Lara Croft and the Abused Hero

June 4th, 2012 by | Tags: ,

One thing Frank Miller and I still have in common is that we looooove abused protagonists. Heroes who get shot, stabbed, blown up, families massacred, high school reunion bombed, dog killed, cat kidnapped, and beds short-sheeted are just better than most other heroes. It’s not out of any creepy gorehound fetish or anything. It’s just that a hero who has had all this stuff done to him earns the end of his story. The getback, which is one of my most favorite things in the entire world, will be glorious. “Rot in hell” spat from a mouth full of blood. Willingly getting stabbed in the stomach just so that you can grab the blade (or walk forward!), immobilize your enemy, and then smile when you take his head. That “Like hell!” moment in Superman: Birthright. Look at Elektra Assassin or your higher quality shonen manga. The hero gets knocked down. The hero gets up again. You’re never gonna keep the hero down. “If you intend to die, you can do anything.”

I like Lara Croft, bka Tomb Raider. Yes, the series came out when I was at the perfect age to be vulnerable to her ridiculous carnival breasts and the (fake, until it wasn’t) idea of a “nude code,” but I’ve always liked platformers, and the Tomb Raider has produced a couple good ones over the years. I first became interested in the new Tomb Raider, after years of apathy, when I saw that they’d turned Lara into something like an actual woman, complete with a build and personality and equipment that seemed great for a lot of gritty climbing.

I didn’t associate Lara with abused protagonists before this latest iteration was announced. Platformers haven’t had a lot of those until fairly recently, I think. Mario is pristine, Ryu Hayabusa is a super ninja, and the Prince of Persia games kept things relatively clean. Which is fine, because the fun of platformers is solving puzzles, jumping, and then fighting. But the new art had her a little bloodied and raw. It looked a little more cool than I expected, a little more realistic, and a little more up my alley. This makes me sound like a blood fetishist, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way. Here’s the trailer from last year:

It looks pretty okay, right? Even despite the corny scream/lightning thing. (I hate that so much.) A nice reboot, and the idea that “the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are” falls right in line with the abused protagonist, and hints that, by the end of the game, you’re gonna get to shoot somebody in the face and not feel bad about it.

Here’s this year’s trailer:

Good news: it looks like it has a dope variety of gameplay and some interesting gimmicks (hunting, bullet time maybe, being set on fire while you try to escape a trap, and what I suspect are semi-interactive cutscenes).

Bad news: Lara is abused way, way, way too much.

I like abused heroes, and I don’t really exclude women from that. They’re a little tougher to list, just as a result of society thinking dudes are the only ones that count, and the awkwardness of depicting severe violence against women; but I don’t think, and don’t want, women excluded from this category. But this trailer, as an advertisement intended to make you want to play a game, does way too much in far too little runtime. Lara gets tied up and hung upside down, watches her friend die, watches another friend get kidnapped, gets stabbed with a steel rod, steps on a bear trap, tied up again, beaten up, threatened with rape, and weeps and whimpers her away across the entire trailer until they finally flash to pure gameplay and you actually see the game you wanted to play.

The thing is, all of the gameplay-related stuff looks dope. It looks like they learned a lot from Uncharted and are gonna give us all types of dynamic chase scenes, both people and wreckage inspired. I’m very happy about that, and then traditional platforming sections look pretty ill, too. The one where Lara is climbing frantically toward light puts me in mind of The Descent, and yes I would very much like to experience that through her eyes.

But that’s a lot of misery to pack into a trailer. It makes the entire game seem like a slog, like a clipshow of Lara getting punched in the stomach every time she stands up. That’s not what makes abused heroes fun. The slings and arrows aren’t the focus. They’re just the staircase leading to the focus. The focus is the hero with a smoking gun, a bloody nose, and a limp off into the sunset. Maybe a one-liner. The point is that a little goes a long way, and when you put a lot into a little (like shoving a few different examples of grievous emotional and physical trauma into three minutes) the tone changes. It changes from “Oh man, I can’t believe she survived that! Such will! Amazing!” to “Oh man. This is really, really depressing.”

Spread out over eight to twelve hours, each bit of abuse wouldn’t be a big deal. A brief burst at the beginning to set up the game, then one or two instances every other chapter until the end seems reasonable. That’s just rising action. But it’s too much for a trailer. It’s off-putting. It’s distilled misery, possibly literally.

