Virtual sexual assault: we play Tomb Raider’s most controversial moment, and have experts weigh in
Disclaimer: Square Enix paid for air travel and a one-night hotel stay. Earlier this week, the Report published impressions of the first hours of Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot. There was, however, one scene we purposefully neglected to mention. Yes, that scene. The “attempted rape” scene.
“We did a lot of research into survival and people who survived extreme situations. One of the recurring themes was that people who survived had this mantra of just keep moving,” the game's producer told the Penny Arcade Report when the content was first shown. “You see that in the beginning of the game, where we begin to build her up and give her confidence to cross the ledge, cross the plane, she forages for food and she’s feeling really successful. Then towards the end we start to really hit her, and to break her down. Her best friend is kidnapped, she’s taken hostage, she’s almost raped, we put her in this position where we turned her into a cornered animal.” The fury unleashed by these statements was swift and condemning, which prompted Crystal Dynamics to release a clarifying statement. The statement, written by studio head David Gallagher, summarized the scene as “threatening,” but insisted that “it never goes any further than the scenes we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.” The game hadn't had a significant press push since E3, and with last week's visit, I felt the need to follow up. I asked Noah Hughes, creative director on Tomb Raider, how the conversation regarding gender politics and the infamous scene have or haven't influenced the game's development. “We were fairly far down the road before any of this sort of entered my consciousness,” Hughes told me. “When it erupted into a big thing, it felt like people were dealing as much with sort of issues in the industry and as a whole than they were judging our game in the context that it was meant to be experienced. My hope is that we are doing things for the right reasons, and we're doing things respectfully, and I think when people play through the game, they tend to come away and go 'I don't know what all that chatter was about.'” The idea that the scene needs to be experienced in context is an oft-repeated one. Thankfully, my trip would allow for such an experience. So, what is the scene like, in context?
So just what happens?
What follows contains slight spoilers for the game. Lara's crew has been captured and rounded up by scavengers, and it's clear these men aren't here to negotiate. As one survivor of the Endurance tries to make a break for it, the scavengers shoot him, and soon all hell breaks loose. More scavengers begin to eliminate more hostages, but thankfully, Lara manages to sneak away in the chaos. She makes her way up the side of a mountain, narrowly escaping detection. Or rather, almost escaping it. As Lara slips into a small gap in a nearby wooden structure, a Russian scavenger approaches. He stops at the building's exterior and peers into Lara's hiding spot. He commands her to exit, an order to which she hesitantly complies. Once she's out, the man whispers in a harsh and threatening, yet suggestive tone, “I always find them…” He puts his hand to Lara's shoulder, and it moves lustfully down her sides, to her hips. There is a QTE cue to press an action button. Pressing it causes Lara to knee the man in his crotch, and he doubles over. Lara attempts to run, but the man grabs her and slams her back into the building's outer wall. He leans in toward Lara's neck and speaks again, this time in Russian. Another QTE cue pops up. This time, Lara bites the man on the ear. The Russian scavenger pulls a gun and the two wrestle to the ground. Lara grabs hold of the weapon, but so does the man. A final QTE begins, prompting the player to furiously tap an action button in order to turn the gun from Lara's face. Once it's pointed at the scavenger, Lara pulls the trigger, blowing half of his head off. He sputters and chokes in a pool of blood, as what's left of his face twists in grotesque shock. Lara stumbles a few steps in something of a daze before collapsing to her knees, sobbing and crying out, “Oh God.” The tone shifts from sexual assault to the fear and intimidation Lara felt, and the “kill or be killed” nature of her confrontation with the scavenger. This scene is about taking someone's life after they scare the hell out of you and make you fear for your life, not titillation or exploitation. When the controversy over this scene began, one of the more morbid questions passed around the Internet was what happens if you don't do anything? What if players let this scene, with undeniable sexual undertones, continue? I replayed the scene to find out. If Lara gets spotted before she makes it up the mountain, scavengers shoot two arrows into her; one in the torso, the other to her neck. If Lara fails to defend herself during the first QTE, the man's hands rush from Lara's hips to her neck, and he strangles her to death. The same animation plays if players fail to hit the second QTE mark. If Lara doesn't point the gun away from herself while wrestling on the ground, the scavenger shoots her, point-blank, in the head. Two things about all of the possible deaths ring true: firstly, that they are incredibly brutal. When hit with arrows, Lara's body jerks violently from the impact. When strangled, she wheezes as her eyes roll back into her skull. When shot with the gun point-blank, well… let's just say any family would probably have to identify her by her teeth. Second, all of the death animations are just that: death. In no instance is Lara's suffering drawn out or shown to be part of an extended assault. The scavenger's movements are sexually charged, but the end result of his actions is never to remove Lara's clothing or further violate her. Gallagher was correct when he penned Crystal Dynamics' response; sexual assault does not seem to be a large theme of the game, and it never goes further than what's already been shown publicly. Still, the imagery is unsettling, and the sexual undertones undeniable. Was it necessary to make the scene so… uncomfortable? I spoke to Roxane Gay, Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University to gain some perspective.
