I’m a person, you’re a person

   A lot has been written about the Tomb Raider presentation at E3. I stirred up a tiny dust storm of my own by getting grumpy on Twitter about THAT Kotaku article, and then trying to articulate to Dan why I in particular was cross.
Thing is, I don’t get cross very often, and when I do, I want to examine why, because otherwise what’s the point? And it turns out to be more complex than violation as a story beat. It made me think about the responsibilities of game makers, especially around longstanding IP, and the kind of games I want to make. But mostly, it’s a personal story about me and Lara. 

So here goes. First, a disclaimer. I should say that I certainly don’t speak for all gamers who are female. I know ones who think this is an interesting way forward for the IP, and ones who are much angrier than I am about violence in games, and against women in particular. I can only speak for myself when I say when I saw the trailer I knew they weren’t making a Tomb Raider for me, and was sad about it. I only got cross when I saw Rosenburg’s remarks at E3, and then I found that difficult to let go.

The trailer shows a very young Lara, who whimpers a lot, and is clearly a long way from competent, hard-as-nails Lara who has schooled us through the previous games. Before, the character has always been impassive in the face of danger, whether it’s rival treasure hunters or that T-Rex. You always had to live up to her, and just keep trying until you made that terrifying jump, tricky timed sequence, or swam hard enough to make it though a flooded tunnel without drowning. I’ve always loved the athletic physicality implied in the gameplay. There’s a freedom in being so physically capable, and I remember as a teenager first feeling the sense of transference into the character you are controlling. Having some polygons up there doing those things while being ‘female’ was a great antidote to some of the dour 19th century literature I was studying at the time, where women who try and change their circumstances always end up being punished by fate.

Clearly, I am coming at the new trailer with history, and my lens is that of a fan. My most useful comparison is with friends with a childhood comics habit holding their breath in the weeks before a blockbuster comic book movie is released. The question is always, will it support my emotional investment in the character? And Marvel in particular have been great at fan service, even while making a mass market product those with no history can have a good time with.

I wasn’t into comics as a kid, but I can clearly remember that Tomb Raider was my gateway. It was the game that took me from sitting on my friend Ben’s sofa, passing a controller back and forth on wet afternoons, to buying a Playstation of my own and starting on the road to becoming an adult gamer. I have a lot invested in the character, several hundred hours over various iterations of the franchise.

The thing that stung about Rosenberg’s remarks as quoted in Kotaku, is that he was specifically excluding my experience as a gamer.

“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.’”

And yeah, I object to not being thought of as people. In being the other. The one done unto rather than the doer. In 2012, when every headline about game and tech penetration talks about adult women. But most of all because it’s Lara, and we go way back.

I know I’m supposed to object to the original size of her breasts but seriously, it’s not an issue. My pet hate was always skimpy clothing in snowbound scenes, because she looked cold, and that’s not much fun. But breasts? In real life they come in all sizes including ginormous. Let’s have a conversation about how great sports bras are and leave it at that.

Let’s instead engage with what they’re trying to do. And reading further about what they have said about their story, it’s explicitly an origin story, about coming of age and overcoming the monster. What’s clear from reading more widely than the Kotaku piece, is that the makers have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes players care about video game protagonists, and Lara Croft in particular. They want to tell a satisfying story, and in origin stories it is classically a trauma that turns a normal kid into a superhero.

Thriller writers constantly urge that in order to make what happens thrilling, you’ve got to pile the shit on your protagonist. Bad things should happen and keep happening, just when it seemed like the end might be in sight. Crystal Dynamics have positioned the attempted rape as Lara’s big reversal, where she takes control of her body and her life, and starts really fighting back.

Which is a good way to think about story, I just wish someone in the writers room had the little filter in their brains that goes ‘let’s not make this so rapey.’ Because there are all kinds of jeopardy you can bring to your story, to task your protagonist with, that aren’t that. And I do think it’s great that they want to engage with emotions. Even if they fail, it’s likely to be an interesting failure. But I don’t want to shepherd a whimpering, broken teenager through her brutalisation at the hands of some bad men, even if she does then win through to becoming the calm killer-in-self-defence we know and love. I’m sad that they have chosen one of our strongest female game characters to re-imagine in this way. The possibility space of the old Lara was so much larger – yes she had big breasts, and she could also be a vessel for all kinds of thoughts about what being a woman is like, as she travelled the world getting things done.

This isn’t as important as all kinds of real world problems, of violence and discrimination on all kinds of grounds. But it’s still important in terms of benchmarking aspirations. Because we are sorely lacking in stories about young women with agency, who go out into the world and do things rather than have them done to them. I really liked the Hunger Games, because it’s one of the few books recently for teenagers which has a girl who takes control of her life as the heroine. It’s the opposite of Twilight. But looking through my current stack of games for strong females whose shoes I can step into, who take things on the chin and overcome all the obstacles set in front of them, it’s mainly Bayonetta right now. And whoever we are, I think it’s important that we can see people like us changing their worlds for the better. Even if, in the game, they wear their own hair as armour, or nick things from tombs that would really be better left where they are.

 

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