Rant: Crystal Dynamics Hopes Gamers Will Care about Lara Croft… [UPDATED]
A new post on Kotaku reports that Crystal Dynamics’ studio head, Darrell Gallagher, has issued a statement to clarify the “attempted rape” portion of the Tomb Raider trailer, noting that it’s not, uh, you know, attempted rape. I guess it’s, like, attempted-attempted rape? The statement:
“We had a great E3 with Tomb Raider and received a fantastic public and press response, with the game picking up numerous game of the show awards based on the new direction taken with the franchise. Unfortunately we were not clear in a recent E3 press interview and things have been misunderstood. Before this gets out of hand, let me explain.
In making this Tomb Raider origins story our aim was to take Lara Croft on an exploration of what makes her the character she embodies in later Tomb Raider games. One of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene is the content we showed at this year’s E3 and which over a million people have now seen in our recent trailer entitled ‘Crossroads’. This is where Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time. In this particular section, while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.
We take great care and pride in our work and are focused on creating a release that will deliver meaningful storytelling, drama, and exciting gameplay. We’re sorry this has not been better explained, we’ll certainly be more careful with what is said in future.”
Just to clarify my own position: the incident of sexual assault–attempted or implied–isn’t the whole of the issue, though that certainly is a huge part of it. To me, the horrors that Lara Croft seems to be experiencing in the above trailer go much further than necessary to give her sufficient adversity to RISE ABOVE. The main issue, I think, is that Rosenberg and the trailer above imply that Lara Croft is, as a woman, in need of “help” and “protection,” and that only through these pretty over-the-top experiences can she become the “Tomb Raider.”
But there’s no such equivalent when it comes to male heroes or protagonists…at least none that spring to my mind, with quite such intensity as the scene above. Remember the origin story for Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade? He was, like, a boy scout and he beat up a bunch of bad guys and got a hat. No crazy, violent trauma to “build” his character. The fact that Crystal Dynamics is easing off the “rape” plot point helps, but–to me–the main issue of weird, out-dated gender assumptions and inequalities remains.
When I saw the Tomb Raider playthrough at Microsoft’s E3 conference last week, I thought to myself, “that looks pretty cool.” Lara Croft was running, jumping, shooting bad dudes with a flaming bow and arrow—pretty bad-ass.
Towards the end of the demo, she fell and hit a ton of tree branches. “Well, she should probably die of internal bleeding—but whatever,” I thought. That’s how video games go, right? Characters take a lot of damage.
Then this past weekend, I watched the actual gameplay trailer on Xbox LIVE, which is posted above. In it, Lara Croft gets abused every which way—at one point, she even steps in a fucking bear trap.
Just to be clear, when a character gets caught in a bear trap, it’s supposed to be hilarious. Observe:
In Tomb Raider, however, it seems kind of like the icing on a snuff-film-flavored cake. Seriously, why doesn’t she just get an anvil dropped on her head, too?
My point is that Lara Croft sure is taking a ton of abuse—quite a bit more than you’d think considering the relatively “realistic” look Crystal Dynamics is going for in this Tomb Raider reboot, in which we learn of Croft’s origins as an adventurer. It turns out that’s no accident.
The game’s executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, explained to Kotaku that Croft is getting beat up so much in the game—including surviving a failed rape attempt—in order to get gamers to care about her, and want to help her:
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’ […] She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper. When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character. [...]
The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear. She literally goes from zero to hero… we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again. She is literally turned into a cornered animal. It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.”
Okay. Allow me to put on my feminist hat for just a second.
So much of what Rosenberg discusses here seems to assume that gamers can only project themselves onto male protagonists—which is total malarkey. The massive success of books like The Hunger Games should prove that sympathy and empathy for protagonists defies gender boundaries. The fact that, yes, more gamers are male than female doesn’t mean that gamers can’t take on the role of a female hero. That’s absurd, and it is, in fact, sexist.
It’s something of a cliché at this point that in order for a female character in fiction to be sympathetic and/or ass-kicking, they have to have suffered some kind of sexual trauma to start with. But why is that? It’s not like we needed to learn about how Han Solo was sexually abused as a kid and that’s how he was able to turn around and become a bad-ass space smuggler. No—he’s cool and he’s got a blaster and he’s awesome.
So why does Lara Croft need to be busted down into “a cornered animal” in order to grow enough to fight back? And also: who tries raping cornered animals? What? We’re mixing up metaphors and ideas here and it’s revealing some very, very strange stuff about how women in pop-culture are viewed.
Furthermore, why should gamers be convinced to “protect” and “help” Croft? Aren’t we playing as Lara Croft? The language Rosenberg used in the interview is extremely paternalistic, not to mention patronizing. Do we protect and help Mario in his games? Hell no—gamers ARE Mario, dammit, and WE run and jump and stomp koopas. Why does Lara Croft need to be “helped”? She doesn’t. She never did before, and I’m baffled as to why she needs to be now.
Last week, I discussed the controversy over the Hitman: Absolution trailer, in which Agent 47 goes to town on a bunch of sexy nun-assassins. While it definitely raises some questions about how far is too far in terms of sex and violence in games, to me, those women are all on an equal playing field with the game’s protagonist. They’re all paid killers, and they all embody fantasy ideals about gender. It’s not totally equal, no—for it to be truly equal, Agent 47 should be wearing, like, a cock-sock and should be showing some nips or something…something to equal the fetishization the female characters are showing. But regardless, essentially it’s killers trying to all kill each other in a more fantasy-type setting.
In the case of Tomb Raider, however, gritty realism seems to be the name of the game. And the sheer amount of physical torture and the attempted sexual assault that Croft suffers through—all in the name of somehow needing to convince gamers to sympathize with a character who has already successfully sold games and movies for over a decade—is insulting to me as a gamer and as a thinking human.
This is all disappointing, considering the fact that the Tomb Raider reboot actually looks like it’ll be a lot of fun in the style of Uncharted—another game featuring a bad-ass male character whose awesomeness is never questioned or needs an explanation. I’m all for learning about how Lara Croft became so great—but I never needed it to be done like this. The ironic thing is that Crystal Dynamics is actually taking great pains to de-sexualize the character from her past incarnations, where she was little more than a bunch of polygons shaped like boobs. And yet, the way in which they’re doing so ends up somehow being more insulting and degrading to her as a character, and assumes that us gamers need to somehow be tricked into caring about a female character who we already care about.
Phew! Okay. Glad I got that out of my system. Just so we’re clear, these are all my opinions. You’re more than welcome to disagree or discuss. Game on.