The Tomb Raider walkback begins

Tomb Raider Creators Are No Longer Referring to Game’s Attempted ‘Rape’ Scene As an Attempted Rape Scene.

Now as much as I detest Kotaku’s editorial practices this isn’t about them, this is about Crystal Dynamics and their latest escalation of double-speak. As I said in my previous post, Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg, as part of his now-infamous “You’ll want to protect her” interview stated quote “…she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island.  They try to rape her…”

Well that seems pretty clear, Ron, not that I didn’t pick that up in the trailer.  Scene by scene lets break that sequence down a bit more.

2:15 into the trailer, Lara has her hands bound behind her back, and is trying to sneak out of this camp.

2:18. creepy voice saying “Noone escapes!” as Lara slips into a little hidey hole.

2:20. Her attacker discovers her, heavy breathing.

2:24. Now is when you can tell that this has definitely been selectively edited, as Lara is out of the hidey hole, and her attacker has one hand on her shoulder preventing her from running.  Her hands are still bound.

2:25.  Cue dramatic tension in the music as her attacker examines her lecherously.

2:26. The attacker’s arm wanders down from Lara’s shoulder to her hips before being kneed in the groin at 2:28.

Less than a second later she is trying to flee but caught by the arm and pulled back.  At 2:30 Lara is forced against a wall by her attacker, who then proceeds to fondle her and nuzzle her neck.  Her terrified face blocks any view of what he’s doing, the repeated smash-to-black edits further serve to obscure the events.

I have to point out that the editing is so jarring in this sequence, with noticeable gaps between logical progressions of events.  Lara eventually struggles on the ground against her attacker at 2:35 with gun in hand, fighting his grip to turn it on him and fire.  Note that they do not show how she escapes from her bonds, as her hands have until this point been tied behind her back and she has been unable to use them to fend off this attacker.

The pace of editing and smash-cuts in this particular sequence tells me whoever cut the trailer is an idiot seeing as this style of editing trailers with several smash-cuts to black every second is terrible, but also that they are hiding the full sequence of events from the viewer.

In other words, this sequence is much longer in actual gameplay than depicted.  Based on the events shown, and the manner in which they are timed I think I am safe in the assumption that there is a quick-time-event around which this entire sequence is based.  Which means it is not just brutal, it is interactive.

Today, the head of Crystal Dynamics released a statement saying the following:

“…Unfortunately we were not clear in a recent E3 press interview and things have been misunderstood.  Before this gets out of hand (Too fucking late! -ed), let me explain.

In making this Tomb Raider origins story our aim was to take Lara Croft on an exploration of what makes her the character she embodies in later Tomb Raider games.  One of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly been referred to (by your own employee, the executive producer on the game -ed) 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.  In this particular section, while 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. (emphasis mine -ed)

…We’re sorry this has not been better explained, we’ll certainly be more careful with what is said in the future. (again, emphasis mine -ed)”

-Darrel Gallagher, Studio Head – Crystal Dynamics

Well fuck me sideways, Darrell, that sure clears that up, thanks!  Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.  Well I guess that footage was from another game because there was some pretty clear sexual assault in it!  And how could it possibly go further than what you showed, what with a good chunk of the sequence being excised for the trailer.  I guess its non-interactive as well, seeing as that would be “going further” as well.

I’m not saying a game cannot use these themes to profound effect.  They can, and I’m sure one day they will.  To say that Tomb Raider has no sexual assault in it, when high-ranking members of your production staff have said that enemies will try to rape Lara Croft in this game, and video evidence exists to the contrary, certainly takes some balls, I’ll give you that one.

So what was that attacker doing in that scene if not sexually assaulting the protagonist of the game?  Did his hand wander down her body as he leered down her shirt because his arm was tired?  Did he pin her against a wall and begin necking her because she got bit by a snake and he needed to suck the venom out, quick?  It’s not rape, its a struggle-snuggle!  Give me a break.

This is cowardly, dishonest, and leads me to believe that whatever the intent of the developers, they have tarnished their efforts and their names with this increasingly absurd PR carnival.  First there’s attempted rape.  Then, there’s lots of attempted rape!  It’s edgy, it’s cool, buy our game!  Now there is no attempted rape nor sexual assault of any kind, and shame on you and the media for perpetuating the myth that there is!

I know there is an internet furor with many forum and comment fights between both defenders of the game as presented and those who find its content objectionable.  I defy you to find any defender of this scene, however, that has denied the existence of sexual assault and attempted rape as part of the trailer.

So I have some advice for you, Darrell, given freely by someone who wants to see your game come through and have the solid narrative I imagined it could carry.  Don’t just be more careful with what is said.  Be more careful with what is done.  Start by putting a gag order on every member of the development team.

Then, since the scene is all about when Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time, rework the scene.  If that is the narrative impact, the defining moment you are going for, why complicate it?  Have Lara be caught in her hidey hole, tossed out onto the ground, QTE to wiggle out of the rope in time to grab the gun and turn it on her attacker.  All that juicy gore and character definition, no pesky rape!

Crystal Dynamics must in any circumstance be honest with their fans and those who wish to see this game succeed.  If they cannot justify the scene as is, it should be changed not just to avoid controversy but to avoid detracting from the story of the game.  That’s not “political correctness” that is good design.

As it stands, they’re simply making fools of themselves, and showing how little they really think of the intelligence of the gaming community.

On Tomb Raider

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.