Yep. It happened. It was a show. Things were shown.
Gonna go to sleep now.
Ever since I watched The Story of Missile Command, a discussion on the conception of Dave Theurer as Dave Theurer sees Missile Command, I’ve noticed something. Nobody else has a story like Dave Theurer has a story about his games. I have not heard of the person who had nightmares, who ached over conceiving an idea both nightmarish and impossible. In some sense, games are about their creators, and perhaps the reason so many games seem so creatively bankrupt is because those games are a pale reflection. Games, such as they are, no longer reflect the creator, but the afterglow of a creation. In some sense, the problem is games being too public.
Before the larger corporate atmosphere emerged, a game could not be tested in the same manner games are tested now. No game ran the gauntlet of quality assurance and focus testing. Certainly, there was always an instance of a test, of an experiment to try and gauge interest, but there was no E3. There was no ESRB. There was no Nintendo Seal of Quality. Games were not yet a process, but an expression. Honest and often exorbitant, but not so much about appeasing an audience, the producers, the CEOs, the corporate concept of an audience, the focus testers, the person down the street. The expressions may not have necessarily been pure, as creators must work in teams to necessitate creation of the medium, but they were true discourse. The overly tested is a result of the creation of the network.
The more connected we are, the less honest a work can be. There are benefits to such connectivity, such as the possibility of funding projects which are creations of passion, but once these are funded, they are also projects of audience. They are now, in some sense, owned by the public, not the makers. The result forces some degree of bending towards expectations about what a game should be and is often dishonest about the game itself as a result. Again, no discourse is ever entirely pure, and in some sense, any creation released to the world is corrupted by expectation.
At the end of the public journey, a piece emerges, a work to be considered. But once it’s in the world, it’s clothed in all its imperial majesty, rather than a modest assessment of a modest goal. To make an experience true to the self. The longer a creation exists in the public eye, the more warped the concept is often forced to become, burdened by expectation, put through the trenches of what it should look like if you’re crafting, what it should look like if you’re exploring, what an experience should be not for the creator, but for the end-user. It is little wonder that the developer has some disdain for the end-user, not because they believe the end-user corrupts the creation, but because the end-user forces a certain amount of dishonesty towards it.
By Samantha “Kitten” McComb
You know, I think of myself as someone who has typically been pretty good about divorcing problematic content from enjoying a game. I like shooters, and I even like modern shooters – the base concept of running around from cover to cover and popping baddies in the head is one that appeals almost innately to me. Even when oozing with toxic amounts of machismo, as long as a game does service to that basic concept, I can generally turn my brain off and have a decent time.
Violence has forever been something that has captured the imagination of the young and the old, and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with enjoying a violent power fantasy once in a while. As a transwoman, it’s nearly impossible for me to identify with characters like Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, but that doesn’t prohibit me from enjoying the satisfaction of sneaking up on an enemy and splitting them vertically in two with my chainsaw gun. It’s very much a game and it is largely content to revel in that.
If I’m given the choice in these games, I prefer to play as a woman. Unfortunately, the choice to do so is given quite rarely, and the women in these games are more often than not horribly objectified and obvious products of the male gaze. My favorite multiplayer character in Gears of War 3 was Bernie – a gruff, no-nonsense, older woman that is rather content with not subscribing to the straight white man’s idealized form of beauty. She would be stereotype breaking, were it not for her embarrassing character history involving her being shaped by violent rape and revenge.
Uncharted is one of my favorite modern game series because of its snappy, fast-paced mechanics, colorful characters and lighthearted, Indiana Jones-esque adventure vibe. Despite the female lead, Elena, not being playable, she’s a robust character with her own personality, quirks and agency. She seems like a genuinely human character – not a damsel in distress, not a sex icon given dialogue. When I heard that the new Tomb Raider was taking cues from Uncharted, I was excited.
Lara’s character had been redesigned to significantly tone down her comically overt sex appeal, and I felt like if we were going to have a female lead in the vein of modern triple a shooters, there couldn’t be a better choice to borrow elements from than Uncharted. I began to picture a Lara Croft much like Elena Fisher taking the lead role. It was a project that I felt deserved interest, despite my indifference to the Tomb Raider series up until that point largely thanks to her design seeming like the poster girl for objectification.
It unfortunately didn’t take particularly long for that interest to turn into trepidation, however. During one of the big trailers for the game, a violent, gruff man very clearly assaults Lara in a disturbingly sexual way – he caresses her body and whispers (in a language she does not understand) into her ear shortly after threatening her life with a pistol. What was more problematic than this depiction of sexual assault was Square Enix’s rabid, almost dogmatic denial that it was attempted rape or sexual assault (despite one of the employees actually calling it that during an interview).
