The Average Gamer

E3 2012 Tomb Raider – Rape as a Plot Device

The gaming part of internet is aflame again with controversy over female characters. This time it’s Lara Croft’s origin story in the new Tomb Raider game. In an interview with Kotaku, executive producer Ron Rosenberg said the following:

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

“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.'”

– Jason Schreier, “You’ll ‘Want To Protect’ The New, Less Curvy Lara Croft”, Kotaku

Protect Lara? I’m all for watching someone grow into an ass-kicking heroine but the whole point of Lara is that she doesn’t need protecting. It annoyed me greatly when they gave her a support team of men in the films and consequently in Tomb Raider Legend. I’m glad to see that she’s back to being independent.

This iteration of Tomb Raider isn’t just about Lara. The game revolves around the aftermath of a plane crash and there are plenty of other survivors, both male and female. Lara’s best friend is a woman named Sam who tries to warn her about a shady character named Mathias. Later in the demo Lara steps into a bear trap and is saved by another woman who seems be leading a helpful group.

I spoke to Ron Rosenberg about how the team approached these strong female characters – whether they left it up to the as-yet-unrevealed female writer or if it was a conscious studio decision. “You know, I think we have our sensibilities but I think a lot of people try to imbue us with… try to politicise things. We don’t really think that way, we’re just trying to tell a good story to bring people close to the character.

Now the developers may not think that way but the recent Hitman Absolution debacle (see Kill Screen and a response) shows that games absolutely have to be seen in the wider context of today’s society. That doesn’t mean that every bit of entertainment has to go towards building Lord Puttnam’s “society that you would want to live in” but we (and developers and marketers) certainly should be aware of the messages they send. Lara Croft has been held up as both a feminist icon and a sexual object since the day she was made public. Of course her reinvention will be under scrutiny from all sides.

During the demo Lara and her companions are taken by a group of scavengers. We see her friends kneeling in a line while their captors wave guns and bows in their faces. Later, one of the scavengers leers up to Lara as she cowers in a ruined hut, makes threatening suggestions and gropes her body.

Here’s the trailer that was released just before E3. It shows many of the action highlights from the longer E3 booth demo and includes the rape attempt and response

People are furious about both the attitude that Lara needs protecting and the use of rape in her origin story.

We’ve decided that because she’s a woman she has to have the hell beat out of her in every f–king scene in the trailer and we’re not going to even go so far as to give her the strength to rebound from it like Nathan Drake would… Nope, we’re going to put her character through hell, give the character a falsified hope, then kick the chair out from under her again so that we can have the male audience emotionally say ‘aw, I feel like she needs some help’.
– Dennen, Kotaku comments section

You can read more responses here:

When I asked about character development and that cutscene of attempted rape, I wasn’t given the same story that Kotaku was – that people want to protect Lara rather than be her – and I can’t help wondering if that’s because I’m female. t feels like Rosenberg’s quote above is just another way of saying that the game is for men, not for people like me. I am not the only woman who reads it this way.

Then again, with the number of cleavage-dwelling shots in the E3 booth demo as Lara dug in a pack for some gear or struggled with the bear trap, I already knew that.

Instead, Rosenberg told me about survivor behaviour and about the need to break down her character. “That whole demo, there’s a couple of interesting themes there,” he replied. “We did a lot of studying in real life surivival stories for this game. You’ll see that in the beginning of the game. One of the big themes that you’ll find with people who successfully survived in real life, they had this mantra of ‘Just keep moving’. You see that in the beginning with Lara. She hits obstacles and she’s able to overcome those obstacles.”

Indeed, she hits obstacles quite literally. Lara slides down a waterfall and ricochets off debris, crashes through the glass of a plane’s cockpit and gets beaten by a hundred trees as she tries to parachute to safety. I know that Tomb Raider has always been about Lara vs The Environment but ouch!

“We’re building up her confidence” Rosenberg continued. “She makes it over the log and the plane. She manages to hunt and make a fire. Her confidence is getting better and as soon as her confidence is built up, she… we smacked her down basically. Her best friend gets kidnapped, she’s betrayed by another member of her crew, she’s captured by the scavengers. We put her into the position where the theme changes and she becomes a cornered animal.

