Friday, June 17, 2011

Tomb Raider

In my recent discussions of gender-related marketing missteps various companies made at E3, I highlighted the Tomb Raider demonstration that was part of the Microsoft press event.

Over the course of the week since E3 and since I wrote my first complaint on the matter, I've received rather a lot of push-back about that choice.  Some see and hear the same problems I did; others only see a 2012 game they're interested in playing, and question where offense might possibly be given.

Let me state clearly and up front: I do not know if I have a problem with this game.  I have not played it; no-one has.  It won't be available until 2012.  As it happens I quite like the genre (not to mention my interest in having more female protagonists) 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 marketing and with the way in which the designers and publishers chose to present this game and this character" is not the same statement as "this game sucks."

And in fact, I have problems with this marketing, and with the way in which the designers and publishers chose to present this game and this character.

Here's the demo in question:

My major objections mainly stem from the first 1:00 of the video.  Try this exercise: put on your headphones or speakers, hit "play," and then either close your eyes or bring up another window over the video so that you can't see it.

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 be put in 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.  This is our introduction to this character: bound, scared, and squealing.  It's the first we see of her, the opening line of the story this demo wants to tell us, the first impression.  It doesn't just happen along the way; this is where we come in.

I get that they want to replace the damsel in distress trope with the strong girl rescues herself one.  And I do approve of that message, in one way.  In another way, both add up to victimization of a female character, and that's a pattern our current stories don't exactly lack.

The issue is that while they've made Lara Croft a physically and visually strong and determined character (and I do appreciate her plausible physical build and sensible pants), they choose at every moment to undermine that with her screams, her fear, and her injuries.  I don't know of a similar male hero whose injuries, sustained while playing, are ever so graphically painful and detrimental.**

And as it happens, this year's E3 gave us as good an immediate compare-and-contrast as we're going to get.  The Uncharted franchise was inspired by Tomb Raider, and now the Tomb Raider reboot, in turn, owes some inspiration to Uncharted.  The Continuing Adventures of Nathan Drake, The Attractive Everyman Version of Lara, 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 with being 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.  Can you imagine the two characters' roles reversed?  Because that's the real problem.  I can, in fact, and I would play those games -- but instead, we have yet another fragile woman.  This Lara Croft, in this demo, deliberately has a physical and emotional vulnerability that earlier incarnations of her character did not have, and that is not generally present in male characters.  It's not progressive just because they're doing it to Lara Croft; it's regressive because we've tread this ground before.

This 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 Wikipedia entry on the game, at the time I write this, reads:

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.

Because it will someday change: screenshot - 4:00 p.m. EDT, 16 June 2011.

I don't know, and can't know right now, how truly representative either demo I've linked is of the games they are promoting.  It is entirely possible that Nathan Drake spends two hours tied up and tortured and that Lara Croft never again screams in 40 hours of narrative.  It'll be many months yet before anyone can have anything to say about the rebooted Lara Croft, adventurer and protagonist.  If the Wikipedia article is correct, however, her new game is another iteration on "let's torture the attractive young white girl" survival horror.

Set aside the future.  In the present, the now, I'm tired of this same-old, same-old in marketing and demonstration.  The line between "victim" and "survivor" is 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's not a good idea.


For further reading: A friend linked to this post this morning, on "manpain."  It's a good, long look at a general phenomenon in media and how male and female suffering on screen are used, displayed, and written.  And I realized something about the Tomb Raider demo while reading it: the manpain -- "oh, God, I suffer watching this woman's agony, pay attention to how horrible I think this is -- is meant to be the player's.  Lara is in the refrigerator to drive the player forward, which puts us right back in male gaze territory.

**The one truly vulnerable and prone to injury male protagonist I can think of is Old Snake, from Metal Gear Solid 4.  His vulnerabilities come from engineered illness and premature old age, rather than from his gender, but I will grant the exception.  That microwave tunnel is brutal.


  1. Heh, Old Snake was the counterexample that sprung to mind for me as well. It is telling that a strong young female protagonist is being presented similarly to a aging male protagonist on the verge of death. 

    Seeing these classic patterns of male/female heroes repeat in games is disheartening, but it also has me thinking about what a big deal games with a gender-neutral protagonist could be. FemShep is a non-traditional action heroine because she has to share most of her lines and actions with a male hero. And that makes for a cool character. But DudeShep benefits from that as well. He obviously can't tend too much towards the Duke Nukem line of leering and dickswinging, because that wouldn't make sense for FemShep. He also has to treat his female crew the same way he treats the men.  No weirdly protective stuff, no condescension.  He's allowed to talk about his feelings and be diplomatic sometimes.  He's protected from being Drake as much as FemShep is protected from being Lara.  That's kind of cool. 

  2. That's a really great point, about how more gender-neutral writing benefits all characters.  I'd never thought of it that way but you're right.

  3. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  4. I totally see where you're coming from. This is a great article. But I was actually quite impressed with the Tomb Raider demo. I had never cared for Tomb Raider before. Never played it. Was never interested.

    Lara's new look seems real now. Believable. I agree wholly that it seems that male protagonists don't seem to suffer as much, but in this case, I feel that they're making a more realistic game. 

    She pushes through her situation in the face of extreme danger and adversity. I would be screaming and moaning much more than she is in the demo were I in that situation. Perhaps they could tone it down a little. 