Video games – who am I kidding, not just video games, but a wide array of popular media, especially comic books – have this tendency to believe that humanizing a woman in an action story means brutalizing her repeatedly. And by brutalizing, I typically mean either through sexual assault, violence or both. I do not understand exactly how this trend began, but it seems for the straight white male to “accept” a woman as a “badass” character, she needs to constantly have the shit kicked out of her and somehow survive it.
Tomb Raider’s tagline is “A Survivor is Born,” and it comes very close to epitomizing this hugely gross trend of brutalizing women to make them acceptable heroes to men. There was no denying a pungent air of sexism surrounding the game at this point, but I still very much wanted to believe it wouldn’t be all that bad. I was actually wrong! It was worse!
The setting for the game is that Lara and a group of explorers are out looking for a lost Japanese civilization, and manage to find the island they once inhabited at the expense of their boat being violently torn apart by the sea and leaving them stranded. Shortly after, they’re rounded up by a bunch of men and systematically slaughtered. As they try to flee from their captors, many of them are brutally gunned down. While everyone else is being shot, Lara, being the only woman in the group at the time (her best friend having already been separately captured by the leader), is caught and sexually assaulted by a very frightening man.
As mentioned earlier, he whispers into your ear in a language you don’t understand (while sniffing you) and caresses your body in a sensual way (and Square Enix had the fucking gall to tell people – people including sexual assault victims – that this wasn’t what it looked like). If you fail the quick time event, he enjoys strangling you to death, because heaven forbid you just get shot like everyone else. After biting into his ear and wrestling with him for a bit, you grab his pistol and grotesquely blow his brains out and watch him die.
You then have a nervous breakdown (despite still being in immediate danger) and take a few seconds to sob and retch on your hands and knees over what just happened. In “The Final Hours of Tomb Raider” – a YouTube documentary of the last days of making the game – you can see Lara reassuring herself this was something she had to do after killing him, which was removed from the final build. This suggests that that scene and other material in the game was altered to make her seem less helpless in response to the criticism of the attempted rape scene. To believe this game was probably even worse about this kind of material before being released is somewhat disturbing.
You then go on to discover that the bad guys are exclusively male castaways stranded on the island, and that they are led by a man that believes sacrificing just the right woman will resurrect an ancient goddess that will allow them to leave the island (weather conditions are proven to stop any and all from escaping, and he believes her to control them). A logbook later in the game explains that every single woman castaway is either sacrificed or killed, cementing the reality that you are playing a game hailed as being “feminist” in the year two thousand and thirteen where you fight a cult of savage men that kill every woman they get their hands on.
Worth noting at this point is that the Lara depicted by the game’s story and the Lara depicted by the game mechanics seem to be two different characters. Lara cries, moans, and stumbles her way through cutscenes, scripted events, death scenes (and oh my god do they go out of their way to show her struggling in vain during death scenes) and idle moments (set the controller down and watch as she holds herself and looks around nervously), but manages to take down dozens of men assaulting her simultaneously via the game mechanics (while injured) without breaking a sweat – the disparity is tremendous and extremely jarring.
The men on the island are trained killers that have survived through unspeakable horror. Lara is a twenty-something girl with an adventurer’s lineage. Were this a more lighthearted game, or even one that did not take the element of survival so seriously (at least from a narrative perspective, the game is quite easy, even on hard), I wouldn’t have a particularly difficult time suspending my disbelief. I’d be able to swallow that Lara is truly a force to be reckoned with within this world. Instead, I’m met with a whimpering character – one that constantly looks up to and is repeatedly saved by her male mentor – somehow miraculously just “surviving” these situations where she headshots ten, twenty, maybe thirty better-armed, more unforgiving and better trained men in a row.
Moving on, the name of that mentor I just brought up is Conrad Roth. Early on, you save him from what could have been a fatal injury by recovering medical supplies, and he goes on to save you several times and occasionally speak to you directly over the radio to encourage you (or indirectly through Lara remembering what he has said). Lara clearly looks up to him like the father that wasn’t there for her.
During one of the game’s more ridiculous moments where you are directly responsible for the death of a helicopter pilot (you hold a gun to his head and tell him to land the helicopter to save your friends, despite his insistence it will get them all killed), you crash the helicopter you’re in (the pilot, a man who was already risking his life to save yours, dies) and Roth acts as a human shield to save your life from the antagonist’s throwing axe while you’re still recovering from the crash. He then goes out in a blaze of glory and takes out several enemies while you remain helpless. Before dying, he tells you that you can do this, not because he believes in you, specifically, but because “you’re a Croft.”
A man reminds you of your father and male adventurer lineage, and this is the motivation you need to survive. Your friends you were trying to save then show up to the crash and mourn Roth’s death (but not the pilot’s, he is never named or mentioned again and Lara never holds herself responsible for his death). Later still in the game, the nerd from the group sacrifices himself to buy time for you to escape and saves your life, joking about how you finally “noticed him” as you try to pull him out from under a collapsed pipe. Having had two men die to save you (three, counting the pilot), Lara NOW decides to make the comment “I can’t let anyone else die.”