Sometimes when you’re in extreme situations like that, that’s where you’re really able to show a person’s character. She’s literally put in a position where she has to respond or die. And you see her, that inner strength come out in her and that’s really the thing that’s important to me, more than… it is a very intense moment in the game but I also think it’s a transformative moment.”

I get that they’re trying to show her development but using an attempted rape as that key moment just feels lazy and out of character to me. The plane crash wasn’t enough adversity? The bear trap? Being kidnapped, punched in the face and thrown to the ground?

Where Indiana Jones’ origin at the beginning of The Last Crusade was about learning to use his whip and never doing what the enemy expects, this feels like a strong female character needs to be created through personal trauma. Specifically, physical abuse from men.

From Major West’s inexplicably-motivated soldiers in 28 Days Later to Madison’s nightmares in Heavy Rain to the motivation behind Shank, sexual assault is the shorthand for evil when it comes to women. It’s the fictional world’s Kick the Dog or Beard of Evil whenever a female character is around and Rape as Backstory is just a rather tedious trope. In a ruined and burning village when a man finds a good-looking female survivor trying to escape with her hands tied behind her back, the best course of action is for him to… kiss her on the neck? Throw her to the ground and try to stick his dick in her? We’ve already seen that other men are in the village, standing guard only meters away and none of them come to her aid. It’s safe to assume that this behaviour is deemed acceptable among his group. In a survival setting all men are rapists now, is that what Crystal Dynamics trying to say? Of course not (I hope not) but that’s what happens when you divorce plot and character devices from real-world considerations.

Lara Croft has always been an explorer, an archaeologist, a killer who wields any weapon you can think of. She’s totally unfazed by the appearance of dinosaurs or religious statues coming to life and shooting lightning bolts around the room. What the hell does rape have to do with that?

Tomb Raider will be out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in March 2013. Come back in a couple of days, we’ll have an in-depth preview on Lara’s survival skills and the gameplay.


  1. @SergProtectorat

    12th Jun, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    They should have given you the same answer on the protecting Lara reason. Why can’t a female want to protect another female especially one so young? As for the rape I agree on it seeming as if it was ok. However to equate that to Indy just learning about his whip is misleading. Sadly we DO live in a world where abuse against young women is an everyday fact and in a situation of survival that these people find themselves in then sadly the more base instincts could well surface. It isn’t right but in trying to carve a story in which Lara is in genuine mortal peril then a video should be allowed to go that far and be genuinely adult and not in an exploding limb way that is mistaken for adult but is actually very juvenile.

    • Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

      12th Jun, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      But Crystal Dynamics don’t think like that, remember? Let’s not politicise their game…

      You’re right that rape happens far too frequently. But are you really saying that most men’s instincts will be to rape a woman in the middle of a burning village over… oh, I don’t know… getting the hell out of there? Are men really just a set of barely-controlled cocks throbbing at the thought of dominating an unwilling dry vagina?

      I truly hope not. Perhaps I’m the naïve one.

  2. @SergProtectorat

    12th Jun, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    No, i don’t. But then I don’t think most men shoot each other in the face like most other 3rd person shooters. It is a game and a thriller after all. Crystal are throwing everything in the mix (maybe too much?) after getting a sound thrashing from the Uncharted games. Perhaps this whole thing is to try and distance themselves with a darker, meaner game; however fumbling the result.

  3. joe k

    12th Jun, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Brilliantly said, and reflects the thoughts of many I’m sure. Is just like to add that, as an equalitarian but also just having happened to have been born male, I’ve never had Amy trouble ‘inhabiting’ Lara as a character. So Kotaku lost le me right at the start there.

  4. Mason Gordon-Levitt

    12th Jun, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    This has to be one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read. Rape isn’t used as a plot device, for starters, considering Lara isn’t raped, just nearly sexually assaulted by the Russian leader, and all he did was breathe on her neck and caress her arm.

    Furthermore, it adds to the elements of savagery, ruthlessness, and overall threat that the savages on the island pose for Lara and the survivors.

    Jesus. Some people really need to be fired from their journalism jobs when they clearly read far beyond what they should.

    • Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

      12th Jun, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      He didn’t manage to stick his dick in her so the fact that he tried doesn’t matter. Is that what you’re saying?

  5. Mason Gordon-Levitt

    12th Jun, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Oh I’m sorry. I must have missed the scene where they were both naked and he was trying to rape her.

