OPINION: Crystal Dynamics embroiled in Tomb Raider ‘rape’ controversy

The maker of the new Tomb Raider has distanced itself from the use of the word ‘rape’ to describe an incident in the new adventure title.

In last week’s E3 trailer for the game, protagonist Lara Croft is forced to endure sexual advances from her captor. When things get physical she fights back.

The scene very much looks like attempted rape, and was even described as so by Crystal Dynamics executive producer Ron Rosenberg in an earlier interview with Kotaku.

What happens is her best friend gets kidnapped, she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island. They try to rape her. She’s literally turned into a cornered animal. And that’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s either forced to fight back or die and that’s what we’re showing today."

This week, however, it’s a different story.

"One of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly been referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene is the content we showed at this year’s E3 and which over a million people have now seen in our recent trailer entitled ‘Crossroads’," Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher said in a statement.

"This is where Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time. In this particular selection, 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."

I can’t help but feelthe change of heart might be related to the recent controversy caused bythe E3 trailer for fellow Square Enix Hitman: Absolution.

In it we see Agent 47 kill a group of sexually provocative leather-clad nuns, who themselves are an assassination team. The short was heavily criticised for its blending of sexual and violent imagery.

The debate about the appropriateness of sexual imagery in both games and their promotional material has emerged as one of the defining themes of E3 and is a tough one for studios to deal with.

It’s right that gratuitous sexual imagery is questioned by a maturing media, but at the same time it would be nave to claim that sexual provocative material should not play any part in video gaming – after all, rightly or wrongly it is an accepted (and sometimes defining) part of most other entertainment media.

The morality of this is a society-spanning argument. And a very valid one. But we must be careful not to demonise any games from this point on that dare to touch on themes of sexuality and violence.

Indeed, in the case of the new Tomb Raider, the imagery portrayed thus far seems justified. Lara Croft – a beautiful lone female adventurer in a foreign environment. Held captive.

Let’s be honest – it seems both contextual and narratively defensible for her to undergo such a tasteless encounter as the one described in the trailer. That does not cease to be the case because rape is abhorrent.

The scenario is certainly a world away from nuns attacking a motel.

Is anything to do with it pleasant? No, absolutely not. And were it pleasant its effectiveness as a narrative tool would be nullified.

But it’s a tricky debate. Do Crystal Dynamics or Square Enix want to be seen to be defending a depiction of rape in a video game? No. Even if it is defensible? The answer is still very much ‘no’. You can already imagine the Daily Mail headlines.

And indeed, you could very well argue that the interactive nature of games means they ARE fundamentally different to other media and DO have to approach such topics differently. Maybe that is true.

And where does that leave us and the medium? For years we have been longing for our developing industry to grow up and deal with bigger, adult issues. The recent moral outrage – though justified in part – could be a backwards step.

UPDATE: In the moments following publication another point occurred to me. The main issue I have always had with Tomb Raider – and in fact a whole host of games – is the fact we are required to identify with a ‘hero’ who so wantonly slaughters all who they encounter.

Some credit should go to Crystal Dynamics, I think, for attempting to contextualise this. The attempted rape on Lara becomes her motivation. It is the first time she kills a human. And she struggles with the implications of her act. In braving the muddy waters of sexual violence CD has, at least, begun to tackle to issue of game violence.

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