Acceptable Vulnerability in Game Protagonists

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post by Dave Riley – (twitter)(tumblr)(web)

2013’s Tomb Raider reboot draws aesthetic inspiration from The Descent, a horror movie about a group of women who are hardcore outdoors enthusiasts on a spelunking trip gone wrong. Both have caves, climbing axes, and scattered piles of bloody bones, both have scenes where the long-suffering protagonist emerges from a pool of viscera, her hair and face soaked with blood. But more than any of these things, Tomb Raider emulates the movie’s battered-and-bruised physicality. In one of The Descent’s most memorable moments, long before the monsters show up, a character makes an agonizing, enervating climb across a cave ceiling above a chasm. The crossing takes her a full two minutes, the whole time her face scrunched, her body wrenched, and the cave walls echoing her agonized breathing.

The sequence is taut, rife with tension, much more so than any of the moments with the movie’s antagonists, a ludicrous race of blind, cannibalistic Gollums. The Descent presents climbing as something strenuous, something that requires a great deal of strength, concentration, and skill. A stark contrast to any given video game protagonist, who would swing across the same ceiling without effort. Uncharted, for example, uses its climbing as in-between time, breather moments where Nathan Drake shuffles across ledges and leaps over chasms while mulling over ancient puzzle devices or shooting the breeze with his companions. By the third Uncharted he is effortlessly hanging off of the side of a rotting ship, spitting out glib witticisms while he effortlessly uses rusted ventilation ducts as cover during a vertical gunfight.

Which is not to say Lara Croft’s acrobatics are more realistic than Nathan Drake’s—it seems we’re not ready for an action game protagonist who’s anything less than superhuman—but Tomb Raider pulls a subterfuge by giving Lara the appearance of actually breaking a sweat, even though she’s still performing feats that would wow any Ninja Warrior contestant. If a ledge is just slightly out of reach, Lara scuffles her boots against the wall, lunging upwards like a scrambling animal. When she leaps across a gorge and sinks her climbing axe into a rock face her whole body jerks with the force; she, for a second, loses control. Just like Drake, she never fails a jump unless the plot calls for it, but her body language suggests that climbing requires effort, that she is exerting herself, and that this exertion is painful, difficult, and sometimes even dangerous.

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2013’s Lara Croft does not move like a Cover Shooter protagonist, and the game’s terminology and mechanics reinforce this. While her contemporaries have evasive maneuvers that suggest godlike athleticism or proficiency, Lara’s dodge is not a roll, but a “scramble.” Later she unlocks the ability to chuck a handful of dirt in her opponent’s eyes or sink her climbing axe into their leg. These moves are performed with weight, but it’s a different weight than is given to male protagonists. Marcus Fenix tucks and rolls with velocity of a cannonball, and slams into cover like he’s buttressing a splintering dam. Lara’s quick clambering across hard ground rings with anxiety and a lack of precision. Her improvisational counterattacks aren’t skillful flourishes, but desperate moves made in the heat of the moment.

Partway through the game Lara suffers a moment a peak vulnerability, a time when she can do nothing but walk and suffer her damage, similar to Nathan Drake’s bullet wound in Uncharted 2 or Old Snake’s crawl down a deadly microwave hallway in Metal Gear Solid 4. But videogame protagonists are indefatigable. Uncharted 2 suggests Drake is critically wounded, but he seems to have no problem climbing up a ruined train teetering over a bottomless gorge in the middle of a blizzard. Old Snake, who appears to be in his late 50s or even 60s, emerges from the microwave tunnel with several raw-looking burns, but is still able to participate in a (limping) gun battle against a legion of mechanized robots and a climactic seaside fistfight against his nemesis.

