For my birthday this year, my wonderful partner/roommate/soulmate gave me the new Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game. The day it came out. (He also gave me a homework assignment – he wants me to explain, in writing, how I feel about his game after finishing it. Fair!)
Some context: while I love to self-identify as a ‘gamer’, I kind of suck at XBox 360 games. I don’t have a lot of experience with them, first-person-shooters don’t tend to attract me, story-wise, and my dual-analog skills are dismal. That being said, I was incredibly attracted to Tomb Raider when I saw the first few trailers and making-of videos. There are a lot of feminist type issues (I have stayed away from the internet between the release day and the posting of this blog to preserve my own opinion!), which I will get to, but as a whole, at the beginning, I felt like I finally came across an XBox 360 single-player action game that I actually wanted to play.
Pre-release, I heard that Lara is a bit ‘victim-y’. Some people took issue with the apparent fact that her character is sort of framed to bring out the player’s protective instincts. This, to me, is a side effect of creating through the male gaze; Lara is further away from a sex symbol than she has ever been before, and therefore, for the male gamer (the assumed target audience, although I’m not sure if it is true), there needed to be some other way to connect with a playable female protagonist.
I see that. In this game, Lara isn’t really an ass-kicker (at the beginning). When she falls down, she has a variety of ‘oops I fell down, that hurt’ noises. She often looks like she is only barely competent at what she is doing. Her deaths are really victim-y (there I go, using a non-word again). To me, though, this was awesome. Why? Because that is what would happen if it were actually me!
It may not be a good thing that victim-Lara was so relatable for me, but she was (is). If I were suddenly stranded on ‘lawsuit island’ (nice, Conan), where there are seemingly dozens of tribes of feral men trying to kill me, supernatural storms, wolves, and deadly landscapes, I would totally fall down all the time. I would be crying out when I’m about to lose my grip while rock-climbing. I would be covered in scrapes, cuts, bruises, and mud. My hair would be a nightmare. I would totally look terrified when some caveman is trying to drag me to my death by the ankle. To me, she manages to be afraid, and not be trained in combat, and not be a total tank in the muscle department, and still stay alive and do what needs to be done.
That is SO. AWESOME.
(Later edit: I’m not comfortable with this being awesome. After playing the game, this felt like a relationship between me and Lara, and in that respect I loved it. But when I take a step back, and think about this game in a wider cultural context – and with hundreds of thousands of players – I am so not okay with how helpless she often is.)
So, my overall impression of this game is that it was incredible. It was exciting, it drew me in a way that Gears of War and Call of Duty don’t (although apparently I should be comparing it to Uncharted, which I know little about). It made me feel like a total badass, by the end. It gave me a great opportunity to finally get the hang of XBox 360 controls, which might make it easier to try out new games in the future.
There are some issues, though, and not with the game play (from a gamer’s perspective). Since I can’t seem to turn off my criminology-influenced mind anymore, I do have a few more things to say. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder to live in the world without critiquing it, seeing evidence of criminological theory, and it is kind of a painful way to live. I like to think that I am evolving into a criminologist. A pterodactyl would be cool too, though.
So, here we go. In chronological order as they came to me while playing the game: Trigger Warnings and Sex Assault Through the Male Gaze, and Killing Lara A Zillion Different Ways That Take Away Her Agency.
Trigger Warnings and Sex Assault Through the Male Gaze
*Trigger Warning – I’m going to describe the scene in order to explain myself, so if you don’t want to read this, skip to the next bolded heading*
One of the issues I had been aware of prior to playing this game was the fact that Lara experiences some sort of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault near the beginning of the game. The first article I read on it essentially asked ‘Why does a female character mean she has to be a rape survivor?’ After reading that article, I had some beef. I think because, statistically speaking, it’s pretty likely that a given woman of Lara’s age has experienced some form of sexual assault. I also thought it might be showing the various ways something can be scary or threatening – you don’t need a big gun to be a villain, and maybe this is an example of this in a video game.
So, as the game began, every time a scary feral caveman jumped up and grabbed my ankle to drag me to my death, I thought “IS THAT MY RAPIST?” Every time a male character (and let’s face it, almost everyone was male) was introduced, I thought “You?!” It had me a bit on edge, but I was okay with it. When it finally came, I was not.
I am going to do my best to explain why I do not think this was incredibly wrong, I just think this could have been done in a better way.
Lara’s “rapist”, as I had been calling him in my head, is part of a gang of men who fight Lara through a section near the beginning. There is a lot of shooting and sneaking around until you get nabbed by The Guy. The only ‘sexual assault’ that happens is subtle. You can tell from his aggressive and violent innuendo (I wish I had quotes) and a couple of head glances that he sees her as a sexual woman, but in a predatory, deadly way. He grabs her during an animated cut-scene, slides his dirty, bloody, sweaty hand down her arm from shoulder to wrist, and may even touch her stomach slightly. Everything about his slow, possessive, anticipatory arm-graze screams “I am going to have my way with you”, but, even knowing what I am about to explain, I think that was okay. It is really realistic, actually. Having Lara go through an entire game and fight a few hundred men without a single reference to her sexuality would be flat-out ignorant, in my mind, and nothing referencing her body at all ever happens again.
So, Lara reacts. I’m not sure if she was trying to pull away or push him off, but it happens quickly. While it remains cinematic-looking, the control vibrates like crazy and the screen tells you to press a specific button repeatedly to fend him off. Now, this is what would happen if you were a good gamer, or at least somewhat familiar with XBox 360 controls.
He touches her creepily, she tries to fight him off. Press Y (or X, or whatever) repeatedly, cinematic shows them grappling/pushing back and forth a bit. They tumble to the ground. A gun falls from the assailant to the ground.
