You guys. You're ruining Tomb Raider for me. Seriously.
Never in my life did I think there would come a day that I would defend Lara Croft. You see, I am a woman who isn't particularly preoccupied with whether or not guys want to bone me. Ms. Croft was created primarily to make boners. Were she a real person, we probably wouldn't hang out.
Or at least, that was what I used to think. Then one day I saw her new character design on the cover of Game Informer. Raw, tough, with a take-no-sh*t look on her face. She looked like she'd gone through hell and back. Something made me like her then. From that point on, she was a Lara I could look forward to.
Fast forward several months and the delight of a new Lara has turned to controversy. A flood of E3 interviews and a controversial trailer have seen to that, igniting so many discussions about decency, respect for women, and female capability that arguments have all melded together into one dull roar.
"Ew, they made her weak now!" "Argh, how cheap to use rape as plot device!" "This sounds like torture porn!" While I'm impressed that little of the controversy has to do with her breasts, it's still bewildering and exhausting. Here I thought this character was a refreshing change of pace. Apparently, I was supposed to be pissed off about her.
The question arises: in our attempt to foster a gaming environment where the sexist status quo is challenged and women feel safe in participating in geek culture, are we throwing the baby out with the bath water? Maybe the interview I had with Noah Hughes, the creative director at Crystal Dynamics, could shed some light.
I understand the discomfort and backlash following the trailer shown at E3. There are inherent problems in pairing sexuality with vulnerability. Just putting the two words in the same sentence makes me think, "somebody's going to get raped." Notice it only took a villain running his hand down Lara's waist and we all knew the score. We're aware of the implications of that juxtaposition and clearly, we can't bear to see it happen to someone so unshakable as Lara.
I also understand the sense of distrust, an assumption of insincerity given Lara's history. Had Crystal Dynamics not caught my attention pre-controversy, I might have been gripping my pitchfork right now. Certainly these interviews have not helped. Reading some of the quotes coming out of E3, I can sympathize with the disappointing belief that Lara has gone soft on us. By their own admission, Lara has been portrayed as weaker than in games past:
Holly Green: But [the game] isn't really about weakness is it? I mean, Lara is so capable.
Noah Hughes: [The game] is about Lara getting weak, because we want to show her becoming strong.
You can't really deny, then, that Lara in some way not entirely who we once knew. And when it gets laid out in an impersonal wall of text, it becomes easy to assume the worst. The struggle between the sexes hinges on the definition of strong and weak and our society's insistence on assigning each of those traits to a gender. Of course there's going to be a backlash when a predominately male development team weakens a strong female character. It harkens back to our disgust and fear surrounding vulnerable sexuality.
I don't fault anyone for being upset by that. At first glance, it's entirely reasonable. My problem with this particular facet of the backlash, however, is that it relies on two assumptions: 1) that vulnerability to physical environment and extreme emotional duress is a show of inherent weakness 2) that Lara is defined by her past, in this case, the opening sequence of the game.
From the perspective of someone who has been privy to more footage of the game, it's almost unfair that these assumptions arise at all. While most of the E3 audience only saw Lara in a moment of conflict, I got to see her redemption. I also saw a lot of the gameplay in a sit down demo last year. The impact of Lara's transformation is so bold that even being told directly that Tomb Raider plays on dis-empowerment does not faze me. The disconnect between the two was so strong that I felt compelled to ask:
H.G.: The difference between the trailer and the footage I was privy to just now is very interesting. The trailer made me feel uncomfortable, but the moment that followed (where Lara knees and headbutts her attacker and shoots him in the face) felt very redemptive. How do you deal with the disconnect between the two?
N.H.: That's the thing about clips and trailers, you don't see the greater picture and so there becomes a question of how it all fits together...While I respect their concerns, sometimes the difference between genuine character exploitation and a valid point of view IS context. My hope is that they play the whole game and realize that it isn't just these little clips of her getting hurt and moaning and being in a vulnerable position. What I hope people get from it is that she's human, and I hope they are drawn to who she is.