Equally off-putting is the rape threat. At this point, sleazy rape threats in fiction are about as played out as the black guy dying first or a lady kicking a sexist pig in the junk as a Statement Of Feminism. It’s almost the icing on the cake for the trailer, really. “Even after all that… she still might get raped, gamer!” Sure, rape threats can be used well, but here? It’s just another brick in the wall. Even worse, it’s boring. Banal. It was more exciting when she was hanging upside down looking at some weird devil worshipping stuff.

My interest in Tomb Raider isn’t shattered or anything dramatic like that. I’ll probably still check it out, but I really hope that the trailer isn’t representative of the entire game. There’s gotta be a balance.

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11 comments to “Lara Croft and the Abused Hero”

  1. Ugh. That was terrible. Makes me glad I’m not really following the E3 stuff too closely this year.

    On a more positive note regarding abused heroes, Brick is such an excellent example of that. Joseph Gordon Levitt repeatedly gets the shit kicked out of him and just keeps moving, and you follow him along so closely that you never see what goes on when he blacks out, which I think is such a good storytelling technique. It also has one of my favorite lines ever: “Maybe I’ll just stand here and bleed at you.”

  2. Lara Croft. Almost like Aquaman. “Oh, Aquaman sure is stupid, i saw it on Superfriends!” become “Well, let’s destroy his family and all the guy cared about”
    Grant Morrison words on Flex Mentallo weren’t just about comics. Is about all stories.

  3. Damn that is a brutal trailer, I wonder if whoever cut the trailer intended on it to be uncomfortable levels of violence rather than torture porn. Her falling into the spike was more visceral than I was expecting. I can’t see an entire game of “shit sucks for no reason” being fun, but if they can keep the tone going, it’d be interesting for sure.

  4. Abused heroes are harder to do in games than in other fiction delivery devices, because games are generally built around you feeling power through your avatar. Some games have taken passes at it to decent effect, it’s just a lot more rare.

    I liked MGS4’s portrayal of pathetic, pathetic Solid Snake (which had all kinds of thematic reasons, but still worked out in this way) who is, by the end, literally crawling one rapid button tap at a time down the corridor.

    SMT: Nocturne did a great job ripping everything away from you, so that there was nobody trust and nobody to care about, so that the “alignment” choice at the end felt appropriately dire and empty – although the Hito-Shura’s “hero” status is highly, highly questionable – he certainly wasn’t one in MY playthrough, although the option exists.

    Speaking of RPGs, a game that COULD have done it was FFVII, which in the abstract had all of the signposts, but didn’t deliver that at all. One of its many failures.

    Dammit, now you’ve got me trying to come up with cogent examples that don’t fall apart in gameplay.

  5. I’m with ya David. The game looks really cool, but Square-Edios is doing a really mixed job when it comes to showing it off at E3. It could with less torture porn and more Uncharted-esque action-adventure/exploration. Unless there’s some sort of mid-game twist where Lara gets her shit together and starts wrecking dudes like she was the lead in “Drive” that they’re trying to keep under wrap for some strange reason.

  6. It just looks like an Uncharted clone with way more graphic murder and a typically abusive origin story for a female character, because what else could you possibly do with a fictional woman, right? Why is anyone excited for this?

  7. http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/tomb-raider-throws-rape-assault-and-a-hostile-environment-at-lara-croft-to

    Here’s an editorial by the news-dude Ben over at Penny Arcade. Not too shabby of a piece, but it echoes some of what David said.

  8. @TheAnarchris: The comments from the devs completely grossed me out and convinced me that this isn’t a game for me. They’re emphasizing everything I wish they wouldn’t :negativeman:

  9. I thought the tone of the trailers was oddly dark, but my worries were eased a bit while watching the on-stage demo. It’s a straight up darker Uncharted. And Lara is affected by what’s going rather than how Nathan Drake will shoot twenty guys in the face and make a joke about it…

  10. That demo’s just as gross. Full of her moaning whilst killing a whole bunch of people in graphic detail.

  11. […] Brothers, at some point during the middle of E3 fever, wrote his own post about┬áTomb Raider. In talking about the genre of “abused heroes,” Brothers writes about the fine line between something that is depressing and something that is a […]