Tomb Raider, Controversy, and Backpedalling
Warning: This article deals with the subject of rape. If you this is a sensitive subject for you, please don’t read any further.
At this year’s E3, a new trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider game was unveiled. The video, titled Crossroads, and comments made about it by one of the developers, have caused quite a stir. A recent statement that tried to calm things down has had limited success.
In short, Lara Croft, star of the series, is the victim of an attempted rape during the course of the game.
The new Tomb Raider game is either a reboot or a prequel to the series, depending on who you ask. Regardless, the underlying idea is that the Lara Croft we’re seeing is not the eponymous Tomb Raider, but a young woman who is unsure of herself, frightened, and vulnerable.
Exact details of the game’s plot and setting are still coming out, but the game sees Lara shipwrecked on an unidentified island, separated from her crewmates, and pursued by the island’s aggressive inhabitants, all apparently male. The scene that has caused an outcry is from a part of the game where Lara, having been captured, beaten, and bound narrowly escapes a rape attempt. She does so by killing her captor and would-be rapist. Here’s the scene in question:
It’s worth pointing out, in the interests of fairness, that the rape is only implied, if heavily, and nothing actually happens. That’s no excuse of course. “She stopped me,” does not pardon an attempted rape.
Rape is a difficult subject to talk about. Some people would argue that there’s no place for it in video games. I disagree; if video games are to mature and be seen to do so, they have to be unafraid to tackle this kind of issue. My problem is not with the inclusion of rape, rather it’s with the way in which it’s being used.
Rape as a trope in storytelling, regardless of the medium, tends to be a cheat; it’s frequently lazy storytelling. If you need to hammer home that the “bad guy” is really bad, he can rape or try to rape someone. If you need to show just how dangerous a situation a person is in, shock the reader with a rape scene. What is perhaps most egregious about the use of rape in Tomb Raider is that it’s a blatant technique to get the player to care for Lara. In an interview with Kotaku, Ron Rosenberg, the game’s producer, said: “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.”
So the implication here is that we, as gamers, have to see our female protagonists as weak and helpless before we can start to cheer them on. There are a lot of things going on here, from gender roles and misogyny to sexual identities and power structures. Needless to say, most of those are out of Giant Fire Breathing Robot’s area of expertise. What’s in, however, is the implication that gamers just aren’t ready for a female protagonist in a AAA-title who can take care of herself, or who is strong and capable right from the outset. We might see Nathan Drake in danger, risking life and limb, but we never see him beaten, bound and helpless, scared for his life. For all the clumsy moments in the Mass Effect story, Bioware never saw fit to include a scene where the female version of Commander Shepard has to fight off a sexual assault just so we cared about her.
Kate Cox, who now writes for Kotaku, wrote up her impressions of the Tomb Raider trailer at E3 last year for Bitmob, in particular her reaction to the sounds Lara was making. She said that, “I can’t tell if the player is meant to feel the desperation of Lara’s position, or to fetishize it.” I’m not entirely sure about fetishization, but the use of rape as a tool to build character means that there will always be a part of us that remember Lara as the weak, frightened girl about to be raped. Her defining moment won’t come from her own decision making or natural character growth; instead it will come from a desperate attempt to prevent herself being raped. That moment will always be her “crossroads.”
The implication here is that Lara, as a victim of sexual assault, is weak. This is simply not the case; strong people are the victims of sexual assault every day. Being “weak” does not make you a victim, and being “strong” does not make you immune to sexual assault. Had the protagonist been male and suffered a similar sexual assault, would we be expected to feel the same way we are expected to feel for Lara? Would we want to protect him, keep him safe? Or would we, perhaps despite ourselves, see him as even weaker, as pathetic?
I’m all for attempts to flesh out the character of Lara Croft. I have a soft spot for the character; Tomb Raider was the first Playstation game I bought with my own money. Despite her over-inflated mammaries, the original Lara Croft was kind of a bad ass. What little dialogue she had was full of sarcasm and smart-ass quips. There wasn’t much character there, but what there was painted her as tough, sarcastic, and capable.
The original Lara Croft may not have been blessed with a detailed history, but at least she was a step above the usual female videogame characters we saw then and still see today. She may not have been a great feminist icon, but she was a good start. The video game industry needs its Ripley. This, however, is not the way to do it.
As an aside – if you’re interested in a fascinating examination of Lara Croft as a feminist icon, read Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? by Helen W. Kennedy.
Crystal Dynamics have back-pedalled on the use of the word ‘rape’ to describe just what happens in the game. Studio head Darrell Gallagher released a statement to say that the word shouldn’t have been used. Part of the statement says, “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.”
I’m not sure that last sentence is true, actually. If you have a character that is under threat of sexual assault, however implied it may be, then surely you’re covering it? I may be splitting hairs though.
From what’s been shown of it, Tomb Raider looks like it will be a fantastic game. The graphics look superb, the action breathtaking and the whole thing feels like a great chance to reintroduce a gaming icon to a new generation. I for one will be hoping that this furore doesn’t cast too much of a shadow over the game when it finally does arrive.
All images via Crystal Dynamics
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