    If you bothered to read my comment, you would have realized that the point I was trying to make is that they aren’t trying to use rape as a plot device, but highlight the savagery, the cruelty, and hell, even womanizing aspects of the antagonists Lara will face.

    If anything, the extent they’re going to is taking inspiration from the fan base, who consider Lara a “sex icon” and including that in the game.

    Doesn’t make it any more right, but it’s NOT as severe as you’re trying to make it sound.

  6. Charmie K

    13th Jun, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Mason it seems like you are missing her point. The issue isn’t that rape/sexual harassment is being used, or even whether it is rape or sexual harassment or just some unwelcomed touching. Issue is that whatever it is, it’s being used in the context of shaping Lara into someone that needs protecting. Therefore, it’s lazy. Lara was a role model for me growing up. Tomb Raider was the first game I ever bought with my own money and it was because it had a strong, confident woman with guns on the cover. I don’t mind them bringing vulnerability into the mix to round her out, but come on! It sounds like they were just pulling every cheap emotional trick they could to make her into a damsel in distress.

    That said I think your point about taking inspiration from the fan base is interesting, and I’d be impressed if the devs were thinking of it with that depth and just slipped when they shot their mouths off talking to Kotaku.

  7. Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

    13th Jun, 2012 at 1:46 am

    As Charmie explains, Mason, it’s exactly that the unwanted sexual advances are used to diminish Lara. She suffers plenty, I don’t see why they need to add such a clichéd overused tool on top of everything else.

    You say yourself that the assault (and make no mistake, is IS a sexual assault) is a means to highlight the savagery of the world. Rosenberg says that it’s a transformative moment for Lara. Well, yes. That’s what a plot device does. In this case it’s yet another challenge for Lara that uses the convenient concept of rape when a woman has to be hurt. It’s lazy and it does a disservice to both Lara and to the male characters of the game.

    The fact that Lara successfully fought off her attacker doesn’t mean that rape wasn’t attempted, nor that it’s an insignificant plot and character development point. The man groped her, rubbed his face against her neck, threw her to the ground when she tried to escape and pinned her with his body. What do you think he was going to do, get up and apologise, say he thought she wanted him to kiss her?

    In response to servicing the fan base who find her sexy: Rape (attempted rape, sexual assault) is about power, not sex. Here’s an article on gaming and rape culture that may provide some useful info.

  8. Mason Gordon-Levitt

    13th Jun, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    This may come as a shock to most people, but it’s just a video game.

    • Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

      13th Jun, 2012 at 11:45 pm

      And just like other arts, literature, film and music, games are open to sociological criticism.

  9. Mason Gordon-Levitt

    14th Jun, 2012 at 3:30 am

    What exactly are you criticising? In case you might have missed it, there’s no rape whatsoever in the game. If you bothered to go to YouTube and watch the Crossroads trailer, or even look up the cutscene to which the assault is shown, it doesn’t go any further than the Russian antagonist caressing Lara’s arm and doing something near her neck, before she kicks him in the crotch, bites his hear and then shoots him in the face.

    You’re taking it upon yourselves to piss and moan about something that one, isn’t even in the game, and two, you’re clearly ignorant toward. If you ask me, you’re just bored and are looking for something to complain about in the upcoming game.

  10. Mason Gordon-Levitt

    14th Jun, 2012 at 3:33 am

    I just reread your last comment and nearly fell out of my chair. He threw her to the ground when she tried to escape and pinned her with his body? Oh give me a goddamn break. Watch the damn scene; Lara knocks him down and goes for the gun and he gets on top of her to try to get the gun from her, but after the struggle, she shoots him in the face.

    To reiterate, watch. the. damn. video. You’re complaining about something to which you clearly have NO knowledge of.

    • Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

      14th Jun, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      I saw the full 20-minute demo at E3, Mason. Remember, I’ve only ever said rape attempt and it’s all common rape imagery. If you can’t see the intention behind the actions, well… there’s no point in further dialogue.

  11. Mason Gordon-Levitt

    14th Jun, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    You’re calling it a rape attempt when you don’t even know if that was his intention. The fact of the matter is, it was not a rape attempt, but sexual assault and that’s that. There’s no “well you can imagine what he wanted” because that’s presupposition. I’m not defending Lara’s assailant but I won’t stand idly by while someone takes something way out of context for the sake of riling up controversy.

