After beating the new Tomb Raider, the first question I received was literally, “Was it all rapey?” With the game released and in hand, I can firmly say no. Questions like this make it obvious that the controversy is still steeping and addressing it is still prudent, especially since the game’s sales have apparently fallen below Square Enix’s expectations.
Originally, this was just going to be a dry follow up to the article I wrote about the marketing that started the debate prior to Tomb Raider’s release. However, when a writer like Ashelia over at Hell Mode publishes an article she didn’t exactly want to, it made me realize my original piece just wouldn’t cut it.
(Two disclaimers. First, as in my other article, a trigger warning as there will be talk of violence both sexual and not. Second, spoilers, which I will try to limit but which cannot be avoided as this piece is partially intended for those avoiding the game due to apprehensions about the content and as such will detail some of it.)
Too often in gaming is “mature” content nothing but “shock” content, inserted as fodder to put people on the edge of their seats. We often look down on it because it seems needless, out of place, and lacking in explanation. Tomb Raider actually manages to circumvent this expectation successfully, much to my surprise. I’ve played many a game with hard moments to ponder in them. Tomb Raider cuts right to the bone though and gets personal. It doesn’t treat me kindly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There were a lot of little things over the years that added up. My mother stopped watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when I was around. My significant other didn’t quite know if it was okay to touch me, even in a platonic way. My sister was more outspoken about the Tomb Raider 2013 marketing online then she was to my face. All these things changed, pretty quickly even, but it took acknowledgment.
Every one of them looked at me with a question they couldn’t put into words. Each one was answered more or less the same way: It’s ok. I’m not made of glass.
Yes, this game has a divide between its male and female characters. It is actually a part of its story though rather then some arbitrary attempt to appeal to a certain demographic. We are all aware that this game centers on Lara Croft and her crew mates surviving on an inhospitable island after being shipwrecked. It also becomes obvious quite quickly that people have been running aground along the beaches of Yamatai for generations. Where the slowly unfolding story shines and disturbs is in how a society has developed among those that have been trapped for years in this same hostile environment you only just stepped into.
Players are quickly introduced to the legend of The Sun Queen Himiko of Yamatai, and her supposed super natural ability to summon storms to protect her island in ancient times. Lara is quick to note that most legends have some small piece of the truth within them, and players will be tasked with discovering that truth not only through the main storyline, but also through much of the optional hidden content. Without giving away much, the long dead queen’s importance to events is not insignificant, and it leads to the island’s “Solarii” brotherhood having a fairly warped view of women.
Some are true believers, rounding up any woman that crashes ashore for a ritual that before has always ended in death. Others, if you bother to listen to them converse with each other before killing them, see it as a waste. Whether that waste is something they just don’t care about, or are torn over not being able to prevent is also unique to each man. All of them seem to carry some bitterness over this reverence due to its perceived necessity to getting home. Tomb Raider is surprisingly satisfying as a stealth game if for no other reason than to make me care and even sometimes regret killing a man because I sneaked up on him slowly enough to learn something about him even if forced to shoot him in the end.
That’s how many I was told were removed from his home.
The police told me he’d made bail. My parents and I ended up next to him on the main road toward the cities. They were taking me out to try and get my mind off the whole thing and the timing was just bad. To this day, my father doesn’t know if he made the turn fast enough to avoid being seen. We sat for about 20 minutes at a gas station just waiting for him to roll further away from us.
He was later arrested again for attempted witness tampering. Then made bail again. Then the police suddenly realized he still had all his guns. I’m murky on the details, but apparently when released the first time he was simply asked to turn his firearms in until everything was sorted. After the bail violation, they were confiscated.
That’s when the realization hit that he’d had 35 guns for months and he knew where I lived.
It was the first time I’d ever pondered whether I had it in me to kill another person in self defense. Not that I had or could legally own anything that would compare; I wasn’t even 18 yet.
Are the controversial elements of Tomb Raider necessary? No, the plot could have likely been contorted to avoid them. Do they make sense? Yes. Sad as it may be to admit.
