Mindless Iconoclasm is a series of pieces where I present an unpopular pop cultural opinion of mine and then attempt to defend it. This time, I take on the recent Tomb Raider controversy. WARNING: this piece discusses sexual assault in a serious manner but also contains numerous crude jokes. If either of those things or their presence in the same article offends you, then consider yourself forewarned.
Consider, if you will, the following scenario: a new supermarket is opening in town. As a promotion, the parent company sends you a bag of carrots.1 One of the assistant managers at the soon-to-open supermarket tells you that one of the carrots in the bag is actually a dildo.2 There are clearly no dildos in the bag. However, now the media have gotten wind of the story and are accusing the supermarket of being a sex shop in disguise. As ridiculous as that may sound, that’s what’s happening right now with the controversy over Tomb Raider and executive producer Ron Rosenberg’s interview with Kotaku.
It doesn’t take much to get me talking about gender and pop culture. I’ll gladly take Parks and Recreation to task for its fake feminism or rail on E3 for its booth babes. But I find myself strangely unangered by Rosenberg’s comments, for one simple reason: no one outside the development team has seen the finished product yet.
Now, let’s be clear: Rosenberg’s comments betrayed an alarming amount of chauvinism, and given that he’s the executive producer of the game, they are not an encouraging indicator of the development team’s ability to handle Lara Croft’s origin story with any degree of sensitivity or aplomb. Don’t believe me? Here’s a sampling of his comments:
“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.'”
“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 ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear. 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.”
And on that touchy subject of rape:
“She is literally turned into a cornered animal. It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.”
Leaving aside the fact that any human who is cornered is literally a “cornered animal,”3 it’s easy to see why people took offense to these quotes. Rosenberg seems to imply that the game’s development team has taken Lara Croft from a powerful, big-boobed fighter to the object of a male protection fantasy, which is in some ways more regressive than merely letting her remain a shameless sex symbol. There’s also the subject of attempted rape, and while sexual assault can be an important catalyst for character development, Rosenberg’s comments don’t exactly inspire confidence in the development team’s ability to handle that subject in a manner that isn’t exploitative.
But let’s take a look at the trailer for the game that was released to the public and see if it tracks with Rosenberg’s interview:
The first thing that leaps to mind when watching this trailer is that the game seems to be going for a cinematic experience, à la Uncharted (which is ironic, considering that the Uncharted series is often mockingly referred to as “Dude Raider” for ripping off the Tomb Raider series). In such games, the player assumes not the role of protagonist or player-protector, but the role of director, moving the protagonist from setpiece to setpiece. The player accepts the story handed to him or her by the game’s writers, animators, and voice actors and then interprets that story through gameplay. That’s not to say that there’s no room for roleplaying or acting as guardian for the protagonist; director is merely the simplest and most natural role into which the player can fall.
This is at odds with Rosenberg’s comments about the player wanting to protect Lara. Tomb Raider, as far as I can tell, does not feature emergent gameplay or branching narrative. Without allowing players to sculpt the story to some degree, it’s difficult to engender in them the impulse to act as guardian for the protagonist. If the only possible states of play are success (marked by continuation of the story) or failure (marked by a “game over” screen), then players cannot feel the consequences of a lapse in their “protection” of Lara; the response to failure is to reload from last save. Thus, Rosenberg’s stated aim of making the player want to protect Lara is in conflict with the game’s interactive action movie sensibility. To put it crudely, Rosenberg has told us there’s a dildo in our bag of carrots, when all it really contains is carrots.
The other important thing to note about this trailer is the scene where Lara fends off a sexual assault. I wouldn’t say that it looks like a full-blown rape attempt, but being a man who thankfully has no experience with such things, it’s not my place to say. Aside from that, what can we glean from this ten-second snippet? Honestly, not much. We can guess that Lara kills her attacker with a gunshot, and that’s about it. We don’t know if this is a quick-time event segment4 or just a simple cutscene. We can’t tell if this is pure exploitation or if this is an event whose consequences will play out throughout the remainder of the game. It doesn’t make much sense to condemn a game for exploitation that may not exist.