Lara displays the same preposterous durability as any other game protagonist—her water sliding, rebar dodging, and impromptu parachuting through a pine forest only leaves her with a stride-slowing stomach wound, after all—but unlike her peers, her wounds completely divest her of her agility. Each time she tries to climb an obstacle the screen blurs, its colors desaturate, and she emits a pained grunt before chiding herself for even attempting the maneuver. Urging herself on with half-believed words of encouragement, Lara must find a safe place and perform first aid before she recovers her mobility and strength.

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This is one of the few admissions across a broad swathe of action game genres that human beings might have limits, that real people can’t wait behind cover until the strawberry jam sweeps away from the camera lens. Video games do not need exacting realism, an hours-long sequence of guiding Adam Jensen through painstaking physical therapy before the cyborg blade arms come out wouldn’t improve Deus Ex, but even short moments of weakness can have a profound effect on the perception of a character’s humanity. Tomb Raider doesn’t force its player to spend an eternity stumbling forward and bleeding out, it’s ten minutes of limping in a ten hour game. Lara cauterizes her wound with a superheated arrowhead (gaining a weapon upgrade in the process) and the shooting and dodging resumes, but this brief reminder of human fragility gives the player tacit permission to think of Lara as something other than a gun-toting juggernaut, to think of her as a person who can actually be hurt.

Viewed across a pantheon of climbing, shooting, cover-taking heroes, whose weaknesses and inabilities exist only inside cutscenes (if even then), the major difference seems to be that Lara is a woman. Or, maybe more accurately: she’s not a man. Video games, along with much of popular media, reflect a traditional notion of masculinity. They most often require men to be largely unfeeling, constructing emotional sensitivity as feminine weakness. In Gears of War 2, Dom makes the wordless decision to mercy kill his wife, Maria, after Marcus sets a hand on his shoulder and says, simply, “It’s okay.” This is what passes for sensitivity between men, to say nothing of Maria’s choice in the matter, and that single cutscene is practically the limit of the emotional weight Dom devotes to his now-dead wife; ten minutes later he is back to headshotting Locusts with the best of them. During Arkham City, Batman’s response to a fatal poison coursing through his system is borderline indifference. It seems, at these times, the only way we’ll accept a character as strong is if they’re also fearless, decisive, and uncaring. In terms of action heroes, if you aren’t Batman you aren’t anyone.

Male heroes generally respond to adverse situations with anger or rage, while more vulnerable expressions of frustration—anxiety or fear—are primarily used for comic relief, like in the case of Nathan Drake or Gears of War’s Baird. Prone to sarcastic comments and complaints, Baird is coded as weaker than the game’s other characters despite being a similarly mountain-sized pile of muscle. Action game protagonists are not only superhuman, but inhuman, divesting themselves of both physical pains and emotional ones, whatever it takes to complete the mission. In an essay for Gamasutra, Mata Haggis detailed how Far Cry 3 tried to question the role of hyper-masculinity in games, but it did so by replicating the exact tropes it was criticizing, resulting in a satire functionally indistinguishable from its targets of ridicule.1

Our definition of masculinity is so narrow the norm looks like Hercules. The hero we regard as an “everyman,” Nathan Drake, wisecracks about his bullet-shot gut while he performs the same impossible, death-defying jumps his unwounded self is capable of, barely slowed down at all. When Tomb Raider says Lara is seriously wounded, it reifies this by removing some of her abilities. When the game says she is hurt, it shows she is hurt.

Lara’s unique ability to overtly display her hurt is frustrating because it seems to suggest that the only way we can have a character who is truly vulnerable is if we make her a woman, but it is no less interesting because of this. Even if the cause for Lara’s outward suffering is rooted in gender essentialism—women have feelings and vulnerabilities, men are unmovable strong things—it makes her a fundamentally more relatable character. The times when she is fragile throw the times when she is strong into relief. We are willing to invest more in her because we identify more with her struggle. We gain a different sort of respect for Lara in these moments than we do for Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake, because her vulnerability is not an instantaneous play for empathy accomplished mostly in cutscene, but a protracted sequence where the player must wind Lara through difficult terrain while she acts as if her wounds are actually an impediment instead of fuel for further one-liners or a stopover between shouts of “Scratch one grub!”

