Rise of the Tomb Raider is an Action-Adventure game developed by Crystal Dynamics, published by Square Enix and Microsoft Studios, and written by Rhianna Pratchett. It was released in November 2015 for the Xbox One, January 2016 for PC, and October 2016 for Playstation 4. As a sequel to to the 2013 game entitled Tomb Raider it follows the story of Lara Croft venturing into Siberia in search of the Lost City of Kietzh. I finished the main story and the Baba Yaga DLC in January 2017 but this article is written primarily from memory with internet searches to help fine tune the details of the events.
This is the second of three posts and focuses on tests that highlight media using standard tropes; specifically three tests that evaluate the depiction of women and their relationships in games. If you haven’t read the research post in this series you might want to start there or begin by looking at how the characters stood up to scrutiny.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test
Do two named women characters have a conversation about something other than men?
There’s not really much doubt that this game should pass this test with the variety of female characters, but the question needs to be looked at in more detail as to whether it actually does or not. It turns out most of the time the characters are talking about men.
Lara & Amelia
These two characters never interact in the context provided of conversations. In additional DLC there are journal entries that Amelia wrote but she’s a named character only in the sense that she was Lara’s mother.
Lara & Nadia
They do have conversations about things other than Nadia’s grandfather, but their conversations are purely for the sake of helping Lara get to Ivan. The conversation that comes to mind is when they talked about finding a way to avoid the hallucinations that the local fauna cause. It does pass the test but not in a way that it particularly satisfying due to the majority of their contact being through radios.
Lara & Sofia
These two do have a conversation that passes the test; at least one that comes to mind prominently which is when they very first meet and Sofia tells Lara that she’ll kill her if Lara is seen in the valley again. When they meet for the second time they’re talking about Jacob and when they talk about defending the valley it’s against Trinity which, with the exception of Ana, was solely made of male soldiers.
Lara & Ana
This was the relationship that could be expected to instantly pass this test but when thinking back on it most of their conversation revolves around Lara’s father, Richard. They do have conversations about Lara knowing the location of Kitezh and the Divine Source, and Ana threatens to kill Lara on occasion, but there’s a surprising lack of memorable extra conversation; especially when Ana has effectively been a step-mother to Lara.
Lara & Serafima
These two never really interact. For most of their relationship Serafima is trying to kill Lara and they don’t really talk about anything. Serafima just throws taunts at Lara and Lara monologues about Serafima, occasionally shouting something to her. When they do actually talk, their conversation is primarily about Ivan and Nadia.
Result: Pass – Barely. Exactly one conversation stands out that qualifies.
The Mako Mori Test
Does at least one prominent female character have a narrative arc that not about supporting a man’s story?
There’s no doubt that Rise of the Tomb Raider passes this particular test as Lara is a female protagonist that is doing this for her own sake. When you sit and look at it in detail, however, it becomes apparent that it could have easily failed.
Lara is doing this because her father wanted to. The only reason this story passes this particular test is because it’s also part of her recovery and proving her father wasn’t wrong. If Richard was a character that wasn’t already dead, it could be very easy to say that Lara was just supporting her father’s story – even though she’s the main character.
Ana is another interesting twist. She has her own story arc and I think Konstantin actually ends up supporting her story arc but if it wasn’t for that existing connection between Lara and Ana (linked primarily by Richard) then Ana could have become a woman to support Konstantin’s story.
Serafima initially appears to have her own story arc too, but that’s only on the surface. Nadia is discounted because her story is in support of Ivan’s but Serafima’s is too. The reason you enter the story line of the Baba Yaga DLC is because Ivan wants to kill her, but the reason why Serafima ends up doing what she does is because men took her away and she lost Ivan and her child, Nadia’s mother. When you place her story in the context given, that she only ended up this way because of isolation that male soldiers placed her in, doesn’t her entire story seem to support to only support the notion that she’s supporting Ivan’s story? Add in that as soon as she knows Ivan is alive and she has a granddaughter she suddenly wants to stop her murderous spree and the conclusion you appear to come to is, yes.
Result: Pass. Two female characters with their own independent story arcs.
The Sexy Lamp Test
If you replace a female character with a sexy lamp would the story still work?
Whether the game passes this particular test is a matter for debate. Lara, Ana, Serafima, and Sofia are all irreplaceable with sexy lamps. Nadia isn’t as clear cut as you only see her to get the quest and then at the end of the quest. You interact with her over the radios but there wasn’t any particular need for it, Lara could have been talking to Jacob or Jonah or anyone else and the story could have worked. You could have even just found a note to send you on your way in the first place too, something Ivan had written in a journal or left by a sexy lamp.
It feels as though Nadia was expendable for this story and so it can’t pass this test.
Result: Fail. Nadia feels very expendable.
You could expect that Rise of the Tomb Raider would comfortably pass these tests. There’s a female protagonist at the helm and a wide variety of female characters to draw from but when you start to look in depth you come across a lot of flaws with the game.
The only test that this game passes comfortably is the Mako Mori test surrounding women having narrative arcs that don’t support a man’s story; both Lara and Ana contribute to this pass.
The game does pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, but it’s not a particularly satisfying pass. Lara is the only character that interacts with all the women. Ana never interacts with Sofia, Nadia never interacts with Serafima. It’s especially odd in the case of the latter relationship that there’s no interaction between the two of them.
The sexy lamp test is failed on the basis of Nadia, she feels like a half-written character that wasn’t fleshed out and it’s somewhat disappointing. Her story arc came in DLC but it could have easily stood alone without her and had the exact same effect.
Overall, for a game with a variety of well designed female characters and a strong female protagonist it’s surprising that these three tests aren’t instant passes. It will be interesting to see whether other games with female protagonists pass easier or if a game with a male protagonist pass these tests too.
You can also check out Part 3: Equality in the Writing