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.