A Survivor's Take on Tomb Raider and the Controversy That Will Not Die - Theora Craft Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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A Survivor's Take on Tomb Raider and the Controversy That Will Not Die

With the new Tomb Raider now on the horizon, and many questioning whether to pick it up, I feel the need to speak up about the issues surrounding the game out of respect for every game that has made me ask myself a hard question. Events are dragging me into the murky waters of heavy subject matter, so I might as well get it over with and grab an oar to beat this topic over the head with.

(With respect: trigger warning. Discussion of sexual violence to follow. Edit: I notice a lot of traffic is still being directed to this blog, so to reduce confusion, note this was written and posted before the game's release. As such, there are no spoilers given this analysis was based entirely on marketing materials and interviews. A post release follow up about the content in full context is in progress if that it what you were looking for.)

For those that have been living under a rock since E3, here's the short version. The new and gritty reboot of Tomb Raider slated for 2013 has the internet up in arms because Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg used the substantially loaded word "rape" when describing what nearly happens to leading lady Lara part way into the game as seen in the "Crossroads" gameplay trailer. Worth noting is that the trailer came out before the interview in which this was stated and while the sequence was definitely noticed and there was discussion of the uncomfortable scene, the controversy pot did not boil over until the interview.

With 10 years experience on the topic of sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of the subjects branching off from them, I couldn't avoid this write up forever and now hope to add a new perspective to the mix. There are points from both sides of the argument (if you can even call it that) I'd like to address individually. Unfortunately, this isn't something that can be talked about definitively until after the game's actual release so I hope you'll pardon some of the conjecture on some points.

Now, where to start?

You Wouldn't do this to a Male Character, Would You?

One of the common arguments brought up against the use of sexual violence is that if you wouldn't subject a male character to the same events, it's a poor choice of direction for your plot. John Kovalic made this point succinctly and humorously, pointing out this double standard in his web comic Dork Tower (more on Kovalic's point about "lazy" writing later). When Kotaku asked, "Karl, do you think that a male protagonist in that same situation would have- do you think the scavenger would do the same thing, rubbing his hand against his thigh?" of Karl Stewart, the Brand Manager, he admitted that it would not have happened.

While backlash along this line of thought is understandable, it doesn't entirely ring true to me.

Quite a bit of the progression of equality between the genders is based on equal capabilities, common interests, and universal rights. Commonalities are one of the easiest as well as one of the most positive things to bridge a divide of this sort. It makes perfect sense that people are not happy with the unequal portrayal of women versus men when it comes to this utterly gut wrenching topic. As art often imitates life though you may have a to keep a few facts in mind, hard and unpleasant as it may be.

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Men are victimized in this way as well, and that should not be diminished. Millions of men. Approximately 1 in 33. As much as the tragedy of each individual is as devastating as the next, the statistics are not equal. The fictional depictions will not be equal in number either. This is not a matter in which fairness is even a question because crime is at its root utterly unfair. When something happens more often, it is discussed more often. When it fills a greater presence in the public mind, it makes its way into more of their media. This is not a, "women's issue." It's everyone's. But it is an issue that affects a disproportionate number of women.

Frankly, some would argue that a willingness to write more about men in these situations would be positive. Many victims are spurred toward seeking help when discovering they are not alone, and men in particular feel that much more isolated without as many examples of survivors to look up to. But featuring fewer women is not how to do that. It is not a zero-sum situation wherein every story told about a woman is stifling one about a man.

Kotaku's interviewer may have also inadvertently posed the question in a narrow manner; it's unlikely the exact same actions would have taken place because (on average) men and women experience discomfort in different ways for different reasons. Most offenders wouldn't think to grope a man's chest or kick a woman between the legs to give a few overly simple examples. Many forget that sexual violence is not in fact about sex… but rather is rooted in power. The ways in which a perpetrator would exert power, control, and intimidation over a man versus a woman are different. Anyone remember the specifics of how James Bond was tortured in 2006's Casino Royale? Technically, that was sexual assault even though many people saw it only as cringe worthy torture. Why? Well, everyone could likely use a refresher on an important definition…

Semantics

"Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game." ~ Studio Head Darrell Galagher, Crystal Dynamics

Note that the exact definitions of rape and sexual assault vary slightly by state in their legal wording, (and in some cases mean the same thing and are used interchangeably) but the generally accepted standard is that sexual assault is, "unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling." Go ahead and watch the Crossroads trailer again if you must, but I personally find those few seconds fall quite easily under that definition; the nature of the intimidation was sexual, and the perpetrator did not have our protagonist's consent. The wording behind the law is actually more stringent than most casual public discourse on the subject; anecdotally speaking, most people I spoke to about the trailer upon release were still excited about the game but found that one scene to be in a murky area between harassment and assault and refused to nail it down. As such, we should likely move forward with the more solid definition for the sake of evaluation and logical discussion.

