On Tomb Raider and Torture

The second Tomb Raider trailer is out with the recent wave of videos from E3, and while reactions and speculation diverge, everyone agrees it looks pretty brutal.  Rich heiress Lara Croft finds herself shipwrecked on an island with dangerous men, wounded, without supplies, and struggling to survive in a rebooted origin that brings Green Arrow to mind.  The old Lara would dispatch a gigantic lizard in an underground lake and top it off with a dry action hero quip, the sort of moment that Sean Connery’s Bond might take to straighten his tie.  In sharp contrast, the reboot has her stabbed, broken, blown up, and sexually assaulted as she fights for survival tooth and nail in a jungle against impossible odds.  But does it cross a line into torture porn?

As far as the ways in which portrayals of violence can become sexualized, there are plenty of people who can speak with more perspective and authority than I.  For example, Scott Eric Kaufman has some great breakdowns of the visual rhetoric of Kick-Ass that you should check out.  If you’re not familiar with the concept of “male gaze,” that’s a baseline for most of these discussions as well.  I’m a novice when it comes to film crit, but it’s pretty straightforward to connect the notion of the camera following the viewpoint of a heterosexual male director and this screenshot:

Whatever you think of feminist film theory, the connection in that image is pretty obvious.  There’s plenty of ways that particular shot could have been framed; for instance, from Lara’s perspective as her attacker’s visage is all that’s visible. But what we see is a shot where the attacker is nearly faceless, his back to the camera.  Lara’s body is fully visible. She’s not at all obscured by the man’s back, even though it takes up fully half the frame.  The camera’s perspective is pretty high, so despite the fact that the image isn’t very tall, more of her body is visible.  The exact center of the frame is the man’s giant hand; Lara is an object being acted upon.  Now, this is just a trailer, and the whole sequence is more complex than this: the camera follows his hand as he traces it down her body in what appears to be a gratuitous shot, but it stops centered on their crotches… so that her knee to his groin is right in the middle of the frame.  This is exactly in line with the sorts of things they’re saying they want to do, to show Lara in a horrific situation, and her escaping it.  None of this changes the fact that it’s essentially a twist ending to a lot of imagery that displays the heroine as an object and a victim.

The Bitmob article brings up this fact, and I agree with that part, but it also contends that we do not subject male heroes to the same level of victimization and punishment, which I do not think is true.  The interviews with the Crystal Dynamics staff refer to some well-known action movies, two of them reboots, that they’re using as inspiration: Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and Die Hard.  Batman Begins’s Bruce Wayne starts the movie by getting the stuffing beaten out of him in a Bhutanese prison before he climbs a mountain so ninja master Liam Neeson can beat the stuffing out of him for being such a whiner.  Casino Royale’s more physical Bond crashes through walls, slams into steel girders and, in one scene, struggles to attach a defibrillator as he’s dying from Digitalis poisoning.  And Die Hard, one of the most enduring action movies of all time, has the hero on the verge of tears as he pulls shards broken glass out of his feet.

And that’s just for movies.  Uncharted 2 at starts off with Nathan Drake bleeding out from a gut wound as his train car dangles off a Himalayan cliff.  The bitmob article itself brings up MGS4, a game that features Old Snake crawling through a microwave tunnel as he is slowly cooked alive.  The previous game in that series featured Snake getting his elbow dislocated and eye shot out, among other things.  The things we subject our heroes to are not just because we value extraordinary feats of strength, but because we also admire comparable feats of endurance, especially when that is coupled with a vulnerability and fragility that makes them relatable.  I think we do subject our male heroes to a pretty harsh level of abuse, but that’s really beside the point.  Even if Tomb Raider’s reboot is simply long-overdue gender equality, it’s the perception and interpretation of the imagery that matters, not just the intent.  Even given a wealth of film and game context to put this violence in, there is still a media context of violence and women that can’t be ignored.

If all of this sounds a little bit familiar, it’s because the discourse about video games has been here before.  Resident Evil 5 had a trailer whose imagery called up some unpleasant racial connotations.  N’gai Croal’s take on the matter was pretty astute, and I don’t think I can sum the issue up better than he did, so go read it if you haven’t.  The issue isn’t intent: Capcom didn’t set out to make a racist trailer, they set out to make a scary trailer.  The problem was that in doing so, their imagery coincided with a lot of racist imagery that historically has depicted Africa and Africans in a certain way.  With their Tomb Raider reboot, Crystal Dynamics has stated their intent to put their young hero through the crucible, have her overcome adversity, and grow stronger as a result.  But we should also recognize the ways in which this coincides with a long-standing trend in portrayals of violence and women in media.  Gamers often want the solutions to these problems to be cut and dry, for one side to be right and the other to be wrong.  But ultimately, in both RE5 and Tomb Raider’s trailers, we need to accept that two vastly different interpretations of an issue can simultaneously be correct.