Would it have really been more respectful to tiptoe around the subject like it doesn’t exist, or just deal with it? I do stand by my earlier assertion that dealing with the subject of sexual assault head on would be better than poking it with a stick and running for the safety of the next action scene, but Tomb Raider does at least manage to introduce the sense of disempowerment without it seeming like throwaway fodder. Whether it’s a throwaway in the sense that you go from powerless, to scared but in control, but then can later level up to assign brutal finishing moves to every weapon in your arsenal… that’s up for debate.
Funnily enough, the little thing that keeps nagging at me about Tomb Raider is the guns. The violence. The sympathy.
Oh, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for violence in this game. I’m saying Tomb Raider is yet another thing that makes me realize just how much people suck.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Plenty of people had issues with the idea of me getting a concealed carry permit. Some friends and family were either uncomfortable with firearms as a whole, or thought it unnecessary. Others offered to take me to the range. The one reaction that stuck with me though was a boy in my Speech class while in college. We needed to give a speech on absolutely anything we wanted as our final, it just had to be a solid-comprehensible-no rambling please-10 minutes. I did mine on anti-sexual assault organizations. It was painful giving it that personal touch, but in the end I figured that with such disturbing statistics on how many victims there are, at least someone in that class of 30 needed help.
This boy did a talk on firearms in general and during the midday break I asked his opinion on the best places to take safety courses. Of course, the subject of eventually wanting a concealed carry permit did come up. That’s when he dropped my stomach out.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
He elaborated that this opinion came from what I’d been through. What I’d just shared with the whole class. He couldn’t really nail down why (or refused to), but some mumbled bits about how it might color my perspective in certain situations and questions of my judgment were not quite raised.
I thought long and hard about why I would want to carry a weapon. Not because they’re “cool;” I have props for that. Not because I want someone to die; I’ve got enough nightmares to sort through in therapy. I want a gun because, like many victims, I knew my assailant, I am well aware of the fact that he knows how to obtain firearms without going through a background check, I know he’s incredibly fond of weapons, and I don’t know what he’s going to do when he gets out of prison.
It’s not just Tomb Raider: in almost all of our media we seem to expect our victims to become superheroes, to have that turning point, to get their revenge. Has it skewed the way we see the real world? Many of us have a dark little place in our hearts where we want the worst among us to pay the ultimate price, but if it ever left our fantasies and entertainment outlets, we’d be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law like anyone else. So instead we bicker about our heroes versus our anti-heroes, and how much violence makes sense instead of asking why on earth we’re continuing to find violence entertaining at all. After all, that might imply something is wrong with us.
On the flip side, a story like Tomb Raider’s may have an uphill battle to deal with in a world where victims are blamed and offenders mourned for. Or where Lara’s deaths are supposed to be so gruesome as to motivate you to avoid them, but instead we make montage videos.
Two students approached me after class, by the way.
Ironically, the most poignant moment I had playing Tomb Raider was not the most talked about one that sparked all this hubbub. It was a moment when I actually had a choice.
Not too much further into the game, you’ll end up moving through a bunker crawling with (surprise) people out to kill you. In one particular spot you find yourself behind reinforced glass with the room around you steadily filling with gas. Even as you choke and the edges of the screen begin to spatter with blood, the worst part is that on the other side of the glass is a man. A man whom on first spotting you shouts threats, but after seeing your predicament begins to mock you. He’s not going to kill you anymore. He’s just going to sit back and watch you die. I tried to smash my axe into the glass to no avail. I feared a shot from a gun might cause a spark and kill me. As the joyous heckling of my antagonist continued, I finally realized the air duct I’d originally entered the room through was still accessible and scrambled to fresh air. His shouts followed me though. In such a short amount of time, the writer, level designer, and voice actor managed to make me truly hate this character.
I shut him up with the lantern I found conveniently at my feet.
Chucking it back through the air duct, I watched it shatter on the other side, light the gas, and blow the entire glass window as well as a chunk of the wall into this man. Without a moments regret I looked at the screen, cleaned my glasses, and gave a satisfied, “Heh, go to hell.”