While we can all understand the PR nightmare this must be for Crystal Dynamics, their campaign has done little to stifle the displeasure of some. If it was working, one would think the matter would be done, settled, and we'd all stop talking about it until the game came out to be picked apart in full. Instead, new stories creep on to my feed, hubs of data on the game see comments tanking the game despite it not even being out yet, and all this adds up until I finally found myself exasperated enough to write this and add to the stream of opinions. So what is continuing to go wrong for Crystal Dynamics, leading to so few pitchforks being put away?

In trying to calm everyone, Crystal Dynamics is falling short with nearly all parties. Assertions that rape is a, "word that is not in our vocabulary," rather then reassuring people, is drawing ire and raising the suggestion that perhaps it should be in their vocabulary when they have made no claim that the scene shown is going to be changed. The sequence may be so brief that it wouldn't be fair to call it a "theme" but what's there is there. Even supporters are annoyed, feeling that the refusal to acknowledge the nature of the content for what exactly it is stands as an, "insult to our intelligence," as Audrey Drake put it on IGN. Those defenders aren't left with much of a leg to stand on when the company isn't even confident enough to use the terminology. Only by acknowledging what exactly is on our plates are we able to fully tackle it whether or not the content is fleeting or in depth.

Torture Porn

While some fans remember arguments that were centered around how lousy an archeologist Lara was given her habit of smashing things, the main controversy has centered around her appearance over the years. Yes, we saw a shift in which she became more personable and less likely to kill police officers and security guards due to glaring plot holes, but the loudest objections were raised over her fluctuating chest size and the objectification that was seen to signify.

Despite the developer's best efforts to rectify this with the new direction in physical depiction and story telling, they are instead being accused of degrading the character in the opposite direction. Where she sat before in the realm of unrealistic perfectionism with cartoonish proportions and unnecessary acrobatics, people were instead seeing a character being subjected to fetishist levels of cinematic violence.

Is the violence excessive? Maybe. We haven't seen the whole product yet and I'm sure that will be more easily debated once it's out. A lot of games are facing this question these days… and movies… and even books

Is the violence purposefully erotic? I don't think so.

Fetishes as a whole might be widespread, some so common and mundane that people aren't even willing to hang the word on them, but individual ones by their very nature are uncommon. Especially fetishes centered around violence. Accusing a company of trying to capitalize on this fetishism to sell a product when they have from day one been trying to distance themselves from it is ridiculous. That doesn't mean sex being used to sell games isn't done, but when it is, it tends to be obvious and quickly called out. The niche audience drawn to violent sexualization is not enough to drive sales in the face of the large amounts of content they wouldn't be interested in (why not just buy cheaper and more focused porn?), and from a sales perspective it would fail the company especially when many people are already turned off of Tomb Raider right now due to the passing resemblance to that kind of excitation. Controversy and sensationalism will only get you so far, and only with a particular audience.

The fact of the matter is that it is very common for writers to knock a character down not because people enjoy watching their favorites be abused, but because they enjoy watching them get back up. The developer is not responsible just because someone, somewhere finds the inflicting of violence to be the more stimulating part.

There is something to be said for market testing and opinion polling. Making sure your choice in words, symbolism, and what not are understood and interpreted as you actually intend by the majority of the audience you are trying to reach is never a waste of time... but I would not in my own writing, nor would I want any other writer, to censor themselves just because there will always be a small percentage of the population that will willfully walk away from their work with the wrong message.

We can always call out the worst of them. Frankly, those people will be disappointed as it has already been confirmed that should the player fail the quick time events, Lara will in fact not be raped.

