A wonderful thing happened while I was playing the new Tomb Raider game.
I was navigating my way out of a collapsing cave — blasting violent cultists and uncovering the secrets of a lost civilization and whatnot — when, suddenly, I forgot that Lara Croft, the game's main character, was a woman.
Welcome to the 21st century, game writers.
Croft, a British explorer who is as well versed in world history as she is in slaughtering bad guys, bears and the occasional dinosaur, has a long and polarizing history.
She has the hallmarks of a strong and fearless female lead character. She is one of few female video game characters to break the mainstream barrier, starring in novels, comics and two high-grossing movies with Angelina Jolie in the title role.
But Croft, her creators and her fans have always been hyper aware of the fact that she is a woman. Developers, designers and writers have depended on that awareness to sell the dozen or so games that have featured her likeness.
Her portrayal — the sheer awareness of her sex appeal and her "I can do anything you can do better" attitude — has always struck me as pandering. Especially when paired with her exaggerated bust line and totally impractical tank top and short shorts.
The newest game, a reboot of the whole franchise starring a younger Croft on her first-ever expedition, takes a different approach to Croft's design and motivations. And it comes across as a revolution.
For the first time, Croft isn't written as a woman. She's not necessarily written the way a man would be, either.
She's written as a human — a scared and unprepared young adult thrust into a Bermuda-Triangle-like region, where she has crash-landed on the island home of an ancient, evil sun goddess and the hundreds of crazy cultists who worship her.
Croft's motivations are simple: save her friends (who have been captured by the cultists), uncover the secrets of the sun goddess, get off the island alive.
Motivations missing from previous games are "spew flirty quips" and "look fabulous."
In fact, for much of the game, Croft looks anything but fabulous. She'll get coated in mud, cut up, bruised and dunked in a pool of blood.
She'll get stabbed, shot, captured and threatened. But she'll muddle through, feeling her way as she goes, the way any man or woman might when his or her back is against the wall.
The game does lots of things right in terms of actual gameplay. Finding and upgrading weapons and equipment will inspire you to explore the inner depths of the island. Controls are right-on, and the gunplay is thrilling.
Graphics are stunning, the story is intriguing and the game creates genuinely tense and terrifying moments.
But, in my opinion, the success of the game is overshadowed by the success of the folks who reimagined and rewrote Lara Croft.
Though Croft is now younger, her character finally has grown up.
Video game review
About: Explore the ancient island home of an angry sun goddess after crashing there with your crew.
Players: Single, multiplayer
Pros: Good graphics, combat, controls, music, atmosphere — pretty much everything. The game's reimagining of protagonist Lara Croft is a resounding success.
Cons: A few glitches here and there could have been ironed out before the game shipped. Some weapon balance tweaks would have been nice. Pro tip: The bow and arrows is better than all other weapons.
Availability and price: $59.99 for Xbox 360 and PS3, $49.99 on PC
ESRB rating: M
Manifesto's rating: 9/10 (PS3)
Metacritic rating: 8.7/10 (PS3)