I started by asking if any of this was worth discussing in the first place. It's just fiction after all, right? Couldn't we end the conversation there and render this whole debacle moot? “Stories absolutely influence our society,” Gay told the Report. “Oftentimes, fiction allows us to make sense of experiences that are wildly different from our own. Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy did so much to bring attention to the issue of female genital mutilation. David Abrams's novel Fobbit is a darkly humorous look at the seeming futility of the war in Iraq. Almost any novel or short story is working in some way to influence people and how they see the world.” That being said, sometimes a story is just a story. “There doesn't need to be a lesson learned. Stories that feel like after school specials, that try too hard to have a moral, rarely engage the reader in meaningful ways,” Gay told me. “Writers rarely get to control how their work is read or interpreted. All we can do as writers is focus on we write and try to see that our words approximate our vision.” This echoed a statement Hughes had told me earlier. “I don't want to question people's conclusions if they really are concluding for themselves in-context. For me, I don't tell people how they should feel about this,” he said. “It's okay, I think it's healthy for us to have that conversation.” Fair enough, but is what Crystal Dynamics is bringing to the table healthy? I described what happens to Lara in-game to Gay and sent her a link to the “Crossroads” trailer, which involved glimpses of the scene in question, and asked what she thought. “Women are often used to create drama in a narrative by being made vulnerable to sexual violence. A dead girl's body is splayed open and mutilated in a crime procedural drama. A medical drama features a dramatic rape storyline. It's not at all surprising that the a woman as sexually vulnerable prey is a trope that has found its way into video games,” she told the Report. “It's simply there because it's a lazy choice to suggest that a woman would be sexually vulnerable on an island with savage men.”
I asked Lindsay Allen, a former employee at a local domestic and sexual violence prevention service, how she would feel witnessing a scene in which a man attempted to sexually assault Lara. “Triggered,” she told me. I described the scene in more thorough detail and again shared the “Crossroads” trailer. I asked if her reaction was the same, having watched. “Me personally, probably not tremendously impacted, but it is hard to see stuff like that,” she said. “I think that any level of violence toward women in video games can be triggering to people who have experienced assault. It's hard to know.” “They have warnings on games for violence and warnings for sex, but I don't know if they have one for sexual violence. I think that's something that should be explored, given the level of violence toward women and the growing number of women in the video game culture.” It was just a week ago that #1ReasonWhy took Twitter by storm, and in many ways, that larger picture conversation of women in gaming is what has influenced the Tomb Raider controversy. “I do see it as growing pains for the industry, I do see us maturing as an industry through conversations like this,” Hughes told the Report. “The video game industry has way bigger issues where gender is concerned. That is to say, this is problematic, but there are lot of problems the video game industry needs to address. This scene is probably further down on the ladder than say the under-representation of women in video game production, the appalling way women are regularly treated and discussed in online video game forums and at various video game cons, the pervasive violence against women in too many video games, and so on. It's actually sad that this small scene pales in comparison because it is troubling,” Gay noted. Gay and Hughes would agree with Allen, it seems. I described to Allen the myriad reactions that have sprung up since the controversy's inception, from cheers of support to condemnation of Lara as a victim. “I can see where people might be disturbed that they're using her victimization as a tactic to shock or get attention for the game, but the fact of the matter is, so many women are victimized in that way every day,” Allen said. “To say it shouldn't be used would be… they basically wouldn't be portraying things in a realistic way.” I asked Allen why there seemed to be such vehemence toward the idea of Lara as a victim. “Now she's broken,” Allen said. “That's why the terminology in the advocacy field is… you'll call someone a 'survivor' rather than a victim. The language surrounding it is important.” “This is a franchise that's been popular for over a decade, and I think it's important to show that this powerful woman that everyone's viewed as strong and bad ass has experienced pain and suffering, and she went on to be that strong, powerful woman. Regardless of whether or not the attempted assault is the focal point, I think the takeaway is that you can still become that strong person by overcoming pain and fear.” Another important note, Allen told me, is that although the man in the attempted assault scene uses body language that is sexually intimidating, in reality, such assault isn't about a person's sexuality. “People don't see it as a control thing, they see it as something sexual in nature, when sexual assault is all about control; being in control, and trying to take control away from someone else.” This would explain why in Mafia 2, for instance, a male character is threatened with rape by someone who views himself as superior. It's about dominance.
Battle of the sexes
As troublesome as the implications for the feminine gender are, males are not to be ignored. Although it's possible later chapters will reveal a deeper reason for the island's inhabitants' savagery, on the surface they lack motivation. This isn't Call of Duty, where the villain aims his aggression at the U.S. military as retaliation for how they've harmed him; the men on this island seem to be violent because… well, they're men separated from society, and it's accepted that such men would naturally be or become nigh feral. I asked Allen if Tomb Raider's troublesome history could offend the men who play the game as much as it's offended women. “We live in a patriarchal society that tells men to be aggressive, dominant, and sexual – even though, again, assault isn't about sex, it's about control. It puts us into gender roles, and those aren't fair to anyone. There are millions of people who don't fall into those roles,” Allen said. “Still, it's not as powerful or evocative to me when there are so many more positive portrayals of men.” I asked Gay if there were some topics that just weren't ready to be discussed. “No there aren't, but there are certainly writers who are not capable of dealing with certain topics in fiction because they cannot handle the subject with care and thoughtful consideration.” So is it fair to say now that gamers know what “all that chatter” was about? Not definitively. But the situation is clearly more complex than some sensationalist headlines and editorials would have you believe.