  • Anonymous

    So says the Spankminister.

  • J.D.

    Well written good sir, I applaud you.

  • eggbagel

    Nice. I’m reminded of the angry internet discussions about Bayonetta as well: inappropriate joyride on the male gaze, or self-aware heroine using her sex appeal for gain? Probably both as well.

  • Bayonetta’s such a cool example because on the one hand you have this girl who’s totally in control, and super strong, and is it like “fuck you little girl I hate you, I’m not your fucking MOM, and I’m gonna do my own thing” and she’s never like “but I need a maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.”

    On the other hand, you have Hideki Kamiya saying shit like “we put this female antagonist dance-off battle in because girls secretly hate each other and like to tear each other down.”

    Wuuuuuuuuuuut.

  • Greeboogg

    I have previously enjoyed playing Tomb Raider games and so was expecting to watch the trailer, be thrilled and pre-order the game. Oh dearie me. I agree with Spankminister completely, the images of the victimization of a young woman gives me pause. As a female gamer I loved playing a strong, capable heroine who kicked arse. As an English gamer she was a rare example of one of my own being the protagonist and yet as a middle aged gamer I hoped we’d left all this sexist bollocks behind long ago.

  • Spankminister

    Thanks, J.D.!

    eggbagel/Dave: Yeah, I immediately thought of Bayonetta as well. I think it’s interesting to take Bayonetta as a parody, an exaggerated pastiche of the genre. Of course, it doesn’t do any of this INTENTIONALLY since if you take Kamiya’s comments into account, Bayonetta is just his fetish doll and he thinks women are just catty and jealous all the time. Whether intentionally or not, it passes the Bechdel test and merits discussion at least as something different.

    Greeboogg: While I wasn’t a huge fan of the early Tomb Raider games, I’ll rave about how much I loved Tomb Raider: Legend and Anniversary to anyone who will listen. I’m all about the wilderness survival story, whether it’s a kids’ book like Hatchet, or something like Green Arrow or MGS3: Snake Eater. I really hope this reboot turns out okay, but it’s a little unfair to take the highest profile heroine in videogames who doesn’t take shit from anyone… and regress her. It could still work out; like Bayonetta, the game could turn into something different than the gross coddling paternalistic attitudes the executive producer has come out with.

  • OtherSideofSky

    You know, I’ve kind of soured on male gaze theory recently (if I have to read another film paper that stops for a page long digression about how male sexuality is limited and destructive while female sexuality is creative and universal, I’m going to scream), but is there honestly any reasonable defense for the way that shot is framed? Even leaving everything else aside, the direction looks completely incompetent in the context of everything else we’ve seen.

    I could question whether the designers are separating the player from the character in this scene after framing all the gameplay hazards from her perspective displays an unwillingness to put the player in the position of experiencing what our society considers to be exclusively a woman’s problem (that attitude itself is a serious issue, but this isn’t the place to talk about it), but that would be giving them way to much credit. Given the appallingly low standard of direction usual in video game cutscenes (we all know the industry is full of people who wish they were making movies; I think it’s time we acknowledge there’s a very good reason why they aren’t), I think the people making this completely failed to realize that the camera still exists during gameplay and factor that into their decisions, opting instead to frame everything from the most generic possible angle. Even if it isn’t sexist, it is immersion-breaking, and that makes it shitty game design.

    I don’t think the RE5 trailer is an apt comparison. There is a perspective from which that trailer made perfect sense, and the uproar it caused was a result of it being viewed in a cultural context different from the one in which it was created (I certainly never saw the same kind of feeling directed at it on Japanese sites). The people making share our cultural background and this project is far too expensive to justify the level of cinematic incompetence on display here.

  • Spankminister

    OtherSideofSky: Yeah, don’t take this as an implicit approval of every aspect or extension of male gaze theory, it has its own issues, but at its core I think there are insightful things– much like Freudian interpretations sometimes have value, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Before I digress too much, I’ll say I agree with your sentiment, even though I have to read far fewer film papers than you do.

    To your last paragraph, I think the comparison is apt because there is a perspective disconnect between the creators and the audience. The Tomb Raider trailer also has a legitimate context that its creators had in mind; in this case, the uproar is due to it being interpreted outside of a male-centric mindset. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say that there is a male culture that this trailer was created in. Those creators absolutely do not share the cultural background of growing up as a girl who looked up to Lara Croft as one of the few female badasses in video games, and now having to see her de-aged and de-powered (also see Metroid: Other M). They didn’t see the problem any more than a room full of Japanese game developers on RE5 did, right?

  • RevPrince

    Thanks for the great article, I had not seen the new trailer until reading this post. You bring up a lot of good arguments and counter arguments, and have given me a lot to think about.

