Tomb Raider has been marketed shamefully. From trailers that focused on Lara being battered and broken, to hands-on features full of sexual gags on Conan O’Brien (http://youtu.be/xCe8-1dbXZc), it’s clear that the marketing team behind this new game are well versed in what works for an audience of thrill-killing sexists. And let’s be frank – that audience is responsible for a large percentage of video game sales.
But this game deserved better. It’s a triumph.
I almost passed on Tomb Raider, because I found the pre-release hoopla so vile. It was only when some trusted friends told me how good it was, and how wrong my preconceptions of it were, that I decided to try it. I’m glad I did, because it’s an important chapter in the history of one of the most well-known videogame characters. The first genuinely meaningful chapter, if we’re at all interested in characterisation within videogames.
Lara Croft meant different things to different people. To some women, she represented a turning point. She was a positive force. Cara Ellison illustrated this beautifully recently - http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/12/19/gaming-made-me-tomb-raider/ To many men she was a pair of tits in a cave. An arse crawling through the dark. A thing to giggle over and abuse.
To me, she was nothing. Not really. I liked her for being a female character, at least there was that, but she was a ridiculously proportioned thing. A cartoon. I couldn’t relate to her at all, because she was like no woman I knew. Tomb Raider, for me, was about the tombs. The atmosphere of the caves. The world. I couldn’t find my way in to Lara Croft. I just didn’t buy that character at all. A gaming icon? Really?
I can tell you that this new game has given me exactly what I wanted from Tomb Raider. An incredible world, with every location feeling real and heavy with threat and history. A place to get lost in. Playing on PC, my finger’s always moving to that screenshot key. The people who made this game understood Tomb Raider, and cared deeply about the project. I see that now.
But what about Lara?
This Lara Croft is different. She’s terrified. She’s cold, shivering in the rain. She can barely balance as she walks over a narrow beam. She constantly tells herself “You can do this. You can do this.” She looks towards her mission objectives and her brow furrows and her eyes fill with dread. She kills a deer for food and then apologises to it. She kills maybe a hundred men, and you never feel like she enjoys it. You feel like she had to do it, and that you are her, and that you are scared, and that you had to do it.
She is a hero with vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability in video games usually comes in the form of a big red flashing weak point in an enemy robot’s armour. Character vulnerability is a no-no. The audience, that audience, doesn’t want it. Look at Raiden, from Metal Gear Solid 2. I can remember the response to this character at the time. Gamers on internet forums called him a “pussy” and a “faggot” because he expressed his insecurities and doubted himself. He was “whiny” and a “girl”. The audience, that audience, likes its heroes strong and sure. And male.
Playing this new Tomb Raider, I stopped thinking about the whole LARA IS A WOMAN thing about an hour in. Her gender looms too large in the discussion of this game. I was thrilled purely by the fact that I was playing as a character who expected to fail, and wasn’t sure they could survive. A character who felt real. Sure, she gets beaten and battered as she moves through the story of the game, but seen in context there is no controversy here. If this was a male character, we’d just be watching our hero in a desperate position, in a terrible place, surviving terrible people.
But it wouldn’t be a man, would it? That’s the thing. And it’s nothing to do with the sexualisation of violence against females (we’ll come to that shortly). It wouldn’t be a man because the audience isn’t mature enough for that yet. I think a large portion of the gaming audience would entirely reject a male hero suffering as Lara does in this Tomb Raider. This Tomb Raider guy, let’s call him Larry, would be another internet pussy. He’d have to be completely changed up in the sequel. He’d need to be given cyborg arms and sent back to that island with a rocket launcher and a cute female assistant flirting on the radio.
This brilliantly written game (and I never expected to write those words) has given gaming one of its most grown-up characters, but it had to do it by stealth. Rhianna Pratchett sneaked something important past the industry’s dinosaur gatekeepers.
The brilliance of this new Tomb Raider is that it kills the whole gender debate over Lara Croft stone dead. I said that she once meant different things to different people. Now I think she might represent one thing to everyone – a step forward in characterisation within videogames. She’s not a female icon. Not a male pin-up. She’s an evolutionary milestone. Lara Croft genuinely matters now.
So why did the marketing team so completely undercut that message? And why are they still doing it?
When I saw that first footage, with Lara yelping and groaning and falling and being flung through everything in sight, I was horrified. TORTURE PORN, I said. SEXUALISED VIOLENCE, I said. Within the game, it’s all presented beautifully. Nothing exploitative. It’s a story, in actual fact, about inner strength.
I could bang on about the people who edited those trailers together, and what it says about them that they presented this great story in such a manner. But I think it’s more helpful that I ask what it says about me. Why do I associate a woman being battered and beaten into submission with porn? Why do I see a woman being tied up and dragged around as sexualised imagery?
I’m a man. And to be a man is to understand that you’ve been brainwashed from birth. The default sexual role for a man, we’re instructed, is to be sexually dominant. As a teenager, I remember us all talking about the things we would do to “THAT”. Women referred to as objects. “I’d split that wide open.” I remember saying that when I was fourteen, before I’d ever even kissed a girl. Those words actually came out of my mouth, when I was a child. Even now, as a 35 year old man, there is that side to me – thrilled by dominance and total power. I think it’s important to recognise it.
If you remove those scenes of Lara Croft tied up, battered, and crawling through the dirt from all context? Well, that part of me that is sexually unmoderated responds to that. My more complete whole rejects it, but that part still responds. It still lights up. And those marketing people get that. They understand it completely.
It is wrong serving wrong. And it has to change.
Game creators, like all creators in every field, can play a part in questioning the perceived wants and needs of their audience. The people who made this new Tomb Raider have done their part. I’m sure they didn’t choose how it was marketed. I hope that with the inevitable sequel the publisher lets the game, and the writing, speak for itself.
Lara Croft. Gaming icon. For real this time.