He scrambles on top of her prone body, they lie face to face grappling and grunting while she stretches out her hand for the pistol. Press X or Y or whatever. Good for you.
Lara grabs the pistol. Aims it at his head. Click RT and aim to fire. Boom, you killed him.
Think to yourself, Really, that was it? That wasn’t so bad. I don’t know what everyone was complaining about.
Now… let’s rewind that playing it like I play. Like a total XBox 360 n00b who doesnt know A from X from Y from B.
Step one? He strangles Lara to death. Wraps his dirty, bloody, sweaty hand around her throat, lifts her off the ground. Her face tilts to the sky and her hands struggle futilely to pull his hand off of her throat. She fails. Goes limp. He throws her body to the ground.
I had to watch that ten times.
Okay, you finally figured out where X (or Y, or whatever) is, good for you. You’re on the ground. Assailant stretched out on top of Lara, both reaching for the gun. You may even get the gun, but, wait, you aren’t good at aiming with the dual analog controls? Oh, that sucks. You get to see a cinematic of your assailant pressing the barrel of a pistol to the underside of Lara’s chin while stretched across her body. He pulls the trigger. Boom goes her head, and you can see her face the whole time.
As it may not be difficult to figure out if you read my last post on trigger warnings, I am a bit… touchy where these things are concerned. Where there is some representation of a woman that is utterly helpless at the hands of a man, and great harm befalls her (or even could befall her), I don’t really like that. Sometimes, if it is overly graphic and touches a couple specific triggers that I have, I have a serious visceral reaction.
While playing this part, each time I watched her die, utterly powerless, at the hands of a man who integrated aggressive sexuality with the attack, I got colder. I got very still. My face went from engaged and excited to alarmed/concerned/sympathetic to a cold stillness that comes over me when it, for whatever reason, stops being about empathy and starts being about me. This happens very rarely. I felt sick. I kept at it because I wanted to win, but when I finally won, his death was practically an afterthought. I felt like I was going to throw up. Or cry, or both.
Unfortunately, I usually can’t verbalize when that happens. Zach, I’m sorry you thought you did something wrong when I left the room abruptly with that look on my face. I took something close to an hour alone in the darkness of our bedroom to pull myself together.
I was really angry afterward. After some experiences during that day that already had trigger warning on my mind (although in a more academic context), I ended up writing that semi-rant. I’m not angry anymore. I don’t think that this, in general, shouldn’t have happened. However, this really proved the whole ‘male gaze’ (or ‘female gaze that can’t relate to sexual assault or male intimidation’) thing. Because this whole part, including the deaths, wouldn’t have been a big deal to someone who A) hasn’t experienced something similar, or B) doesn’t have a sensitivity to this type of thing. It is obvious, to me, that it is essentially considered just another combat animation. This shows such a fundamental lack of understanding and sensitivity that, while I’m not surprised, per se, I am really not impressed.
I think this could have easily been solved by incorporating some way to skip the death cut-scenes, kill him from afar a different way (and therefore remove the sexuality from it), or even just animating the deaths less. We don’t need to see her struggle for breath and slowly strangle. We don’t need to see her face as a bullet passes through her head.
Hence, to me, the male gaze. While other parts could have triggered other things (mostly if, for example, someone has PTSD), I think those were fairly warned in the trailers. If the trailer had included Lara slumping as a man holds her off the ground by the throat, I would not have played this game. I imagine a future where video game companies, like criminologists (see last post!), realize and respect the diversity of their audience. A future where we can trust entertainment media to give us a heads up to leave the room if we can’t handle something that is well-documented as a trigger.
I don’t judge them too harshly, because I know how personal my understanding of this is. I know that a very sympathetic person reading this post may still not feel what I felt when playing it. I can see how that effect could be overlooked by a team of developers creating through the male gaze. (Although assuming this was actually overlooked is a bit generous on my part.)
Okay, enough of that!
Complaint #2: Killing Lara A Zillion Different Ways That Take Away Her Agency
This is more criminology/media studies thinking. The death scenes for Lara are animated in serious detail. It’s pretty awesome that, while sometimes she does just fall off a cliff and become a speck, a lot of the deaths are well-rounded and more complex than her just falling over (although this is what happens when she gets shot from afar). However, I would love to do a content analysis of each way she dies, and find another video game with a male protagonist (maybe Uncharted 3?) and compare how the death happens.
With the exception of drowning, so many of these death animations, to me, reduced her back to the ultra-feminine-incompetent victim in the moments leading up to her death. When fighting hand-to-hand with someone with a blade, if your health gets low enough to die, do they show the blade sinking into Lara’s skull? Lopping off her head? Stabbing her through the heart? No way – the male assailant grabs her by the shoulder/throat area and bends her over backwards before sliding the blade into her. Domination and submission, yikes. Why can’t she die the way she lived?!
Sliding through a stream full of debris, she gets impaled on a rod – and, similar to the strangling scene described earlier, the rod spears her from under her chin through her skull, and her hands flail uselessly at the rod until she goes limp.
Etcetera, etcetera. Basically, I felt like a badass – except when I died, and I know from watching my boyfriend play video games that there are plenty of ways to die like a boss. Why didn’t they animate how she dies if she’s in an explosion? And please note, I did not watch this looking for ways to criticize the representation of Lara – I just realized how I felt every time they took my blood-covered, grenade-launching, rock-climbing alter ego and made her powerless in death. This may sound like an oxymoron to you, but to me it’s not!
Anyways, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m fascinated with this stuff, and I would love to talk it over with anyone interested in this type of thing as well. Thank you to Zach for getting me this game – I am going to beat you to the ‘No Stone Left Unturned’ achievement!
Thank you for reading. 🙂
Zoey (… or is it ‘Lara’?)