Friday, 15 June 2012

This Is Not The Post I Was Going To Write - The Lara Saga

I just got back from Sweden, after a one night stay to visit Swedish colleagues there. I have a number of cool pictures from Gothenburg - which I will upload at a later date - and was very impressed (again) with how clean the city is, as well as the great weather that I really hadn't planned for.

I caught up on what I had missed in the last couple of days and spotted a post on Kotaku, titled "You'll 'Want to Protect' The New, Less Curvy Lara Croft". It's an interview with Crystal Dynamics' Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg, in which he seems to be saying that players can't see themselves as Lara Croft, that they will instead want to protect her, and a suggestion that she is broken, and "turned into a cornered animal" when faced with, what seems to be, an attempted rape. After reading some of the comments on there and blog posts about it I was slightly less seething (knowing I wasn't alone in having a problem with it), but left with a feeling of nausea; is this really how one of my favourite female game protagonists is going to be treated? Are game developers/writers so unimaginative that the only way they can think to toughen up a female character is to have someone try to rape her? And what the fuck is with the idea that players don't want to be Lara Croft?

Then I read the statement Crystal Dynamics released in response, from the Studio Head Darrell Gallagher no less, explaining that there had been a misunderstanding. Rape was not a theme or feature in the new Tomb Raider game, and that they would "be more careful with what is said in future." In other words, they told Mr. Rosenberg to shut his mouth and not do anymore interviews. And it's just as well as the guy has some seriously screwed up notions about how people play games, and seems to be massively unaware of how sexist he sounds...*Warning - this be a long post*

Lara Croft for the new century.

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character"

Really? That's funny because I ALWAYS HAVE. Ah, but wait, I'm a freak of nature, an aberration; a female gamer. So male gamers don't want to project themselves into her character? Last time I checked when people enjoy a story, regardless of the protagonist's gender, they normally project themselves into the character. What would I do in this situation? How would I feel about that happening to me? It's a pretty normal human response, and I have a genuine concern for anyone who doesn't do that when they're engaged with the story and character. This is incredibly insulting to male players (it seems to be just male gamers Rosenberg is talking about), as if they lack the emotional or intellectual ability to relate to a woman, so wouldn't want to be her, even if only in the context of a videogame.

"They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

Wait, so when I'm playing as Master Chief I want to protect him? That's why I kill the Covenant, because I want to protect him? Not because I want to kick some Covenant ass? Thanks for enlightening me. Oh, wait. That's actually complete badger poop. I am Master Chief. I am fighting the Covenant, ergo I don't want to get killed. I strongly suspect that this is the case for male gamers playing as Lara Croft too. There are so many problems with the statement above it's hard to express it in less than a gazillion words, but here's the crib notes version; it's inferring, in a between the lines sort of way, that women are weak so need protecting and men should be the White Knight, rescuing the damsel in distress. They wouldn't be able to 'relate' to the female character otherwise. *HULK SMASH* Hopefully it's obvious how disparaging this is to men and women, but in case anyone is unclear, I would like to think a man can relate to a female character, and play as one, without thinking "I'm going to kick this guy's ass because he's threatening the attractive female shaped pixels I'm looking at". Again, people put themselves into the character, regardless of their genitalia - seriously has this guy actually ever PLAYED a game?

She doesn't look like she needs protecting to me...

"She's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

Just want to repeat; "you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character." Am I the only one seeing how massively sexist that is? So we don't give a shit about male characters? Is that because they're all so tough and capable and, y'know, male, whereas Lara's all vulnerable, weak and, y'know, female? We don't care about a man getting the crap beaten out of him, because he's a man, he can take it, but not the little lady? Seriously, the level of ignorance, sexism and stereotyping in Rosenberg's comments beggars belief.

"The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear," he said. "She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."

But at least the sexualised version was capable, intelligent, sassy, ass-kicking and independent. Unlike this Lara who will be caught by 'island scavengers', and apparently turn into...

"She is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in her evolution: she's forced to either fight back or die."

This is the bit that got a lot of people steaming before the Studio Head released his statement, as the original interview seemed to be saying that you, the character, either fight back or get raped? The footage of gameplay showing players having to hammer the X button to get the nasty big man off Lara only made this worse. I imagine there will be some revisiting of that scene in the Crystal Dynamics offices in light of this massive PR blunder, to make sure it DOESN'T look like this at all. But in a world where rape survivors are so often blamed for the attack, the notion of this being a gameplay feature understandably sickened people and it will be in Crystal Dynamics' interest to make sure that it can't be interpreted that way. Some have rebutted saying that it's realistic; after all a young, attractive girl captured by a group of men on a secluded island, would likely face this very real threat. But my response to that is, we don't need it as a gameplay element - that's what cut scenes are for. Making it an aspect of gameplay turns the struggle to not get raped into a "fun" thing, a part of the game. It does nothing to help the prejudices running rampant in our society about rape and aside from that, it's just really fucked up.

Lara is not amused. Rosenberg is now on the list.
It's a relief that Rosenburg has apparently been talking out of his rectum, but he still needs to seriously think about the things he said in this interview. The comments may have been taken out of context, and I'm well aware that journalists can twist people's words, but there was enough "problematic" things stated that I suspect he has some unconscious prejudices he needs to think about.

This is also a good chance for would-be storytellers to take note; when you're working out someones origins, don't fall into tropes and stereotypes. They are often boring and even insulting. The trope of "woman becomes stronger by facing sexual assault" is both, and we really, really, don't need any more examples of it in consumer mediums. Especially as the sad reality is that those who do face these things are rarely, if ever, strengthened by it. Quite the opposite in fact. I personally think rape is something we shouldn't shy from, we should accept it happens, and that should be reflected in stories. But it must always be done carefully, and with total awareness of the prejudices out there. Adding it in to be controversial, or for lazy reasons (Character development! Proving this guy is really, really evil!) is never right.

Finally (for this post has gone on long enough!) storytellers need to ensure that they stay true to the core nature of a character. One of the things about all the above that still concerns me is in case they make Lara too weak, too incapable. She may be young, and just starting out on her path to "Tomb Raider" but the intelligence, resolve, and strength she has in the other games are core aspects of her personality. It's why her sexualised appearance never bothered me; she may have been a babe, but she was a smart, kick-ass babe. Characters do change, they do develop, but identifying the natural traits that they have inside them is important, so that they don't become unrecognisable when you take them in a new direction. Fingers crossed the Crystal Dynamics team know Lara well enough to get this right...

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