodge in the future.
One last note: the game is not by any means perfect, and that includes the writing. But it is a giant leap forward by almost all counts regarding female characters and narrative -- one that we should all hope ripples out into the larger pond of game development everywhere.
P.S. I'm going to begin utilizing this blog much more regularly, so stay tuned for my thoughts and feelings on more upcoming titles.