Tomb Raider’s writer discusses the press, gender, and Lara Croft’s body count
Rhianna Pratchett wrote Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword, and Overlord, but her biggest project may be the just-released Tomb Raider reboot. We loved the game, and couldn't wait to pick her brain about the character, the press' reaction to preview footage, and how gender has informed coverage of the game.
Ben Kuchera: What was your relationship with Lara Croft before you started writing this game?
Rhianna Pratchett: It was a checkered history, I guess. I loved the first game, I played the second, the Tomb Raider 3 launch was my first ever industry event, but I sort of lost interest in the franchise.
I objected to the way she had sort of become oversexualized by the wider media. Not necessarily the games, but everything else around them. For example, in the Prima Strategy Guide it’s got old Lara in sexy positions on every other page. She became a sort of pinup, and that overshadowed the games for me. She became a victim of her own success in some ways.
The mythology goes that the size of the boob was a pixel slip, and she wasn’t designed to be hugely sexualized, she just became that way. And that kind of put me off as a younger female gamer. I’m not saying that I didn’t miss out on some great stuff, but you find other games, you try other things. I was aware of her, you’re always aware of Lara Croft, but I hadn’t played one in a long time.
When I was first contacted by Crystal Dynamics I thought I would have to play everything, but they actually preferred it like this. I had knowledge of Lara Croft, I had some idea of her background, but I wasn’t burdened down by feeling that I had to adhere to everything that came before. They wanted to start again, they wanted a blank slate, and they wanted a writer who could deliver that.
So after the last blowup, have you been instructed not to use the word “rape” in interviews?
No. No. No one has ever actually told me what to say or not to say. I don’t think it’s an appropriate word to use for that scene. That was part of the problem. It was genuinely never meant to be talked about in that way.
There was a lot of speculation about how this was just cynical PR and was deliberately described that way to create news and hits, absolutely not. No one wanted it described like that, at all. Since I hadn’t been announced as the writer there was literally nothing I could do apart from watch people, like your good self, be very annoyed about it, and actually understand, as I was a former journalist and kept asking myself what I would be upset about and what would I be angry about what would I have questions about.
I had to watch people trashing my work, assuming I was a white, male, American straight man. There was a lot of assumptions about who had put it in and why, that were wrong, really. Absolutely wrong. I understand why people were upset about it, and frustrated, but I think it was more about the sentiments expressed suggesting that players couldn't empathize with Lara, or they wanted to protect her. I know from working in games for such a long time that the players' relationship with the player character is fairly unique. I’m not going to say that no player is going to be protective towards Lara, but certainly some players, myself included, I feel like I am Lara. I am Raz in Psychonauts. I am a Tauren Druid in World of Warcraft. There’s no one way of summing up the relationship between players and player characters, so I can see why some people would have problems with words like “protect,” even though that was never linked to that one scene in the interview. People did link it, and I think players do, both male and female, do empathize as Lara and see themselves as Lara. No one has instructed to say or not say anything about that scene. So I’m allowed to talk about it.
It has to be frustrating though. When it was announced that you were writing the game, there was almost relief, like 'we’re fine because a woman is writing a game'. It instantly became non-problematic because of that.
It’s not fine because I’m a woman. It’s fine because we approached it with the right creative sentiments. It was an honest scene for those characters and that moment. It wasn’t done for titillation. It wasn’t prolonged. It was uncomfortable because it should be uncomfortable. Killing someone and being put in that situation and having to kill someone should be uncomfortable.
Now that I’ve had the chance to talk about it and where we’re coming from… lots of journalists haven’t played that scene in context. They hadn’t seen the reactions of Lara, which were cut down in that trailer, and so few people could understand that scene in context, so there was a lot of assumptions and a lot of finger-pointing in the industry press, and I thought, ‘Good people, this is what we accuse the wider media of doing to us all the time!’ Assumptions without context, and you’re doing exactly the same.
But it’s been a valuable debate. It’s been interesting topic, the way we talk about players and player characters, and the way we talk about female characters. No one has been happy with how it was described, and how it came out but there was value in it.
It seems like there’s a double standard here. We write endless articles about how we want to see more female heroes, and then when we do we’re never willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. We nit pick them in a way we don’t male heroes.
I think it’s expected in some ways. I think Lara gets the kind of scrutiny Nathan Drake doesn’t go through, for example. And she’s precious to a lot of people, as well as being such a famous action hero, she’s been a big part of a lot of people’s lives, the franchise has been going on for 17 years now. They’re attached to her, and the character as they see her, and obviously we’re doing some things differently.There was a lot of picking things apart, and I do understand that, but it became so much about gender so quickly. In some ways it was unavoidable, you can’t avoid that with Lara Croft, and obviously with a female writer behind her.
I saw blog posts speculating that I was a man hater, I saw blog posts speculating that I was a woman hater, it was just… it was crazy watching it from this side, and not being able to go, 'hey look, can we calm down and talk about this'? By the time I was announced as the writer a lot of people had made up their mind, as people tend to believe the first thing they hear.
There was a very real fear we were going to play this Hostel-style game where we just see Lara being victimized for ten hours. Especially with the way it was described to us in interviews, we were told they were going to broke the character, and she would be reborn, and we would want to protect her. I think a lot of people were scared that we had lost this very able, confident character, and we’d see someone be brutalized, and at the end out pops a hero. We never see the rest of the story, where she comes into her own power.
Right, and I always steered away from using the words “breaking down,” because it has very negative connotations. I described it by saying we rewound her. We didn’t take away the traits everyone associates with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, we just wound her back when those traits were beneath the surface. She was not quite aware of what she was capable of, and that comes out during the game.
I don’t think we’ve taken things away, we’ve just taken her back further than we’ve seen her before. The first few hours of the game, particularly the starting hour, is quite dark and desperate. She doesn’t have any weapons, she’s completely out of her depth, we go a long time without actually giving the player a gun.
That’s the other thing people remarked on in our review, and Uncharted struggles with this immensely. The line between having a vulnerable character coming to grips with the situation, and her taking on platoons of characters is very short. Is there a way to handle that dissonance in what almost becomes an action game?
I think it’s hard. There’s always a balancing act. I think the narrative team would have liked to see that as a slower ramp up. That time between the first kill and lots of kills, I think we would have liked to see that slower paced. But, this isn’t always about narrative. It's not a narrative-led game or a game play-led game.
Crystal Dynamics always talks about it being a journey-led game. We found through play testing that as soon as you gave players a gun, they wanted to use it. It was very difficult to let Lara have a gun and then go for fifteen minutes without letting her use it properly. The first hour you go without a gun, the bow is very cool, and many players just stuck to the bow and got a lot of enjoyment out of that. But going for that length of time without weapons, in the cave section there are no weapons at all, and solving puzzles, and getting to know the environment, and then you get a bow.
I think that was quite impressive, we got a long way without a gun, and then you let loose with the gun. We found once the player got a gun the players wanted to use it. I’m not going to pretend that we solved the problems. We took a few steps in the right direction. We showed what happened with the character before hand, and that’s all important to the character. She has been through a lot by the time she gets a gun, she has been through quite a few challenges against the environment and other humans.
She’s building up to this kind of point anyway. It’s so hard to do, and somewhat out of my jurisdiction to a degree. I think we’ll look at it more closely in the future. Baby steps. We'll have more from this interview in the coming days.