I know this topic is pretty divisive and I’m basically going to be playing with fire here, but I’ve been thinking about the new Tomb Raider game and female protagonists as a whole, and have a few thoughts I would like to share. A controversy sprang up when the game’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg said that there was a scene in the game where the antagonist on the island Lara Croft is on attempts to rape her. In the interview it was described as a turning point for the character’s growth. Lara has to adapt to the visceral nightmare situation and survive. Its a life changing moment in the arc of the character that can have an emotional impact on the player, and something that is rarely, if ever, seen in games.
This notion sparked a huge controversy in the gaming community. Should the fear of rape (the worst crime that can be committed towards a female) be used to leverage emotions in something as trivial as a video game? Is it appropriate? Why does it have to be rape? Lara Croft is a woman, is using rape in this scenario too easy of a plot device? Is Crystal Dynamics exploiting a perceived female weakness in exploring the attempted rape? Can the same emotional resonance be created with more traditional fears such as violence and/or murder? These are the questions that have been hotly debated since the controversial E3 interview was published on Kotaku. As a fan of solid story telling, Tomb Raider, and controversy I’ve been crushing on this for some time now, and here’s what I think.
Rape, is one of the only topics in today’s media that consistently draws ire from all directions, its an act that is so horrid and deplorable that even mentioning its existence can make people uncomfortable. Feminist have strong opinions about rape in media and rape victims appropriately have trepidation when discussing and/or addressing such traumatic incidents. As a man, I will never understand how the fear of rape feels to a woman. I will never understand if women should even be scared of rape, or feel empowered to be able to prevent it. I’m a dude, the only concrete thing I know about the topic is how it makes me feel emotionally. Even the emotions that I feel were created through a lens that has been constructed by the much larger perception about rape already in place. The problem is that, as a dude, I’m who Eidos is marketing the game towards.
Much like the N-word, I am not equipped to speak on the offensiveness of the topic at hand. What I can do though is juxtapose the idea of attempted rape against the current norm in video games. What’s the current norm? Murder, mass murder. Games like Uncharted, Splinter Cell, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, (the list is nearly endless) have massive amounts of murder, specifically the murder of humans. Killing humans has become a genre in and of itself in gaming and 99% of the time its being done to men by men. Like professional football and baseball, women are usually found on the sidelines supporting the main male characters. They might be a love interest, family member or even a special operative team member. I actually can’t remember a female being a murder-able NPC (that wasn’t a boss) in a shooter. All of the randoms are dudes, all of them. Its a weird industry standard that no one really addresses but everyone follows. This subconsciously teaches us that men are disposable and women aren’t meant to be in violent virtual situations. Rape is a violent situation, more so than shooting a dude in the head.
Strong female protagonists are rare, mainly because sales numbers point to male fronted games and movies making more cash. Females that star in games are hit and miss usually, but are much more memorable. How many people remember the name of the protagonists in the most recent Medal of Honor game and how many remember Jade, the star of Beyond Good and Evil? Medal of Honor was a hit, Beyond Good and Evil wasn’t. Characters like Lara Croft, Samus Aran, Jade, Female Shepard, Johanna Dark, Rayne, and Nariko are infinitely more impactful and memorable than their male counterparts. When building a story, women inherently can have a more dynamic base to draw from, and like it or not part of that base is potential rape.
In the new Tomb Raider, the scene that has sparked the controversy leads to Lara Croft getting her first kill. In movies and games, killing means nothing, but if this character is drawing from a somewhat lifelike base, the hurdle of taking the life of another human being can carry some heavy emotional weight, especially if that person is about to kill and/or rape them. Does the sexual battery depicted in the scene add to the tension and emotional response? I would say undeniably yes. When Nathan Drake is tied up (mind you he’s pretty experienced in getting out tight spots) he doesn’t have the same fears as a young naive Lara Croft. As a man, this element, one that is absent from most games with similar hostage situations, makes Tomb Raider different and if it is portrayed with the proper weight can have a profound impact to Lara’s character growth.
In my opinion, the ability to have a multifaceted origin and dynamic character arc, one that can only happen to an in-game female is really a benefit. Nothing spurs emotion like attacks on the weak and helpless. In this scenario, Lara Croft is weak and very quickly learning to not be helpless. Hopefully Crystal Dynamics will be using this as an invaluable character growth moment that could not be done with a male character. I am all for female equality, and love seeing strong female roles in all forms of media, but to pretend like women aren’t different from men is offensive to the benefits of both sexes. Rape shouldn’t be a topic that is off limits, but it should be treated with the care.
Now, I say all of this as a man, a man that understands that he doesn’t understand anything. I know how the scene makes me feel and it doesn’t offend me. Crystal Dynamics has come out and said the scene that was released is the entirety of the “attempted rape” sequence, basically saying that what Rosenberg said was false and misleading. This controversy has caused Eidos and Crystal Dynamics to do PR back-flips that include everything from claiming the original interview was misquoted to the ludicrous idea that there was nothing sexual about the assault that was in the trailer. What will probably never be known is if this controversy will ultimately change the game. It would not surprise me if certain elements were toned down since they clearly did not see the backlash being so profound. Clearly what is in the scene in question is not rape or attempted rape, but the 2 second slow down highlighting the “unwanted touching” IS sexual battery. If this is in fact the only instance where Lara Croft is sexualized in the game then this shit has been blown WAY out of proportion. In that case, Rosenberg’s time with the company might be coming to an end.