More About Tombs And The Raiding Thereof

Still working my way through the new Tomb Raider. Actually, that’s not an accurate description; it would be more apt to say that I am savoring my way through this game. I’m taking it slowly, playing only a few hours each day. This is not because the game does not hold my interest and is in every way analogous to not wanting to finish your favorite book, because then the story is over. I’ve never had this happen to me before.

Usually, when a game hooks me, I’m in a rush to play it, to get through it, to just immerse myself in it the way a more sane person might take an immersion bath or something. Otherwise, the game is enjoyable but not all-consuming, and so I take my time with the game at a leisurely pace unaffected by overwhelming affection. Or I take my time because the game is fucking Skyrim and you can play every day for six months and still have things to do. Ahem.

Tomb Raider has created a new paradigm; a game so engaging that I’m forcing myself to not play it to draw out the experience. The other thing that’s very interesting to me about this game is the level of identification I’m feeling towards this incarnation of Lara Croft. There are a few reasons why this is cause for reflection.

I make no secret about the fact that, when given a choice, I tend to play female characters more often than male characters. Although this is not a universal tendency, if you would look back at my recent playing list, it would look something like this:

  • Fable III: Female Character (you don’t really get to specify your character more than that)
  • Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: Female Dark Elf Archmage
  • Skyrim: Male Dark Elf Archmage
  • Mass Effect 3: Male Commander Shepard (this was a continuation of the saved character I began back in Mass Effect 1 when it was released in 2007).
  • Dragon Age 2: Female Mage Hawke
  • Divinity 2: Female Dragon Knight
  • World of WarCraft: Female Blood Elf Paladin, Female Night Elf Druid, Female Night Elf Priest, Female Draenei Hunter, Male Undead Warlock

Looking at that list is personally revealing in several other ways as well, namely that I also tend to like dark elves and mages of one sort or another.

Anyway, you get the idea. Skyrim is really the only game where I never had a female character, not counting Mass Effect 3, which imported your earlier save game. Otherwise, I tend to create female protagonists when given the option. This tendency extends outside of games, as well: the protagonists for both of the novels I’m working on at the moment are female as well. My superficial theory is that this has something to do with the fact that most protagonists are male anyway, so this is my small effort towards balancing things out.

However, I’ve never really taken the time to perform an in-depth psychoanalysis of why I do this. I know that the stereotyped answer for a man playing a woman in a game is the tired “if I’m going to stare at a butt for twenty hours, I want it to be a nice butt.” That one is so tired, I think it’s actually deceased. It was a product of its time, back when most players (for better or worse) assumed that you played a character that matched your real-life gender. Anybody that did otherwise was an aberration in the nascent online gaming culture.

I don’t think it’s about titillation via pixels at this point.  I had to go digging for it, but I think this post from Tycho of Penny Arcade really sum up my own feelings about why a male player would prefer a female character:

I’ve made it pretty clear that I tend to play women in Bioware games . . . It reminds me of when I first saw Samus Aran’s face in Metroid: Prime, my face, flashed inside the visor, saw my eyes, which were her eyes, blinking at the brightness.  These are truly alien experiences for me, and I’m exposed to them and enriched by them because I didn’t have to fill out some questionnaire before playing the game to make it aware of my sacred boundaries.

Now, here’s why I’m particular interested in my personal reactions towards inhabiting the character of Lara Croft. For one thing, she’s a gaming icon; up there in the ranks of the Video Game Pantheon with Mario, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, etc. She’s not my character in the same sense that I customized and personalized the various characters in the games I listed above. Usually, I don’t forge the same connection if I haven’t been able to define the character in some way; I loved Halo 4, but I never really felt like I “was” the Master Chief, merely that I was along for the ride.

Consider this remark made by Ron Rosenberg, executive producer for the new Tomb Raider:

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

“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.'”

That comment sparked a lot of discussion about the nature of gender roles in gaming, a discussion that really needs to keep happening, but that’s not the point I’m getting at here. The point is that I went into Tomb Raider fully expecting to feel the way Rosenberg explained I would feel: that I wouldn’t really be projecting myself into the character, I’d be trying to protect her, etc. And indeed, if you look at my previous post, I definitely thought I was going to have that “protective” vibe going on.

But as I actually started working my way through the game? I didn’t want to protect Lara, because I saw her as myself. I became her. I stepped into her role and her perspective and subsumed myself in her character. Her fears were my fears. The interesting thing about this immersion was that it wasn’t simply “oh, there’s me, but now I’m a hot chick with a bow and I’m fighting for my life.” It’s not simply an aesthetic thing; if it had been, we’d still be back at the “looking at hot butts” mentality.

Male privilege is one of those things we (males) don’t like to talk about. In fact, my particular demographic (middle class straight white male) doesn’t like to talk about the p-word at all. Confronted by the word privilege, it seems we are destined to retreat from it like a vampire exposed to sunlight, misconstrue it and argue foolishly, or simply bury our heads in the sand and say la la la, can’t hear you.

Privilege is a real thing and it’s a pernicious thing, not because those that have it are morally bankrupt (although some of us are that, too) but because it’s the result of a society that is not not egalitarian towards all of its peoples. Male privilege is, I think, the reason why Rosenberg feels that male gamers will want to “protect” Lara, even those she is the hardened survivor (eventually) with the gun and the climbing axe and the survival instincts and I’m a geek with myopia who works in a library and writes a blog post about video games. Let’s face it: she’s the one who should be protecting me.

Male privilege means that rape isn’t something I spend a lot of time worrying about. Now, don’t get me wrong, I fully acknowledge that male rape is a real and awful thing. However, it’s slightly less of a problem than female rape, considering the fact that roughly 91% of rape victims are female and 99% of rapists are male, according to the Bureau of Justice. That’s just a little bit unbalanced, in my opinion.

I’ve heard mutterings on various posts and things about there being an attempted rape scene in Tomb Raider. I don’t know the specifics, so I’m not sure if that’s a scene that is coming up or it already happened, like in the scene when the guy choked me to death six times before I blew his head off. What I do know is that in the first few hours of Tomb Raider, I was fully immersed in Lara’s character and I was deeply, painfully aware of the fact that I was a woman alone and unarmed on an island filled with brutal men who very much wanted to visit harm upon me. I don’t think I’m projecting some latent personal insecurity here when I say that the early atmosphere in Tomb Raider is one of fear. Part of that fear was that I didn’t know what the crazed men were going to do to me if they caught me. Were they trying to kill me or capture me? If they captured me, what would they do to me?

These were the thoughts that went through my head. It wasn’t that Lara was an extension of me. It is more accurate to say that I became part of her. I was drawn into her world and her struggle in the way that only the very best fiction can do, except that unlike in fiction, I have agency in the story. I can see what happens when I fail.

Lara’s transformation from victim to survivor is powerful. I’m halfway through the game at this point and at this point, Lara is cut and bruised and burned and bloody from countless injuries and attacks. And she keeps pressing on, keeps fighting, keeps struggling to survive. She’s come into her power at this point and more than once, the thugs who once hunted her and instilled such fear are now afraid of her.

It’s a story about empowerment and I’ve been immersed in it every step of the way. Because, at least for the duration of this story, she’s me and I’m her and because of this, I’ve been able to experience her journey in a way that no other medium could ever hope to achieve.

Tomb Raiding

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.