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The Tomb Raider franchise is incredibly long running with huge amounts of multimedia content, so of course I know almost nothing about its history. Tomb Raider debuted back in 1996, two years before I graduated from Nintendo to Playstation. I missed the boat on the initial launch of the franchise and never picked it up. The 2013 Tomb Raider, a reboot of the series, is my first experience with it other than the films.

1996 Tomb Raider game cover with Lara holding her iconic guns


I was aware of the first film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, because when it was released I was constantly on the lookout for stories with women at the center. Even though the film didn't get a good critical response, I still loved it. I liked the sequel just as much, although that one didn't do as well either critically or with audiences. I had been so sheltered and subject to regressive media that my parents liked that these movies were like catnip. An intelligent, hardworking lady with incredible physical skills! Outsmarting everyone! Being both badass and empathetic! It was impossible to resist.

I had no expectations of the reboot other than it be mildly entertaining and not punch me in the face with gross objectification like the films sometimes did and which the games did with Lara's character design. This is the main reason I never went back to experience those first games when I had the chance to do so, even though I recognize now that was probably a flawed decision.

I've been out of gaming, so picking up Tomb Raider, even a reboot, wasn't a given. I used to be a huge RPG fan, especially Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, as well as various Nintendo franchises. But unfortunately, I didn't like Final Fantasy XII as much as I wanted to. I've discovered I prefer SF premises and world building rather than fantasy, unless that fantasy sensibility is stacked atop a SFnal universe (sort of like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X or X-2, which feel like steampunk to me). Final Fantasy XIII looked promising, and seemed like a return to SF closer to Final Fantasy VIII's aesthetic. While the world, characters, and mechanics were absolutely on target, Final Fantasy XIII's plot and overly linear narrative inevitably disappointed me, and the ending left me furious. I left gaming for a while after that trainwreck. The time away wore down some of my bitterness, so in early 2013, when tumblr started buzzing about Tomb Raider and put it on my radar, I was curious enough to pay attention when it cropped up again.



Tomb Raider takes us back to Lara's baby archaeologist beginnings. This game is her first serious expedition, searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai, ruled by the Sun Queen, Himiko. The game drops you into the adventure immediately, crash landing the Endurance after a sudden, surprising storm inside The Dragon's Triangle. After the crash, everything gets 1000% more terrible. The immersion in this game is excellent; I highly recommend playing it with the volume as loud as is appropriate for your surroundings and the lights off. Unless you hate horror movies. Then you should probably leave the lights on. Turn on extra lights. Every light in the house. In fact, just become that Trace Adkins song. Because what follows is an hour or two of terrifying escapes, hungry wild animals, scary men, and a lot of dramatic and/or creepy music playing in the dark island night.

Lara looking down a dark hole


Because this game is about Lara's transformation from a young student into a deranged-island-inhabitant survivor, the rest of the crew other than Roth and Sam don't get much direct screen time. But spending time with Lara is awesome. She's quick-thinking, capable, brave, reflective, and empathetic. She's completely out of her depth; climbing mountains and camping while exploring the world is nothing like fighting for your life stranded on an island with angry men determined to murder you. Early on in the game, she watches clips that her friend Sam was taking for their documentary, which build out the main crew just enough to get a read on their motivations and personalities. If the game fails at characterization, it really does so with its one-note male characters: the grizzled sailor, Grim; the nerd, Alex; and the spiritual ship's cook, Jonah.

Ha. One-note male characters. There's something you don't think about as a problem very often.

Lara and Whitman arguing


The rest of the characters are integral to the relationship dynamics and plot as Lara's attempts to get everyone safely off the island. There's the overly ambitious and condescending I-have-two-PhDs archaeologist, Whitman, the only male character on Lara's crew to get backstory and development besides Roth. I forgot about him and was later annoyed with him because the game was too on the nose about his motivations, even as it's deepening his character. Reyes starts out flat, but as the game progresses her characterization, her relationship with Lara and Roth deepen in both sweet and heartbreaking ways through journal entries you find. Looking back, I find Reyes's story one of the most sad, complicated, subtle, and human stories of the entire game.

But this is Lara's story, and through her two most important relationships, we get to know Sam and Roth the best. Roth we know more directly through Lara's interactions with him, but Sam we meet in video, in journal entries, and in revelations about her relationship with Lara that put an entirely fresh spin on the game once rescuing Sam becomes Lara's mission. I know the game was doing so much, but I desperately hope for a sequel where we see more of Lara and Sam together. I would absolutely be down with Lara exploring the world and Sam recording her exploits and using them to make a kick ass reality show. I want to see them become excellent, highly experienced explorers together!

