- Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
Week 8, Response #7
In Esther MacCallum-Stewart’s overview of Lara Croft’s evolution, she quotes Pinchefsky, who says that “there’s no getting around it: Lara Croft, the star of the Tomb Raider series, is a genuine action hero with ginormous breasts, which has made her both a symbol of female self-empowerment and an object of sexual desire” (gamestudies.org). I feel like that’s a solid quote for getting the obvious out of the way: anytime you search for reviews of Tomb Raider games (especially comparing the old and new), there will be a scathing (although deserved) review of how old Lara was symbolized by her skin-tight-clad enormous boobs and butt. They’re not wrong; original Lara was meant to be looked at, at certain places. She has practically become the figurehead for feminist critiques of game designers’ sexualization of women. Yet, for all of those faults and the sad, objectifying legacy she’s become, I think it is easy to forget the positives of the old games and how the new ones might not be as perfect as we had hoped. Simply because Lara’s appearance has evolved from a boxy Playboy model to an athletic young woman does not mean that the game’s (and the game designers’) attitude has changed in its handling of her as a person.
Praise for the old Tomb Raiders
I admittedly do not have dozens of reasons for praising the old games, but I do have one good one: at the time, when the games came out, it was exciting to have a girl adventurer. No, I am not the kind of feminist writer that praises a game simply because it has girls in it, just as a game with all males does not make it sexist. However, I do remember when the games were in the height of their popularity, and as a young girl who was digging deep into my new obsession with gaming, I was thrilled that there was a woman solving mysteries, fighting crime gangs, and who was important. Finally, I could be Indiana Jones. I was the intelligent, badass, suave anti-hero. MacCallum-Stewart recalls a similar experience: “I have an abiding affection for Lara, both as a subject of critical debate and a gaming icon. Lara is an irrefutable part of my gaming life and has been since her inception in 1999, and when I play her, I revel in her strength and abilities, her wisecracks and her cheesy lines, as well as appreciating that she is not particularly realistic” (gamestudies.org). Does it make me a bad feminist to enjoy playing a female character because it’s exciting to try out a personality/avatar who’s over-the-top kick-butt and sexy? I don’t think so. However, the problem is that her artificial-ness is really, looking at the game now, all Lara represents. She has little to no foundation as a real person. Also, the other significant issue is that, for all the ways I want to like Lara, it is very, very clear that those are not the reasons the game’s designers made her. They made her to be eye-candy with a handgun. She is meant to be used not as an avatar-fantasy for women, but as an object for the heterosexual men playing.
Pros and Cons of the new Tomb Raider
About fifteen years after I was introduced to the Tomb Raider series, I’m unashamedly a bit more of a picky gamer. I don’t have a desire to go back and play the old series. My original enchantment with Lara has faded, and I’m looking for not just someone real (not perfect, just relateable) but female characters who present both a variety of women and a breakdown of the expected stereotype of femininity equaling helplessness. To me, new Lara does that. I’ve only played a portion of the reboot Tomb Raider (2013), but I am loving the strength of character I’m seeing. She’s young (we assume about 22-23) and a bit unsure of herself when stuff hits the fan during the shipwreck, but truly, I thought that her calculated thoughts, her questioning, and her self-talk to assure herself that she knew what she was doing helped build her as a solid character. Most adventurer-types never question themselves; they shoot-first and ask questions later; their egos are as big as their unending-ammo clips. Lara doesn’t hate herself or constantly belittle herself, but she is testing her strength, and I think that that’s really cool to see, especially as someone her age who questions myself often in my own sphere of expertise. Also, she never questions herself in connection to her gender. So far, no one does. In fact, on her video recordings, we see her shipmates siding with her because of her expertise and certainty.
Bringing back Lara’s best trait from the original games, new Lara is a brain. She has mountains of historical, social, cultural, and survival knowledge. Throughout the game, as you’re wandering through ruins, she comments on the buildings, paintings, objects found with real, detailed explanations. She’s excited about being an adventurer. It is so refreshing to find a female character who loves what she does! She’s good at it and she’s not doing it for male approval. But she isn’t just smart; she’s athletic, quick on her feet, and a master at honing her skills even when she’s injured. After only 15 minutes of gameplay, I remember thinking, “What. A. Woman.” And I’m glad I can equate a woman with more than just eye-candy, and I’m glad that I can truly be impressed with her as a person.
However (it really sucks that there’s a “however”)…even with the portion of the game I have played, I am picking up issues with undermining Lara’s autonomous strength, coming primarily from the designers. When I began researching reviews and critiques of the game, I came across one particular article in which the author (who I quoted at the beginning), Carol Pinchefsky, did her research on the men (no women, sadly) designing new Lara. The main issue of the game (so far) that caught my attention was when Lara is trying to find Roth. She is cornered by one of the island’s cult leaders, who forces her against a tree and strokes her face and body. Thankfully, you can fight him and get away; if you fail, you are choked to death (although, as far as viewers can tell, Lara is not raped). Even though Lara has (seemingly) been elevated above damsel in distress, it was still concerning that that scene had to exist at all. Why the caressing? Why imply that at all? Did the designers feel the need to remind us that Lara is, in fact, a woman, and not just a woman but an attractive one that a crazy, island stranger feels the need to molest?
