Monday, March 4, 2013

Adi Tantimedh Comments on the New Tomb Raider Game

Read it here. Then come back.

You can't call it a review, because, by his own admission, he hasn't played the game, yet. Mainly it's a collection off impressions and thoughts from reading other reviews, and various marketing materials. I admire Adi greatly, enjoy his writing, but this piece has a big problem. The problem is that it seems to want to apply a different set of criticisms and rules to this game, because it features a female protagonist. Elements that would either be commonplace, or considered strengths, in a male-centered game, are questioned, just because this game is centered on the female Laura Croft.

For the record, I'm excited about the new game. I've been a Laura Croft fan for many years. Yes, I have to admit, the attractiveness of the character was an initial draw, I am a red-blooded, heterosexual, American male, but I wouldn't have stuck around if the games weren't good. Ultimately, being a life-long Indiana Jones fan, it's the adventure tropes that Laura trades in that keep me coming back. I really like playing third-person games where the main character runs, jumps, and fights through ancient ruins. I love the Indiana Jones games, proper, for the same reason, and I'd probably love Nathan Drake in the Uncharted franchise, too. If I had a Playstation.

First off...I have not played the game. Part of Adi's issue seems to be that Laura Croft endures far more physical punishment and "torture" than any male video game hero ever would. Maybe Laura does endure torture, but the description Adi offers doesn't really seem to be "torture," but "damage." To wit:
Lara Croft suffers enough injuries in the first 20 minutes of the story alone to put a real life person out of action for weeks with PTSD. She should not be able to run or jump after getting a spike through her side, even if it missed an artery or major organ. A twisted ankle would not have let her run or jump minutes later.
He points out how unrealistic it is that Laura could function as she does in the rest of the game with these injuries. So what? I mean, every action adventure movie I see has characters (male and female) shrugging off wounds that would incapacitate a real person for at least weeks. Hell, I just re-watched Skyfall last night and Bond is shot, falls off a bridge, and not only lives, but seemingly does so without medical aid (which I base on the fact that he digs bullet fragments out of his chest later on in the film).

Then there's this:
It takes Lara Croft over an hour of the game, where she’s bloodily impaled, repeatedly assaulted, brutalised and defenestrated before she becomes a relentless killing machine. No male hero in a movie or video game gets put through the wringer as much as she does in this game. 
Really? None? Not one ever? Not only do I think that's unsupportable hyperbole, I think it's probably an outright lie. I MAY BE WRONG, as I have not played the game, yet, and I don't presume to judge it before I do. That said, I have a hard time believing that what Tantimedh wrote there isn't simply yellow journalism. I mean, it's an action adventure video game, isn't the whole point that your character (male or female), not just repeatedly, but constantly being assaulted and brutalized?

I mean part of my love for the Tomb Raider franchise was that, outside of her appearance, Laura's sex was pretty much irrelevant. She was just as capable, intelligent, and strong as any man. She overcame all obstacles, same as any male central character. Just as Adi describes her:
The Lara Croft of the old games had no anxiety at all. In fact, she was so posh and unflappable that she was afraid of nothing. She had no fears, no doubts, no remorse, no hesitation in doing anything. Even in the two movies with Angelina Jolie, you never got the sense that she was ever in any danger. This was great for introducing an empowering fantasy to girls...
Of course it was, but then he takes issue with the idea that the new game makes Laura a bit more, well, human...
The new Lara Croft, on the other hand, is beset with fears and anxiety. If you want to be meta, you could say the old games are fantasies, games that the current Lara Croft reluctantly agreed to lease her name to in order to earn some money to pay off debts, lawyer’s fees and medical bills incurred from her ordeal on the island in the new game.
I fail to see how introducing some human failings and fears, which she has to overcome for victory, into this character is weakening her. Which Tantimedh never outright says, but certainly infers. If the cast-iron, unstoppable Laura Croft was a good role model, couldn't a Laura who acknowledges fear and uncertainty, yet still moves forward, still survives, be equally inspiring, maybe even more so? It's like Rambo vs. Indiana Jones. I wanted to be Indy Jones as a kid. I didn't want to be Rambo. I bonded more closely to Indy, and saw more of myself in him, because Harrison Ford allowed him to be fearful, and then still fight through to victory. It the fear, the human emotion, that allows us to see ourselves in any character.

