The trouble with Tomb Raider

I got some push-back for including Crystal Dynamics' 2012 Tomb Raider demo in a post about E3 marketing misses and mistakes. Some readers/viewers see and hear the same potential pitfalls I do; others just look forward to a reboot that's reclaiming their interest in a storied but troubled franchise and question what others might find offensive (or at least off-pitch).

Let me state clearly and up front: I do not yet know if I have a problem with this game. I have not played it. It won't be available for another year. As it happens I quite like the adventuring genre, and I'm always happy to see more strong female protagonists in games, and so on a personal level I actually strongly hope that the game is better than its debut. The important thing to understand is this: "I have problems with this game's marketing and with the way in which the designers and publishers have chosen to present this character" is not the same statement as "this game sucks."

And in fact, I do have problems with Tomb Raider's marketing and with the way in which the designers and publishers have chosen to present the new Lara Croft.

Here's the demo in question:


My initial objections sprang from the 1:00 mark of the video. Try this exercise: Turn up your sound, hit "play," and then either close your eyes or bring up another window over the video so that you can't see it.

Presenter voice-overs notwithstanding — would you be comfortable with someone hearing you listening to that, but unable to see your screen? What do you think they'd think you're watching? Do you hear a strong, in-charge, admirable protagonist?

I hear the victimization of a young woman. I hear a vulnerable girl breathing heavily, in pain and in fear. I hear unpleasant overtones and associations. And what I hear makes me squirm in my seat uncomfortably, cringing, while I watch it to write this post — because the way I hear it, I can't tell if the player is meant to feel the desperation of Lara's position, or to fetishize it.

And so that's where we begin, with Lara tied up, squirming, in shadows, and then moaning and screaming (for the player's benefit?) — bound, scared, and screeching. It's the first we see of her, the opening line of the story this demo was built to tell us.

I get that the development team wants to replace the "damsel in distress" trope with the "strong girl rescues herself" one. And in one way, I do approve of that message and substitution: Ladies don't need to kick back and wait for dudely heroes. In another way, though, both tropes add up to victimization of a female character — a pattern, sadly, that our existing stories aren't exactly lacking already.

The issue is that while the developers have made Lara Croft a physically and visually strong and determined character (and I do appreciate her plausible physical build and sensible outfit), they chose at every moment to undermine that character with her screams, her fear, and her injuries. Aside from Old Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4, I've been unable to think of another player character whose injuries and suffering are ever so vocally and viscerally on display.

And as it happens, this year's E3 also gave us a great counter example to compare and contrast. Tomb Raider inspired the Uncharted franchise, and now the Tomb Raider reboot, in turn, owes some inspiration to Uncharted. The Continuing Adventures of Nathan Drake, the Charmingly Attractive and Effective if Occasionally Dense male version of Lara (aka Uncharted 3), had a debut demo during Sony's press conference.

Listen to what they chose to present of Nathan Drake at the Sony press event: Drake grunts. He groans. He shouts. He comments snarkily. He exhibits strong displeasure when shot at. He suffers. But he's not victimized. Drake is an active agent in his own demo, choosing to be on the ship where the story we're shown begins. It's not, "Oh no! They must have heard me [screaming]!" He doesn't want to be found, so he doesn't run around screaming.

In these five-minute videos, we see two different explorations of character. With Drake, we see strength through action. With Lara, we see "strength" created by showcasing vulnerability. His demo opens with active behavior; hers opens with reactive behavior.

Imagine these two characters' roles reversed. In a sense, we've played those games, too; some male action heroes must withstand an awful lot along the way. But those protagonists meet their challenges with stoic heroics and immediate ass-kicking.

Instead, though, this version of Tomb Raider seems to present us with yet another fragile woman — and worse, it's a fragile woman where once, a decade ago, we had a cool-as-steel action hero. This Lara Croft, in this demo, deliberately has a physical and emotional vulnerability that earlier incarnations of her character did not have (and that isn't generally present in male characters). When male leads suffer injury or torture, they respond (realistically or not) with stoicism and heroics — in this demo, we're told that Lara will later develop heroics but that first, she has to be a victim. It's not progressive just because they're doing it to Lara Croft; it's regressive because we've tread this ground before, in a thousand games and films.

This apparent desire to take our strong female player character and literally torture her isn't actually all in my head. Or if it is, I'm certainly not the only one. The game's Wikipedia entry, at the time I write this, reads (emphasis mine):

"Fresh from academy and in search of lost relics, a 21-year-old Lara Croft journeys to an island off the coast of Japan aboard the Endurance, a salvage vessel helmed by Captain Conrad Roth. Before anchoring at bay, the ship is cleaved in two by an unforeseen storm leaving Lara separated from any other survivors and washed ashore. She must endure physical and emotional torture in order to survive the island."

Right now, in summer 2011, I can't and don't know how truly representative either demo is of the game it's promoting. Perhaps, over the course of his next adventure, Nathan Drake will spend two hours tied up and tortured, and it's equally possible that Lara Croft never screams again throughout 20 hours of narrative. It'll be many months yet before anyone can have anything definitive to say about the rebooted Lara Croft, adventurer and protagonist. If the Wikipedia article and most media to come out since are correct, however, her new game is another iteration on "let's torture the attractive young white girl" survival horror.

The issue is not if I expect Tomb Raider to be a bad game; the issue, rather, is that the new narrative framework Crystal Dynamics is choosing for the franchise is potentially dangerous, murky ground. The line between "victim" and "survivor" can be a tricky distinction to navigate, and frankly I don't trust most game designers to be up to the task. Torturing a female character is not new, it is not edgy, and in a media world that's still deeply oversaturated with images of victims and underpopulated with images of functional women, it doesn't seem like the basis for a game I want to play.

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