Oh, by the way? The internet as a whole needs to get their ears of the gutter. If I hear one more complaint about cries of pain sounding like orgasms, I may just have to go burn something. That one has been around for years. Ever wonder why the complaints have failed to make a difference? Because maybe it's you.

Now That's Just Lazy

Rape as Backstory has become a fairly well known trope over the years, and the degree to which it is used, badly, is high. Often times used as the reasoning to why you should sympathize with a chronically depressed character, it's been pulled into use more and more as of late as one of the hottest reasons to become an avenging violent malcontent. Apparently having a character's family be murdered got too cliche.

"Poor" use of sexual assault as a plot point is difficult for people to truly explain but one way to think of it would be like this: the second it becomes a plot device rather then a plot element, you've likely gone wrong. Why don't we contextualize this with a statement from Crystal Dynamics?

"…[By] giving her motivation to become the stronger action-adventure hero and the girl that's willing to fight to stay alive and move forward throughout the game, we use that device and that intimidation to make her stronger. " ~ Community Brand Manager Karl Stewart, Crystal Dynamics

This kind of reasoning is implying that for Lara to move from scared college grad at point A to the epic hero that fans know and love at point C, then point B must either be the threat of sexual assault or something equally traumatizing. It implies that the event was chosen for inclusion not for its own story telling potential, but as a tool to get Lara where they wanted her to be psychologically. This is the epitome of lazy writing in regards to sexual assault as it ignores one of the most poignant effects on a person: many are absolutely crushed under the weight of such trauma and those that aren't and come out the other side stronger do so not because they were assaulted, but in spite of it.

Those that honestly believe that, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?" I invite you to amputate an arm and see how much more you can bench press.

Is this a problem with the writing though, or the PR department?

Rhianna Pratchett was revealed as the lead writer on Tomb Raider at San Diego Comic Con 2012. When taking questions from the audience during the Nerd HQ Conversations for a Cause panel on the game, in elaboration on responses from fellow crew to the question as to whether they ever thought they were putting Lara through too much, she showed a great understanding of the human condition. "You can't have bravery without fear," she told the audience. "It is about picking yourself up and doing the right thing. Not just because you're not scared, but despite the fact that you're scared." Unfortunately, when the question of this specific controversy came up in the official Comic Con panel (9:52), the response was handled by Mr. Stewart again, with quite a bit of exposition on the importance of context (something I will not deny) despite many being interested to hear the writer's own response. While the moment may not have had the context of the entire game around it, it did have the context of the trailer in which it was publicly shown. It's the responsibility of Crystal Dynamics and their publisher Square Enix to make sure that such promotional materials accurately reflect the product. Context is important, but when releasing something that can be misinterpreted so easily, the burden to provide that explanatory material is on them.

While I have a great deal of faith in Pratchett's work and attitude, games are a collective creation and there are many people that have a hand in deciding what makes it into the final product. The downplaying of the extent of the controversial content is actually more worrisome then if it were given a prominent role in the game. Having the event happen as an isolated incident that is never spoken of again until it's convenient belittles the topic. Are we going to have quick time events centered around battling PTSD induced sense memories? Are we going to have to stop ourselves breaking her mentor's hand when he tries to comfort her? Is Lara going to ever question the moment and her own humanity down the road, or only immediately after the event than just up and move on? All questions for when the game releases, but most of those are highly unlikely to be seen.

Immersion and Distance: How Close do you Really Want Us to the Game? 

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character[.] 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.'" ~ Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg, Crystal Dynamics

In an age where developer after developer will be thrilled to tell you all about every little effort they have put in to increase player immersion, Ronsenberg's comment about projection sent up red flags to more than a few in the audience.

The gaming industry has faced ridicule for years for being too closed minded in its marketing approach to gamers, constantly chasing the demographic they think will make them the most money and not realizing this narrow approach may be alienating a potentially larger audience.

Ronsenberg's assertion that "people" do not relate to Lara in the key way that many, many gamers relate to gaming protagonists (i.e. seeing themselves as the character since they are the one responsible for all their actions) is very easy to disprove. Your results may vary based on internet connection, but it took me 0.11 seconds. No really. Google times that.

Heck, let's go one better and make this personal. Straight from Crystal Dynamics' own flickr stream. This article brought to you by the third Lara from the left.