It's possible that with no frame of reference for Lara's behavior in the past, I can't properly gauge if she's taking the challenges of Tomb Raider the same way she would later on. But I find it problematic that we would attack or abandon her for perceived weakness. Yes, it's positive to demand that your videogame heroine be capable. But deciding that you're no longer a fan of the character because she showed vulnerability is unfair. Not only does Lara make a transition to power within the scope of the game, in the context of the plot, she has every reason to be emotionally and physically exhausted. I can't fault her for having a breaking point following a shipwreck, the abduction of friends and loved ones, getting caught in a bear trap, and an attempted sexual assault. The point of that transition was not to indulge in the sick satisfaction of watching a powerful woman lose her strength and will, but to humanize a character we already know and love:
N.H.: Our point was not a dis-empowerment fantasy, but for the moment of redemption she had to come from a place where she didn't have power...As she becomes the Tomb Raider, she needs to start shooting people, and to come out and just be like I'm 21, and I'm just out of university...we needed a motivator for her. What does someone have to go through to change them into that person?
Another point of contention lending to a disbelief in the sincerity of this new angle on Lara Croft, has been...well, how do I put this. The moans. The panting. The simulated orgasms that many profess to hear as Lara traverses the trials of a jungle island. A condensed action sequence is probably not the best setting to truly gauge what Lara will sound like in-game, but nonetheless it has ignited an assumption that things have not changed in the fan service department.
Of the issues surrounding the game this one seems to boil the most down to personal perspective. I personally did not hear anything sexual about the sound effects coming from Lara. I am sexually attracted to women. I also tend to have a radar for hint of sexual exploitation. Why didn't I interpret them sexually? Does it come down to hearing what we want to hear? Maybe so:
H.G.: I notice there was a lot of fan backlash to the sounds Lara was making in the trailer, there was a general complaint that they were too sexual and explicit. Do you feel that has any merit?
N.H.: We certainly didn't set out to make them sexual...Lara is a living, breathing person and she reacts to the environment around her. In this past she was unflinching, not much affected her. We didn't think that was very real.
A direct denial might not mean much in text or own paper. Surely I would have scoffed if I'd merely read it on some blog post. Am I merely easy to manipulate in person or do we lose the plot without the accountability of face to face interaction?
As I spoke with Noah, a professed fan of the series since "the beginning," it struck me how much he and the team actually care about Lara. That while we espouse angry rhetoric across the Internet, the sterility of the written word on some level makes us forget our humanity. This wasn't a PR flackie promoting some product they didn't actually believe in. Care and thought went into every decision, however misguided, surrounding Lara. It a way it was almost personal:
N.H.: In taking on a popular franchise like this... she means so much to so many. And so you really have to start with respect, for me that's where it began. Our position was to respect her and who she was before all this, to show what makes her human.
[In the beginning] of the series she didn't show pain, there was no fear or emotional investment because you knew she'd get through it, she was unflinching. We knew if we wanted that emotional investment, that we needed to create an attachment to the character through shared experience. For instance, the deer scene, we wanted to take things back to basic survival but still provide an intense situation everyone could viscerally react to. I remember the first time I had to deal with a dead animal, I hated it! We've also added elements of other common fears, like heights and closed spaces, for that purpose.
...People liked Lara for a lot more reasons than just boobs. She really was an aspirational character, she's athletic and smart. But what I like in this demo the most is it shows her will... All these things make her attractive to me, but when you don't pump up volume too much on the physical attractiveness, you find that people can focus on her character.
When the hackles are already up about a person's intentions, it can be hard to not see everything else they do through a negative lens. The moment of Lara's redemption, the scene where she's nearly sexually assaulted, is a good example. What Crystal Dynamics intended as a supplementary piece of background that explained Lara's transition, is now seen as a cheap plot device meant to manipulate you with shock value.