    I’m done here.

  12. Jon Blake

    14th Jun, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Oh my my. The feminist community (Debbie included) are really eating this up.

    A bunch of men isolated from woman wouldn’t try to get a little “action” with a girl that they feel physically superior to?

    This scene shows what women can do to protect themselves. That they can be strong and defend themselves.

    The whole quote of “wanting to protect her” shows that the player will have an emotional connection with Laura as a character and will not want to see her hurt. Is that so wrong?

    I like how Debbie calls it “cliche” yet its never been shown in the gaming industry.

    • Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

      15th Jun, 2012 at 12:48 am

      Jon, I’d like to think that not all men revert to being rapists after not being in contact with women for a while (if this is even the case in this game) but comments like yours make it look more and more like I’m being naïve.

      Yes, the scene shows strength. I’ve not disputed that for a second. Here is a post showing why rape (attempted rape, sexual assault) should be treated more carefully than most topics.

      And transplanting a cliché into a new medium doesn’t make it a new topic. Here’s a short but illustrative list of Rape As Backstory. Jack’s version from ME2 is actually an interesting twist on the trope, used to emphasise just how bad everything else was.

  13. Caroline Leon

    1st Jul, 2012 at 5:58 am

    Stumbled onto this article through another page. I’m an instant fan. Its unfortunate you got a different response as the Kotaku reviewer but that’s PR for ya. Alot of assumptions about preference are made because male gamers greatly outnumber female gamers. However, the percentage of female gamers is rising. Rosenberg and other like minded individuals within the industry need to acknowledge us and start catering to the growing demographic.

    I am a female gamer and have been playing games since around the time i learned to speak. I have been starved for a strong female protagonist. Off the top of my head I can only think of Nariko from Heavenly Sword who, much to my disappointment, dies. She plays like God of War’s Cratos plus daddy issues. Then there’s Samus from Metroid who people not familiar with the series might assume is a guy because of all the armor. Then there’s Lara Croft who, although highly sexualized (the worst was a skintight outfit in a section in TR:Chronicles) was one of the few female leads in a game that was independent and could kick some serious ass.

    I find it disappointing that Rosenberg and the rest of the team working on the game believe that they have to write a game differently because the lead is female. If you take Nathan Drake out and replace him with Croft Uncharted would remain an excellent series because the games have great stories and compelling characters and gameplay to match. I understand it is idealistic to believe that someone shopping for a game will perceive a game with a female character one the cover and a game with a male on the cover, both within the same genre as different.

    The Tomb Raider games have been lacking and I was really anticipating something great and similar in style to Uncharted. Now that I know the dev team intends to sell me a $60 game that’s supposed to satisfy my desire to want to protect someone I dont think I want to purchase this game anymore.

    As a retail employee at a game store Im often asked my opinion over games. most people I have encountered have played at least one tomb raider game in their lives. If they haven’t already done so and are into action platformers I always recommend Uncharted and describe it to them as “what the Tomb Raider series should have grown into” it looks like even after this new Tomb Raider game comes out I’ll still be referring people to Uncharted and not Tomb Raider when seeking out a well rounded action game.

    • Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

      2nd Jul, 2012 at 12:40 pm

      Thanks Caroline.

      I’ve only focused on Rosenberg’s comments in this piece but the game as a whole actually seems pretty good. Lara does seem incredibly accident-prone though :S

      You still have quite a few QTE moments but looks like there are lots of options and exploration, more like the older games than Legend. God, Legend put me off all the following games because it felt so guided. This one has more open areas and thingies to find off the beaten path. They just don’t really come across well in gameplay videos.

      Protection crap aside, I really hope it’s the game they claim it is.

  14. Evangeline Simmons

    28th Nov, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    I have to admit that I sat here for a few moments considering if my eyes were deceiving me, or if I had really read that article properly. I know I’m late to the party with this, but I just have to chime in. First off, as a woman, I don’t take kindly to this feminist crap that seems to be plaguing the nation. As a few comments stated previously: 1) Lara did not get raped. Anyone with at least a single functioning retina can see that it didn’t go any further than sexual assault. I attended the Eurogamer Expo and saw the full playthrough from the start of the game and the full controversial scene. It’s not rape, and if you’re so quick to call it that, I feel bad for any gentleman who bumps your shoulder on the street.

