Thursday, 21 June 2012

Raiding Tombs

 I’m always excited to hear about a new Tomb Raider game, because I love Lara Croft. I am a rubbish, and occasional gamer.  I see it primarily as a social activity and prefer games which put more emphasis on problem solving than fighting.  I find war games distasteful and strategy games uninteresting.  I like a first person adventure with a good story.

Lara Croft was just an image to me for a good few years before I actually played any of the Tomb Raider games and I found her sickening, unrealistic and overly sexualised, in no way reflective of the women around me.  While (largely thanks to vastly improved graphics) she now has a much more human appearance, I have to say this remains the case.  

Because I am rubbish at games, everything I learnt about Lara on my first time controlling her reinforced this image.  I spent a lot of time running into walls, which prompts her to make a slightly orgasmic ‘unh’ noise.  She also moans when she bends down to pick up health or ammo, presumably as a result of her shorts being too tight.

I don’t remember the chronology of my introduction to the Tomb Raider games, I think I had a brief go on a friend’s playstation of the second game, then at some time acquired the first game on my PC.  Soon afterwards a housemate got a playstation and my two male housemates and I worked our way through the first few games together.  The more I played, the more intrigued I became.

Lara Croft is different from any female character you will find in literature or film for many reasons, some to do with the medium in which she exists, and some to do with her as a fictional creation.  In the first game, you experience her as the only person in a very remote landscape, prey to dogs, bats, bears and dinosaurs – obviously.  When you encounter another human being, it is no different from encountering a lion, although they are harder to kill.  The game play emphasis is much more on problem solving and your ability to control her accurately than it is on combat.  It’s just you and Lara, and as you progress through the game, your skills develop and she becomes capable of extraordinary feats.  
I loved the first game.  I loved the solitude and simplicity of it, something I appreciate more as each new addition to the canon is released and is less solitary, more complicated, and as a result, rather messy.  I love that at no point in the game does it have to be explained how Lara came to be capable of such daring expeditions, super intelligent and capable of reading obscure ancient languages in spite of being a woman; she just is.  I love that her gender has nothing to do with anything.  I bonded with her over that.  I also found it interesting how her personality changed depending on who had the control.  In my hands she was cautious, slow and thorough, in one housemate’s she was reckless and quick, and with the other, aggressive and certain.  I found myself wondering things about her, her career, her family life, how a woman like that operated in the world I live in.  Let me be clear, there are reasons why Lara Croft is not, and probably never will be, a feminist icon, among them that titillation has played a big part in some of the design and even story choices along the way.  Hollywood had the chance to do something more interesting but made such a ridiculous hash of it – twice – I’m glad they have since been content to leave her to games.  

The new trailer promises a bit of a Lara Croft origin story.  Her history has gradually come out over the course of the games and comics, often re-writing itself, but this game depicts the plane crash which is the catalyst in her development as an adventurer as she learns to survive by herself in the Himalayas - or in this version, a desert island.  Excellent, I thought, just Lara learning how to be Lara.  For me it doesn’t need explaining but it might on the other hand mean a return to that solitary, simple game play and pure Lara of the first game.  And moments of the trailer don't disappoint.  

But there seems to be an awful lot of bad guys hanging out in this wilderness and one of my reservations is how many strands to the story are introduced in this trailer.  And the issue that has caused some controversy ( beautifully summed up in this Guardian article) and concerns me greatly is the apparent attempted rape of Lara by one of these bad guys.  Maybe one day I will write a whole blog post about the portrayal of rape in popular culture, but there’s an excellent one here which covers the main points.  It began to be a problem for me after I realised that in pretty much every film I watched over about a three month period, a woman was raped or nearly raped.  And it was handled the same way every time; usually she would be either saved by the hero or this violent crime would spur the hero on to exact some revenge on her behalf.  Apart from the issue of it trivialising rape, it’s really lazy writing, and insulting to both genders.  It reduces all men to potential rapists and all women to victims.  We never see the consequences of a woman dealing with life after rape, it is never reported to the police and it never works its way through the normal justice system.  

I’d like to make something very clear.  A woman does not need to be raped, or have someone attempt to rape her, in order to become (in this case) Lara Croft.  It is possible that some women just are strong, powerful, determined and dispassionate enough to shoot a dog without hesitation if it looks like it’s about to eat her (this incredible story from This American Life comes to mind).  

I suspect being a victim of rape does not in any way make you stronger.  There is no justification I can imagine for putting this attempted rape into the game, and the trailer (would seeing this scene make anyone actively WANT to play the game?), and I’m disappointed that the makers don’t have enough faith in their central character to give her a more positive origin tale.  The executive producer said this about Lara in an interview with Kokatu: “When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character.  They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"  I would love to know what research this is based on. If you really want to protect her, surely you wouldn’t take it out of the box, because then she’d never have to go through being munched on by wildlife and shot at by bad guys.  Perhaps you could have a version where Lara stays at home and bakes and you have to stop her burning herself on the oven. 

 I’ll play the new Tomb Raider, and I’m still hoping I’ll love it in spite of this.  But by giving Lara this experience, the makers have undermined their character and my relationship with her.  How can I think less of her because of an attempted rape, and how can I not?