Realism, reactions and that “r” word … the Tomb Raider debate
Last month Crystal Dynamics went into damage control on the new Tomb Raider game’s rape controversy. Studio head Darrell Gallagher, attempting to get ahead of the wildfire discussion, claimed that it is incorrect to define the infamous scene from the “Crossroads” trailer as an “attempted rape.”
“While there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that have already been shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme we cover in this game.”
No longer limited to the gaming press, this new take on Lara Croft has hit the mainstream and is likely already too far gone to be reeled in by quasi-apologies from Crystal Dynamics. The unfortunate simplification has become “Lara Croft gets raped in the new Tomb Raider,” and gamers have taken sides. Vikki and I wanted to put a casual discussion out there and wrap our heads around what this issue says about games and gamers.
VIKKI: I’ve been staring at this post for days. I know what I want to say – I think – but I’ve started and deleted so many attempts I’ve simply lost count. So bear with me: this’ll be less an academic-esque commentary than it will be a meandering (and sometimes confused, no doubt) and personal perspective. Many have already represented my own thoughts already (and most more successfully than I, let’s face it), but here it is anyways. Ready? LET’S GO.
As some of you may have already seen, I’ve been deeply and vocally disappointed by Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of classic Croft. If I’m honest, the newly imagined Tomb Raider has perturbed me from the get-go, for no matter how impressive the dynamic environments and achingly realistic graphics, Croft’s continual sex-sighs are so mind-numbingly off-putting, I can’t bear to hear her. I know: that seems stupid. Even writing it, it seems stupid, but I can’t help it. Like many others, in spite of those torpedoed breasts, I idolised Croft growing up. She was strong, confident, independent and feminine. Yet from the moment we saw that reveal trailer, one thought popped into my mind, and it persists as one of many nagging signifiers suggesting that this game hasn’t been shaped for the likes of me.
And by me, I mean a hetereosexual woman.
In an earlier draft of this piece, here sat a section about feminism – what it meant, what it didn’t mean (at least, not to me), and whether or not it was even relevant. I decided that it wasn’t and promptly yanked that bit out because you know what? It doesn’t matter. How or why or even if I choose to define myself is immaterial. All that matters is that I was turned off by Croft’s alarmingly sexual moaning way before the rape controversy hit.
And then the rape controversy did hit.
JOE: I first heard the “Lara gets raped” quote from people I follow on Twitter who also play games and read comics and are into what most people probably consider nerd media. I had not seen the footage in question at that point (and I only saw the E3 2011 footage without much audio, so I missed the whole sex sighs thing as well.) The tone I saw in the complaints was that rape is a pretty lousy way to add “depth” to Lara’s character. For those of you coming in late, it has been made apparent that the new Tomb Raider is a reboot/prequel. Lara is much younger – like, a teenager – and this is supposed to be the adventure that thrusts her onto the path of eventually becoming a world-class archaeologist explorer.
Then I saw the footage, at E3, during a guided tour with the developer. And I was like, Oh, that’s it? Not to demean the topic, but the complaints about a rape scene seem to presume facts not in evidence, as they say.
VIKKI: I get it, incidentally: I understand that it’s an origins story. It pre-dates Croft as we know her, intimating how the happenstances of her life shaped and guided her development as the woman she ultimately becomes. As gaming’s most badass female, and I wholly appreciate that someone, somewhere, figured an origins story was about due … it’s just how Crystal Dynamics has set about doing that that puzzles me.
While CD have formally and unreservedly backtracked from any notion of “rape” from that now infamous Kotaku interview, the fact remains that – to give the character depth and resilience – Croft, as a teen, is essentially sexually assaulted. Whether it’s attempted or actual, we don’t know, but it’s undoubtedly an unconsented, physical violation. And yeah, I know: we haven’t seen the assault scene in context but to be honest, I’m not sure what added-value context would bring to this debate. He’s groping her. She very clearly doesn’t want him to do so. That is assault. End of.
JOE: Again, I wonder just how much blowback this scene would have received if CD had not made a big deal about “they try to rape her” and then act like that’s some kind of heroically formative moment. Because that’s the meme that’s grabbed hold in the Awful Bro Gamer land, that Lara Croft is raped. If we take Crystal Dynamics at their word, there’s nothing more that happens than what we saw at E3. There is clearly an intended sexual assault. These are dangerous men. But Lara fights her way free. I feel like the collective terrible assumption at work here is that Tomb Raider is going to include some kind of ghastly rape minigame where you fight off advances by pressing buttons, or, even worse, NOT fight off advances by pressing buttons.
