Tomb Raider Reboot: The Sexual Assault Problem

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault.

Aperigren: I will explain what this is about for those who do not know, but first I want to say something to those who do know. I am not upset over what will or will not be in the game, I am not upset over the trailer or how anything was portrayed in the trailer, and I am not upset over the way Ron Rosenberg, executive producer, initially talked about Lara or her characterization. I’m upset over how this whole situation is being handled both in the media and by the studio.

MadameAce: Furthermore, I also am not upset by the content in the trailer, nor I am (very) upset with anything the studio has said regarding the situation thus far. I only decided to co-write this post after watching the reactions people have had. So now that that’s out of the way, without further delay, I’m going to let Aperigren tell all of you who have no idea what’s going on the situation.

Aperigren: At E3, Square Enix debuted a new trailer for the highly anticipated Tomb Raider reboot, linked here. The ‘sexual assault problem’ with this trailer is that it shows Lara in the first moments of a sexual assault. Here, I interject that there is nothing inherently wrong with this, as video games have every right to deal with such mature subject matter, as other mediums do. To say that there has been a variety of reactions to the trailer would be largely false, as most reactions have been united in being immature. If not immature, these reactions are certainly premature statements about the authors’ own shock. The Penny Arcade Report talks about how the trailer sounds like a porno and compares it to torture porn, and even Penny Arcade’s Tycho calls it an explicit disempowerment fantasy. Salon, similarly, writes about the pornographic overtones of the trailer, as well as rails against Lara being attacked in such a way and the writers’ thoughts and thought-processes surrounding the event. Jezebel makes it it’s business to assume Rosenberg and the team have developed the game with only men in mind, that every time he talks about “the player” he is specifically addressing men, and takes the point to be that Lara is weak and rapeable. What’s the thesis of these reactions, and what underlies them?

MadameAce: I know I’m going to get into so much trouble for saying this, but I’ve yet to come across anything that ‘underlies’ these reactions. I can see the argument, I suppose, but reading all of the above articles, I’ve yet to find any kind of indication that what they’re saying is justified.

Aperigren: It could be that video games cannot deal with such subject matter. It could also be that, though games can deal with such subject matter maturely, this game simply does not. In this game, or at least in this trailer, it is torture porn, it is gratuitous, or it is no more than male-on-female abuse.

MadameAce: Again, I really disagree with that, and I am sorry to everyone who thinks otherwise. When I first saw the trailer, it was after reading everyone else’s reactions to it. And all I could think during the viewing was “is this really what everyone’s so worked up about?” I thought that it was neither torture porn nor a way to disempower a person. I actually thought the exact opposite—I’ll explain that in a bit, because, yes, an attempted rape is neither encouraging nor empowering—and that everyone was more upset than they needed to be.

First of all, before I go into anything else, let me just address some of the things people have said about this trailer, starting with Ben Kuchera of The Penny Arcade Report. And I’m sorry again, but this is going to be quite long, because I have a lot of things to say here. And please keep in mind that I say this as someone who has experienced attempted rape.

A group of journalists watched, drinks in hand, as a young girl was brutalized, beaten, almost raped, and this was done for our… entertainment?

Well, yes, as insensitive as this is about to sound, it was done for your entertainment. That is the point of a video game.

I can name a lot of terrible, disgusting things that happen in games, movies, books, etc. that are all done for the sake of entertainment. Does that make what’s happening better? No, of course not. It’s never okay, especially if it’s done to invoke some sort of satisfaction from the audience, to make the audience happy with what’s happening.

However, entertainment doesn’t always mean agreeing with what’s occurring on the screen. Excitement doesn’t always mean getting off or rooting for the bad things and wanting them to continue. Entertainment in this case could mean sitting uncomfortably in your seat, watching a violation of a young girl and praying it will stop. It could mean seeing how something like this shapes a character and watching her overcome what happened. I can think of numerous books, movies, whatnot—all made for our entertainment—that portray rape.

The difference in whether or not something like this is a pornographic rape fantasy is going to be in how the scene is done in context to the rest of the game. And as the game’s not yet out, and I haven’t played it, I can neither agree nor disagree that the game makers shouldn’t have included this.

