Square Enix’s new Tomb Raider game hits stores today. Lately it seems the term “gritty reboot” is just another way of saying “don’t preorder this terd,” but by most accounts Lara Croft’s new origin story bucks that trend. IGN calls it “a greatly successful origin story, a series reboot that feels both authentic and hugely exciting.” Joystiq says “it just may convince a new generation to like Tomb Raider again.” Given that many of these reviews were released last week, Square Enix seems to have known it had a hit on its hands. This is no Aliens: Colonial Marines, ladies and gentlemen; there was no need for a review embargo to protect launch day sales of Tomb Raider.
Lara’s comeback is important more for simply being a good game. The games industry itself is simply stronger when its big name titles are going well. It’s not that different from a modern sports league. The National Basketball Association is stronger when the Los Angeles Lakers are playing well. Major League Baseball is more compelling when the New York Yankees are strong. These are the teams known the world over for excellence in their particular sports, and things just aren’t the same when they aren’t in the thick of things. Depending on your allegiance, they’re either the ultimate good guys or the most hated bad guys–and those are the kinds of characters epic stories are made of. New school stat heads like me might love the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Rockets and Oakland Athletics, but no one can deny that the season is made much more dramatic by the flag bearers of those leagues. It works for gaming, too; we all love Journey and The Walking Dead, but gaming is better when Mario’s pushing platformers to new heights, when Final Fantasy redefines its core mechanics yet again, when Link once again proves that dungeon diving is never going to get old–and when Lara Croft is proving that female characters can kick ass, too.
And that last piece makes Lara even more important. Quick: tell me one other female gaming lead your grandmother can name. Can’t do it, can you? Say what you will about the unrealistic curves of Lara’s previous character models, but Tomb Raider firmly established that video games aren’t just the realm of buff men or stoic emo dudes. Samus Aran may have come first, but she never built the mainstream appeal of Lara Croft. Faith, Chell, and Jade are all compelling heroines, but knowledge of those three is typically restricted to hardcore gaming fans–they’re the Rays, Rockets, and Athletics referred to above. Lara certainly isn’t the only female gaming lead, but she’s the most well-known and therefore the female representative of the industry.
Her latest incarnation is perhaps her most important. Lara starts the game as a young, inexperienced adventurer shipwrecked on a dangerous island populated by a brutal cult. She has to learn the skills she needs to survive, avoiding all manner of gruesome deaths in the process. This is the story of how Lara Croft became Lara Croft, and it’s not the kind of thing you often see a female gaming lead go through. That’s important; it proves to any remaining doubters that women can carry brutal, character-defining video games just as well as men.
So welcome back, Lara. Gaming needs you–especially in your gritty rebooted form.