VIKKI: Whether or not you believe in rape as a valid narrative device is kind of immaterial here, too. As a gamer, I wholly support any attempts to validate gaming as a very real and meaningful art form, and whilst I personally find rape portrayals in most media abhorrent (and rarely justified, as it’s chiefly used just to intimate what dirty old bastards men are), I’ll defend our rights as an industry to use it. After all, is rape any more despicable than murder or child abuse? Are gamers too immature – or fragile – to deal with mature themes? I suspect not – but then, I’ll admit that I don’t think that this is the pertinent issue here, anyway. No, the issue here lies more in why CD have opted for such an inclusion, rather than the fact that they’ve done it at all. Allegedly this is a deliberate device necessary to push Croft to the very edge, to make her weak and cowed, and ultimately propel the player into wanting to protect her.
JOE: It’s not like her hours up until the sexual assault have been wonderful. In the E3 demo, we see her nearly dying of exposure, getting ridiculously slammed down mountains and rocks. Hell, she WALKS OFF a bear trap injury.
But back to the “protect Lara” thing… is that genuinely how devs think we play video games, or is Lara Croft getting sidelined here simply because she’s a woman?
VIKKI: I rarely feel the desire to protect other lead characters.
JOE: Lead characters, no. Secondary characters, yes. Because generally that’s what the game is driving you to do… like the Mio/Mayu relationship in Fatal Frame 2. Or Yorda in Ico. Even, in a cheesy b-movie kind of way, Ashley in Resident Evil 4. Sort of sadly obvious that all of these “protect me/guide me” characters are female… even if the lead character is also female or a ten year old boy.
VIKKI: Whilst we can legitimately debate about the hypersexual and heterosexually-lensed portrayals of gender in gaming (not to mention the bloody clothing/outfits), the fact remains that we’re rarely – if ever – coerced into feeling protective of lead men. Even when presented in more vulnerable settings – take the teenaged Nathan Drake, for example, as witnessed in Uncharted 3 – most can thoroughly take care of themselves. Even those depressed and broken male characters – Max Payne, instance – are almost exclusively that way as a result of the protagonist’s partner being attacked/killed/abducted/whatever. With Mafia II as the one (if slightly different) example, it’s never as a result of a sexual assault, which brings us to question … why, then, are CD choosing to do this to a young Lara Croft?
JOE: This is storytelling shorthand. It’s like “Finding Nemo” beginning with the mom fish being killed: losing a parent is a shortcut to sympathy. Surviving a rape is a shortcut to sympathy for female characters. Having Lara Croft survive this experience is supposed to show the danger she’s in. It’s too convenient. It’s too easy. And, given how much else Lara has to suffer through, I doubt she’s going to spend the rest of the game having horrifying flashbacks to that one guy groping her (unlike, perhaps, an actual victim of sexual assault). It’s crazy that Crystal Dynamics put so much attention on this, like it’s some kind of bold story choice on their part.
Then there’s the “baby fat” comment, where CD mentions that they wanted to make sure the de-aged visual redesign of Lara Croft included some baby fat. How much more evidence do we need that Lara Croft is nothing but an object. If you’re still applying the phrase “baby fat” to a late-teens young woman, you are seriously creepy.
The truly disgusting thing is that CD’s perhaps-innocent “she survives a rape and that’s dramatic” press has merged with the horny gamer culture take of “I sure would like to see actual Lara Croft sex scenes instead of all this half-assed amateur fan-porn I downloaded.” Maybe Crystal Dynamics was naive on this score, and intended that the de-sexualizing of this new, younger Lara Croft would prove they were going to take Lara seriously this time. And then they opened their collective mouth and kept talking about her like she’s an object anyway… an avatar to be protected rather than inhabited.
It reminds me a lot of Capcom circa Resident Evil 5, when the company was fundamentally unaware of the racial triggers found in that first trailer. Capcom rebounded, and I’m sure Crystal Dynamics can as well. Tomb Raider‘s delay into 2013 should be just the thing to put plenty of distance between this ugly issue and the game itself.