While the rash generalization about gamers and even of Tomb Raider's current audience is groan worthy, the true worry comes from the fact that the executive producer has made a comment that leads many to assume that he believes their entire audience doesn't relate to the lead character, and within the context of the interview can easily lead them to then make the assumption that the game design is built around this generalization.

Most of us really hope this is wrong, but words from someone in Rosenberg's position carry a lot of weight, and will spark a lot of theories and assumptions like this. The whole point of marketing and promotion is to get people talking after all. Stewart has outright quashed the idea that these views on character relation are company wide during his PR damage control tour, but that nagging worry still remains given that Ronsenberg has a different hand in the product then a Brand Manager.

While no piece of media can demand relation from its audience, to not strive for it does a complete disservice not just to the characters but to the rest of the audience whom are open to the connection. This does not negate the fact that there are many gamers, who are quite vocal online, who will not under any circumstances relate to a character who is not some exaggerated mirror image of either themselves or their greatest fantasy of whom they wish they could be. These are not the average gamer though, and given the narrow range you must fall in to meet these fantasies, are not the most cost effective audience to cater to given they will never be satisfied with the iconic Lara Croft. Often, even the narrow minded will still play your game, just not connect in the way intended. Anecdotally, there have been plenty of protagonists in gaming I have failed to relate to, but it has almost always been a failing of the writing and characterization (as proven by many a sequel or expanded universe deciding they're going to put in the leg work and give me a reason to care). I also still enjoyed those games… sometimes on day one if there were enough praise worthy factors, though usually from the bargain bin until they started getting it right.

Thankfully, Pratchett saves the day again in the Nerd HQ panel as she offers some insight into the goal of the writing while giving us reason to not be entirely pessimistic. "You can feel that hurt, how scared, how terrified she is, and she grows through that and you, taking over as the player character, grow with her, which is just an amazing experience. Just to speak to what Karl was saying about Lara being more human: that's the story we're trying to tell as well. This isn't a story about being female. This is a story about being human[.]"

Who can't relate to being human?

The Minefield: is the Subject Worth the Risk?

Many arguments have been leveled at Crystal Dynamics as to why they shouldn't even be attempting to tackle this heavy subject matter. People don't trust games to take on the material, and screwing up would blemish the industry's already rocky reputation within the entertainment world. Games are at their core supposed to be fun, and how can something so depressing be fun?

How many are asking what effect this content can actually have on people on a personal level?

Putting the controversy in the trailer is actually something I can give Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix quite a bit of credit for. The clip in question within the trailer is much like the trigger warning I put at the beginning of this article. Within the context of the game, the scene may be enough to disturb a victim, but I would consider the warning to be out there. Personally, being triggered was one of the best things to ever happen to me and led to quite a bit of progress in my life, but not everyone gets the happy ending of a conviction of their assailant to prison. What does media like this do for the general perception of these kinds of situations though?

Some argue that Lara is no victim, but a survivor, given she fights back, takes control, and comes out on the other side alive. Some would praise her reaction as being exactly how one would hope she would handle such a situation. How realistic a reaction is it though? Many cite "Victim Blaming" as one of the greatest reasons sexual assault is such an under reported crime. How many people, man or woman, would actually decide, "Yeah, I'm bound, he's got a gun, but I'm going to take my chances"? Not many. The moment in the game has been equated to a life or death situation by the developers, and rape has been equated to something as serious as death by society from time to time. Next time a debate about the Death Penalty in the United States comes up, just see how many people would only use it on murderers and rapists. So what am I supposed to think when the game is asking me to hammer buttons and try my luck against a physically superior, better armed, better positioned assailant?

I'm lucky enough to think it's a game telling a story. I'm unlucky enough to feel that somewhere, someone who plays this game may in the future be asking an unfortunate victim, "Why didn't you fight back," rather than asking, "What did you do to stay alive?" These situations are so difficult because they are not as clean cut as a quick time event, or even a branching option tree.

I put more hours into surviving than any gamer has ever put into even Skyrim.

But at least I'm alive.

I'll also be picking up Tomb Raider on launch night. Ask me later if I'm offended.

 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with sexual violence, please consider contacting the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, either online or at 1-800-656-HOPE. 

(Originally posted to Newbcast Gaming. If you like my work, support a small site and see it first over on Newbcast.)

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