I recently had the chance to review the new Tomb Raider game, a title I put roughly four hours of play into before penning the article because that's what happens when you get it the day before release. The game was steeped in controversy over a brief scene where a member of the Sun Cult who has been stalking and killing people who land on the island briefly feels up Lara Croft while whispering extremely rape-y lines, and strangles her to death if you fail to input the correct action triggers. If you do succeed, you shoot your attacker in the head with his own gun.
The game is extremely brutal and intense, and I considered its execution to be more along the lines of a torture porn film than a traditional action-adventure outing. I stick by those words, but I've had a chance to play it a lot more over the course of the last week and think some more commentary needs to be made. Yes, Croft's ordeal over the course of the game is still frighteningly realistic in its portrayal of her being pursued and assaulted by an endless string of violent men, but the manner in which she overcomes it speaks loads about how the depiction of women has changed in gaming.
Let's look back to my favorite game of all time, 1994's Final Fantasy VI.
It can be argued that VI has no true main character and is instead an ensemble cast piece where everyone is equal. If that's true, then it would rob the game of its status as the first Final Fantasy title to feature a female lead. Terra Branford, the half-human, half-esper who represented the game in Dissidia, is usually considered the main character, but the problem is that she becomes completely optional in the second half of the game. Her spotlight is ceded to Celes Chere, the former imperial general, and it's Celes that we need to talk about.
The scene above is from the original SNES release, and was omitted from the Game Boy Advance rerelease in 2007. In it, Celes, who has betrayed the Gestahlian Empire, is chained up in a basement in South Figaro. There, two soldiers merciless beat her until she collapses.
Now, at no time is this treated explicitly as a rape, but type "celes rape scene" into Google image search and a screen shot of the video is the first thing to come up. That's nothing compared to some images you find of this scene done up by Internet artists indulging in Rule 34. I would argue that the idea that the two men have injured and humiliated Celes in every way possible is heavily implied from the cruel, bullying tone of the guards. The military setting certainly adds to the scene. Thirty percent of women in the American armed forces have experienced rape or sexual assault by fellow soldiers.
Celes is freed. Not by her own prowess as a rune knight, but by having her shackles picked by the thief Locke Cole. Locke had also previously rescued Terra, who had been put under the control of the empire through the use of a slave crown that robbed her of all resistance. A pattern emerges.
Arguably, Terra and Celes are the most powerful characters in the game even aside from their status as lead protagonists. Both have the best all-around stats, both are the only characters that learn magic naturally, and both have access to the most powerful weapons and armor. Yet both are constantly bound and dominated by men, dependent on them for their salvation at every turn. Terra is ultimately defined by her status as an adoptive mother, not as a warrior, and Celes becomes little more than the romantic prize for Locke after he finally overcomes the death of his fiancée at the hands of the Empire.
Anita Sarkeesian recently released the first of her highly anticipated and controversial videos about the role of women in video games. The first video is Damsel in Distress, and it deals with the idea that women in gaming from the '80s and '90s were forever seen as nothing more than plot points in a male hero's personal story arc. At least one detractor has claimed that she utterly fails to take into account Japanese attitudes toward women (games at this point were almost exclusively made for Japanese gamers, then ported to America). That may be the case, but it's impossible to deny the overall gender message of a game like Final Fantasy VI.
Women, no matter how powerful and capable -- in fact, especially if they are -- still must be rescued from an enemy that will savagely use them. They cannot and will not rescue themselves.
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This brings us back to Lara Croft. Even though the nightmare she is put through as she is stabbed, kidnapped, bound and shot at is sadistically as real as Celes being beaten in a basement, she represents progress. Croft saves herself, time and time again, and the game delivers on its promise to show how she became a survivor. No man swoops in and makes it all okay.
In fact, a coworker with an unrequited crush tries to do exactly that with disastrous results. The only real aid she ever receives from a man is from her father figure Roth, a grizzled old soldier and friend of her dad's who picks off guards with a sniper rifle during a death-defying traverse Croft makes under a rickety bridge.
Tomb Raider disturbed me greatly at first because it is such a terribly immersive game that I honestly felt a tiny inkling of what a woman must feel in real life where rape lately seems to lurk around every corner. I have a feeling that it will disturb a potential rapist even more, though, as it shows a woman who refuses to be a victim. If Lara Croft had been where Celes was almost 20 years ago, she wouldn't have waited for Locke to appear. She would have set her cell on fire if she had to in order to escape the men who would make her their possession...and buried a modified climbing axe in their skulls.
Shocking? Yes. Progress? Oh, most definitely.