OPINION: Crystal Dynamics deserves an apology from gamers for hasty Tomb Raider ‘controversy’

Crystal Dynamics deserves an apology from any person who even nodded toward the rape controversy surrounding the now-released Tomb Raider reboot. That also means a personally addressed card to Rob Rosenburg, the executive producer who was defamed over his honest comments and feelings toward the project and its main character, Lara Croft. Wait, what’s that? No one’s talking about this anymore? Could it be because the game turned out to be not only impeccable, but also one of the most respectful and well-imagined takes on a video game heroine the industry has yet seen? Oh, how I’d love to see Lara rub mud in the faces of all those crabby critics, but it seems they’ve already shot themselves in the collective foot by railing against a game for being sexist, only to find that it’s quite the opposite.

For those behind the curve of the whole debacle, which I’m rather hesitant to even bring up again, the Tomb Raider reboot was basically ripped apart by the media back in March 2012 when developer interviews got onto the sensitive topic of rape. A particular scene of physical intimidation–as Rosenburg would have to aptly rename it for the politically squeamish–was to play a role in the development of the new Lara Croft, the girl serving as a forebear to the bombastic, buxom, dual-handgun-carrying caricature of the series. This franchise, which once thrived off what many would call a polygonal sex symbol, was now transformed into a premise for a panicked, vulnerable female on an island of crazy, cultist men. If the setup wasn’t already flammable enough, what fanned the real uproar was that the defense sequence against attempted rape would serve as a learning experience for Lara.

Indeed, prior to release, Tomb Raider was displaying more red flags than the Beijing 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, or at least to the accusational eye, it was. Sexist tropes in video games are undeniably rampant, and rape as a tool to build women into warriors is just one of many. Anyone can point out the disparity in how many female characters get poor treatment compared to their male counterparts, and such trends are certainly important to raise awareness of. By analyzing patterns in the entertainment industry, we can better understand the often oppressive undertones of our own societies. These sorts of things aren’t difficult to spot. That’s not to belittle the magnitude of the issues women face, no, but it does put into perspective just how little thought is required to convince yourself into a strong stance on the subject.

Thus, when Kotaku stirred the hive with its overplayed coverage, it wasn’t long before other journalists and a large–or at least very vocal –reaction from the gaming community took place. Here was a flock of mechanical sheep programmed to regurgitate the words “sexist” and “offensive” as soon as a drip of controversy oiled those barely churning, rusty gears they call brains. In a response written by blogger Debbie Timmins, she explains the reason behind the anger clearly: “The objection is to the use of rape/attempted rape/sexual assault as a transformative device." Apparently, game developers shouldn’t include rape as an obstacle for female characters. Period. Most frightening about that proposition is how many people were so easily inclined to agree with it. A large number of gamers were fully prepared to not only condemn a team of developers before giving their product a chance, but to then have the gall to say what they could or couldn’t put into their games.

And that would be a fair criticism if a rape scene was the only form of adversity that Lara Croft faced on that island. It would be a fair criticism if, after fending off her assailant, she instantly became cocky, confident, and heroic. But anyone who is now playing the game knows that is not the case, that these accusations couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sexual assault is not a rite of passage in Tomb Raider, it’s one of many parts in the construction of a very human character–human, not a symbol for an entire gender. The new Lara does not exist to speak for women, she is her own individual, and a damn inspirational one at that. In my book, she and her climbing pickaxe are right up there with Gordon Freeman and his crowbar.

But pointing to trends as evidence of society’s sexist leanings isn’t the fallacy here; people should be doing that more often, if anything. It’s in taking an individual work and demonizing it as a sole proprietor of that sexism that crosses a very critical line in this conversation. Because it wasn’t people complaining about how the game handled the actual scene; they obviously couldn’t since it wouldn’t be on store shelves until a full year later. The outrage was that Crystal Dynamics would even incorporate the subject into its game–that they would even think to use it. By unjust default, it labeled Tomb Raider as an encouragement for the victimization of women, painting what is a very dark, mentally scarring crime as something positive.

The reason such story devices are looked down upon is because they are templates that weak writers most often resort to. Similarly, game designers who force women into skimpy outfits and use them as helpless damsels in distress typically don’t make very good works of fiction. As a result, people become all too comfortable in dismissing creative products based on that likelihood alone. But then the question must be asked: Is there anything inherently wrong with these devices in their own individual contexts? If I wrote a novel tomorrow that featured a weak female lead who happened to be rescued by a male’s presence, would that inherently be distasteful? If so, then by this logic we should eliminate the mere possibility of having weak female roles in our stories. We should completely wipe it off the table as an option for writers in fear of propagating sexism.

Defining women by what they can or cannot be? That doesn’t sit right with me, sorry.

Which is why Tomb Raider is such a perfect counterargument to this sort of extremist reasoning. It’s a game that used a plot element many deemed as offensive and proved that it could handle the character’s reaction to it in a respectful manner. No writer, filmmaker, or game designer should ever have their imaginations limited because other artists failed to handle certain ideas properly in the past. There are a lot of awful, vulgar, and shallow depictions of women in situations of sexual assault, but Tomb Raider isn’t one of them, nor should anyone have assumed it would be based on no context at all. To dismiss an entire game for a single scene is to dismiss games like Shadow of the Colossus and ICO because they both feature a male hero saving a helpless girl. Even though nothing about them is deliberately sexist or meant to be viewed as such, people would group these masterpieces in with all the other trash that do nothing but pander towards men.

It’s a shame that I have to clarify some things before a stampede of women-haters and anti-feminists make their way over here to cheer me on as if I’d agree with them. There is no problem with the feminist position. This is about people who claim that label as something it’s not, who would take such a passionate and progressive movement and use it in the name of fire-starting and sensationalism. There are some very talented game designers out there who are attempting to dig this hobby out of the childish stigma it was born into, and it’s sickening that Crystal Dynamics had to be ostracized over expanding this medium into more mature territory.

But maybe a written apology is over the top. After all, I should thank the overreaction, since it was through that hellstorm that I became interested in the new vision of Lara Croft in the first place. While many people saw an overt offense, I saw a team trying to make a more human adventure, trying to bring some respect back to what once was an iconic series. Could it all have failed and turned out as pathetic as people accused it of? Absolutely. Should you make that conclusion before playing it? No, and anyone who thinks they are supporting the side of feminism by doing so are a disgrace to the real activists of that movement, an embarrassment to the gaming community, and an active danger to artistic freedom.