If you bother to unlock the game’s concept art gallery, there is a piece within it titled “Roth’s Last Stand.” It depicts Lara desperately fighting savage men closing in on her position, her body laying on top a dying Roth’s. She is posed dramatically, firing a pistol into the head of one man while kicking another back with her boot, all the while shielding her mentor from certain death by laying atop his body as a shield.
It really makes one wonder why on Earth this was not what played out in the game… It would have been a defining moment for Lara’s character and a moving proof that she had finally surpassed her mentor. The game instead decides to focus once again on making Lara out to be weak and in need, submitting to a highly patriarchal narrative in which she is perpetually brutalized and barely squeezing by. The epilogue even begins with Lara admitting that she was wrong and her father was right – what better way to end a feminist piece than with the lead woman conceding to a long dead man?
Why do people consider this Lara to be “human?” Is it because she earns men’s trust? Is it because she is beaten and nearly killed over and over again by men? She’s captured at four separate points in the game without the player having any ability to prevent this and often ridiculed by the enemies during combat dialogue. Each time you’re captured, it is in a situation where should have had control of Lara, you could have nearly effortlessly fought your way out via the game’s mechanics. Is this a “gamer’s” idea of a good woman character?
The old Lara Croft was a horribly shit role model that barely resembled an actual woman. Fortunately, most people were able to so much as look at her and realize she was just a product made by and for men. The new Lara Croft is considerably more insidious because she is not recognized as such. She is a product of patriarchal thought and writing (surprisingly by a woman, no less) and a creation of the male gaze, but she is somehow being touted as an impressive character and even a role model for girls in gaming.
What message do we send to people when we say that this new Lara is “very human?” Do we even contemplate the implications that would send… to suggest that a “real” woman is only a qualified heroine once she has been abused in the most horrible of ways? There is a dialogue throughout gaming that suggests men “fight” and women “survive.” Tomb Raider empowers that dialogue, and it is disgusting that it is allowed to do so while praised at large.
Underneath all the misogynist trash is a game with beautiful environments and surprisingly clever shooting mechanics that is largely marred down by the idiotic need to include collectibles and level ups, but I feel like reviewing that pales in comparison to the need to critique how outright fucking gross this game can be. Like I said, I can usually divorce problematic content from a game and still enjoy it aesthetically and mechanically – but Tomb Raider makes it awful goddamn hard to.
There is a special infatuation I have with inefficiency. I’ve never particularly liked the cleanliness of modern society, or at least the desire for it, given the idea of clean, efficient models of the world. There is a great deal of beauty in our ability to be unable, in our ability to be gross. To some extent, it’s what most models miss in an actual society of human beings, rather than the established model that we should be robots and happy for it. I like staring out the window and watching the rain rush down gutters, creating small pools of water, gleefully splashable. The sun is a point of sadness, not for the life it brings, but for the grossness it lacks.
In a sense, the things which fascinate me most, and which I spend the majority of my time with, have little to do with using my time wisely, or trying to feel good, or trying to be better. It’s why we spend money and consume products we don’t need. It’s why we make entertainment and have our throwaway foods. It’s not just because we wish to rush back to work when we scarf down our McDonald’s, it’s because we enjoy feeling bad about ourselves. That’s contradictory, but humans are rarely as straightforward as logic tends to dictate. There is a constant idea of just making everyone act in rational self-interest, but rationality and self-interest are boring, and what turns us into greedies.
At some point, the acknowledgement of the grime is what drives cleanliness, our love of the grime is what keeps it around. Slowly, as society attempts to become cleaner and more efficient, we’re losing our respect and appreciation of our own ability to roll around in dirt. Not just the physical dirt, but the metaphorical junk food all around us. Oftentimes we speak of these things as though they are evil, and they are, to a certain extent, but they are also part of our sewage lifestyle. Oftentimes the reason we consider ourselves rich is because we have an appreciation of how poor we are, intellectually, culturally, time-managementally. Secretly, we lust after inefficiency, even as we staunchly beat our chests for its end.
We’ll jump right in again at the nearest opportunity though. When people aren’t looking, when we believe we’re in a private space, when we believe we’re safe. Our gross inefficiency will pop back up again, and we’ll smother it with affection, because we know how much we want it, but we simply aren’t allowed to articulate it. The cleaner we get, the more enthralled we are with a time when such pretense was unnecessary, and we were allowed to enjoy playing in the snow simply for the act, rather than the reason. One might call this grossness an idea of play, but play is often argued as pure, and no adult is ever pure, thus all we have by the time we arrive where we are is our grossness. And we will love the shit out of it, defend it, fight over it, even protect it. It is both our greatest weakness and our greatest joy. Our secret, which we must clean up afterwards so we can continue to pledge ourselves to mechaniacal effeciency.