(The following post is full of SPOILERS for the recently released Far Cry 3. If you are the kind of person who is bothered by such, please don't proceed.)
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and play through the entirety of the newest entry into the Far Cry games - a series which had, for the most part, eluded me up until this point. The most that I knew about the series as a whole was how highly touted the game's graphics and presentation were, especially given that the first game was the premier for Crytek Studio's new engine. Eight years worth of new developers, engines, and graphical updates later, and very little has changed. Far Cry 3 is a visually stunning game bursting with minor details that more than once left me breathless. It's a gorgeous rush of ultra-violence and open-ending gameplay that is ultimately quite fun and engaging. All of this is enhanced by a thematically rich plot that merits a great deal of discussion regarding its themes, ideas, moral stance, and place within the medium of gaming as a whole.
Within this article, I mean to address an aspect of the game that I've found to be rather lacking in coverage, as well as its relation to another big title being discussed this year. That's right - I want to address the Lara Croft-shaped elephant in the room.
Stop me if you've heard this one
"Our young protagonist is out traveling, when unfortunate circumstances lead to them being stranded on a tropical island inhabited by bloodthirsty, rapacious pirate/slave-traders. Their friends are taken captive by said rogues, and now our protagonist must summon up inner-strength and survival instinct if they want to rescue them and return home alive." If you haven't caught the joke yet, it's that I could be talking about either Far Cry 3 or the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, published by Square Enix and developed by Crystal Dynamics. They do sound rather similar, don't they? Now, at the time of this writing, Tomb Raider is still several months from release. What the final product could look like is anyone's guess, and I eagerly await my own opportunity to find out. That said, I will be using what has been shown and said by the developers thus far, as well as assorted internet "talking heads" that have addressed the truckloads of controversy surrounding the title, to inform upon this discussion.
And boy, does this game have a lot of controversy surrounding it. People are angry about Lara being reinvented. People are angry about Lara being weaker. People are angry about tasteless comments made by members of the development team. And I'm sure some people are angry that Lara is no longer proportioned like the lady from Heavy Metal 2000. The number of people ready to throw the Tomb Raider reboot under a bus seem to heavily outweigh those with a more "wait and see" mindset, though that may well be due to the nature of internet discussion and the former group being by far the louder. And amidst all this cacophony, the strongest theme for these dissenters that I can find is this "why take one of gaming's strong female heroines, and make her weak?"
I will admit, I find the question a bit perplexing. I certainly knew about the Tomb Raider games growing up, I played through two of them entirely before completely losing my taste for them come 2003's Angel of Darkness. But I never really regarded Lara as a "strong female heroine." My vision for what that meant growing up was a lady who stood up for what she believed in, who kicked ass with a complete lack of self-consciousness. I was enamored of the Agrias Oakeses, the Freya Cresents, the Jill Valentines. Lara always just seemed like she was trying too hard to impress me. Now that I'm older, my feelings largely haven't changed. Lara basically has built a career of breaking into dead people's homes and stealing their things, shooting every last endangered animal and breaking every piece of ancient pottery she can find. And she does this for what seems like no reason other than boredom. This is a woman who, when accused of murder, spends the next six hours of the game shooting security personal in the face while trying to clear her name. (Angel of Darkness spoilers, I guess.) A great thinker, she is not. And she is certainly nobody's role-model. She's static - the idea of a heroine, nothing actually resembling one.
So that brings us to Crystal Dynamic's new Lara. She's young, inexperienced, vulnerable. In way over her head, and only through gut instinct and sheer force of will can she overcome the seemingly-crushing challenge presented before her. She feels fear. She feels pain. Oh lord, does she feel pain. A common criticism that I've found of the game thus far is that the amount of pain that Lara must endure borders on the fetishistic. I've never been shipwrecked and had to rescue my friends from rapacious pirates before, so I can't speak to whether the amount of suffering depicted is realistic, but I can say that in pre-release footage alone we've seen Lara be beaten, impaled, shot at, burned, nearly-drowned, and yes, sexually-assaulted. Whether or not she's electrocuted, frozen, paralyzed, drugged, stung by hornets, or launched into orbit within the game proper is anyone's guess. Lara's tale, we've been led to believe, is one of empowerment - of trial by fire. We will see Lara brought to her lowest point, only to learn the self-reliance and skills to become the heroine that we know she can be. She is made weak, torn down, so that she may be built back up, stronger and better than what she was. At least, that is Crystal Dynamic's spin.
She and Jason Brody, the protagonist of Far Cry 3, might just end up in the same post-island support group. See, Jason knows something about suffering. Like Lara, he is beaten, impaled, shot, burned, nearly-drowned, faced with sexual assault, drugged, forced to watch his brother die right in front of him, repeatedly attacked by vicious local wildlife, and brutally removed of one of his fingers. Like Lara, he is forced to go through hell and rise, stronger and more capable than he was before, as a warrior and a hero. Or, maybe he just descends into insanity, becoming a complete psychopath as a result of all that he is forced to endure.
There is a point, about a third of the way through the game, where Jason has finally located the fourth of his kidnapped friends, one Keith Ramsay, in the home of a villainous professional killer named Buck Rogers - a bearded Aussie who had purchased Keith from the pirates that captured him, and who forces Jason to locate a particular artifact for him if he ever wants to see his friend alive again. Throughout this entire quest-line, Buck makes repeated oblique references to his activities with his new possession, but never anything concrete. We don't get the full picture until afterwards, when the artifact has been delivered to Buck and Jason goes into his basement, where he is told he will find Keith. And find him he does - hunched over on a dirty mattress, pleading that he can't take anymore. Buck appears behind Jason and offers to thank him "like a man should", gripping his groin and thrusting it lewdly. He tells Jason that neither of them would be leaving. This is the point where there is no doubt left. Buck has raped his captive multiples times, and if Jason is not able to defend himself, the same will happen to him.