Plus, who the heck wants to play a game where, to paraphrase Tantimedh, you play with the sense that your avatar is never in any danger?

Then there's this:
In the old games, when you failed and she died, Lara Croft would just lie down like she decided to take a nap right there, even in molten lava, with a disappointed sigh that sounds like she just remembered she left the lights on when she left the house. Now the death animations have the feel of full-on 80s Italian horror movie deaths in all their gruesomeness. They’re truly horrible to watch. We’re talking almost Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci levels of nastiness here.
While I agree with Adi that video games have gone over the pale of good taste when it comes to appeasing the bloodthirstiness of the average gamer, I can't imagine that the death scenes are nearly as horrifying as he implies. It is a problem, going back to Mortal Kombat, but it's also hardly reserved for female protagonists. It seems every game, no matter if they feature a male or female hero, goes to great lengths to make a failure on the players part hurt. Usually with a much gore as can be amassed.

I should point out, again, I have no played the game, yet. Perhaps Mr. Tantimedh is correct. Perhaps the death animation are as truly horrifying as he claims. If so, I won't be playing the game long.

Then there's this:
What I’ve seen of the game has done its best to avoid sexism but it’s almost impossible to prevent the Male Gaze from intruding, especially when players spend the whole game close up behind and with a full view of her bum whole she moans and groans more than most pr0n videos do. For every Lara Croft fan who celebrates her strength and heroism, there are a lot of creepy dudes who fantasise about seeing her suffering and “getting her comeuppance”. She has been a symbol for both female empowerment and male resentment for as long as her games have been around.
 I agree with Adi in a lot of ways on this, but, listen, he's set up a situation here where game developer Crystal Dynamics cannot win, ever. Virtually every pop culture medium presents their leads in the most attractive way possible, particularly games, where the character is an alternate version of yourself.

Most people, when crafting a wish-fulfillment avatar, like to portray themselves as attractive. I rarely played Dungeons and Dragons with people who specifically set out to create unattractive characters. The Uncharted series Nathan Drake might as well be a male model. The Mass Effect games allows players to choose a male or female avatar, and, while you have a lot of leeway with their appearance, the result is generally attractive, either way. Only HALO, with it's faceless, robotic, Master Chief, really avoids the whole issue.

Yes, there are creepy scumbags out there who will take any physically attractive female celebrity or character and turn her into a object of lurid, violent S&M fantasy. However, I no more blame Crystal Dynamics for that than I blame Jennifer Lawrence that you can find faked porn pictures of her on the internet.

I also feel it's weird that Adi's reaction to a third-person camera game is to fixate on the character's ass. Third-person gaming is actually my favorite format, just because I like the mechanics of it, and I rarely find myself thinking of it in a sexual way. I guess maybe I'm not wired that way, and I refuse to be forced to re-asses something I enjoy because somebody else can't keep his (or her) mind above the waist.

Ultimately, I'm a guy who loves good stories. I honestly don't care if the hero is male or female, but rather if their journey is compelling. I think what bothers me the most about what Tantimedh has written is that it seems to position itself toward the idea that it we have to question, because somebody, somewhere, might be aroused by it, placing a female protagonist in a violent storyline. Personally, I found Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games books a vastly more interesting central character than Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling's series. I think that's in part due to the fact that Collins allowed the violence to be violent, scarring, and to have repercussions on Katniss' psyche.

My point there is that Collins' held her characters accountable for the genre they were existing within, that of the action-adventure. I fully and truly believe that female characters can function in any story, but that cannot be license for critics to question the tropes of those genres. Laura Croft endures pain, danger and vile antagonists because she is the hero of an action adventure story, and what's good for the gander is good for the goose.

So there you have my reactions, as a guy who hasn't played the game, to Adi Tantimedh's, a guy who hasn't played the game. Your mileage may vary.

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