    But I don't see it as a victimization of Lara more as I see it as a more realistic portrayal of any person in such a situation. It makes me feel for the character more seeing that she's struggling just as much as anyone would rather than just touting quirky one liners in the face of danger. 

    Wonderful article. Keep up the good work. 

  5. Given the sexual history of Lara Croft, it's not hard to interpret Lara's groans, shrieks, and heavy breathing as anything short of orgasmic.  I know I did.

    I guess we won't really know for sure whether this approach works until we play the whole thing.  I can see it fitting nicely with a full character arc: Lara starts helpless and scared, but by the end, she's toughened up, in control.  Transition from single-button presses and frantic controller waggle into straightforward mechanics.

  6. That kind of raises a whole other question, doesn't it?  There are always issues of character perspective and player perspective in gaming, starting from "is this a first person or a third person perspective?"

    So the question that arises from there is: by definition, is a third-person player character always subject to the male gaze, or, rephrased, are all games designed with the male gaze as the default player perspective?

    And that's actually a really, really interesting thought.  And might make some other things gel.  I'll have to work on that.

    i guess i'm wondering--aside from the looming threat of sexual violence,
    the echoey shrieks of the main character, and the different tone of the
    story and setting--how that intro is different from the intro to uncharted 2.

    Well, the looming threat of sexual violence and the tone of the story and setting are sort of the key differences, aren't they.  That's the gist of the whole problem.  We couldn't have her in this fairly typical hero-situation without the tone, the shrieks, and the implications?  Because I'd actually like that.

    (Also I complained about being out of ideas an hour AFTER this went live. ;)  But you've just given me some new ones, so... thanks!)

  7. I only know Lara Croft from the Angelina Jolie movie, but I can't imagine her moaning during torture or sex.

  8. is a third-person player character always subject to the male gaze, or, rephrased, are all games designed with the male gaze as the default player perspective?

    Whenever I read an online discussion about a third-person character whom the player can choose to have be either male or female someone will say something about playing a female character because of wanting to look at her ass / not wanting to look at a male's ass. Pathetic, and given the availability of actual pornography baffling, but very pervasive.

  9. What I wonder is this: what percentage of boys and men who give that as their answer actually had it in mind at character creation, vs. what percentage of boys and men who give that answer feel that it's the only publically-speakable masculine-enough answer to rescue their male identity from having the audacity to take on a female role?

    I mean, I don't think that anyone who says it is consciously going through those gymnastics, but I bet that's part of it.

  10. Game, set, and match.   Well done.

  11. Maybe in some cases, but I very much doubt it. It may influence what type of female character they pick. Night elf, blood elf, and human female avatars far outnumber dwarf, orc, and tauren female avatars in World of Warcraft by a long shot (or at least they did when last I played a few months ago). I've heard more than a few public comments, in text chat and even in Ventrilo, with guys asking why someone (me, sometimes) picked such an ugly woman to play.

  12. Just read this, thought it was applicable.

  13. i think you are saying my question better than i did.

    but yeah, my question basically was about this: in all good stories that we read/watch/play, we forget that the characters and action and story are carefully constructed artifices by the people in charge of creating the story. it seems natural, rather than invented. but, no matter what, they are invented, and very often with the specific purpose of drawing the reader/watcher/player into the story.

    so, at some level, every character will always be a tool to engage the reader.

    i need to think on this more. it's pretty obvious to me where the tomb raider video touches on tired tropes, but there's a lot more to this conversation, at a broader level.

  14. Wow.  Thanks for the link.

    So basically they're taking spectacular graphics, solid gameplay, and good storytelling skills and... using them to beat the shit out of yet another attractive young white woman survival-horror style.  Fan-freaking-tastic.  *sigh*

    Honestly I really want the final version of this game to be one I would play but everything I read about it makes that seem less and less likely.

  15. A couple of broad responses.

    1.) As I said - I was critiquing the demo here, and not the full game.  There is no broader context yet and I tried to be clear on that.

    2.) The problem is the pattern.  We take attractive young white women and basically torture them with horror films and survival-horror games.  We don't treat male protagonists the same way.  So here they're taking one of the very, VERY few iconic female characters in gaming (even if she is iconic mainly for her breast size), and coming up with more and more ways to beat her bloody and make her suffer.

    Could we use more realism in gaming heroes?  Sure, I won't argue against that.  I might not play those games but that's straight-up personal preference.  The problem to examine here is that it fits into a pattern of violence and victimization around women and female characters.  What's the dude equivalent of what's described in this preview?

  16. Metal Gear Solid 3. Naked Snake gets the crap beaten out of him (, has to patch himself together ( and is sent right back in to get the crap beaten (, burned, quilled with crossbow bolts laced with neurotoxins, hunted like a deer (, attacked by swarms of maddened hornets (, subjected to torture, and had his eye taken ( among other punishments.
    Far Cry 2 is another one, but it's a serious pain to find relevant clips, since so much of how it's like that is relatively random. Here's one buddy rescue (happens to be a woman pulling your fat from the fire this time).

  17. I had the exact same reaction to the trailer, actually, and am glad to have stumbled upon a blog where people are talking about it.  I was pretty excited about this game and now I'm significantly less so, based almost totally on the sound effects choices.  Super lame.