When I left the Tomb Raider preview at E3, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it. It went above and beyond my normal disinterest in the series and felt like genuine distaste. There was a scene in the preview in which Lara was thrown to the ground and her arms were tied behind her back by a group of thuggish, mercenary-type men.
Now, when a group of men is shown, and they’ve captured a female, you tend to assume the threat of sexual violence is present, but Tomb Raider decided to spell it out for us. At one point the leader shows keen interest in Lara, and later he shoves her against a post and runs his hand suggestively down her side. Lara frees herself, and the demo continues, but it is this moment that stands out. Even more so than an earlier scene in which a crazed island dweller kidnaps Sam, a fellow female survivor who appears to have been drugged, and as he escapes with her as prisoner, he mutters about how long he has waited…
I have objections to this particular theme for a couple of reasons. For one, rape, or the threat of rape, is one of the cheapest plot devices in the playbook. Do you need your female character to have a dark, tragic background? She was raped at some point. Do you need to establish your female character as vulnerable? She may get raped at some point. Do you need to establish your game/movie/book as “mature?” Throw in a rape reference or the threat of it. This works because as a society, we tend to consider this one of the worst violations possible — and for good reason. Which is why it pisses me off when it gets trotted out as a plot gimmick.
There is no subtlety about this encounter. It is right there, in the open. Equally in the open is Lara’s ease of escape because we cannot actually see such a violent act occur (why the $#@% would we want to?), but we need to see it almost occur, to push her from young girl to heroic woman. Lara and her fellow survivors are trapped on an island on which cannibalism and ritualistic murder have been shown, and the chance of a rescue is slim. That, in and of itself, is all that is needed to push Lara towards a heroic character who needs to survive. Adding the threat of rape is just gilding the lily.
Some have suggested that this gimmick will drive players to want to protect Lara. If that’s the case, why not have her father show up and slap a band-aid on her knee, or have Marcus Fenix warp in with his chain gun? What happens to Lara if, while sneaking around, you get caught, or while fighting in what looked like endless QTEs, you miss a step? Do you get dragged off to such a fate?
Another reason I have a problem with this is that Lara Croft has always been the hypersexualized female character. She was a kickass, fearless female who explored tombs and was heroic. Now, suddenly, we see her as weak and vulnerable and being threatened with sex. It’s almost as if the developers turned her sexuality around as a weapon. All for the sake of touting how “dark,” “gritty” and “mature” the game is. Any time you use something purely for shock value, you diminish its shock value, and this shouldn’t be something from which we want to remove the shock and gravity.
Finally, game developers are always trying to find ways to remove morality or humanity from our need to kill bad guys. The easiest way to do this is to make your enemies Nazis or zombies — no matter how graphically you kill them, it will feel like a victimless crime because Nazis/zombies. Lately, though, we’ve had to come up with other plot devices to establish them as bad people. In this case, they’re rapists! Kill away!
That’s not to say that mature subject matter and yes, even this particular subject, has to be “off-limits” or avoided entirely. But it does mean that it needs to be treated with respect and done well. For an example, see the 1995 PC game, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Heck, I’d argue Karen Traviss’ Gears of War: Jacinto’s Remnant handles the subject more tastefully.
Lately, we seem to be in a slump of “ooooh, look how mature we are! SEX! BLOOD!” that comes off as wildly immature and tasteless. Obviously we haven’t seen Tomb Raider in its entirety, but that this scene was the one they chose to demonstrate makes me nervous for the final product.