New Tomb Raider raises some tough questions

E3 happened. Did you know that? Of course you did; it was two weeks ago. In a general sense, it went much as you would expect a gaming convention to go. Innovations and shiny new games were unveiled, to various degrees of audience excitement. Gamers gamed, reporters reported, and booth babes… babed?

Actually, it’s interesting that I should bring up booth babes, because I’d like to talk to you about women and gaming. More specifically, women in videogames. Even more specifically, Lara Croft. Because if you’re going to put the words “female”, “videogame”, and “protagonist” in the same sentence, you would be hard-pressed to find a more iconic example than Ms. Croft.

In 1996, the gaming world met Lara Croft, an English archaeologist with a penchant for adventure. She is about as dedicated to the academic aspect of her field of study as Indiana Jones—that is to say, hardly at all. Seriously, I’ve always wondered why they even assigned Indy any university classes to teach. You know he’s just going to go off to find another ridiculous artifact!

Lara Croft has been, since the beginning, a sexy vixen who kicks more butt than any of us could ever hope to. She sported a tank top, short shorts, and… shall we say… generous bust dimensions. This was initially an error in development, but it stuck. She quickly became a sex symbol, known by gamers and the general population alike. Angelina Jolie’s portrayal in two film adaptations reflects the commonly-held belief that Lara Croft is a tough gal with bombshell good looks.

Over the past 16 years, the Tomb Raider franchise has earned a loyal following, and Lara Croft has entered the upper echelon of timeless videogame characters. In a world where the vast majority of characters are male, Lara Croft has held her own. There are many female gamers who have grown up identifying with Lara’s attitude, athleticism, and sense of adventure. What I’m trying to say is, she’s one of the greats.

Which is why there was an outcry at this year’s E3, when attendees were told that there may be a scene in the upcoming Tomb Raider game that portrays Lara defending herself from being sexually assaulted.

This new game will play the card that every storied franchise plays at some point—it will be a prequel to the original story. And, in keeping in line with modern entertainment, it will be “gritty”. That term is quickly outstaying its welcome in the vocabulary of movie and gaming fans, but I’ll be darned if the premise doesn’t still hold promise. Lara Croft is a well-known hero to gamers, and taking part in the hardships that form her strength and will sounds like a great opportunity for loyal fans.

But there have been rumours swirling about the trailer shown at this year’s E3. Allegedly, Lara encounters a mercenary who tries to sexually assault her. The head of Crystal Dynamics, the studio responsible for the new game, has said:

“one of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly been referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene, is the content we showed at this year’s E3 … This is where Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time. … [w]hile there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.”

There has been more confusion, however, as Crystal Dynamics Executive Director Rod Rosenthal was later quoted as saying that “you start to root for [Lara] in a way you might not root for a male character.”

Now, I wasn’t at E3. Nor did I interview the individuals quoted above. So, in synthesizing my own opinion, this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Videogames are maturing, as are the people who play them.
  • Developers are taking chances, challenging players and breaking new ground in their storytelling.
  • Developers and gamers both need to start exercising a critical eye and asking tough questions.

Obviously, the toughest question to answer in relation to this story is: are videogames ready to take on sexual assault?

That’s a hard question to answer, when you take videogames as a whole into account. Since their earliest inception, videogames have been about conquest and victory over your competitor. This idea of beating your opponent very quickly travelled to its ultimate form—killing. Almost from the moment we started playing videogames, there emerged some common tropes. Shooting lasers and guns. Blowing up bad guys. Racking up points. Getting bigger lasers and guns. Blowing up more bad guys. New high score!

My point is that violence is essentially as intrinsic to videogames as pixels and joysticks. Whether it’s an invader from space, a Koopa, Goro, or a Russian terrorist, there has never been a shortage of games telling you to shoot things, kill things, stomp ’em into oblivion.

So there are millions of gamers who, to some degree, have been desensitized to the idea of violence in videogames. Killing a bad guy is almost innocuous, these days. But there is a world of difference between mortal combat (okay—kombat) and sexual assault. Isn’t there?

Okay, this is heavy stuff. Sexual assault is a heinous, abhorrent thing that shouldn’t ever be glorified. You would have a tough time impressing me with a game that featured something like that. And don’t even get me started on the effect that fictional portrayals of sexual assault can have on former victims.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think we’re ready. I’m not casting aspersions on the maturity of all gamers. I’m being cautious because I know there are preteens who need to understand some things before being exposed to a scene of attempted rape in a videogame. And for those who think that a ‘Mature’ rating will keep juvenile gamers from playing, I would invite you to check in with reality—or, at least, think back to the last time a 10-year-old talked trash to you over Xbox Live after ganking you in an online deathmatch. I’ll give you a hint: it was yesterday, and you’re still mad about it.

The big concern for me is that videogames are maturing across the board. The realism of modern graphics is just mind-boggling, if you think about it. And stories are getting more involved, complex, and—I know I’ve used the word way too often—mature than ever before. Morality is now a bona fide game dynamic. I think that’s pretty rad. But as it all starts to feel more real, we are going to get uncomfortably close to difficult issues. That comes with the territory, I guess.

Ultimately, I don’t think the new Tomb Raider game will be portraying a graphic sequence of sexual assault. I think there have been some misunderstandings and confusion in the telling of the story. That doesn’t mean that the outcry against a reported scene of attempted rape should be dismissed. What it means is that consumers are paying attention. They are invested in the social and moral implications of the stories being told, the stories they’re taking part in. There is never, ever anything wrong with that.