In the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is an adventuresome 20-something shipwrecked on an island populated with murderous cultists. No longer the confident, Teflon-coated adventurer of old, she is re-imagined here as a vulnerable young woman who, over the course of the game, discovers the fortitude that defines this iconic hero. Notably absent, however, are Lara’s absurdly skimpy clothes and hyper-sexualized body; she is now rendered with more natural proportions and shows less skin. Lara also now endures an unrelenting amount of physical abuse, far exceeding the punishment doled out to previous versions of the tomb raider. Indeed, this punishment and the game's grim, survivalist tone are central to the reboot’s marketing.
This focus was accentuated by the game’s early trailers which featured the attempted rape of Lara. Trying to explain these trailers, and the new feel of the franchise, executive producer Ron Rosenberg gave an interview where he suggested that, “players would feel like they wanted to protect her.” This sparked a backlash from fans who felt that this betrayed what they loved about the character; that their heroine had been replaced by a damsel-in-distress. A month after this interview, Rhianna Prachett (daughter of sci-fi writer Terry Prachett) was introduced as the game’s lead writer. Prachett argued that the offending scene was not about rape, but was instead about Lara being forced to defend herself and kill for the first time. According to Prachett, the scene is part of the crucible in which Lara transforms from a would-be victim into an action hero. Pratchett remarks of Lara, "She's not thinking, 'Oh my God, I was almost raped.' She's thinking, 'Oh my God, I've just taken a human life.'"
We find the firestorm over the new origin story fascinating, in part, because of the questions it raises about how authorial intent may be deployed to assuage concerns that might negatively impact sales. While Pratchett has never taken full responsibility for creating the rape scene (nor is it clear what hand she had in developing it), she has been one of its chief defenders. Moreover, given the dearth of strong female avatars on screen and the underrepresentation of women in the games industry generally, we wonder if Crystal Dynamics leveraged Pratchett’s gender to diffuse criticisms of Lara’s assault? Additionally, how might the writer’s gender affect interpretations of “the scene,” Lara’s journey, and the player’s role in "protecting" her?
Tomb Raider and Postfeminism?
For me, Prachett's comments speak to a potentially fruitful area for discussion regarding authorial intent and player response. What do we make of a gaming audience that continues to be largely male? Do the majority of Tomb Raider's players really have any sort of direct emotional connection to Laura's state of mind at the time? It is, I think, somewhat evident of a postfeminist mentality that Pratchett deflects the thrust of the accusation, not acknowledging that the "first kill" emotion could have been created in a context entirely divorced from attempted rape. Admittedly having limited exposure to the incident itself I find myself thinking that those involved in the creation of the game failed to ask themselves the hard question of "What do we hope to gain by deploying an image of rape in this way?" My cynical self wants to suggest that the creators hoped that they could have it both ways, tapping into the rape/redemption/revenge arc and providing a lurid element for others.
developers and the press
I would be astounded if Crystal Dynamics had not thought that Pratchett's gender would help them defuse earlier bungles and bad press about the game. I also believe the relationship between developers and media is incredibly fraught- developers regularly criticize journalists for taking their words/actions out of context; while journalists argue they get little to no access to anything other than canned PR statements. So each side tries to use the other in various ways to advance their ends. What this mostly results in for academics is developers unable or unwilling to share much of anything about the design process, out of very real fear of losing their jobs, violating NDAs and the like. I don't know what the answer is, or if there is one, but in the meantime, it means getting access to more than basic knowledge about AAA games is almost impossibly difficult.
I agree with Mia in thinking
I agree with Mia in thinking that Prachett's front-woman status had to be--at least in part--to counter controversy regarding the scene. Prachett has written other strong female roles, I'm thinking Mirror's Edge, but she's done several interviews defending that specific scene and Lara's resultant "transformation." Tomb Raider's newest reboot doesn't just affect Lara's characterization, but the game as a whole; contrary to what the title suggests, raiding tombs is now more of a secondary task. In this new "survivalist" release, there's significantly less puzzles to solve than the other games. I think the shift away from action/puzzle to survival-action(/puzzle) supports, in part, this week's first post that the developers (however gendered) were catering to a male population believed to want to protect or kill Lara.
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