If there has ever been another point within a video game wherein a male protagonist is threatened with rape, I don't know of it. I'm sure commenters will be happy to point it out, if it exists. But for the most part, games as a whole sail around the issue of sexual assault by a fairly wide margin, often editing it entirely out of the game's reality. Of all the Very Bad Men most heroines fight, almost none of them display any intent outside of ending their life, regardless of whether they're coarse bandits or corrupt paramilitary members. And as rarely as the subject is broached, it's no wonder that most heroes never have to even think about such a possibility.
And for the most part, I'm fine with that. Most game writing borders on the atrocious already, and the developer that could factor something like that into their game's world without it feeling creepy, exploitative, or just simply misplaced, are few and far between. It's a subject that carries weight, weight that we as a society are not conditioned to ignore in our media in the same way that we are, say, murder. But Far Cry 3 is a gritty little number, and it has no interest in sugar-coating any facit of the misery and terror that Jason or his friends are forced to endure by their circumstances, largely identical ones to what Lara and her friends are placed in.
But what strikes me as odd is the fact that so few people are chomping at the bit to condemn Far Cry 3 for any of this. Tomb Raider 2013 has been called exploitative, overly-graphic, creepily fetishistic, or worse since its debut, while the same material within Far Cry 3 has largely gone un-discussed. My best theory for this is that Far Cry 3 is working with an original protagonist, while Tomb Raider is working with one of gaming's own poster-girls. People think they know who Lara Croft is, and how she should be portrayed, and this certainly isn't it. But then, Crystal Dynamics has never said that this was the same Lara - in fact, they've been upfront that this is a continuity reboot, and that their Lara is a completely different girl. Perhaps it's a matter of framing - Far Cry 3 is entirely first-person, while Tomb Raider 2013 is third, allowing us to see every bad thing that happens to Lara in excruciating, unpleasant detail.
Or maybe it's simply that we in the gaming community have enough frightened, helpless female characters. Sure, all the things that happen to Jason Brody are terrible, but they aren't costing our medium one of its few strong, confident lady warriors. Why would anyone want to take such a character and purposefully make them weak and vulnerable? But something I loved about Far Cry 3 is that, like Spec Ops: The Line before it, it's willing to ask whether or not the alternative is any better.
Jason Brody is a monster. A psychopath. He is exactly what the island shaped him to be - a remorseless, pitiless murderer with a body count well into the hundreds, perhaps even into the thousands. And he'll tell you as much himself. In the "Save Friends" ending of the game, his narration tells us "I've killed so many people I've lost count. I can't come back from this." In the "Join Citra" ending, he doesn't tell us anything. After killing his friends, his girlfriend, his younger brother, he is murdered post-coitus by the woman who helped shape him into a warrior. Or a killer. Neither option presents us with a Jason who is anything but fundamentally damaged. All the blood on his hands has stained his soul, and he is fully aware of that. Even if he started out scared, weak, frightened - what he has become may be much, much worse.
This, I think, may well be my great concern with the Tomb Raider reboot, and my biggest problem with those claiming some sort of assassination of Lara's character. For my money, Lara has always been an unpleasant, violent person. (Did I mention that she murders dozens of people while trying to clear herself of murder? Because that was a thing.) She kills without hesitation, throwing herself into situations wherein it will likely occur, often without any greater motivation than the thrill of the search, the hunt. Lara Croft may be strong, but she is only nominally a heroine. I'm very much in favor of Crystal Dynamics' efforts to reshape Lara into a more three-dimensional, nuanced person, as well as push towards more realistically-tinged, emotive story-telling. But that push also carries with it an expectation/obligation, towards more mature handling of complex themes and ideas. And I worry that Crystal Dynamics may not be up to the task.
Now, again, this all purely speculation. The game isn't even out yet, and it may well surprise me. But based on Crystal Dynamics' own words about the game, this is supposed to be the story of Lara coming into her own, of her becoming strong. After this, she is supposed to emerge a heroine. But as Far Cry 3 demonstrates, it's not really that simple a question. It can be, if all you want to tell is a light and entertaining adventure story, ala Uncharted. No one ever truly questions the immense number of lives that Nathan Drake seems to take every single day of his life (Drake, by the by, is much like Lara in the sense that I'm hesitant to call him a "hero". At least he's witty, though). But then again, Nathan Drake is also never threatened with sexual assault, or made to watch any of his own digits be chopped off. There is a point wherein the content of your story (based on how graphic, shocking, or controversial it is) must be justified by something more thematically deep and impactful. Otherwise, you're writing smut. And at that point the arguments that call your content exploitative are, ultimately, correct.
I hope that I like Tomb Raider (2013). I really do. It does not bother me to see this new version of Lara Croft placed in all of these terrible, unpleasant situations. In my lifetime, I've seen plenty of movies, TV shows, and games place their characters in far worse situations. I hope that the game lives up to its new, darker tone with maturity and narrative quality, and that it follows games like Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line by providing gamers with gritty, thematically deep material. And I really, truly hope that Crystal Dynamics is able to prove so many of its detractors wrong and deliver a complex, nuanced study of its leading lady that will justify all the mud she's dragged through. But to do so, they must realize that they themselves have changed the rules. And that having a different Lara isn't going to be enough - their world and all its complexities must change as well if they are going to produce a work that lives up to its own promises.