Great Moments in Game Advertising – Lara Croft And The Sphere of PR Disaster

In games advertising, self-administered wounds are becoming increasingly rare. As the games industry matures, there is at least some sense that what developers say to games journalists reporters is going to go to a wide, mainstream audience, so if something stupid is said a lot of people are going to hear it.

A cute grey kitten

Lara Croft, allegedly as seen by male gamers.

Which is why the ineptitude of Crystial Dynamics in promoting its new Tomb Raider title is staggering. I try not to see intent where incompetence is just as likely an explanation behind something, but, but, STAGGERING.

It all started with an interview between Kotaku and Crystal Dynamics executive producer Ron Rosenberg. Rosenberg said at least two things that raised people’s hackles:

  1. “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.'”
  2. “She literally goes from zero to hero… we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again,” which includes an attempted rape.

My Tomb Raider experience is the original Tomb Raider (completed), Tomb Raider II & III (started, didn’t finish) and Tomb Raider: Legends (completed). At no point have I ever wanted to protect Lara Croft – I’ve wanted to complete her story, beat the puzzles, get to the ending and see what happens (obviously not as much for II & III though). I find it massively patronising to suggest that because I’m playing a female character I want to protect them, where if it were a male character I’d be all, “You go, bro!” or something.

It was the attempted rape point that got a lot of attention. For some, it was horribly lazy (and horribly insensitive) writing, using an attempted rape as a way to show female character growth. For others, the issue was given extra punch since it was happening to Lara Croft – the closest thing mainstream games has to a strong female lead with her own voice and franchise. To break her down, to drag her through the mud just so she can become ‘strong’ again seemed horribly exploitative.

Crystal Dynamics came out two days after the first story, saying that they’d been “misunderstood” and that “while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.” Kotaku went back to their interview transcript and showed the words “try to rape her” had clearly been said. It’s pretty hard to misunderstand such a clear statement and while sexual assault might not be a theme of the new Tomb Raider, it certainly appears to be used as cheap motivation for character ‘development’.

It's a dictionary. Words on paper.

There are many different dictionaries out there that Crystal Dynamics could use to improve their vocabulary, so they know what words mean when they use them.

Roughly two weeks later and it is still a story, so Crystal Dynamics global brand director Karl Stewart had another chat with Kotaku to say that rape is “a word that is not in our vocabulary and not in our communication”. (Which begs the question about why the Executive Producer of the game DID have the word in his and why he thought it was the right word to communicate what happens to Lara.) No, instead of sexual assault it is “close physical intimidation”.  To whit:

And by giving her motivation to become the stronger action-adventure hero and the girl that’s willing to fight to stay alive and move forward throughout the game, we use that device and that intimidation to make her stronger. To make her feel empowered and to take her beyond that breaking point where she realizes the severity of the situation and she’s willing to fight to stay alive.”

So, the not-quite-sexual-assault exists (again) to make Lara Croft stronger. She obviously hadn’t gotten the idea that she was in a dangerous situation (shipwrecked, trapped in a cave, friend murdered by some sort of ritualistic butcher, handcuffed, held prisoner by thugs, beaten, bruised and bloody) up to the point that the man closely physically intimidated her. Right.

Here’s the trailer – I’m pretty sure Lara Croft recognised that there were some problems from about 20 seconds in (and the guy who drags a woman off at knife point while going, “I’ve waited so long” is no doubt only halfway through saying, “I’ve waited so long to bake someone a delicious cheesecake”):

 

But for me one word in Stewart’s comment about it points out that despite all the furor, Crystal Dynamics still doesn’t get the issue.

That word is “girl”. Lara Croft isn’t being viewed as a woman here; she’s a girl in the eyes of Crystal Dynamics, which apparently justifies putting her through hell just to toughen her up. It’s precisely because she’s young and female that she needs to suffer or else her transformation into action hero won’t be believable. She also has to be someone that gamers will care for and will remain sexy and vulnerable despite the abuse.

A cosplayer dressed up as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life.

He’s a lab assistant who travelled through dimensions and kills elite soldiers with barely any training and by himself. Of course he’s believable as a character!

It wouldn’t happen if Lara Croft was male. Nerdy white men can enter hostile situations and pretty much immediately kick much ass (e.g. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, Issac Clarke from Dead Space) and no-one questions it, but for a female character to be relateable in the same situation, we need to see her really earn it.

And that’s really sad, Crystal Dynamics.

(Something of interest: look how this controversy has progressed up the chain of Crystal Dynamics management: executive producer Ron Rosenberg made the initial quote, then the first statement was made by studio head Darrell Gallagher and the most recent by Crystal Dynamics global brand director Karl Stewart. Trouble, much like hot air, rises.)

Is any publicity good publicity? We’ll find out when Tomb Raider goes on sale and players can judge whether Lara Croft’s treatment is appropriate and if Crystal Dynamics were really just unfortunate in the use of their vocabulary.

Reboot Versus Prequel: Word Fight!

Another thing that I haven’t seen commented on is that Crystal Dynamics doesn’t seem to understand what a reboot is.

In the original, pre-reboot lore, Lara Croft survived a plane crash in the Himalayas (either as a 21 year old or as a 9 year old, depending on the game). It was this time of surviving alone in a hostile environment that contributed greatly to her strength as a character.

Crystal Dynamics is jettisoning this lore by rebooting the series, instead having Lara Croft and friends survive a shipwreck on a tropical island. But they want to have their cake and eat it too:

“In making this Tomb Raider origins story our aim was to take Lara Croft on an exploration of what makes her the character she embodies in late Tomb Raider games.”

The box for Tomb Raider II: Golden Mask

Lara Croft was already rebooted once before, so this bit of lore now hasn’t happened twice over.

So what they are saying is that even though they are starting from scratch character lore-wise, you should still see Lara Croft in relation to the old games. But this doesn’t make sense. You can’t throw out all the old lore but still point to it as a reason why we should know everything will turn out alright. In this particular version of the character, none of the other Tomb Raider games could be considered canon – there are no “late” Tomb Raider games for New Lara.

New Lara doesn’t have to be like the Old Lara at all.

If Crystal Dynamics wanted to keep the old lore, they would have needed to make this Tomb Raider a prequel, but they haven’t – it’s a reboot. So they should at least be honest about that, rather than trying to shroud themselves in the protection of titles that they ignored when creating this particular game.

Can Rape / Attempted Rape / Sexual Assault Be Used In A Story?

Yes. But it needs to be handled with some sensitivity, not just as a shortcut for “bad stuff happens” or as an exploitative way to somehow ‘build’ strength in a character.

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