    To be honest, I doubt that the objectification happening in that screen-cap is intentional… and that’s a bad thing. We see this sort of objectification, assault, and abuse on women from the male perspective ALL the time in movies, TV, games, comics, etc, but it’s so prevalent that people don’t even notice it consciously. They process the subliminal messages without a thought, and I’m sure this scene was “directed” the same way– without any thought, just framing it the same as they’ve seen it a million times everywhere else.

    I’m pretty sure many women viewers accept it just as readily as the men do. I’m female myself, and I’m so accustomed to seeing shots like the one above that it barely registers at first glance. I just accept that as a female it doesn’t matter how strong or courageous we are, women will be fetishized regardless in scenes like the one above.

    There have been a handful of games that have fought against this (Beyond Good and Evil and Portal come to mind right away). And I would love for Tomb Raider to follow in their footsteps. They don’t have to be political about it, just make a couple of small adjustment to things like camera angles and they’ll already be way ahead of the game.

  • Zenga

    Nice article Spankminister, do you have a blog or a site where you frequently publish work? I would like to read more.

  • OtherSideofSky

    Spankminister:
    I can’t agree. The people who made RE5 would have needed to overcome language barriers and do a fair bit of study unrelated to their field of work in order to realize how what they were doing would be perceived. The people who made this would only have had to put some thought into their direction and realize that the camera follows one character during the gameplay, approximating her perspective, and should continue to do so during cutscenes unless there’s a very good reason for it not to. Beyond that, being aware of the discussion taking place in their own language about their own product in the community surrounding the industry in which they work is a lot easier and more reasonable than understanding histories of discrimination and cinematic portrayal of racial minorities on the other side of the globe.

    That said, I am slightly more hopeful after hearing the interviews some of the other people on the development team gave to smaller sites. They seem to be speaking in terms of “identification” rather than “protection” and described a lot of the things that have been getting complaints as part of an initial “toughening up” arc that only takes up a fifth of the games projected ten hour play time. I’m still really worried that they’ll lose the feeling of high-flying adventure that made the older games fun, but the promise of metroidvania elements is enough for me to give it a look when it comes out (besides, not buying it will just send publishers a message to make more games about angry white dudes with short brown hair and no personalities). I just hope the Indiana Jones atmosphere hasn’t been completely wiped out by gritty realism (actually, maybe they should be going for Spriggan, since that didn’t go to shit when it got to the crystal skull story line).

    I don’t want to comment on the actual character changes, partly because I haven’t seen the finished game yet and partly because discussion of female characters in games is already almost as male-dominated as gender studies is the opposite. I don’t want to contribute to drowning out what female gamers have to say on the way these characters are written, especially when half the guys who talk about deny there’s a problem (of course, these are the same people who see nothing wrong with presenting Kratos as a masculine ideal) and the other half seems to have gotten all their ideas from Andrea Dworkin.

    RevPrince:
    Is “fetishized” really the right word here? They’ve certainly put her on the object side of the subject/object relationship, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing.

    Also, wasn’t the original Tomb Raider sort of TRYING to “be political about it”? That’s the impression I got from reading interviews with its creators.

  • EZE

    Wow I can’t believe this is even an issue. Who gives a $hit?

    It’s a damn video game, the place where sexist ideas go to vacation. I honestly can’t even begin to understand the complaints people are throwing at this game. They seem so forced and made to just cause discussions such as this.

  • Spankminister

    RevPrince: Thanks!

    Zenga: So far, this is it. I’ve considered starting a tumblr for comics, other media, etc. though I don’t know if anyone would be interested in it. I’m hoping to do a few more gaming pieces which will get put up here.

    TheOtherSideOfSky: I think you’re saying that it’s not surprising that the RE5 creators didn’t know better, and the TR creators probably should have. Fair enough, but I’m not assigning any level of culpability or negligence to either party. I’m just comparing their result with their intention.

    EZE: The state of video games discussion is so piss poor right now, that attempting to analyze what a video game ends up doing artistically registers as a “complaint,” the sort of thing one might say if load times were too long. Your statement in a nutshell is, “I cannot believe there are people who care about this, and are having a discussion about this thing that I do not care about.” Color me unsurprised. No work, no matter how “base,” how “pop,” or how “commercial” in its construction is above criticism. Analysis isn’t just for “big A Art” that hangs in museums: anything people create is not constructed or experienced in a cultural vacuum. Popular media, even works that are intellectually bankrupt can tell us a lot about its creators, its audience, and the cultural atmosphere that produced it. That is why “it’s a damn video game” as a dismissal is nonsense.

    Also, I don’t think the word “shit” has a dollar sign in it.

  • EZE

    You’re right I don’t care and I’m trying really hard to understand why you guys do?

    People are bitching and trying to start a discussion about the whole tomb raider thing without having played the game! That is absurd! It’s a waste of time and that is why this discussion feels forced.

    So what’s you’re response to that?

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