As I walked across the room, the man lay against the far wall, half his body crushed under a slab of concrete. The same person who only moments before was enjoying the spectacle of my anticipated demise… was now begging me to finish him off. I could have just walked away. This wasn’t a quick time event, it wasn’t something that had to be done before moving on. Even so, I still pulled up short at his prompting, aimed down the sights of my pistol, and put a single bullet in his head.
The moment that truly gave me pause though was how my expectations got promptly turned on their head.
Even as I was nudging the thumb sticks expecting some line about how he was better off or how it was merciful to come out of my television speakers, the words never came. Quick as lightning after the shot was fired and I pulled out of the tight aim view , I could appreciate Lara standing tall, glancing down sideways at the body and giving only a quiet, “Go to hell.”
That cut a bit closer to the bone than any awkward groping scene could have.
For all the complaints from one reviewer to the next about Lara becoming too adept a killer, becoming too vengeful too fast, maybe we all should appreciate how quick we are to pull the trigger. None of us had to level up those weapon specific finishing moves. Lara Croft did not shove that shotgun barrel under that random scavenger’s chin, or rake his chest with machine gun fire, or put an arrow through his throat. You did.
So did I.
None of us are any worse people for it though.
I always liked Lara Croft. She was tough, but smart. Bookish at heart. I grew up reading, writing, making art, and playing games. I was engrossed in genre works and fandom communities by my family for years.
I’d also been getting the crap kicked out of me for years. Wish I could have dealt with it as deftly as Lara, but doing backflips off people’s heads to initiate some form of bullet time wasn’t an option.
The jump from elementary to middle school was rough. The children were plenty cruel in those early years with their mean words, cliques, and coordinated exclusion. That was manageable for a kid that could just laugh at their pettiness and go read a book though. Growing up and getting my face mashed into the grating of my locker was… less manageable.
Middle school more or less turned into a several year debacle of wishing to be left alone, getting beaten up instead, going to the staff for help like you’re taught to do, watching my tormentors makes excuses, then enduring it all over again. I think getting shoved down the granite steps was the last straw in a way. It reached the point where my alarm would go off, I’d think of what was waiting for me, then promptly get violently ill and lose all the bile in my stomach before crawling back under the covers until the bus had already left. The school’s solution? Send a truancy officer to drag me in.
In High School, I finally snapped. I was going through the motions, waiting for it to be over. I outright told staff who the bullies were, what they’d done, and that if they failed to impress upon them pretending I didn’t exist would be far easier on them, I’d make it difficult.
I’d always been the type to quietly take everything that would get thrown my way until I felt I had no choice. Bullies never seemed to realize where my lines were drawn until it was too late, perhaps thinking that side of me didn’t even exist. Perhaps all those violent games were the perfect catharsis for someone under constant pressure.
When one problem boy that had been tormenting me for months tried to shove me down the stairs (a reoccurring theme), I grabbed the railing, wrenched myself upward by it, and let my momentum carry through into the punch I landed straight to his nose. Without a word, I walked past and went to class. He never bothered me again.
And we all wonder why violence is so prevalent in our media. Until violence stops solving problems we’re unlikely to move beyond it. I suppose I should thank my parents for that line in the sand, that sense of choice versus no choice, of right and wrong, or I’d feel like a much more terrible person right now.
He had 35 guns.
And I never used one on him.
Not even 18 and I still turned to a system that had repeatedly failed me before and put him in prison.
I do have to wonder if in a few years (or sooner if he makes parole) when my assailant gets out of said prison: even if I know I’m in danger, will my judgement be questioned if it comes to unpleasantries? Or will I be my own worst enemy, choke, and be nothing but a story on the news? Neither is probable: he’ll likely move along knowing nothing more about me, and I’ll probably be shooting something or other in the next Tomb Raider or whatever is hot off the shelves, flexing a trigger finger that I pray will never be needed on anything but a controller.
Every time someone apologizes to me for what I’ve been through I tell them they don’t need to be because I won. Game over? Well, yes, at least in regards to Tomb Raider. It will have a proud spot on my shelf though as a classic I refuse to part with in case I ever need a reminder as to how great I can feel even though people suck.