Lara and Sam


The island inhabitants aren't as well drawn except for Mathias, in whose head we spend too much time at the cost of developing the main crew. Although if it has to be him, so be it, since there's apparently two million islanders and they're all sociopaths with guns and machetes. It's a little hard to round that many deranged cultists out, although the game gives it a shot with the conversation the men have with each other. What I did find excellent about the characterization of people on the island was the way it humanized some of the cult members as well as long dead historical characters through their notes and journals. They struggle and suffer, and I, for one, was particularly moved by the priestess story Lara discovers. There's more than one hero who fought for the same thing Lara struggles toward throughout the game. I couldn't be more happy that the important characters with real power, both heroes and villains and simple side characters with secrets and agendas — the most important are all women.

But back to the two million sociopaths you have to battle through to accomplish any notable task that isn't killing animals: the fights in this game were really intense. Sometimes they were seemingly never-ending, too. I have very little experience with shooters, but this game was great. The learning curve isn't too steep, so it's good for losers like me who developed their more recent gaming skills on Kingdom Hearts: No Strategy Required But Thumbs Useful and Kingdom Hearts II: Manic Button Mashing Redux. Four years ago you couldn't have paid me to pick up a game where I had to select weapons and aim them properly without quitting in frustration five minutes after hitting everything but the target. But Tomb Raider makes it pretty simple to catch on to how to work the bow, which remained my favorite weapon until I got the rifle. But of course as soon as I acquired the flaming arrow the bow returned to the BFF space of my heart. It's an island full of inhumane men bent on Lara's destruction and their freedom at any cost including other human lives, so clearly that means I have to take all of them out by setting them on fire with a projectile. SIGN ME UP.

The only complaint I have about the battle system are the slide events and the boss battles that force you into specific keymashing to accomplish a task like jamming your axe into someone's head for maximum murder. I don't want to hit a key perfectly timed and stab someone in the brain; I just want to run up to them and stab them in the brain. Screw the fancy spells/QTEs/etc. and just let me brute force my way through everything with grenades and fire arrows to the eye and dogged determination. There was a section where I was ambushed and cornered and I was getting hammered, and it felt so rewarding when I got angry enough to just walk out in the middle of it and start cutting through dudes with my third favorite weapon, the shotgun. Nothing like listening to a smug sociopath claim that I'm going down right before watching his body fly backwards into a bloody heap. I wanted more of this and less "mash this now! mash that now!" I'm good at mashing but after a while it feels like the game just doesn't think you're competent enough to fight your own battles. Oops, accidental triangle when walking up to axe a guy! Oh, you didn't want to use that cool finishing move? Oh…

Lara lying in a cave


Interacting in the game world is so immersive that the negatives just don't add up to much for me. The graphics are beautiful and the writing for in-game dialogue is revealing and unintrusive, and often rewarding if you're patient enough to listen to the islanders talk to each other before you kill them. Everything about the graphics, accompanied by the music, makes the environments rich and deep and realistic. Before, I mentioned playing this game in the dark and think it's perfect for the tutorial section up until the cave section with Roth; after that, it depends on what kind of experience you want.



The excellent combination of the graphics and the music, and the well-constructed levels, often did a lot of the world building in lieu of having character interactions to discuss the sociopathic cult, or documents or relics to examine. Specifically, the geothermal caves section of the game did more to built the spectre of the men on the island and the inhumane and terrible things they did in the name of their twisted religion than any of the documents Lara reads. There's something about watching Lara wade through a river of blood and rust that really made everything about the situation they're in seem impossibly dire, setting the stakes for her as well as for me. After those caves, I just felt furious at, and yet sad for, the men I was killing so ruthlessly.

Lara hiding while covered in blood


Even with all the very subtle world building, my key problems with the game really center around the premise the creators set up, where they make huge points to frame Lara as a survivor. She survives angry, vengeful men killing her and her team. She survives traps and wild animals and falling down hills and being swept against rocks through rapid water. She survives falling down a mountain through increasingly ridiculous accidents. She's a survivor. There's a moment in the game that is meant to underline the change from Lara-the-naive-student into Lara-the-survivor. This moment was effective, terrifying, and bloody, but unfortunately came to nothing. The game, set so hard on the path of defining Lara one way, uses one dramatic event and seems to run out of steam. After this moment, Lara covered in blood and a weapon in her hands, the game forgets to finish what it started. Lara continues to collect weapons and take lives, and barely anything else comes out of this.

Lara aiming a gun


Couldn't there have been some more slight commentary on the havoc she was wrecking besides enraged battle quotes? Lara's journals would have been a perfect place for some of this; there should have been more of them. I sure wish I could have had a more heartfelt cut scene with Sam where Lara quietly unloads, too. Sometimes when I think of this and then consider the beach in the aftermath of the attack by the islanders, I get spitting mad because it would been so beautiful and heartbreaking. Sign me up for that fic immediately.

