June 14th, 2012 | By: Cara Ellison
Growing up, Tomb Raider was important to me. There were few heroines in films that warranted their own stories, fewer still on television. You could say the same today, even. Lara Croft said to me, the little 12-year-old me, it is okay to do things by yourself. And you can do things by yourself. And you don’t need anyone else. You don’t need protecting. Stand up for yourself.
This message – that a woman such as Lara can be as capable as any male hero – has gradually been eroded, not elevated, over time. When Crystal Dynamics attained this unattainable woman, male characters started to crowd in and help her: I remember being particularly distressed that I was being babysat through the earlier levels of Legend by some guy in her earpiece. If her character had been satisfactorily developed past the ‘she’s so hot’ phase, perhaps it wouldn’t have been necessary to have her be ‘enhanced’ by the company of dude characters who would shield her from harm and buoy her up like an armored push-up bra. They dropped the dudes when they made Anniversary (an excellent homage to the original Tomb Raider), presumably to get back to the original as much as possible, and it was a relief.
Do men play Tomb Raider never feeling like they identify with Lara? Even though they are controlling her, is she still a she and not a me?
In Anniversary they leveraged Lara’s aloneness to give her power and used the tension before battles to make you reticent to go forward, just as in the original. In Legend, that exploration was less of a contemplative pleasure with an earpiece guy, and in Underworld it is almost recognized that Lara’s assistants are annoying because they are relegated to cutscenes. The environment and Lara’s relationship with it was always the important theme in the earliest games: the two tussled, as powerful as each other, with the irritating ass-bound camera as arbitrator. There was less room to feel protective of her. She died or she didn’t. And now the new Tomb Raider comes along and proclaims it is all about protecting again.
I always wondered myself how men felt about her. I suspected that the addition of the male ‘help’ in Legend was a sign that the developers felt like Lara should be protected, and that the male player should want to feel like they want to protect her too. When I play games, I do not want to play a character that needs protecting. I want to be the powerful, interesting hero that men always get without a shred of argument. Lara was always not so good on the ‘interesting’ hero front, but at least she had power. The power of being alone. The idea that Lara suddenly needed protectors gave way to me thinking in a different way about her: do men play Tomb Raider never feeling like they identify with her? Are they outside of her, looking in? Even though they are controlling her, is she still a she and not a me? Years of watching men yell ‘bitch’ at the screen every time she failed to make a jump made me wonder.
Then I wondered if men were empowered by her like me, or whether, because she had been so sexualized, as to whether she had become a fetish object (object being the important word). Because if this game, made by men, for men, that had accidentally gotten into my little 12-year-old hands once upon a time, was instead intended to sexualize how Lara interacted with her environment, or even have the violence done to her become pleasurable to watch, it is something that we should be greatly uncomfortable with.
A Twitter conversation between Jenn Frank, George Buckenham and I materialized recently, when we were discussing that trailer. We’d seen this fetish theme perfectly summed up, in one of our favorite programs, Channel 4’s excellent and legendary Spaced.
Tim Bisley breaks up with his girlfriend and spends his time drowning Lara as retribution. It’s interesting that the phrase ‘it made me want to drown things’ is used, because that makes it seem as if Lara is The Other, an exotic object rather than a person that we identify with. Her sexual moan when she drowns, rather than a water-related noise, suggests that her death is almost some sort of reward. You know, like a great big orgasm from your girlfriend.
Now this is not to say that when men break up with me I don’t go straight to Uncharted and chuck Drake off a roof. I too am familiar with that Kieron Gillen article, which also mentions Spaced. I’m just saying that Spaced has cleverly highlighted that you could conflate Lara’s death with sex (or I guess, the withholding of sex by women). When Nathan lands his handsome spine on the ground after he’s missed a jump, he doesn’t do his best O noise (to everyone’s disappointment), and you’re certainly not invited to try out an assortment of deaths and bumping into things to see what hot sex sounds he might make. The developers just haven’t thought that way about Nate. His sound effects are short and sharp, rather than elongated and low and sexy. In fact, Nate’s deaths encourage the player to get back in and have another go immediately by not dwelling on the death animation, by making Nathan have a sense of humour about his situation (‘Oh crap!’) that makes you feel like death isn’t a big deal, isn’t the point, isn’t something to meditate on (no one has ever thought of making Lara genuinely funny – women aren’t funny).