Aperigren: With all of that said, let’s think for a moment about this. Is it cheap to use sexual assault as a literary device? Is this somehow lazy, immature, or disrespectful? Sure, it can be. But the lazier it is, the more it’s just something that happens for no reason instead of a literary device. That’s not better. In fact, that’s what should cause an enraged backlash. If they were being immature or disrespectful about it, then it would probably be just a cheap gimmick used to get people interested and into the game. If you think that’s what happened, that by putting it in the trailer they’re being immature and disrespectful about a serious issue, then I think you aren’t very understanding of what’s meaningful about going through something like that and coming out the other side. I’ll come back to this later. Maybe it comes down to people just not liking that Lara faces sexual assault. Perhaps you feel like this is something being done to her by the development team, as if the team included this with great big evil smiles on their faces. I’m sure they didn’t. From what I’ve seen, they’ve been very conscious about how they are handling even the finest details in this story. As far back as last year they were talking about making Lara’s dual pistols meaningful to her character.

MadameAce: Mr. Kuchera further goes onto discuss what Rosenberg has said about this.

The idea is to take a human character, this very vulnerable young girl, and put her through immense suffering in order for her to come out the other end of the experience as a hero. Rosenberg brings up Die Hard, another movie where we begin a relationship with a human, vulnerable character and through an intense experience he emerges as a hero. It was important to show her as an innocent, vulnerable character at the beginning of the game. “People really identify with that,” Rosenberg said.

He then follows that with a bolded statement in a much larger font.

This only works if it’s a reboot, and not a prequel

What am I supposed to say to this? It’s not a prequel, but it is a reboot. Does Mr. Kuchera not realize this? If that’s the case, then he’s done an article for something when he doesn’t even know what it is. I can give him the benefit of the doubt, since the game takes place at the beginning of Lara’s journeys, before she becomes a tomb raider. But I don’t know why I’m supposed to agree with Mr. Kuchera when one of the main reasons he gives for this being a terrible move on Rosenberg’s part is completely invalid.

If we consider Tomb Raider a prequel to the original games, the message is problematic: Don’t worry about being attacked, you’ll become a hero if you don’t die!

Well, it’s not a prequel to the other games, so does that mean the message is no longer problematic? Furthermore, what hero hasn’t been attacked before? I can think of numerous heroes, both male and female, who start out as victims before taking that pain and learning either to use it or to overcome it. And again, I know this is insensitive, but dying normally does get in the way of being a hero, an occupation that is not always fun and happy.

Aperigren: Rosenberg mentions that the game is designed for the player to not identify as Lara, but instead be an observer, a guide, or helper to Lara. This is something extremely difficult to do in a game, and I doubt how successful it can be, but it’s an important design decision to take note of. When these things are happening to Lara, we are not supposed to feel like it is happening to us. To me, not wanting to go through something like this again myself, I’m glad that this is the intent. I don’t find the metaphor of Lara at this moment being a cornered animal offensive because that is very accurate to what it feels like. It’s a good thing that they understand the dehumanizing nature of something like this. And there is something heroic about being faced with such adversity and coming through to the other side. That’s what makes stories with such elements inspiring, especially to those who went through it.

With Lara going through something like this and having it be meaningful, it is the opposite of disrespectful. Having gone through and then recovered from sexual assault myself, I can speak from what some of the important milestones in my own recovery have been. Even though it is a heinous thing to have happen, it was important to recognize what happened, incorporate it into myself, and make it meaningful by continuing to create positive outputs out of the experience. That is not to say that being sexually assaulted was a good thing, it is to say rather that I have control over my future despite anything that happened in the past. Lara’s assault seems to have every element necessary for it to be meaningful to both her and the observer. This is important because it the team did not just lazily or hastily throw this together, but made sure that Lara’s experience is rounded. She is attacked, the attacker’s motives are bad, she fights, she grows as a character. This is expanded even further with the knowledge that this is the first time she takes somebody’s life.

MadameAce: And I’m sorry if I seem like I’m attacking what Mr. Kuchera said—which I kind of am—but how do we even know what the message in the game is? It’s not out yet, so I can’t judge it based on the mere fact that there’s an attempted-rape scene. In fact, we have no way of knowing what the message is going to end up being. Maybe Mr. Kuchera’s right, and it will be very problematic and damaging, but any sort of verdict I could give the game would be nothing if not premature.