Obviously, Lara never wanted any of this. She just wanted to find a lost kingdom, find proof for her theories, learn, and explore a lost culture with her friends. She didn't want anyone to die, and if wild islanders are going to throw her around and threaten her with guns, well— too bad. If it's down to them or her, of course she's going to choose herself and her team and screw these guys. Of course she's going to strap on the girl who hardened herself on tough climbs, treat it like any other goal and just keeping pushing on — aim for that mountaintop, aim for that guy's head. But I would have really liked more awareness from the game that Lara was struggling with what she was doing, mowing down man after man, however horrible they were, especially after some of the later revelations that we come across in those caves I mentioned. Something more than a one-off "I had no choice." to Roth. There's making a choice and then there's reflecting on that choice as things change and the situation becomes more understandable. I wish we had seen more of that reflection.

Lara sitting alone by a campfire


My second criticism isn't about the game itself, but about a scene that portrays sexual assault, and the choices one of the game's producers made to promote the game using that scene. When I played through this section of the game, I didn't read the scene as sexual assault, because at the time, everyone's getting shot for moving the wrong way, for speaking, or just for being terrified. The dude's trying to murder me, so I didn't immediately think "fuck, sexual assault" until later. It's incredibly important to be accurate when discussing sexual assault and rape in all contexts, so surprise surprise, someone failed and pissed off the Internet. Because the fervor was so furious and widespread, and the comments made had stuck so firmly, I got incredibly frustrated when I would recommend the game and people would say to me, "But I don't want to play that game because I heard there's rape."

The difference between my reading of the scene versus what people were telling me about the scene made me do some digging. I tracked this down to a Kotaku article, You'll 'Want To Protect' The New, Less Curvy Lara Croft, which includes an interview with the executive producer of the game, Ron Rosenberg, who should be banned from all types of promotion for games with women as main characters until he learns not to be a creep about them.

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

"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.'"

So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.

"She's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

The new Lara Croft isn't just less battle-hardened; she's less voluptuous. Gone are her ridiculous proportions and skimpy clothing. This Lara feels more human, more real. That's intentional, Rosenberg says.

"You start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character. The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear," he said. "She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."

In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.

"She is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in her evolution: she's forced to either fight back or die."


1. When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character.

Here he explains that when "people" (read: men) play Lara, they can't project themselves onto her, because ha ha, she's a woman and dudes don't do that sort of thing. They can only project themselves onto men. Men are incapable of empathizing with a woman in such an immersive way, Ron says, without really saying it. It's beyond them. Contempt for women and emotional maturity of men: check.

2. 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.'

He goes on to unpack the load of horseshit he's hauling around about how players (read: men) are going to want to protect Lara. Because goodness knows players (read: still men) can't go through a game with a woman as the main driver of the action and plot and not be emasculated unless they cast themselves as the role of her "protector". Men can never empathize with Lara Croft, no, but they can certainly position themselves as her guardian. She definitely needs a male guardian and it could be you if you buy the game. $$$!!!11

3. She's definitely the hero but—you're kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

Sure, she's a hero, but only because players (men) help her along. And because she's a woman and players can't empathize with women, the successes are going to feel different. You're going to have to celebrate those achievements a different way, bud. The (male) player projected on the (male) protagonist feels the success as their own. The (male) protagonist can't imagine projecting themselves on a woman, so the wins just aren't going to feel the same. Terrible.

4. The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear," he said.

Ron Rosenberg just wants us to know that she is much better viewed as a person rather than a sex object. Except players (read: men) can't project themselves onto her as they play, because men can only empathize with other men. So now he's backed himself into a corner of absolute fuckery. I can only imagine what the company and the PR team thought when they saw this commentary. They probably needed a bracing drink...or eight.

5. "She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."

Remember, friends, if you're just a regular college student, studying to follow your dreams, with lots of world travel and experience under your belt, you're still just nothing. Zero. Not notable. And every time you rise up, don't worry — the world's going to remind you ultimately how worthless you are. The framing here is execrable; how many other ways are there to say this that don't couch it in terms of putting a woman in her place? Guaranteed that if Lara were a man, the line here would be, "He literally goes from regular joe to outright hero… we're building him up and just as he's confident he's come out on top, we throw harder, more complicated obstacles in his path that he has to overcome."

6. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her. "She is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said.

