Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A Single Aspect - Tomb Raider and the Plight of Video Game Heroes


Originally published at knowngriefers.com.


It was a big to-do when, in the midst of development for Square Enix’s major franchise reboot of Tomb Raider, a representative for the company made some severe PR missteps when addressing released footage from the game.  In said footage, a young and severely disheveled Lara Croft attempts to escape captivity in a camp comprised of survivor-cultists, all of whom are men.  Like Lara, this cult has been stranded on an island that defines “remote,” but they’ve been there for years and have basically devolved into primal barbarism.  In a tangibly tense moment, Lara is found hiding and the cultist who finds her holds her firmly in his grasp while touching her face and brushing her shoulder with not-so-subtle carnal intent.

Reaction to this footage was cautious.  It was obviously something new for the franchise and the possibility for revitalization was palpable, but the insinuation of maybe-rape ruffled the feathers––and justly so––of many progressively-minded gamers and gaming journalists.  While I have not gone back over the furor (it was awhile ago), the problem wasn’t so much a question of “Does Lara Croft get raped?” as much as “is this threat of rape just there for perverts to get their jollies?”  Tomb Raider's Executive Producer, Ron Rosenberg, responded to these queries with the colossally stupid “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character...They’re more like ‘I want to protect her’” (via Kotaku).

While, no doubt, the idea of potential rape in a video game––especially a modern video game where the climate demands more gritty and “realistic” scenarios and characters––is ethically dangerous and, possibly, culturally irresponsible, it is not the sexist or ignorant part of this scenario.  It was the comments made by the woefully ignorant Executive Producer that adds the insult.  Though this situation went down almost a year ago, Tomb Raider has now been released to (mostly) wide critical acclaim and the issue of female action protagonists is once again on the table.  The presence and portrayal of women in video games has been a hot and controversial topic within the industry and its community right now, and though I’m nominally approaching that topic it’s not actually what I want to discuss.  

Instead, my focus is video game narrative and the player’s role in gaming, something I’ve broached in a different way already in Mass Effect 3 here on Known Griefers.  While discussing this very topic with Griefer Chris on Facebook (also check out his excellent review of Tomb Raider), we discussed the idea of games as power fantasies and that, traditionally, video games have been male power fantasies.  This is so because, for the most part, males make up the majority of not only the industry but also the audience.  But if the industry wants to be more viable in the context of our culture, it needs to expand its narrative scope, something that Tomb Raider co-writer, Rhianna Pratchett (a woman!), expressed in her recent two-part interview with Kill Screen Daily, noting that “generally as a whole, the narrative literacy of the industry is quite low.”  With every other major entertainment market, there is an expectation for there to be products that appeal beyond a male-specific demographic, and even to other non-male dominant demographics whose products carry all the same strengths and flaws as the "mainstream."  There are some horror movies that are smart and there are some that are dumb, the same goes for animated movies and action movies and comedies and romantic dramas.  Every audience for these genres is different but all have the same spectrum of quality and acceptance, and that equilateral balance is not belittled or considered salacious by the industry.  More than that, it is usually hoped that a product reaches across markets by appealing to the widest range possible.  Think of things like The Dark Knight, Star Wars, any Pixar movie––these are all ostensibly genre movies but have breached those limitations to become expressions of our culture.  Instead, video games are stuck in myopia because of a superstitious attention to what might generate income (re: how many triple-A games of the last five years were sequels?).  

The industry needs to learn something that movies, literature, music, etc., already know––that heroes (and stories) are an endless variety and can be engaging even if they aren’t male.  As Tomb Raider shows, games can have female heroes in an action-setting and not merely be “men with boobs” (the most egregious misstep in the Kill Screen interview on the part of the journalist and Pratchett desperately tries to keep her distance from).  Pratchett does note in the second part of her interview that, for some reason, any protagonist that is not a white male is met with some strange scrutiny, as if that non-white/male person suddenly, somehow, is the figurehead and fake-spokesperson for that gender/race/culture––which I think is unfair for the character.  This is not to say certain prejudices don’t exist in other media––a great conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Michael Chabon and Junot Díaz discuss this exact issue as it exists in modern literature, but the fact that they discuss existing genres and books and characters drives the point home––with video games, diverse characters are squashed before they even have a chance to be fully realized because the industry (including the audience, too) doesn't look at non-white male characters as people.  Instead, they see them as cultural avatars to which their core demographic cannot relate, nor wants to. Which is stupid.

Good characterization is almost a paradox––I think most of the industry writes off their tendency toward male-centric protagonists by stating that it wouldn't matter who the player controlled, it would be the same for any character (re: Mass Effect).  While I agree that we all deserve a fair shake at life, we are also unique, in part, because of the fact that we have different genders, races, cultures, etc.  My existence is not defined wholly on the fact that I am male, nor is any memorable character in any fiction solely defined by a single aspect.  Why Tomb Raider succeeds is that Lara Croft is not a hero because she is female.  She is a hero because she is heroic.  The distinction lies in the fact that the game doesn't ignore the fact that she is a female, yet the game doesn't exploit her for it.

