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[Gamer Diary] Rollercoaster June: an addendum

2012 July 6

No sooner had I finished writing the 1,200 word post featuring the ups and downs of the gamingverse in recent weeks than Crystal Dynamics – the studio behind the upcoming Tomb Raider prequel game – put their foot in it.

Their executive producer was discussing the challenges this young Lara has to face, which includes violent beatings and an attempted rape, and how this would make players want “to protect her”.

Image of Lara Croft from the new Tomb Raider, covered in mud and scratches, shared under Fair Use guidelinesThe internet exploded with rage, and I got sucked up in it a bit too – it came after I’d spent hours reading and listening to accounts of female gamers being threatened with rape just because they dared to play socially.

A day later, Crystal Dynamics retracted the “attempted rape” comment and said it had been misunderstood.  Largely, I am inclined to agree, but not with the use of ‘attempted rape’; that bit wasn’t misunderstood.  Having seen the footage, that’s exactly what it is, although it is nowhere near as gruesome as much of the internet’s collective imagination has fathomed it to be.

The scene in question is part of their E3 trailer “Crossroads” (you need to be signed in to YouTube to view it as it has a content warning on it).  Naturally, I will say that it will be triggering for some – as could the paragraph after next (& other parts of the rest of this post) when I briefly describe what happens – the specific scene occurs at 2:15 on the vid.

This Tomb Raider is going to be set before the others, and is aiming to develop Lara’s character into the strong, kickass woman she is in those core, original games.  She is stranded on an island with her crew but there’s also an all-male gang who have been stranded on said island for much longer and have turned extremely savage.  They kill Lara’s friends as she watches/hears without being able to help them.  She tries to sneak away, but is found.

The guy who finds her runs his hand down her body; she knees him in the groin and tries to run; he grabs her and tries kissing her neck; she bites his ear and possibly rips some of it off; runs, gets her hands free, gets his gun; they wrestle over the gun… she shoots him in the face.

Doubtless the full scene in the game will be much longer than what we’ve seen here, but it is, at least, nothing so crass as hammering the X button on the controller to push him out from between her legs.  All clothes remain on, which doesn’t make it any less atrocious of course – but it could be much more graphic for the player.

I think where Crystal Dynamics have been misunderstood is with their intention, and perhaps they’ve misunderstood their audience when talking about this assault.

Discussing why it’s difficult to develop a female lead, Rosenberg said: “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.”

-from DigitalSpy

What I find most concerning/irksome/interesting is this idea that the player wants to protect Lara as opposed to be her. Having watched that trailer, I don’t want to be her helper and protect her, I want to jump into her skin and kick the daylights out of that guy.  Perhaps that’s just me.  What I think was ill-advised of Mr Rosenburg (the exec producer) was his move to discuss this damsel-in-distress notion at the same time as discussing the attempted rape.  It kinda oozes the idea that Lara is just an object for men: to abuse or to protect.

I suspect above all that Crystal Dynamics probably need to educate themselves on better phraseology and improve the content of their press interactions.  They don’t seem to mean that the assault and the assault alone turn her into the Lara we’re all familiar with: it’s the whole ordeal on this island.  I’m sure shooting a guy in the face not 5 inches from your own is going to be life changing, and on the flipside, for once a studio is at least trying to show the psychological effect of killing (as opposed to all the other games where you’re expected to believe the protag is completely unfazed by murder, despite being an office worker or somesuch beforehand).

But what about the inclusion of the attempted rape in the first place?

Good point.  After the initial furore, I wondered whether it could be a useful educational tool: to show the audience that rape is horrific, abhorrent and should never be permitted.  Depressingly, this is a message that doesn’t seem to have sunk in with some people in society.

Then I saw an interesting theory in a comment thread, in which one chap theorised that we could see this attempted rape symbolically.  Perhaps this potential rapist represents all the slavering, masturbatory porn-ifying by (mostly) male gamers of Lara in previous games; her escape could represent the escape from this pin-up mentality the franchise has been plagued with.  I thought that was an intriguing hypothesis at the very least.