Look at this little IGN Nathan death video:
There is not one sound in there I would want coming from a dude who was doing me right. And just remember how long old Tomb Raider used to dwell on those death scenes? Impaled on spikes? Drowning? Falling to her death screaming? Are we meant to be getting off on how much pain she is in? Because her death scenes are really elongated. Like her lovely thighs.
Is Tomb Raider now torture porn? Like Joss Whedon might argue?
Imagine. Imagine if you will, the impossible. Imagine that there is a whole AAA studio full of women developers making Uncharted. Maybe there is one guy, who has to make the tea, we don’t know. Anyway, mostly ladycakes. And they are making a game where Nathan Drake dies suggestively, where the camera gets attached to his toned butt a lot, that fetishizes his being impaled on things, or bumping into things, that has his O sound attached to a drown animation. Now imagine that most gamers are women, and that most of the gamers who will be playing this game are women, and that it is being marketed to women. That women whoop and cheer when Nathan sighs his little orgasmic groans and moans of pain on the screen at E3.
What in hell would that make dudes feel like? It would feel like a conspiracy, an assault on the most private of man sounds.
But imagine still that you live in a world where a man being hot is an invitation to women sexually assaulting him. And then you make a trailer for Uncharted where an extremely hot and oversexualized man is beaten and shot at and drowned and is almost raped. The all-women audience at E3 whoops and cheers.
Imagine you live in a world where a man being hot is an invitation to women sexually assaulting him.
I do not have to imagine that world. In my world it is quite real, and I’d thank everyone to stop pretending like games need that to control an audience like pack animals after a side of beef. That beef is poisoned. It is gross. It is unhealthy. (Uh. I totally just threw up on your shoe. Sorry.)
The solution? It’s down to how diverse your studio is, because that will bring you a balanced outlook and a better picture of whom you can sell your product to (and a bigger market!). There would also be less offensive content in general. If there had been about 50% women working on the team at Crystal Dynamics, maybe Ron Rosenberg might not have described the new Lara Croft as a ‘cornered animal’ but, instead, maybe a lady PR might have said how much she identifies with Lara as a person and not made her sound the equivalent of a plaything that men like to flick across a map. Maybe people would have faith that Lara almost being sexually assaulted would be treated with the seriousness it deserves, instead of being swept under the carpet. Maybe it wouldn’t have been included at all. Maybe Lara would have had a sense of humor before now, because women would demand that she be an interesting person.
The new Tomb Raider might be good; still, all of the problems with Tomb Raider again circle around how it is sold to us, and that really has always been the problem with it. A wonderful thing popped up a few days ago. Someone had replaced the words ‘Lara Croft’ with ‘Indiana Jones’ on that terrible Ron Rosenberg diatribe about his creation.
Someone smart once said to me, “If you ever want to know whether something is an equality issue for you or not, just think to yourself, ‘Would that be done to a guy?’ Or, ‘Would a guy have to do that?’ If the answer is no, call bullshit.”
I call bullshit.
I hope Ron Rosenberg is just really bad at marketing his game, because I really want to play this installment of Tomb Raider. If I really identify with Lara and care about her whilst playing this game I think I will like it. I always felt good about being Lara Croft in the past, though her sexual moans might have been silly or her deaths might have been greatly exaggerated. I always think, though she is not intended for me, that I can make my own narratives about her (whilst staring at her butt). Perhaps one day her narratives won’t be quite so problematic. Perhaps one day I will have a daughter, and I will be able to teach that daughter how to be a hero without me having to teach her about rape, or her being terrified of Lara’s too-loud screams as she falls from the edge of a precipice.
One day maybe I hope to have more than a set of Ridley Scott movies to teach my daughter how to be noble, interesting or heroic. Maybe one day I will have a game for that.