Not long ago I saw a post on tumblr that said “ the main difference between a hero and a heroine in traditional narratives is that a hero’s strength is defined by how much he can win, while a heroine’s is defined by how much loss she can endure.” This got me thinking about all the promotional work that has been released for the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot.
In 2011 this trailer was released. It featured a reimagined version of Lara Croft, and seeing this trailer got me excited. Besides the great images, like Croft on the beach with the ship wreck behind her, it featured Croft as a young woman who was different than the Croft players had seen in the past.
This new Croft hardly resembled the buxom fantasy girl that Croft fans were used to. The oversize and prominently displayed breasts, and tiny shorts were gone, replaced with a woman who is still attractive but modeled more realistically. She was no longer designed to appeal to the teenaged boys that some game designers seem to think make up their entire fan base.
Even beyond the visual redesign of Lara Croft, this trailer excited me, because while Croft was portrayed as young and clearly less experienced than the Croft seen in previous games, she was a woman full of ambition, heading out in the world to stake her claim, looking for adventure.
While the original trailer still sees her limping, she never looks like a victim, even as we watch her bandage her bleeding arm. This trailer made me very excited to play the game to see how writers would deal with a female protagonist that was strong and in control, and less obviously designed to provide visual appeal for players.
Then this trailer got released…
While the first trailer showed hardship, Croft seemed to take everything in stride moving from one challenge to the next, letting only asphyxiation slow her down, and even then only briefly.
This new trailer showed Croft struggling with blow after blow. Croft sees her friend murdered, steps in a bear trap, falls on a spike, and is manhandled by some thug.
While I don’t mind seeing Croft have to fight to survive, the vibrancy and determination seen in the first trailer was much less visible in the second. The second seems focused on her victimization. She is assaulted and begs to be rescued. Some writers, who I don’t totally disagree with, equated it to torture porn.Things didn’t get better when executive producer Ron Rosenburg added his two cents as reported in this article.
"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.’"
So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.
"She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."
And it went from bad to worse when he added that the new Lara Croft would be subjected to an attempted rape. “She is literally turned into a cornered animal… It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.”
This is when the internet exploded, and most people following this game have probably read a number of articles explaining why this is a bad, and very anti-feminist move, so I will only quote one such article by Shoshana Kessock and then move on.
The use of rape in the evolution of tough female protagonists is a touchy thing. Far too many creators believe that using that kind of assault in a backstory is a quick and easy way to give a female character something heinous for her to overcome. Want to prove a bad guy is the most evil, horrific creature to crawl the earth? Write in a rape scene and they are instantly coded as The Worst Ever for audiences. It’s an easy fall-back for upping the stakes for a female character while giving a moment for audiences to point to as a pivotal turning point for the heroine. There, they can say, is where she didn’t just get mad, she got even. But is that inclusion necessary? Isn’t it enough that she’s shipwrecked, nearly died in a cave-in, and her best friend is kidnapped by unknown men who are after her? Nope, Lara learns to pick up a gun and defend herself as her first step as a gunslinging heroine to defend herself against rape. Of course.
This was followed by fans writing article after article defending the trailer and Rosenburg, often misunderstanding why the words ‘torture porn’ were used and insisting nothing is wrong because she doesn’t look sexy. But the torture porn label was more focused on the torture than the porn, and she doesn’t have to be Double D sexy for the trailer to feel like a fetishistic look at the suffering of Croft. And as Kessock rightly asks, would we ever see Nathan Drake written the same way, with a sexual assault used as character development?
This was about the point when I decided that I would probably still play the game, to see what the final product was, but my expectations were low. And I checked out of the news feed because I was tired of hearing defenses for what, to me, was lazy and arguably misogynistic writing.
However, as the release date gets closer I have been watching the new wave of promotional materials, including a four part video series I saw on Xbox Live, which introduced me to Rhianna Pratchett, the woman behind Tomb Raider’s story.
I was surprised. I had no idea that person writing the story was a woman, and so I did some online searching for more about her and found this interview with Pratchett. I highly recommend reading all the way through but I will give you a couple highlights.
In regards to the sexual assault scene she has this to say.
"One of the problems with the trailer is that it cut out Lara’s reactions," says Pratchett. "When you see the scene in context, you see the light leave the guy’s eyes and it’s a big f***ing deal for Lara. She just can’t believe what she’s done.
"She’s not thinking, ‘Oh my God, I was almost raped.’ She’s thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just taken a human life.’ It’s unfortunate that if you have a female protagonist and male antagonists, and they’re coming after her, people see that vibe."
"It’s very honest for those characters at that moment. It’s not prolonged, it’s not done for titillation. It’s uncomfortable because it should be uncomfortable… If I felt that a female character needed sexual assault or rape as part of their backstory, it would be in there fully. Not as something you might see on Eastenders of a weeknight."
According to Pratchett, the sexual assault is “absolutely not” a character-defining moment for Lara, and the trailer is not representative of the game’s story arc.
And while I’m still not completely sold on how that scene will fit in the larger narrative, hearing Pratchett defend the writing, makes me feel more comfortable that the game is in good hands, even if the marketing has decided to focus on the most voyeuristic moment in the game.
"It can be a little jarring, seeing her crying and being vulnerable, because we haven’t seen this Lara before. We’re taking a risk, making her appear scared and doubt herself, but that’s where bravery comes from. You can’t have bravery without fear. And fear is a dangerous thing to show in games, because we’re so used to capable characters who can do everything."
According to Pratchett, this is not a gender issue. “Male characters are often undercooked. We probably suffer from the fact we don’t think about them as being human - they’re heroic and there’s not much else to them. That is a problem.”
It seems that according to Pratchett the vulnerability is not about gendered writing, but about Pratchett trying to add a little more humanity to the entire gaming franchise by giving gamers more dynamic character arcs. As an avid consumer of all forms of narrative media, that is something I can get behind.
She does admit though that the screaming, grunting, and limping seen in the trailer and some of the gameplay videos is a little strange, and not something she is pleased with.
"Personally, I could do with less of it," says Rhianna Pratchett. "I’m not sure what the thinking behind having quite so much is."
"It’s not my area. I don’t have much of a say in that," she says, before pointing out that the demo showcases the start of the game. "I think it lessens as she goes on and gets tougher."
She also explains some other narrative decisions for the game.
For Pratchett, the key to making Lara multi-dimensional is showing her human interactions. “This game is quite character-heavy compared to previous Tomb Raiders,” she says. “There’s a core group of characters, all of different ages, backgrounds and opinions, and all of whom have different relationships with Lara. It was important to get those characters in there as sounding boards.”
Reading Pratchett talk about the game she has helped create relieves a lot of the worry I have about the game. I now feel I can comfortably look forward to an engaging Tomb Raider outing. A game that will give us familiar Tomb Raider moments, as well as new experiences exploring the character, and perhaps expanding on what has been possible and expected in narrative arcs in the past, not just in Tomb Raider, but in the whole video game market.
But, while I am now confident about the game as a whole, and in the creative team behind it, I can’t help but wonder about the thinking that lead to that trailer and the comments by Rosenburg. It seems that game designers are finally understanding that gamers want more depth, but someone, or multiple someones, on the marketing team still thought that the best way to sell this game was through a trailer that bordered on sexualizing the suffering of it’s female protagonist.
Not cool Square Enix marketing team. Not cool.