    2) Rape, sexual assault, whatever you want to call it, is not being used for a plot device. Last I checked, the scene shows female empowerment. It’s not female empowerment as seen in the Jodie Foster film, The Brave One, but female empowerment nevertheless. There’s no denying it. It shows Lara’s first encounter that requires her to take her first human life, in honour of defending herself. It’s powerful, it’s shocking, it’s tense, it’s epic, and it’s inspiring.

    3) This one had me laughing for quite a bit. “I’d like to think that not all men revert to being rapists after not being in contact with women for a while…” Forgive me for sounding crude, Miss Timmins, but I take it you’ve never been to prison? I don’t have first-hand experience myself, but I’d like to extend you the courtesy and think you’re not that thick-headed as to suggest that men in a savage-like environment, out of contact with a woman for quite some time, would not attempt rape? Debbie, for God’s sake; they attempt rape on each other! I can’t tell you how many films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and news articles I’ve scanned in which a prison setting was the background and rape was involved. It’s practically inevitable. I don’t mean to imply that all men would do such a thing, but why don’t you mosey on down to the local prison and step into a male inmate’s jail cell and see how quickly he’d attempt an advance. It’s common sense.

    The fact of the matter is–and it’s quite obvious to anyone who’s read this article–is that you’ve clearly (and possibly deliberately) taken the entire situation out of context just to stir the proverbial pot. To go as far to claim that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics are trying to suggest this and imply that based off of a straightforward scene in a fictional piece of digital entertainment is just sad. Like another person said, so well in a previous comment: it is just a video game.

    As I said before, as a woman, I am not a fan of feminism and quite frankly I find it to be as daunting, cynical, and annoying as Soccer Mom organisations who target fictional entertainment like MADD on Grand Theft Auto, for instance.

    On a final note, I urge you to reconsider your stance as an amateur journalist, because quite frankly it seems as though you’re fitting the believe that anyone with a website and a keyboard can and will take things way far out of proportion just for attention, and it is not okay.

  15. Ephreinhard

    26th Dec, 2012 at 2:19 am

    Major West’s inexplicably-motivated soldiers in 28 Days Later?

    “inexplicably-motivated” Mmmm… Where American soldiers in Vietnam also inexplicably-motivated? It seems to be than an able-bodied male can copulate with a female anything from two to five hours a day without incident if he so desires, at least while he is in his twenties and maybe thirties too. And that alone can be averagesexual drive, even if we diminish the capabilities and sexual drive to the point that we declare a man’s sex drive to be five minutes a day once a week, even then there would be a natural motivation, based on the fact alone that they’ve been sexually repressed in spite of the absence of women. Looking at a woman is enough motivation.

    And that’s just factoring sex drive and sex depravation regarding motivation, not factoring streess, traumatic disorders developed in combat situations, the lack of concequances in forced sexual intercorse, the encouragement from their superiours, peer preasure, so on and so on…. When concidering rape syatuations.

    And that’s just me lightly adressing very generally one tiny part in this whole article.

    Do find rape evil if you must, don’t fool yourself and find it inexplicable when it’s obviously not, because that’s just ridiculous.

    Maybe they just want to show through rape that you’re easy pray and make sure you never forget.

    All in all it all depends on the sytuation, and the individuals involved. It’s nature, yes, nature is cruel. And women rape too by the way, children, animals, men, other women, you name it.

    And! And! And!
    Lara is hot!
    It would be almoust unreal if the bad guys hadnt try to rape her at some point or another, criminal organizations revel in a good deal through rape pretty much world wide, if anything I wished she had been raped and been put through the fires of forced penetration…That is, to make it yet more in contact with the cruelty of nature per se…. I must say, now that I think about it, if you havent lost your family and subsecuantly been spit on the face and anally raped while you cry and scream in panic, you’re still too far away from experiencing the cruel reality and aspects of the human experience… So, think about it, this game will show you how tough she gets, not how far in ’till she breaks; TLDR

    Lara is hot
    Criminals Rape
    Makes perfect sence
    Leaving rape out would be censorship
    Merely an attempt to please some people’s sensibilities