Why should Lara Croft suffer for our sins?

Marcus Fenix didn't have to experience a traumatic sexual assault to become a hero, so why should Lara Croft?

(As a courtesy to readers who may require it I include the following Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of non-consensual sex acts inflicted on Kratos and Master Chief.)

As I mentioned previously in my recent write-up on the Microsoft E3 conference, Crystal Dynamic’s demo footage of their gritty and “mature” Tomb Raider reboot made for uncomfortable viewing. In it a young pre mausoleum-pillaging Lara Croft, shipwrecked on a remote tropical island, fights mercenaries with a bow and arrow before tumbling down some white water rapids for what feels like an eternity. Every bump, graze, bullet hole, broken bone and battering elicits an extremely vocal outburst of discomfort from our plucky young heroine. I quipped that I hadn’t heard a woman scream and moan in so much sheer physical agony since I last watched David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and jokingly compared Lara Croft to Burt Reynolds’ character in Deliverance.

A comparison to Ned Beatty’s character may have been more accurate if Kotaku’s interview with executive producer Ron Rosenberg, published on Monday, is anything to go by. At one point early on in the new Tomb Raider, intended to be a new origin story for Lara Croft, Lara is taken prisoner by a group of scavengers on the island and one of them attempts to rape her. “She is literally turned into a cornered animal,”Rosenberg said, literally misusing the word “literally”. “It’s a huge step in her evolution.”

Many people have already written great pieces on this subject from a feminist perspective so I won’t try to stagger clumsily over that same well-trodden ground myself, although it’s inevitable I’ll skirt the boundaries of it occasionally. If I may I would instead like to approach this topic from a writing and storytelling perspective, as I feel I can speak more eloquently and with greater confidence about that side of things. It also affords me a sufficient level of detachment to better discuss this sensitive topic in a respectful manner.

It is particularly telling that Rosenberg chooses to compare Lara Croft’s new origin story, attempted-rape and all, to comic book origin stories like those of Batman or Spiderman. Comics, like videogames, are generally geek media and geek media has a long history of treating female characters pretty bloody atrociously. Aside from dead women in refrigerators the most pernicious and clichéd trope in geek media is “strong” women never become as such by virtue of their own ability.

Strength in geek media is archaically associated with what are considered to be traditionally “male” traits such as physical power, endurance, intelligence or the ability to destroy stuff. Male characters rarely, if ever, acquire abilities associated with traits considered “female” like healing or nurturing, but when they do the process is usually no different to those that enhance “male” ones (radioactive spider bite, magic ring from outer space, etcetera). Female characters generally undergo a similar and relatively painless process when enhancing what are considered gender-appropriate abilities, but woe betide any female character who acquires “male” ones. They usually only get that way if they are raped, sexually assaulted or otherwise “damaged” in some fashion.

So it comes as no surprise the new Tomb Raider has Lara kill someone for the first time in response to an attempted rape, which Rosenberg describes as the moment Lara learns “to either fight back or die”. She couldn’t learn how to kill by herself, oh no. You see a man had to be there to “teach” her because only men are born with the power and knowledge to kill and destroy. The only way Lara, a mere woman, can acquire the male talent for death is to usurp that power from a male. The only way Lara survives her assault is by literally stealing her attacker’s “strength” in the form of his gun, the most obvious of phallic symbols, and using it to destroy him.

Compare this to the original Tomb Raider games when Lara Croft was a simple yet clever subversion of the classic “gentleman adventurer” literary archetype. Embodying all the positive traits of a modern Doc Savage or Allan Quatermain, Lara Croft was a strong, physically capable, wealthy and intelligent individual by virtue of her own ability, who just happened to be a woman. She never needed a big strong man to teach her how to climb or shoot a gun. The only man in her life for the first two or three games was that poor butler she kept locking inside a freezer. Comparisons can also be drawn with the French comic book character Adele Blanc-sec, who shares similar qualities and was also a subversion of a literary archetype.