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So we have an axis where it is very difficult to for men to show vulnerability, but natural for them to be killers—Marcus Fenix does not need a traumatic origin story to explain why he’s so good at murder, he just is. Conversely, it is not only acceptable, but somehow natural for female protagonists to be put in positions of total vulnerability, even if these characters are widely considered strong or even indomitable. Take interstellar bounty hunter Samus Aran’s portrayal in Metroid: Other M. After 10+ games of being the best alien killer in the galaxy, she willingly sacrifices the use of her weaponry for no reason other than father figure wants her to, going so far as to patiently suffer immolation in super-heated lava until he permits her to activate her armor’s lava proofing.

It’s impossible to convey meaningful growth without periods of vulnerability. Marcus Fenix is broken out of prison, thrown a gun, and immediately sets to killing. He is killing that exact same way eight hours later when the game ends, and he’s never stumbled, not even once, not until the third game, where he sits sullen-faced on a beach after demolishing the game’s final boss, a laser-spitting giant beetle. Gear of War 3’s plea for introspection is way too much, way too late. The series begs you to take its characters seriously as it goes on, but the way it’s drawn them: cartoon men with gruff voices, barrel torsos, and stubby limbs—angry teddy bears in armor—it’s difficult to do so. They are, to a man, emotionally stunted murder machines. That’s how they start Gears of War 1, and that’s how they finish Gears of War 3, some feeble grasps at daddy issues and wife euthanasia being the story’s sole attempts at pathos.

Lara Croft starts her game unsure of herself, hunkered beneath an outcrop in the rain, begging for her mentor to come rescue her. Only a few hours later she downs her first mini-boss, a hulk in body armor with a machete as big as her torso. The remaining bandits, aghast, shout, “Oh shit, she’s still alive!” to which the fledgling, but rapidly-becoming-murderous Lara replies, without hesitation or grief, “Yes, still alive!” Moments of vulnerability give contrast to moments of strength. The Lara who ends Tomb Raider is definitively different than the Lara who began it. A too-short scene of her reunited with her crew towards the end of the game shows how far her suffering has advanced her in a very short time: she no longer has anything in common with these people, even the bravest of them. She is something else entirely.

Tomb Raider certainly isn’t interested in challenging game protagonists’ superhuman capabilities—it remains a “fun” game. In most ways it is a traditional big-budget title: its dialogue is hacky summer blockbuster stuff, its path is mostly linear and unvaried, and its gunplay is without innovation. This is a game that stands next to Call of Duty more than it does Shadow of the Colossus, or even Resident Evil 4.

However, not all advancements in video games involve branching paths or complicated gun upgrades. Tomb Raider is a small step in addressing gaming’s need for broader range of emotion and characterization regardless of gender. It takes a character known for her glib witticisms and T-Rex battles and shows her at a time when she might stumble, once or twice, when she might actually get upset about something, cry about something. How many heroes cry in video games, outside of the labored calls for emotional response found in something like Heavy Rain? Lara doubts herself. It’s only for a second, but a second of doubt is more than most video game heroes tend to grant us. We’ve seen Lara at her lowest moments, so we place value on the times when she overcomes.

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Right before its credits roll Tomb Raider, Triple-A Game to an absolute fault, plasters the words “A SURVIVOR IS BORN” in big bold text across the screen, so terrified we might’ve missed the message that it says it outright. It’s a disappointing lack of confidence completely in tune with the game’s mostly-hammy dialogue and pretty-cliched plot, but it’s a disappointing coda to a game whose characterization, mechanics, and animations are replete with subtle objections to the status quo.

Footnotes

1. ‘Straight-faced satire’ and gender in video games: hyper-masculinity in Far Cry 3 and the wider games industry by Mata Haggis