Aperigren: Kotaku has reported on the issue quite responsibly in my opinion. I feel they’ve been responsible because they’ve stressed the facts, and they haven’t given an impression either way on the issue both here and here. It’s been common for these articles to be referred to by other articles and by people to whom I’ve spoken to as the first line in evidence against the Tomb Raider trailer. Yes, Rosenberg candidly spoke of how the conflict that Lara faces characterizes her and how it affects the player. Yes, the studio tried to backpedal away from the issue and messed up in trying to clarify that the ‘rape scene’ is a misnomer and that what we see in the trailer is as far as it goes. I think the Kotaku articles are so often referred to because they are so factual and objective; they are a blank slate dealing with a heavy issue, which enables everybody else to project their own feelings onto it. The trailer has done the same thing. If you read those articles and come away with an impression of heavy issues being handled poorly and abused, then it is because this is what you are afraid of seeing, so you see it. If you watch the trailer and feel like it’s torture porn, then you are having problems removing yourself from this darkly-charged sexual situation.

MadameAce: I think people are doing a bit more than imposing their negative feelings on the studio’s responses. In some regards, it seems like they’re adding words into Rosenberg’s mouth. Take Jezebel’s article, for instance.

One executive at the studio behind the new game explains that in this reboot, the men who play Tomb Raider as Lara Croft will be subjected to an emotionally harrowing attempted gang rape scene.

This right here is an exaggeration. According to Rosenberg, the attempted rape goes no further than what we see in the trailer. One guy forcing himself onto Lara is not an attempted gang rape. It’s just what it is, an attempted rape. No, that doesn’t make the experience any less traumatizing, but furthermore, Aperigren was right earlier. Jezebel makes the assumption that Rosenberg and his team have only men in mind for the audience. And with the rest of the way article goes, I can only fathom that it’s from the opinion that the entire game will be misogynistic and Lara will be fighting rapists the whole time.

When Lara is a sex object to the gamer, Rosenberg seems to think that she’s seen by the gamer as less human. But when she’s a sex object to other characters in the game, or when someone who isn’t the player attempts to control her sexually, she’s someone to “protect” and worry about.

Again, I don’t know what to say. Isn’t that the point? To make her not a sex object to the gamer? To make her someone to worry about? I can’t believe I actually need to explain this. When the main character of a game is nothing more than a sex object to the gamer, that character’s thoughts and feelings are useless, because who cares at that point? She exists to look pretty and that’s it. Personality not needed. This is bad, because that kind of thing encourages the gamer to think of her in that way, and by extension, it will on some level encourage gamers to think of women in that way.

When the game is changed to show the gamer that she’s a person and not an object, despite how the other characters treat her, it allows the gamer to feel horrified at what happens to her. It does not encourage some misogynistic thought process, because at that point, we are clearly not meant to agree with what’s happening, and we worry, because we want the character to come out on top.

It’s insulting to male gamers to assume that they’re unable to relate to Lara Croft unless they want to fuck her or keep other dudes from fucking her—that if she’s not a digital rendering they’d like to bang, she’s not interesting unless she’s their sister or their daughter and they must avenge her besotted vagina. It’s insulting to female gamers to assume that there aren’t enough of them to give legs to a game that features a female hero who doesn’t have a weird history of sexy rape. It’s insulting to the character of Lara Croft to rewrite her as a weaksauce victim who is constantly screaming a la Indiana Jones’ love interest from Temple of Doom. And finally, it’s insulting to boobs to imply that they get gigantic after you fight off a bunch of would-be attackers on a desert island.

Well, speaking of insulting, something about this passage really offends me, and I honestly don’t know which part. Anyway, let’s start with the last sentence:

And finally, it’s insulting to boobs to imply that they get gigantic after you fight off a bunch of would-be attackers on a desert island.

Okay, we’ve all read that? Good, I’m glad this entirely pointless sentence making light of the situation is out of the way. Now let’s move on.

We know next to nothing about this game thus far. Therefore, we don’t know how we—the audience, and not all of us male—are meant to relate to her. The trailer in question is three minutes and twenty-six seconds long. The attempted rape scene shown in the trailer is less than fifteen seconds, and I should point out that a lot of other really terrible things happen to her, but for some reason this is the scene everyone’s honing in on.

I mean, Jezebel might as well have said this:

It’s insulting to male gamers to assume that they’re unable to relate to Lara Croft unless they want to throw her down a cliff and toss a broken plane after her or keep other dudes from throwing her down a cliff and tossing a broken plane after her.