A Young Nathan Drake would know how to break a captor’s neck as easily as breathing without the threat of rape to teach him. Kratos wasn’t spurred to defeat the gods of Olympus because Ares literally sodomised him in an alleyway in Sparta. Master Chief didn’t require a High Prophet to molest him before he could defeat The Covenant. So why then must Lara Croft kill a man trying to rape her before she can become the arse-kicking adventurer we know her to be? Why must she be a “victim” before she can become a hero?

If the developers needed a situation where Lara is forced to kill in order to survive then surely something like a wild animal attack would work just as well. Especially when you consider how she usually treated animals in the first two Tomb Raider games. Maybe the presence of mercenaries on the island had driven away the natural prey of large local predators, forcing them to attack humans out of starvation. Lara barely surviving an attack from a rabid wild tiger by killing it would demonstrate her vulnerability, as well her potential to be something greater than she currently is, far better than a ham-fisted attempted rape scene ever could.

Rather than being told Lara is strong and capable because of her skill, determination and courage, we get “Lara is strong and capable because she was nearly raped by a bad man!” A juvenile way of thinking that trivialises a harrowing event and does a major disservice to an interesting, memorable and positive female character. It is only “mature” in the same way Image Comics in the 1990s were “mature” because they had tits and swearing in them. I’m not saying video games cannot or should not tackle the subject of rape. All I’m saying is it should be handled carefully and only when the story demands it. It should not be used as a cheap shorthand to emphasise a female character’s vulnerability or a male character’s villainy. Is that really too much to ask?

I don’t believe Crystal Dynamics is a den of evil misogynists who beat their wives and spit on women in the street. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” although in this case I’d probably call it clumsiness. In a way I admire Crystal Dynamics for having the gumption and ambition to at least try and tackle such a sensitive topic. It’s better to try and fail miserably than never to have tried at all, and if other companies can learn from this mistake then there’s hope for this industry yet. Gaming can’t hide behind the excuse of being a young medium anymore and if it wants to play with the big boys it has to learn to take a few knocks. It also has to evolve beyond adolescent power fantasies, nerd-fodder and other insular behaviour, but one step at a time eh?

Besides demonstrating how gaming still has a stubborn sexist element ingrained into it, this controversy shows developers need to hire actual writers for their games. An overwhelming majority of the people who make games simply don’t know how to write. They don’t know how to craft a proper narrative arc or characters as nuanced as ones you’d find in great novels, films or television. In terms of quality videogame writing is barely above the level of internet fan fiction, and it shows.

Part of the reason they don’t know how to write is they never learned to read anything outside of geek-related media. A common saying amongst writers is “writers write”. Another common, albeit less well-known saying is “writers read”. Dedicated writers live, eat, sleep, breath and drink the written word in all its forms. Good, bad, classics or trash, doesn’t matter. They’ll soak up Shakespeare and devour Dickens. They also chew the yellowest pulp fiction drenched in lashings of purple prose. A dedicated writer learns something from the best and the worst, daily, because they constantly strive to improve their own work.

A good writer knows the tropes and clichés to avoid. They understand the proper meaning and context of words like “literally”. They realise what is not written can often say far more than the actual words on the page. They know to show and not tell. They’ve known characters to take a life of their own and try to pull a story in a whole new direction against their wishes. They’ve grappled with plots and story arcs until the wee hours of the morning, subsisting only on caffeine fumes, adrenaline and wide-eyed enthusiasm. They encourage people to challenge their work, poke it with sticks and see if it all holds together. Or as Ernest Hemingway put it:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I’d sincerely like to hope this all turns out to be a case of miscommunication, and that Crystal Dynamics have made a genuinely sensitive story that doesn’t turn one of videogames few positive female characters into a meek, patronising stereotype. Given gaming’s track record however my expectations are currently lower than the average life expectancy of Kyle Raynor’s girlfriends circa 1994.

Crystal Dynamics, I implore you: prove me wrong.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.