I picked up the new Tomb Raider game this evening. I’m only a short way into the game, but it’s unlike everything I’ve ever played. It’s raw. It’s emotional. I don’t know how to describe it, but I want to try. Minor spoiler warning if you haven’t played the game, although the scene I’m going to talk about happens pretty early on.
There’s this thing that’s pretty common in fiction: the cathartic response. I’m not sure if this is a stereotypical male thing or not (probably is), but there’s something in particular that always gets to me; it’s the scene where the female character is in trouble. She’s fallen into the serial killer’s lair or she’s been ambushed or disarmed or she’s been hunted. It doesn’t matter what the genre is or even the medium. The point is that she’s in trouble and the consequences if she doesn’t a)get rescued or b)self-rescue are dire. I watch (or read or play) enduring the increasing tension until the climatic moment arrives and the hero busts in or (more satisfyingly, in my opinion) she turns the tables on the antagonist. Now the creep is the one that’s in trouble.
And always, always no matter the circumstances or the characters or the situation, I’m in the mood for some “avenging angel” type stuff. I want the protagonist to put two rounds into the creep’s head. I want to see the monster suffer for what he has wrought. I feel good when it happens. I feel pleased that justice (or vengeance) has been doled out. Later, I’ll wonder what that says about my own psyche and I’ll fret about some latent bloodthirstiness or whatever, but at the moment? I’m glad.
Bringing things back to Tomb Raider now; there’s a scene very early on where Lara is in, as they say, deep shit. Her hands are bound and she’s scurrying from shadow to shadow trying to stay one step ahead of these monstrous thugs, all of them armed and all of them huge in comparison to her slender frame. And then you get to a moment where she’s hiding, looking away as one guy in particular moves past her, and then the fucker just turns and eyeballs her. Got you, he (probably) says. He’s speaking Russian without subtitles, so I have no idea. Maybe he says something even worse.
I’ve played a lot of games, I know what happens next. Struggle time, right? I’m ready for this; she’ll knee him or something and it’ll be fine. Except that it wasn’t fine. I missed a crucial moment, didn’t react quickly enough and he chokes her to death. And it’s horrible. It’s horrible enough that when I reload and try again, I fumble even though I know it’s coming. And again, he chokes her to death.
It takes me six tries. On the fifth try, I pull off the proper command and she knees him in the groin and he staggers away. I’m so enthused by this that I miss the follow-up; he grabs her again and chokes her to death anyway.
On the seventh try, I’m ready. I’m pumped. I’m ready to pull this shit off because I want to kill this asshole. I’ve watched him choke the life out of Lara six times now. Each time he laughs and my screen goes black, I’m that much more involved. I can’t wait to get this right and visit some virtual bullet vengeance upon this fucker.
Seventh try: I pull it off. Both commands are executed flawlessly; Lara knees the guy (twice) and gets the gun away from him. Then there’s the struggle for the gun and Lara tries to push the gun towards him. And then bang. The gun goes off. The top of the guy’s head explodes. He slumps to the ground, gurgling and twitching. Lara is covered in blood that isn’t hers, but damn it, she’s alive and he’s dead. The helpless damsel isn’t. Nine millimeters of justice has been visited upon the deserving. I expect to feel that moment of rightful vengeance and satisfaction.
I don’t feel that.
I’m not glad about any of this. I’m sad that this happened. I’m emotionally wrecked. I’m watching as Lara breaks down, because this early in the game, this is the first human she’s ever killed. This is the death of her innocence. This is the moment when the game goes from “Woman vs. Wild” to “Woman vs. Evil.” This isn’t the glamorous violence so common in fiction. This isn’t sexy or exciting or satisfying. It’s ugly and it’s brutal and it’s awful. Most of all it feels real.
I’m not prepared for how realistic my own reaction is; numb, horrified, relieved, saddened. I don’t feel glad about any of this. I just want to keep going, keep moving.
As Lara pulls herself back together and moves on, I find myself contemplating the entire experience. I’ve played a lot of video games and consumed a lot of fiction. I believe in the power of stories. I thought I’d seen it all but somehow, this feels different.
It feels important. It feels powerful.
I don’t know what it all means. I just know that I had to share it with somebody.