As for being insulting to women for creating another female hero with sexual assault in her backstory, yes, we can all agree that it’s been overdone. But then again, it happens to real women all the time, so it doesn’t really bother me when it shows up in a fictional work. It only bothers me when it’s done as a cheap storytelling gimmick that adds nothing other than pity points from the audience and to make a woman the damsel-in-distress character who can’t take care of herself.

All I know about this assault from watching the trailer is that it happens, and that Lara’s not a damsel in distress because she manages to kill the guy. I can’t tell if this is going to be a cheap gimmick or not, and all the same, I don’t understand everyone’s reaction to this, especially when all we know is that an attempted rape happens and nothing else.

I said earlier that I thought something about the scene was empowering. It’s not because she’s assaulted. It’s that she fights back and wins. As someone who was completely incapable of doing anything other than cower in a corner like a helpless victim and had to be saved, watching Lara get the upper hand was satisfying.

Maybe I’ll be wrong, and when the game comes out, I’ll see that. But for now, I can’t make a judgment on whether or not the scene is done well and respectfully. All I know is how I currently feel about it.

Aperigren: Look, if the team crafting this gaming experience is doing so from a misogynistic, disrespectful, ignorant point of view, it will be evident in the final product and we can judge it then. But I am horrified at all of the judgments of this trailer, because to me it represents immature attitudes to games, women, and sexual assault, and the irrational fears of all the same.

I’ve been through sexual assault; watching Lara in such a position horrifies me. Isn’t this just it, though? She should be horrified, and she clearly is. Rosenberg points out that this is a meaningful moment for Lara’s character development. This is where she first takes a life. Until I play the game for myself, I cannot know how much this means, but for now I can speculate. It is not going through a disaster, fearing danger out there somewhere, seeing her best friend killed, or losing her connection to her mentor that pushes her to kill. It takes this very immediate, especially sick danger to drive her to that point.

It sounds to me like this moment is not meaningless. In my opinion, this moment probably occurs not because of attitudes towards women but attitudes towards men, namely that a male captor is likely to treat a female captive as a sex object. I think it is likely that most of the team is identifying with the situation as an observer, as the player eventually will be since this is occurring in a cutscene. For those who have been through such a traumatic event, I’m sure you can identify with her while still admiring her ability to come through it and fight for herself. I certainly feel that way.

People, I understand the fear and revulsion surrounding this trailer. In fact, I think that many reactions to it aren’t properly disgusted. So many people are just speaking from their own insecurities and fears, scaring the shit out of those of us actually interested in this game and what it deals with, and more so the developers. Now I’m worried about all this pressure on the artists to change their art. And after the studio has already backpedaled and failed to communicate their point effectively in its own defense. Any more vindication for the critics who think that gaming is too frivolous a medium to deal with this, or gamers are too immature to deal with it, will be a huge loss for every stakeholder. Let’s deal with this maturely and affirmatively. We’ve been told Lara Croft is going to hell and back in this reboot, and she’s going to come to the other side as a badass, much like she was before, except this time she’ll have character, meaning, be developed, and look like a human being. Now that they’re showing us the ‘to hell’ part, we should be horrified by what we see. I know I am. So stop horrifying me further with the cries of torture porn and misogyny, ignorantly dismissing what should be a powerful moment.

The sexual assault needs to stay in the game. Gaming experiences are art, and art shouldn’t be censored. Other mediums have dealt with rape and sexual assault meaningfully and maturely. Games can do this, too, and this game deserves the opportunity to do so.

It should be a meaningful event for Lara’s character development. If it doesn’t mean anything, then it’s a thoughtless gimmick.

It needs to be dealt enough that we don’t feel like Lara doesn’t care about it. Darrel Gallagher has already said (try the second Kotaku link above) that sexual assault is not a theme of the game. It’s not a theme, so we likely aren’t going to be seeing any more conflict, interior or exterior, regarding this sexual assault. This is fine. From a narrative perspective, this might be preferable since the observer isn’t explicitly shown all of the character’s inner workings (which can often be boring and tedious, and suck all mystery out of the character). But even though we won’t be seeing Lara’s inner conflict, we still need to see the evidence of it in her external actions. That is to say, we should be able to see that her sexual assault has had an impact on her through changes in her actions, rather than being told that it has changed her.

