Lara and I
This can’t be a very long post, because I’m only a few hours into the game, but I wanted to put to paper (figuratively speaking) some of my thoughts about the nature of the player/character relationship, as I see it, and how it manifests in the new Tomb Raider.
I’ve been watching my wife play Mass Effect 2 for the past couple weeks, and she (like me) is playing as a female Commander Shepard. Shepard, of course, is very much an avatar of the player–one can design Shep’s facial features, gender, hair color, and to a large extent, demeanor and personality. The dialogue system in the Mass Effect series offers enough variety that Shepard’s actions are able to mirror the player’s intent to a very large degree, even in cutscenes.
Shepard isn’t a perfect avatar, of course–sometimes you’ll pick a line of dialogue that doesn’t quite come out of the Commander’s mouth in the way you’d like it to–but there is enough control there, enough choice, that I have always associated myself with Shepard whenever I’ve played. I’ve noticed that my wife has been doing the same. Liara isn’t Shepard’s “space girlfriend,” she’s mine. (Same goes for Lt. Alenko and my wife. Space boyfriend.) Playing as a female avatar hasn’t made me feel less associated with Shepard. Gender doesn’t seem to have much to do with this association.
So it felt a little weird to me, playing through the new Tomb Raider, when I realized that I wasn’t thinking of Lara as myself–I was thinking of her as a teammate. Immediately, I checked myself against all the patronizing controversy that I’d read in the run-up to the game’s release: Was I thinking of Lara as a scared little girl that I had to “protect?” Criminy, I hoped not.
And I wasn’t. Not really. But I was thinking of Lara as someone I was working with, rather than as, in order to keep her (us) alive through abominable circumstances. In moments of tension, I found myself talking aloud to my television, telling Lara what a terrible business we were in the middle of and asking her to work with me so we (she) wouldn’t die. Is this cognitive dissonance, or am I being pedantic?
I can tell you that I had the exact same relationship with Leon S. Kennedy when I first played through Resident Evil 4. In fact, some of my friends can attest to my intense frustration anytime I died playing that game, because I felt passionately as though I was failing my virtual partner (and in another sense, breaking the narrative–Leon wasn’t supposed to get his head chainsawed off; the story derailed because of my incompetence, etc.).
These characters are agents, not avatars, meaning they are not meant to be an embodiment of the player in the game’s world. But I find myself wondering, as I play through Lara’s story, how my relationship with her is going to change over the course of the narrative.