What made Lara Croft the hero we know today? Crystal Dynamics new take on Tomb Raider turns the concept of the once overly sexualized and invincible Laura Croft on its head, offering up the story of how she became fearless and invincible in the first place. It’s worth a warning: it isn’t pretty.
The narrative the developers have come up with is more brutal than anything we’ve seen in previous Tomb Raider games, and possibly any game. In the words of the developer:
“We did a lot of research into survival and people who survived extreme situations. One of the recurring themes was that people who survived had this mantra of just keep moving,” he explained. “You see that in the beginning of the game, where we begin to build her up and give her confidence to cross the ledge, cross the plane, she forages for food and she’s feeling really successful. Then towards the end we start to really hit her, and to break her down. Her best friend is kidnapped, she’s taken hostage, she’s almost raped, we put her in this position where we turned her into a cornered animal.”
Here, in chronological order, is the thought process I went through as I agonized over and discussed this game with others.
It’s about time
When people talk about Laura Croft, they roll their eyes, thinking of her as an idealized and sexualized cartoon hero. No one takes her seriously. It’s about time people started taking videogame protagonists seriously, and this seems like a great start. Make it clear that hardships are scarring, that when bad things happen they aren’t always “fun”, and that enemies are more than targets. Adventure has a costs – let’s explore that.
Wait, are they going overboard?
I mean, why do we have to use videogame’s one strong female presence and make mincemeat of her. Why do we have to cause this character this much pain? Is this supposed to be fun? What kind of person finds watching Laura Croft suffer to be fun? Her constant grunting and groaning sounds strangely sexual.
But what differentiates this from male suffering in games?
We’ve seen this before, right? I mean, guys suffer in games all the time, and we never have a problem? Is it merely that she’s a girl? Is there ever a way to pull off a realistic survival action-adventure game with a girl that will be acceptable? Is there anything that happens to Laura that hasn’t happened to a male protagonist before?
Oh wait, the rape stuff…
If Games Can Be Artful, Then They Can Artfully Explore the Subject of Sexual Assault
When Croft is sexually assaulted in the trailer, it’s a horrifying moment, both for Laura and for the videogame enthusiast. Right away I realized while watching that I was going to have to come to terms with the idea that this was something that was happening in a game that was being produced primarily for my entertainment. Still, I am convinced that games have the ability to handle sensitive issues with the serious they deserve. It’s not as if the game was celebrating the rape, and the man who attempts it gets what’s coming to him. In a way, it’s the polar opposite of that Hitman trailer everyone was so upset about. Right? And if a game can help us to empathize with a victim of sexual assault, isn’t that a good thing?
But this is a Tomb Raider Game
Forget the intentions of the developer or the thoughtfulness of their execution: this is a game people will buy because they recognize the Tomb Raider license. They will go into this with expectations of empathizing with a female character – they will watch her. As much as I want to wish the best about the audience, we’re just not there yet. And games aren’t made in a vacuum. As much as I want to “wait and see”, I’m finding it hard to convince myself that this is anywhere close to a good idea. When Croft is assaulted sexually, it’s not a life altering event, but a story beat – it’s one more obstacle that comes after being attacked by a wolf and before dodging flying plane parts. It’s one “exciting” event in an action story. It is, by definition, trivial.
I can’t seem to move past this concern. Tomb Raider is a silly game – that’s okay. It’s even okay to make a silly game a little more serious. But in this game, the only way we are given to interact with such a life-altering event is to punch, shoot and climb. These are inadequate mechanics for dealing with such a serious subject – they change the focus from the internal struggle of such an event to the next available spectacle. Why add the sexual assault beat to this game in the first place? As an easy way to portray the evil heart of the villain? As a quick way to draw attention to Croft’s desirability? As a way to make the gamer gasp and feel they are playing something profound?
Those reasons aren’t enough for me.