The game needs to show transformative moments for Lara’s character, and the game as a whole should be a coherent narrative on Lara’s transformation. If the only event that has an effect on Lara is her sexual assault, then it is just a gimmick and the utilization of a trope. However if the game is filled with transformative moments that are interchangeable and don’t flow from one to the other, then her sexual assault becomes an arbitrary detail that was not used effectively and was probably not necessary. The game needs to flow from one transformative moment to the next in a meaningful way that always has an impact on Lara. These moments need to fit together in a way that feels meaningful, like they all belong there.

From what we’ve seen and heard so far, Crystal Dynamics has both the intent for all of these things and more, and there is at least evidence of it in practice so far.

What shouldn’t keep happening are the immature reactions to her sexual assault. Maybe just use Wheaton’s Law. I’ve got a test for you to use on this. Think about what you are saying about this portrayal of Lara’s sexual assault, and imagine yourself saying this to a real person who has gone through sexual assault after you witnessed footage of that assault. “That was like torture porn” is not very respectful of what they just went through, for example. You are comparing something real that you saw happen to them to a fictional sexual fantasy. Apart from trivializing their experience, you are making them think about people taking sexual pleasure in witnessing what happened to them. You aren’t being clever, and you aren’t calling the trailer out for being disrespectful. You are being disrespectful, and I know it’s probably because you are trying to express the discomfort that the trailer made you feel. Take responsibility for those insecurities after you’ve thought about it instead of trivializing a depiction of a sexual assault.

4 thoughts on “Tomb Raider Reboot: The Sexual Assault Problem

  1. My problem with the reboot is it makes the argument, purposely or not, that sexual assault makes heroes. You both hit it spot on. Good stuff.

    • ^ I agree. You guys did a good job of staying objective about the whole situation, and raised some very valid points. But I’m also tired of sexual assault being the big obstacle that female characters have to overcome in order to become badass.

      Yes, sexual assault happens every day in real life, but these are video games, not real life. And speaking as someone who has been coerced into non-consensual sex, the last thing I want to encounter while playing a video game is attempted rape. I’m not saying the developers don’t have the right to try to incorporate it in a respectful, meaningful way, and I will try to pass judgment until the game actually comes out.

      But I can’t help but think that it also seems to reinforce harmful stereotypes about where and by whom rape occurs, since most women are raped by someone they know, in a place they know. If Lara was overcoming date rape, would I be more apt to sympathize with the attempt to integrate the real-world experiences of women into her narrative? Maybe.

      • I agree completely with both of you: sexual assault can be handled well in this medium, but it’s becoming a little played out as a means of eventual female empowerment in media. It will be interesting to see how the game actually handles it though, rather than having every horrible thing stacked up together all at once.
        I think the biggest problem I had with the trailer (besides the dubstep) is that it seemed like it was created only to shock the audience, and not in a “good” way. There’s a difference between tantalizing/drawing in the audience into caring about the character’s story and just shoving the most horrifying parts together hoping to illicit a response. It is a hideously good advertising strategy, however (and they probably would never be able to air this trailer on tv). Although I do appreciate seeing Lara being a strong character and adapting to how she must survive in this new environment, the only thing I could think (insensitive or not) was “where’s the game play?” It’s E3. I want to know what I can look forward to in terms of game play, not a 3 minute long movie.

  2. Well, I won’t say much because you two have a very in depth and well thought-out piece here. I think the main points are: The freaking game isn’t even out yet!!!! These people have no clue what the context is actually going to be. And second: terrible shit happens to people all over the world everyday, and portraying it in a book, film, video game, or whatever, isn’t automatically wrong and gratuitous (thought it absolutely can be). I wonder if the fellows from Penny Arcade would ever call all the violence and gore in video games gratuitous and unnecessary? I would venture to say no. I think it comes down to them being uncomfortable with a sexually traumatic situation. I think a lot of men have 2 kinds of negative reactions to rape: they lash out against it, because they can relate to the desire to dominate a woman, and somehow decide that relates to rape, or they decide a woman is weak or stupid because they were raped (which is why it’s upsetting when it happens to a beloved character). Obviously I think both of these reactions are not very well informed and lead to a complete lack of understanding of women, sexuality and trauma. I won’t try and figure out why other women would freak out about the scene, though I have some assumptions. But anyway, this turned out a lot longer than I thought. Great work though, and way to find empowerment in your own experiences Aperigren, that’s very inspiring.

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