I don't even have anything cute to say about this other than this quote shows this dude's entire bullshit-filled, sexist hand, and shows why you should be careful when you talk about rape. This is a man who cannot imagine empathizing with a woman in a fictional context, nor can he fathom another man doing so. This is a man who ostensibly helped develop this game with this scene and calls it "rape" because he's so ignorant that he doesn't understand that distinctions matter. He doesn't understand that the actual and potential fanbase for this game actually contains women who have had sexual assault and rape impact their lives, and that rape is a shitty, lazy form of character development often deployed by writers with no imagination and no sense of what it means to be threatened with sexual assault, raped, or coerced sexually in any way. He doesn't understand that framing the game this way means that a whole ton of people around going to hear that story and decide it's not the game for them because they don't need that kind of fictional material in their lives.

He calls it rape, and looking at his language throughout the interview, he does it on purpose. Men can't project themselves on women and must follow the game as "protectors" and "helpers", instead. What better way to sell that idea to the misogynist corner of the market who sees women as objects than to really dig in and let them know they're not just saving Lara from scary sociopaths shooting guns, but from scary sociopaths who want to fuck her? They're supposed to be "protecting" Lara. Lara is theirs to "protect", and make no mistake, this is code language: she's their object. The player (still men!) won't want to let that happen, not only because rape is a violent attack, but because they'll want to be Lara's saviors. They're going to "root" for her by protecting her sexual virtue from vicious, murderous rapists.

And even though I am a year and a half late to this, and many other critics much better than me have said so, I'll just repeat it again: Ron Rosenberg is contemptible. He blew it so hard, Crystal Dynamics retracted his statements, with great haste, and clarified their position. What great publicity for their shiny new reboot. Ron Rosenberg is saying in extremely coded language: "Hey dudes, Lara Croft isn't some crazy scavenger's sex object! She's YOUR sex object, even though I can't really assure you of that directly anymore because I have to pay lip service to Lara as a human being. Play this game and protect her virtue and confirm your masculinity!"

The thing about the sexual assault in Tomb Raider (at least this incarnation) isn't that it was done badly, or that sexual assault should be sidestepped, or be verboten. There's a critical discussion to be had about being a woman and ending up on this island and being a woman around these men in particular, but there are many ways that conversation can happen without invoking rape the way that was done in regards to this game. Lara is a young woman inhabiting traditional male roles during a time when representation for young women in media has once again come to a head. Sexual assault and rape are going to come up, as they come up in the lives of all women at some point. But I think it's important how we talk about it, how we frame the discussion, and that it not be something that's thrown in for character development, or used as a selling point, a publicity tool to hock games to players (MEN) who want to cast themselves as "rescuing the damsel". The sexual violation of someone's body should not be a writer's characterization shortcut; it is not an executive advertising tool. Ron Rosenberg used it in the most atrocious way possible. For all he worked on the game, I don't think he respects Lara — or respects women — very much at all. I am so mad that a man made such ignorant comments in such a way that the good advertising for the game can't always penetrate his gross, abusive inaccuracies — which poisons the discourse and makes it harder for me to handsell the game to people I know would like it. Thanks, Rosenberg!

Tomb Raider is at its center a game about women being important, being powerful, and choosing to use power in good, bad, and destructive ways. Its heros are women, its most important side characters are women, its most important historical characters, even the ones we don't see and only meet in documents, are women. It's a story about men and women, and women take an active role in the decisions made to survive. At its heart is how Lara goes through hell, over and over, to save her crew, but especially her best friend, who is a young woman like herself. It's a woman's story, and not only was it well-told, it's an excellent gameplay experience, too.

Tomb Raider reminded me why I used to love to play games, although it also reminded me how angry I get at timed puzzled solving (curse you, tombs!) and the gaming industry in general. This reboot, although it very obviously started out with a mark against it due to shoddy publicity, has a lot of promise. Gail Simone is working on a sequel graphic novel that will tie directly into the next game. A) This is the kind of tie-in work I wanted in the late 1990s for Final Fantasy stuff, gimme, and B) the next game. I hope the next game is full of Lara on adventures with Sam recording everything for the inevitable day when Lara Croft gets a reality show and becomes a historical superstar. Everyone should get this and play it; it's worth it.

And someone write me that fic where Lara is a historical superstar with an adorable documentary filmmaker girlfriend. Thanks!

Resources
Tomb Raider (Definitive Edition) All Cutscenes Game Movie

Date: 2014-04-23 02:46 pm (UTC)
zachariah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zachariah
YASSSSS! Best game ever.

"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 just...whut. Paired with his failure to imagine projecting himself into the character, I can only imagine this producer watched the cutscenes, and let some underling play through the gameplay bits. Otherwise, what kind of cognitive dissonance does someone need to have to literally control a game avatar's every action and still say you're only "going to this adventure with her"? I'm very glad Crystal Dynamics walked his comments back.

(Also, now that you brought up the movies, can I just request there be a dorky robot-loving kid who latches onto Laura in the next game. Pleeeeease?!)

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