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Tomb Raider is not torture porn

No lie, Lara Croft takes a serious beating in the Tomb Raider reboot.

You get the sense that developer Crystal Dynamics has a library containing thousands of grunts, groans, cries, screams, and various types of panting and heavy breathing to fill out Lara’s screen time. Dialogue in the script likely contains far more vowels than consonants. Lara herself spends the early portion of the game — possibly a great deal more — suffering heavily, bashed and battered without pause. She calls out for help that does not arrive. When evil men come for her, she runs like an expendable coed in some generic slasher flick.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people don’t care for this sort of violence towards women, and they shouldn’t. They’re not supposed to. But don’t mistake the sustained abuse Lara undergoes for torture porn. After seeing and playing a few early levels, I can tell you with authority that nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s important to note that reboot Lara isn’t shotgun-thugs-in-my-mansion, backflip-while-dual-wielding-against-Tyranosaurs Lara. She’s never gone adventuring before, never jumped a chasm, never killed anything…and she’s not entirely sure she can.

The level opens with Lara on a mountainside path, overlooking the broken remains of the ship that dumped her here. She’s just seen her friend horribly murdered and narrowly escaped the same fate herself. She’s terrified, in great physical pain, and alone. Now she just has to survive: find supplies, some shelter, and food.

This Lara misses jumps, crashing through the undergrowth in a painful, uncontrolled slide. Crossing a makeshift log-bridge could easily be fatal  (complete with prescripted teetering over the edge), and indeed, she pauses to ruefully look back at it once across. I don’t ever want to do that again.

Then she comes across a broken-down, World War II-era bomber suspended in a water fall. Getting to the other side means climbing across it. “Okay. I can do this,” says Lara, psyching herself up.

It’s worse than the log. Much worse. But she does it.

Rain comes, thick and heavy. She finds shelter under a huge rock outcrop in the mountains, but the temperature’s dropped, and she’s visibly shivering, freezing. Starting a fire feels like a big victory. When Lara picks up a signal on her walkie-talkie from Roth, her mentor, calling from the other side of the island, her voice is a small whimper: “Please come and get me.”

He can’t. She must go to him. “You can do this, Lara,” he tells her, and she nods. She can. She has to.

Now, I want to stress this: During this entire sequence, Lara is not sexy. Unless a terrified girl covered in her own (and others’) blood really does it for you, nothing in this new Tomb Raider goes for the cheap thrill. When’s the last time you can honestly say that about this franchise?

Crystal Dynamics does a lot of smart things here. By putting Lara through such a brutal gauntlet and hitting her with everything they’ve got early and often, they’re building her up. Suffering creates sympathy.

If you object to how she’s treated in any way, it’s because you formed an empathetic bond with Lara. You want her to be safe…you want to help her, defend her, and make things right. It’s an old writer’s trick employed in works as diverse as Charles Dickens novels and RoboCop films. Do something horrible to someone likable, and the audience goes right into that character’s corner without fail.

But — and this is also important — everything that happens to Lara does not stop her. She is not helpless. Inexperienced, yes, but resourceful. Someone else might’ve laid down to die. Lara Croft goes looking for her friends, and when they can’t come to her, she goes to them. The moment when she finds her first bow feels like a major turning point. She tests it, testing herself, and gets a little of her old power back. It makes a huge difference. This is Lara becoming the Tomb Raider we know.

Things do calm down a bit later on. Lara meets up with other survivors from the shipwreck — people she knows. But when things go downhill again, they dive even deeper. Modern-day pirates control this island, and they haven’t had access to women in a long, long time. Not-so-subtle threats of rape drift in. And we want these evil men to burn before they lay a finger on Lara.

When she kills one — the first time she’s killed anyone — it’s up close, personal, and ugly. And if you think all the suffering’s exclusive to the women, then note that the man she shoots in the head doesn’t die instantly. He gurgles, choking on his blood, twitching for a few moments, looking Lara in the eyes before he stops.

Lara starts crying, overwhelmed. It’s too much. She coughs uncontrollably, about to vomit.

Then she stands up. A temple’s burning in the background. She’s got a gun. And she’s not about to give up now.


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