If Crystal Dynamics wanted to intellectually challenge me with Tomb Raider, they certainly did that.
I started off thinking that Tomb Raider looked good, if questionable as regards gender politics in their announcement trailer. The tone of that trailer was very similar to the torture/imprisonment scenes in V for Vendetta, where a female character, Evey Hammond, is put into a hellish scenario and through survival and defiance becomes more than she was before.
After the E3 trailer I started having doubts, while the technical aspects showed promise it did veer fairly close to what I define as torture porn. I actually thought the attempted rape shown in the trailer was a sign to the contrary, the nature of the story as crucible in which a heroine is formed was intact. And for all intents and purposes, Lara Croft is someone they historically depict as a sort of Lady Batman by way of Indiana Jones, so I think the “traumatic superhero origin story” fits what they’re trying to do.
Then the producers and PR jackals started opening their mouths and I moved from cautious optimism to complete skepticism with a handful of statements. Not statements taken out of context, mind you, things that stand on their own quite well and weren’t walked back later by others. The “You’ll want to protect her” angle. Not good. Way back in the announcement trailer the most negative thing was the implication of the drowning scene, where Lara is pulled out of the water by what is clearly a strong, male arm.
I think the intent behind it is as metaphor for her father, but it still sends a troubling message that this is someone who is not competent to survive on her own, without male assistance. A message reinforced by the producer’s statements regarding ‘protecting’ the protagonist. Suddenly the metaphor is warped backwards upon itself, casting the player as a controlling father-figure who the protagonist Cannot Survive Without. The E3 trailer furthers this idea with the narration that plays over the rape scene, in which Lara’s (presumed) father is reassuring her.
Finally we come to the point at which the PR apparatus, clearly in some sort of panicked, deranged Damage Control/Hype Amplification hybrid state actually double down on rape, saying it is something that enemies in the game will try to do to her. Now, this is one that could be misunderstood. It could be that one instance in the trailer and no more. Many would say that one instance is still way too far. Even so, in the context of the interview, it is implied that attempted rape is something that happens multiple times throughout the game, if not just a thing that enemies will pull out of their “move set” if given the chance. That is genuinely disgusting, but raises an even more troubling point to compound my feelings.
That is to say, what happens if I put the controller down? What if I, as PlayerFather, choose neglect be it by accident, frustration, or experiment? Will the protagonist be raped in front of me? No, that won’t happen, everyone has some common sense and that doesn’t seem like a good idea to anyone. More likely is that it will be treated as the exact same failure condition as physical death. Game Over screen, reload at most recent checkpoint. Now I’ll admit I might be reaching with this next point but to my mind that sends a message that is both horrifying and untrue, which is “Rape Is Not Survivable”.
While technically, Crystal Dynamics may be making a solid game from mechanical and graphical standpoints, they are clearly not equipped to play with the loaded gun that is the emotional complexity of extreme trauma and rape. Many have criticized the game for looking like Uncharted. It does, and Uncharted was called Dude Raider by a great many people well past its release. I don’t find that a problem. I like Uncharted, if Tomb Raider is like Uncharted then I will be happy.
But why do I like Uncharted? Long and short? Its human. It has actual characters who are developed, expanded upon, and undergo physical and emotional arcs, with triumph and tragedy along the way. It has love, loss, sacrifice, the pursuit of meaning, adversity and triumph over such. It is by no means narratively the Best Game, but it is very good, and consistently so.
Which brings me to The Last of Us. Like Tomb Raider this is no empowerment fantasy of a game. Like Tomb Raider, survival seems to be the crux of much of the gameplay. And here is where Naughty Dog prove themselves the superior developers, unlike Tomb Raider, The Last of Us is framed to have its cake and eat it too.
Both games are seemingly setting up to play off of paternal instinct to protect young girls. The difference is twofold, the obvious, you Play as Lara Croft, your job as the player is to protect her. In The Last of Us, you Play as Joel, your job as Joel is to protect Ellie. That makes a fucking mighty difference right there. Second, and more subtly, I don’t want to protect Lara Croft. I want her to protect herself. Contrast to The Last of Us, where every iota of information they’ve released on it has made me want to protect Ellie.
Ellie’s thirteen, though. She’s not fully equipped to handle this adventure, that is the specific reason that Joel is with her. Lara may not be fully equipped to handle her adventure as well but she should not be portrayed as otherwise helpless. Ellie, in contrast, is far from helpless. She’s smart, she’s sarcastic, she’s surprisingly well-adjusted, and most importantly she is not in the least afraid to brick a motherfucker in the face and then not three minutes later stab another in the back. Yes, Joel has to protect her but she can be just as important in protecting Joel. They need each other to get through this alive.
Lara Croft should not need a protector. I do not want the job. The story I thought I was getting, and might still get despite these communication turds to the contrary, is one ultimately of female empowerment. Overcoming the very real dangers facing her, on her own, and through this ordeal being reborn as a heroine as iconic as she is strong and independent. This still might happen, if it doesn’t, I will consider it an opportunity squandered.
Part of storytelling is knowing when to stop. Pushing boundaries is good, playing with the emotions of your audience is also good. The best stories we have do both. They allow us to grow as people, we emerge from the experience better for it. Tomb Raider has this potential. If it fails, it will be because no one in the room was smart enough to tell them when to stop, when to back away from the edge, leave some taboos unbroken, and in turn leave the next great boundary for another day and another story.
After all, if authors and audiences alike were capable of breaking all barriers with one swift narrative punch to the brain, we wouldn’t have any good ones left to tell.