I have a hard time becoming invested in stories. It’s not that they don’t interest me, but rather that they’re quite uniform in their composure these days. I find this problematic because I want to see something I haven’t seen before, something clever and thought-provoking that can provide intellectual stimulation above a simple biological response in the brain to lights on a screen. I guess that I’m a bit of a snob in that regard, as this mindset leads me to reject the vast majority of fictional tales in favor of only the best of the best—anything else will simply not do.
So taking in mind this snobbery of mine, I found last year’s controversy over the decision to nearly rape Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider game quite humorous. The game’s writer, Rhianna Pratchett, realized that she had a two-fold problem on her hands: She didn’t have a way for players to despise her villains, and she didn’t have a way for players to give a shit about her hero. The compound solution crafted to quell these problems was rape (or near-rape, for lack of a better term). This led to predictable results, with week-long charges of misogyny and internet petitions abound. The gaming community was in a frenzy over the ordeal, but the only thought running through my mind at the time was, “Fuck the misogyny, that’s just lazy!”
Now who am I to criticize another person’s writing? What have I done to earn my say? Where’s my work that qualifies me as an arbiter of laziness? The answers to these questions are “nobody,” “nothing,” and “nowhere.” But by the same token: I’ve never made a pizza in my life, but I know when I’m eating one made out of shit.
The problem with rape in fiction is that it tends to be used as a shortcut for creating clever and interesting characters and/or situations (which is a similar affliction for torture, genocide, and universal destruction). Rather than giving the effects and ramifications of such an occurrence a serious look-over, rape is more often a very easy way to make villains look terrible and to put heroes in a dangerous situation that naturally causes those viewing the event to sympathize with the character. Can it be effective when used in the latter? Yes, which is why it is used frequently. Can it be effective when used in the former? Yes, but that takes a lot of work, so fuck that. Who has the time for making a hero truly interesting and worthy of our admiration and respect when we can just do horrible things to them for the same effect in half the time? Similarly, why make a villain rationally and logically evil when a raving psychopath digging through a toolbox of horror tropes consumes less creative effort?
I imagine that everyone has had that one edgy friend or acquaintance at some point in their life. He’s the one who thinks that he’s the funniest person on the face of the Earth because he managed to tie a couple of racial slurs into a semi-humorous half-baked joke; he’s the one who thinks crass and offensiveness are equal replacements for timing and comedic thought. Can he be funny? It depends on the person since humor is subjective, but I think so. I’ve laughed at plenty of horrible and offensive jokes before, and I’ve been known to make a few of them myself from time to time. But they’re cheap laughs—they’re laughs that were gotten easily with very little thought involved. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to shock people. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to create a despicable, hateable villain once you’ve made them try to rape someone.
An inverse to these topics is the ready-made superhero. Need your character to have purpose and importance? How about morals and a value system—actual needs, wants, desires, and beliefs? Well if that shit is too cumbersome, why not have him SAVE THE WORLD™?!
“Saving the world” is a trope so old that it predates the planet. It’s another high-stakes plot mechanism used as a substitute for substance, much like rape and crude humor. Now I can sit here and go through a grand list of games that shamelessly cling to this crutch while they go about their stories, but I’m not going to do that because I know better. This is the internet, and I won’t hear the end of it if I shit on someone’s favorite game.
This rubber-stamped storyline has plagued our industry since its inception, though it wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't often deployed by itself with no other motivation whatsoever. Game developers take it for granted that the premise will be automatically accepted, leaving those of us wanting more to be left out in the cold. “Huh? What do you want? Thoughts? Feelings? Personalities? Points of view? What are you, gay? You’re supposed to save the world! How more interesting can you get?!” It’s gotten to the point where it’s been used so often that I don’t even give a shit about the world anymore—in fact, fuck the world. Have you ever been around it? It’s actually a pretty terrible place, and I’m not quite sure that it was ever worth saving to begin with.
Great conflicts are created through a clash of ideas and worldviews. You take a couple of people with fully thought-out personalities, and you make them collide and oppose each other. It’s very tempting to cut corners in this area by throwing out raping psychopaths to do harm to your established heroine, or to send out your well-known space marine to rescue the universe for another trilogy, but to those not easily distracted by the visual flares of your boom-booms, the intricate details of your pew-pews, or the visceral portrayals of your bang-bangs, your story will be easily forgotten in a sea of your shallow and like-minded contemporaries more often than not.
“Well if we can’t rape anybody and we can’t defend the universe, what are we supposed to do for fun?”
Besides checking into therapy? There are plenty of ways to come up with clever stories that are genuinely intriguing and not so bombastic. The film 12 Angry Men takes place in a single room for 96 minutes and lacks any color or explosions whatsoever. Despite that the movie only comprises of a dozen people arguing the entire time, it remains in the popular culture half a century later as one of the most riveting stories told to date. Because it was made in a time where writers and directors couldn’t depend on extravagant set-pieces and computer animation to take the place of creativity, the story relies on its most fundamental elements to carry the viewer’s attention. Now despite that we are dealing with a medium that is far more technologically advanced than that bygone era, there’s no reason why writers in our industry can’t enforce a little self-discipline and reject the literary shortcuts that have been discussed here. Games like Portal, Grim Fandango, and Red Dead Redemption tell captivating stories without being so grandiose and over-the-top with its story arcs and character motivations. Not only is such restraint possible, but it’s been done before.
Extremity cannot replace nuance to equal effect. Simply ratcheting everyone’s motivations to 11 does not ensure that a story is worth expounding upon. Can well-made stories exist with these devices? Yes, they can. Ultimately, these devices are tools which are not inherently beneficial or detrimental. Our problem though is that we have a lot of people trying to unlock their front doors with a wrench. Is the next Tomb Raider going to be a dull and vapid experience? I can’t say. The game is not out yet, and I can’t give it a fair judgment until I’ve played it. But I do question whether or not the point trying to be made with its purported attempted rape could have been made without said rape. In fact, I’m willing to wager that it could have been done without reaching to the top-shelf for the most shocking or exaggerated element one could find.
Truly gifted comedians don’t need to rely on crude and offensive humor to be profitable in their work, and neither do truly gifted writers need to depend on the most excessive plot devices to make their stories worth telling. Moderation in all things is advice we should live by, and it is only in moderation that we can appreciate the finer notes and details of a thing, otherwise they become cliché. Nothing is off topic when it comes to fiction: if it exists in reality, then it is fair game. But the ends do not justify the means, which are what these tropes are: means. There are smart and clever ways to address these topics, and then there are trite and mundane ways to use them as fillers. Using the latter may lead to short-term success, but it is often to the hindrance of long-term importance. Many opt for the less arduous road in their endeavors out of fear of failure, but that's only a convenient excuse until you’re forgotten with the rest of them.