Women, by virtue of the fact that they are not men, live different lives than men and, as Tomb Raider shows, if that difference is approached with care to the genuine human that the character should be (and not just painted with stereotypes), an engaging hero (or heroine) is created.  This works across genders, across races, and across cultures because every single person is having a different, unique experience within the world we all share; that’s why we’ll remember not only Lara Croft from this game, but also John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series (an incredibly successful series written by Amy Hennig, also a woman), Cole Phelps from L. A. Noire and the list, of course, goes on.  This humanistic approach is at the heart of why everybody’s Shepard is so near and dear to the players of the Mass Effect franchise despite its general indifference to gender (aside from potential love interests).  It’s not the gender the player latches onto, it’s the person.

This leads me back to Rosenberg’s stupidity when discussing the player’s relationship with Lara Croft and why what he said is actually the most sexist part of that entire debacle.  Not only that, but he incorrectly assesses how players interact with the characters they control.  As already stated, gaming is a power fantasy, and a power fantasy is a multi-faceted beast.  Though the industry as a whole hasn’t quite realized that yet, some developers have started to take such risks with games like Heavy Rain and the aforementioned L.A. Noire (again, it is a much longer list); these games redefine what “power” the protagonist is using to succeed in the world instead of merely using the tired, phallic, and patriarchal symbols of guns, blood, and violence.

Lara's performance capture actress: Camilla Ludington

Games are a power fantasy inasmuch as the player gets to be put into the shoes of a character that must overcome a danger or a problem that, likely, the player will never have to experience in everyday life (which is why I can’t stop playing Batman: Arkham City).  Tomb Raider, just like every other game, allows you to play as Lara Croft, not with her.  The player isn’t suddenly handholding a video game protagonist because it’s a woman or, at the very least, the opposite gender.  Women have been playing video games for as long as video games have existed, even those games which are overwhelmingly masculine, yet many don’t hate them because, believe it or not, even women can identify with Marcus Fenix (I can’t, though).  

While playing Tomb Raider, I never felt like I had to protect Lara; I wanted to protect myself.  Because Lara is a woman and because the game doesn’t ignore that I, as a white male, was able to experience a type of terror I will almost literally never have to experience simply because of my gender and skin color.  And while I feel absolutely weird saying that the threat of a rape is kind of what attracted me to Tomb Raider (that footage and its controversy was almost literally the only news about the game for a few months), it wasn’t because it sexually excited me but, like going to a horror movie, it presented a new kind of human threat that I would be able to overcome––I saw in this game something I hadn't experienced in any other game I have played.  It was something new, and I applaud that. Furthermore, it’s something a male protagonist could never experience and it adds to the veracity of the character and the world.  If we are to put our video game heroes and, by proxy, ourselves into horrific, terrifying, and dangerous situations, those situations should not be limited to male horror, terror, and danger.

All experiences should be fair game because a game should not ignore what makes the protagonist unique, but it should not hinder the protagonist for it, either.  We are all people, going through life with the desire to succeed and be happy; where things diverge is how the world reacts to us.  Positive or negative, it’s our reaction to how the world treats us that makes characters relatable even if they seem, superficially, so different from the reader/player/viewer.  It doesn’t matter that I’m a man playing Tomb Raider and Lara Croft is threatened with rape, her reaction to it––to fight her way out of it, tooth and nail, and shoot the fucker dead––is the same reaction I would have.


Any well-wrought video game protagonist should be able to span the gamut and draw the player into that world.  Opening up the demographics available to the video game protagonists opens up new and deeper ways for players to connect and, most importantly, experience something new.  With Lara and the almost-rape moment, for example, I was horrified by it because it’s a fear I'll likely never experience and thus drew me further into the game because the world wasn’t only reacting to Lara, it was reacting to me.  The moment can and will have a completely different––both positive and negative––reaction from female players, but it will also touch on a fear that is unique to them (and allow them to overcome it) and is something they have likely never experienced in a game before, something that is unique to their personal experience; not to mention the variety of other people––people who have experienced horrific situations much worse that what Lara experiences in that moment––that this character and her game can reach out to.  As long as it stays away from exploitation and fetishism (which it does), moments like this can only show what a more diverse range of protagonists can bring to gaming and gamers.

What Crystal Dynamics (the actual developer of the game) has done with Tomb Raider is astounding because, like a good movie, every player has the potential to respond to Lara’s plight (and, by proxy, the player’s plight) differently.  Sure, I had a sort of horror movie, “I want to be scared” type of approach to that (teeny, tiny) moment in the game, but that was not how I defined my experience with the game or with Lara.  It’s just a good game.  The ending is a bit weak and the general narrative through-line is a little stale, but it’s a wonderful holistic experience and not because Lara is female and not because Lara was sexually threatened for less than ten seconds.  It’s a wonderful game because of the same criteria every other great game also meets––it’s fun, beautiful, exciting, and worth the time put into it.