But back to Pinchefsky. She researched the producer’s, Ron Rosenberg, defense of this scene, where he said in an interview to Kotaku that “She is literally turned into a cornered animal” and that in the game as a whole “when people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. 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….’” (forbes.com). His response not only angered but also disappointed me. Even though the game, in and of itself, has evolved Lara’s character and personhood immensely, those pulling the strings are still determined to put her at someone’s sexualizing mercy. What game creator is going to intentionally make a male character “someone to protect?” Probably no one. Because males are not supposed to be protected, but the protectors, according to social, gendered norms. And the creators are still lingering under the false assumption that mainly men are playing these games. But even if they were, even if 99.99% of Tomb Raider‘s players were male, why make it necessary for Lara to not be someone they want to aspire to rather than undermine? There is no reason why Lara should not be intentionally created as a person gamers think of as their protector, their avatar of someone stronger and smarter. Lara does not have to be the damsel for any gamer to like her; she can be the knight, and there should be no craps given about that.
My second significant critique (which makes more sense considering Rosenburg’s perspective) is Lara’s death(s). If Lara dies, either a short cutscene will be cued which, in extreme visual and audio detail, displays her death or the camera will pan over her broken body. When I first started playing, admittedly, I died quite a few times. The death I remember most was when I was sliding through a cave, trying to avoid a rock avalanche, but I wasn’t fast enough and Lara was slowly, with bone-breaking noises and Lara’s screams of pain, crushed. After that, I was slowly mauled by wolves, which viciously maul Lara and rip out her throat as you watch her gargle on her own blood. Finally, in the scene I mentioned earlier, I died once and had to watch as Lara was slowly, with elongated gasping noises and eyes rolled back, suffocated by the man who was sexually harassing her. So, after experiencing Lara’s crude, overwhelmingly detailed and unique deaths, I was trying to remember the last time I played a game of the same genre in which a protagonist–specifically male–was repeatedly decimated in the same way. I couldn’t. Yes, the cutscene deaths are not unique to this game. However, the variety and detail put into Lara’s deaths–especially considering Rosenburg’s intentions for Lara’s presentation–leads me to propose that not only is Lara yet another victim of excessive violence against female characters but also her deaths are meant to be more of a reward for players (who are intended to be male) than even her successes.
Excessive violence against women in games is not new. Just watch Anita Sarkeesian’s “Damsel in Distress” videos and you’ll get a wide variety of genre and history in games that promote obscene violence against women to promote patriarchal agenda. And when I say “obscene,” I am referring to its literal translation: “ob” meaning “out of,” so violence which is out of scene or out of context and does not add anything essential to the theme or plot. In adventure games especially, one expects characters to be confronted with obstacles and violence–either from nature or people–but the adventure, the challenges, is central to the story, not the violence or gore (as one might expect in a slasher film). Past adventure games–typically male-lead–prompt the protagonist’s goal by obscenely killing off or damaging a female character connected to the main man. To simply state this sexist agenda, the women are the male protagonist’s property, and their deaths are meant to not only prompt the male on a quest of vengeance but also to inspire feelings of strength and superiority in conjuncture to male characters (by contrasting them with weak, sacrificial females). Evan Narcisse, a Kotaku writer, expounds on Sarkeesian’s argument, saying that “‘It’s casual cruelty, implemented as an easy way to deliver an emotional punch to the player,’ Sarkeesian says. Aside from invoking terrible attitudes about women, it’s also a cheap writing trick” (“The Problem with ‘Casual Cruelty’…). Narcisse continues to argue that the casualness of violence against women in games has two very dark results: first, it undermines and brushes aside that, in real life, women are constantly placed in these positions against not just “unequivocally bad men” but “all sorts of men” because, as his second point states, the violence against women is displayed as a means to an end (the women’s deaths prompt story), which insidiously places the blame on the women, as if they are meant to be in the position of weakness, the receiving end of the punch (Narcisse). In Tomb Raider, the violence against Lara is obscene; the detail is unnecessary and, arguably, eclipses the plot and character. Rosenburg and his team intended Lara to be a victim so that players can feel strong. I would argue that the new Tomb Raider‘s purpose is almost more insidious than the previous incarnations. Lara may have been intended for male gaze before, but now she’s given the illusion of power only to have it taken away to promote masculine players’ feelings of strength and superiority. Lara has been made the damsel in her own game, and the male players–the intended audience–are the protagonists, the adventurers spurred to action by Lara’s sacrifices and helplessness.
While I have serious concerns and critiques against Tomb Raider, I can give praise to its mechanics in particular. I haven’t spoken much about the mechanical nature of the game, but I might update this post more once I have played more. On the technical side, the game is practically perfect. The controls are smooth and not jarring or jumpy. The weapons have realistic drawing and recoil timing. The character’s movements are realistic and immersive (thanks to controller feedback and a very interactive environment). I have no complaints and only praises on that account.
But more to come on this game. Concerning the actual mechanics and gameplay, I have enjoyed and been floored by 99% of it. But the creators’ determination to reduce Lara based on her sex is an aggravating and noticeable thorn in the game’s side, one that could weaken female protagonists’ presentations, potentially, even more than their overt sexualized pasts.