I think their move to include this assault is bold and their intention – presumably to explore the psychological transformation of such a famous female lead – is sorely needed, because we don’t have many fully developed standalone female characters (i.e. that aren’t just an option opposite a male version).  Above all, however, they probably need to be able to express themselves in a much clearer fashion and, preferably, drop this ‘the player just wants to protect her’ nonsense.

If, when it is released, we discover this attempted rape has just been used to crush her identity as a strong, independent female character, to put her back in her place as a subjugated product of patriarchal desires, then I will stand corrected.  For now, I think we should step back and see where this goes.

Overall, however, I fear Lara will never be free of the patriarchy that created her – in both her story and her creation as a game character. At least they seem to have designed her wearing a bra this time around.

Wider Reading:

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    July 6, 2012

    You know what struck me the most about the trailer when I finally watched it wasn’t what happens to Lara – it was the men dragging off her female colleague at knife point, with comments like “it’s been so long”. This, for me, is depressingly significant – the women are always, always separated in these kinds of narratives.

    Lara’s voice has also been softened and heightened, which I do think is intended to make her present more vulnerably.

    Sigh. I agree with you that their INTENT is to go kinda Lisbeth Salander – to complicate Lara and make her tomb raiding more psychologically consequent to suffering. I just resent the sexual element, really. I think they’ve fallen flat on their faces a bit.

    What it has at least done is really kick off a very public conversation, I guess?

    • July 7, 2012

      The sexualising of Lara is boring and always has been. Regrettably, it’s also one of the key features that the franchise is known for so there never was much hope this prequel could ever have escaped.

      What I fear is that one of the main results this prequel will have is to totally invalidate Lara’s identity as a strong independent woman because all it is doing is confirming, with face-bludgeoning effect, that she isn’t independent, she never was and that she was made by men. Her dad, this rapist; it’s all the same. She was forged in patriarchy hence she will never escape it. I feel pretty sorry for her: a fictional person.

  2. Russell permalink
    July 6, 2012

    I think the line of thinking where they suggest that (male) players will want to protect Lara comes from the mistaken line of thinking that suggests a male audience is unable or unwilling to sympathise with a female lead character, or see a female as a role model. It is entirely mistaken because there are many works of fiction with female lead characters that have enormous male following; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably the most prominent one that springs to mind, and I’d say Buffy is a pretty good role model for a female or male viewer who wants one.

    Unfortunately, this kind of thinking leads to a vicious circle that promotes this kind of sexism; it’s accepted as the received wisdom. Obviously, the way to challenge it is to keep creating good female protagonists and keep tricking, forcing, coercing, or allowing men to sympathise with them. I don’t have a lot of faith that that’s what Crystal Dynamics are doing here though. :(

  3. Stephen B permalink
    July 9, 2012

    Great article, and it helped me get my thoughts straight on the two main points I take away from this: firstly the idea that players wouldn’t connect with Lara when they would with other characters (presumably this is ‘male players only want male characters’, which Mass Effect disproves on its own). Utter rubbish, a condescending, inaccurate, stupid attitude from the developers.

    The bigger problem for me though was that *this is Lara Croft*. Lara is the female Indy. Now as nice as it’d be to have a character who wasn’t basically the better-known male one with a female name (She-Hulk! Batwoman!), Lara IS female Indy and that is Awesome.

    A ‘girl gets attacked and discovers her strength from it’ storyline COULD be fine… in another story. Not for Indy.

    If Lara Croft gets hurt, she grunts and grits her teeth against it because she’s currently swinging through the air on a rope and firing two pistols at a TIGER.

    She doesn’t whimper, or become terrified, or be dominated by men. Because that’s not who she IS as a symbolic superhero. Yes, I know it’s an origin story which allows for new things, and I know a lot of her ‘symbolism’ as a gaming icon is basically ‘BOOBZ’, but it was just *not okay* to do this particular thing to this particular character. She should be about the joy of raiding temples for treasure, firing guns with wisecracks, and swinging on ledges to avoid boulders. Making her drive to do that come from abuse actually reaches forward into future games and makes them… awful.

    • Miranda permalink*
      July 9, 2012

      Yeah, actually the Indy comparison’s really important, I reckon. I know the line “I don’t even like tombs!” in the new trailer is a throwaway gag, almost, but it definitely feels pretty… unLara? Yeah.

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