What’s odd about this trailer is that it doesn’t track at all with what gaming journalists who have sat down with the game or seen behind-closed-doors demos are saying about the game. For example, Holly Green of Destructoid has written about how her experience with the game doesn’t really match the trailer; the trailer seems to concentrate on beating the shit out of Lara, while gameplay footage that journalists have seen demonstrates a more well-rounded experience. Thus, we have another problem: the game isn’t well-represented by its trailer, which already wasn’t well-represented by Rosenberg’s comments. By the time information about Tomb Raider reached some potential players, it had already been filtered through the trailer and Rosenberg’s interview, like a twisted game of media telephone.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Increasingly, video game marketing has less and less to do with the actual games being marketed. To pick a couple of recent examples, Far Cry 3 is being promoted with trailers featuring epic gunfights, huge explosions, and voodoo boobies,5 but developers keep insisting to journalists that the game is actually an introspective examination of “shooter culture.”6 Earlier in the year, Mass Effect 3 was promoted with trailers full of explosions, space battles, and other acts of combat, while the game actually focused on the hidden side of war, i.e. its political, societal, and psychological effects. And the most salient recent example: the sexy-nun-punching Hitman: Absolution trailer, which caused a furor over its fetishization of violence.
There seems to be an increasing disconnect between video game marketing and the games themselves, and it’s disconcerting that it took someone foolishly putting an attempted sexual assault in a game trailer in order to generate a widespread backlash to this practice. Marketers might argue that trailers exist to catch potential players’ attention, not to educate them about the game; if players want to know details, they can read the latest preview on Kotaku or IGN. I disagree. It’s nice to be able to read in-depth previews of upcoming games, but publishers are treating gaming sites as extensions of their marketing departments. It’s stupid for these marketing departments to rely on gaming sites who have no loyalty to publishers. Inadequately representing games through trailers is only going to result in more controversies like this. To use our silly supermarket analogy, if your supermarket has only a small produce section, don’t send out bags of carrots to potential customers. Maybe give out samples of a specialty food item or a treat from the bakery instead.
If you want to boycott Tomb Raider because Rosenberg’s comments offended you and you don’t want to purchase a game created by a chauvinist, then I fully support your right to do so. Everyone takes offense to different things, and it’s not my job to make value judgments in that regard. But if you want to boycott Tomb Raider because you might not have the full picture of what the game is really like, then you may want to reconsider. You can’t know how a video game’s story is handled until you actually experience it, and if it turns out that it’s a steaming pile of exploitative shit, then by all means, condemn it. But to dismiss it as sexist garbage before you’ve seen it doesn’t hurt the marketers responsible for the mixed messages; it hurts the developers who worked hard on the project, and it discourages them from exploring complex, mature themes in future games. To say “games can’t address sexual assault” is to impose a creative restriction, which can only be detrimental to the medium of video games.
The best thing to do is to stand up to marketers and tell them that their foolhardy practices are costing them potential customers. Inform them that people think their supermarkets are sex shops. Let them know that their promotional materials should be more accurate representations of their games. In the long run, it’s better for everyone. It’s better for publishers, who can avoid controversies such as this one, and it’s better for gamers, who will gain a more appropriate understanding about what the games they might buy are actually about.
4 How would a quick-time event even work here? “Press SPACEBAR not to get raped?” And what would be the consequence of failure be? A screen reading: “GAME OVER: Lara has been raped?” That’s just ridiculous. ^
6 Personally, I’m skeptical about this. It’s not that I think the developers are going to make a half-hearted attempt in their examination of shooter culture; it’s that making a first-person shooter that attempts to deconstruct the first-person shooter is a tricky proposition. If the developers aren’t careful, Far Cry 3 could become the Cobra Starship of video games: pushing right past irony and straight into becoming what it’s trying to satirize. ^