This was originally posted June 15, 2012 in response to the growing controversy on the production of the Tomb Raider reboot. With said reboot about a week away, I fully attend to come back to the issue to see if women are better off for Tomb Raider's existence or if several steps have been taken in the wrong direction.
But to understand where I'll be going, first we have to understand where I'm coming from. Enjoy!
When it comes to discussions about current events, I’m used to being alone in the trenches. I won’t take this space to discuss my complicated and, surely, inflammatory politics with you: I’m pretty sure no one here comes for that anyway. However, every now and then I just have to speak up with what’s going on in the news, which means you are all more than welcome to completely ignore this blog. Of course, if you do I’d be interested in your reactions: just please keep it civil.
During E3 I was one of a handful of watchers who defended Tomb Raider. It may just be because of the Y chromosome set, I can grant you that, but I saw nothing wrong with the portrayal of Lara Croft in the demo. She’s a young woman who has fallen into a situation beyond her abilities. In order for her to adapt and triumph by game’s end, she would logically have to go through a lot of pain. It’s a bit of realism that separates her from her sex symbol roots that I figured would be appreciated by all gamers, not just the female half. In no big surprise to my critics, I was completely wrong and many in the gaming press attacked the demo as normalizing violence against women.
That was the demo. I can and still do stand by the demo. However, what was said in reference to ‘protecting’ Lara throughout the game was stupid. I’m sure anyone reading this has read that, but just in case you haven’t allow me to give you the full quote from Crystal Dynamics’ Rod Rosenburg and the now infamous interview with Kotaku;
"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.'"
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…She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."
But that doesn’t mean the player wants to be co-dependent or unequal to the main character because it misses the point of why people player video games in the first place. If we’re not in their head, we want to be standing by their side. I don’t want to have to feel like if I’m not behind the controller Lara’s going to get eaten by a rabid jungle bunny. I want to be there as she grows and I want to master what she will have to learn in order to survive. In short, I (speaking solely for myself) want to be Lara’s partner: not her helper. And yes, there is a difference.
Also you may have noticed that I left out the part about a rape scenario in the game, but I can say pretty firmly that common sense says there won’t be any visible rape scenes. It may have been implied to be a bad outcome if you fail at something, but it’ll be screaming and cuts to black followed by a YOU FAILED DOUCHEBAG card. It’s problematic on its own, but that’s fixable before launch. The deeper problem is in the criticism that happened after Rosenburg shot himself in the foot.
I’m not a feminist, but the good Lord did give me two eyes and a brain. Yeah, there’s a problem with misogyny in video games. It is a long running problem because the majority of the video game audience is male and that’s who the publishers are trying to please: even if it means marketing to the lowest common denominator in our society. To be fair though, this problem is not as rampant as it was when I was growing up and franchises like Duke Nukem was in their prime. Things aren’t perfect, but the industry has made strides in portraying more complex and intriguing female characters within the past ten years. Also female writers (shout out to Naughty Dog’s Amy Hennig) are beginning to make a profound impact in a male-dominated industry.
Okay I can hear you from here and yes, with the exception of four that comes to mind right now (Faith from Mirror’s Edge, Lightening from FF13, FemShep from Mass Effect and Chell from the Portal series); most of those females I’m talking about are in the supporting cast and not under the direct control of the player. Why? Well, how do you create a female leading character that the majority of gamers will want to play as? And before you light the torches really think about that question, because I am dead serious. How do you do it?
Just keep that question in mind for about three minutes.
While I can’t speak for everyone, I can look back at pass attempts to create a strong female lead and reach what I feel what is closest to the truth: gamers don’t want to be invincible anymore. They want an experience that gives you serious obstacles to overcome on your way to a solid ending. What does this translate to for our male heroes? Well let’s take a look at a few and see some of the obstacles they had to overcome in their stories;
- Nathan Drake from Uncharted 2
- Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed 2
- Isaac Clarke from Dead Space 2
- The Goddamn Batman from Arkham City (AKA Arkham Asylum 2)
Okay I may have taken a bit of a tangent on that one and if you missed my point let’s flip the genders and do a little critical thinking. How many people decrying Tomb Raider would also cry foul if a female Ezio was forced to watch her Mother and Sisters (the youngest being 13 years old) hang? If the Joker had injected Batwoman with toxic blood, what do you think the reaction would be? If Girl!Clarke had to insert a large needle into her eye very slowly and any sudden moves would lead to a gory, fully-rendered death scene, how loud would the shouts about violence against women get?
This isn’t to say that men have it sooooo hard and women just don’t understand: that’s stupid. It’s to say that because of their prominence as well as the evolution of storytelling, male characters are allowed to go through more trauma and trials than they used to. When handled by the right writing team, this leads to a popular and profitable game. For their female counterparts you can’t lower the bar, because that would be misogynistic wouldn’t it? That means that female characters have to hit the same bar as their male counterparts: blood, pain and everything else that comes with it.
And now we’ve finally hit the elephant in the room square in the jaw. How do you combat misogyny in video games? How do you create a female character your atypical heterosexual male will pay $60 to live through? The answer is what Crystal Dynamics is trying to do with Lara Croft. It isn’t pretty and as recent weeks have proven it is far, far from perfect. But it puts Lara into the shoes of Ezio, Drake and other male leads that have a proven success record. While we still has a long way to go as far as equality in gaming, I don’t see how this is the demon it’s being made out to be; especially with Lollipop Chainsaw now in stores.
But whatever good the industry can get out of the Tomb Raider reboot is now getting choked out with bad press. Anyone who thought the new Tomb Raider was onto something have to be questioning if any new IP with a female lead would be worth any possible backlash. So instead of trying something new, the corporate machine will instead stick to something safe. What is safe? Well, that would be a ‘strong’ female protagonist that doesn’t face any real threats and has less dire treasure hunting adventures...you know, like that 90s supermodel Lara Croft did. Or grindhouse wannabees like the previously mentioned Lollipop Chainsaw...oy.
Please understand my intent. I want change in the industry I love just as much as everyone who has a problem with what Rosenburg said. For that change to happen, developers are going to have to experiment and get their heroines bloody: it’s all part of progress. You know, why don’t we do something crazy? Let’s let Tomb Raider come out, play it and go from there instead of assuming the entire game is a mess because of less than an hour’s worth of footage we’ve gotten so far? And something stupid said by a producer? I’m just saying.
Again, I’d love to hear what you think needs to be done about all of this…just keep it civil. It’s all that I ask. Oh and this isn’t the only time I will talk about this. In fact, I think there’s a lot to be said about the EVN community from this story and believe me, that day is coming.
Until next time!
For your reading pleasure: the article that inspired this train of thought.