The Week That ‘Tomb Raider’ Blew Up

Accusations of misogyny and perpetuation of rape culture hound Square Enix’s reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, as developer Crystal Dynamics plays a possibly losing game of spin.

“We’re doing it because we believe it serves the story and serves the character. It’s her turning point. It’s a place where she has to make a decision to go from reaction to action, and she realises this is what her whole life has to be if she wants to get off that island.” That’s Tomb Raider’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg speaking to Edge and providing the latest round of damage control at the end of at a week where the reboot of the action adventure franchise has become (whether fairly or not) the poster child for the, let’s say problematic depiction of women in games during the industry’s relatively short life.

It all stems from Crystal Dynamics’ attempts to revert the character of Lara Croft from a self-assured explorer to an unsure, imperiled heroine, but in making an attempted rape by one of the scavenger denizens of the island where Lara washes up at the start of the game.

Rosenberg was actually the one who drew attention to this piece of the game’s narrative during a post-E3 interview that ran on Kotaku on Monday, elaborating some of Crystal Dynamics’ ambitions in rebooting the franchise and creating a Lara Croft that gamers would “want to protect.”

This kind of recontextualization of the character as someone proactive and strong to someone who has to be protected by the gamer has nevertheless run up against concerns that Crystal Dynamics is simply trading in the hypersexualization of Lara’s previous incarnation with one who is simply a victim with no agency. This line of argument was put forth most eloquently by Kellie Foxx-Gonzalez over at The Mary Sue. To Foxx-Gonzalez, the vision of the reboot being put forth by Rosenberg was essentially the perfect storm of what’s wrong with the characterization of women in games today. I’ll let her speak for herself:

This reasoning, of course, relies upon a few overused, incorrect, and frankly boring assumptions about women, namely that 1) Women must be protected because we cannot protect ourselves, 2) Men cannot ever relate to women (or women characters) in a meaningful way because we are fundamentally different and share no overlapping interests or experiences, and 3) Women do not play video games and thus have no need of a relatable woman protagonist to connect with (or, possibly, but just as erroneously, female players of the Tomb Raider games also do not project themselves into the character of Lara Croft).

By Wednesday, Crystal Dynamics responded to the furor, categorically denying that sexual assault was a theme in the game (in spite of multiple journalists hearing Rosenberg using the word “rape” during his description of the sequence at E3). Then there was today’s response in Edge linked above from Rosenberg along with the game’s art director Brian Horton. For Horton, contrary to what the public perception has been, the reboot isn’t intended to be exploitative or even about Lara as a woman: “”The way we’re trying to treat Lara is not ’oh, we’re making a game about a girl’,” continues Horton. “We’re making a game about someone who is inexperienced and who has to learn how to become a hero.”

I’d love to dig into this and parse what I think are some of the right storytelling instincts on Crystal Dynamics’ part with the reboot and why they are utterly and completely wrong in some of the ways that they’ve tried to articulate it. For the time being, pore over the story as it’s played out so far.

What do you think: is this endemic of everything that’s wrong with games and their relationship with women or is this simply a PR flap that’ll blow over?

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