N.H.: In the past, [Lara's adventures] weren't that scary because you knew she could deal with it. We wanted to create an emotional investment, to draw people into Lara and her point of view -- not just throw (the attempted sexual assault scene) as you or put you in the villain's shoes, then it becomes nasty. We wanted to draw you in, make you care, put you in Lara's shoes and have this be an intense moment you were experiencing with Lara, not from an outsider looking in perspective.
To me, that sounds like a person who put a lot more thought into an attempted sexual assault scene than just "Oh this'll shake 'em up! That's what women do, right? They get raped?"
To say that Crystal Dynamics has blatantly indulged the Tomb Raider history of fan service is to say that their interest in creating a character you can emotionally invest in was a completely shallow, token gesture. That while they say they want you to root for her as a human being, deep down, they want you to perv on her too. And I don't believe that, not for a second.
The discussion I had with Hughes was a conversation with a man who understood that respect and violating someone's privacy (in this case, Lara's) cannot coexist. Some of their creative decisions may be misguided, misinformed, slightly insensitive, leaving things open to too wide of an interpretation -- any of those things -- but what I do not believe is that they were insincere.
As a victim of sexual assault, I actually appreciate that they had the courage to talk about it in the first place. Given the statistics on sexual assault, rape is a pretty common experience for women. We talk so much about wanting games to grow up and feature the female perspective, and yet we shy away from the one experience that nearly all of us share. And why? Because it's too real?
Personally, I find it comforting to see a game that dares to reflect my reality. By putting the audience in Lara's shoes and making us empathize with her so strongly, I think there's potential for those who don't live in constant fear of rape to suddenly understand what that is like. To me, that's a positive. I want that moment to become an ambassador between the sexes. I want someone to understand that part of me.
Most art is cheap. It's designed to make you feel something. It manipulates and persuades you into seeing things from a viewpoint that is not your own. It uses your identification with character, setting, visual stimulation, etc. to make you feel what they want you to feel. Watching those hands run down Lara's body feels disgusting because it is supposed to. It would not have had that effect if we didn't care about Lara's well being.
While there are inherent problems with only allowing ourselves that emotional connection with a character who has been given flaws and weaknesses, at the same time, it's difficult to get attached to an empty masturbatory avatar with whom we have nothing we can share or identify with. It's the difference between strangers and friends, between feeling you know someone and feeling that you don't.
I appreciate that gaming has matured to the point that we can have these conversations, as heated as they can be, but is this sense of Internet vigilantism causing us to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Are we running so hot and cold that we risk throwing it all away?
On some level, there has to be room for redemption, for people to grow. No, not everyone is going to get it right the first time. But how often do you see them try? I say this not as an attempt to derail the conversation, to give someone a free pass where one is not earned. So many social ills can be unfairly dismissed under a blanket of good will. That is not my intention. Instead I would like to see a positive atmosphere fostered where these topics can be discussed without grabbing the torch and pitchfork, where constructive criticism can be given without scaring off anyone who would talk about it in the first place.
Ultimately, what we need to remember to is that this whole sequence is only one part of the game; a pre-transformation period that doesn't reflect that totality of Tomb Raider. To get upset about the person she was before becoming the Tomb Raider is like getting pissed at Batman 'cause the story opens with just "some dead people on the sidewalk." Yes, she wasn't born perfect and tough. She doesn't have to be perfect. Placing a high standard on her capabilities is positive. Throwing her away because she doesn't embody an ideal is not.
Crystal Dynamics isn't perfect, either. They have not handled this in the best way. But I'm not ready to dismiss this as an utter failure yet. Not when they've turned Lara from a pin-up to a person. Not with almost a year to go before release. And certainly not based on one section of footage that doesn't reflect the entire game. Even now, I have confidence that they're examining our complaints and observations and taking them into consideration with every decision they're making about Lara.
As I rose to leave the interview, I turned back to tease Noah, "You know, maybe you guys did linger on the down-the-shirt shot just a bit."
"You're always welcome to email me and keep me honest!" he promised. And with that we shook hands.