Why You Should Pass Judgement on Crystal Dynamics

I’m sure anybody who plays games has already heard about the Tomb Raider situation, but if you haven’t, I’m here to refresh your memory.

When the latest trailer for the Tomb Raider reboot was shown at E3, people started getting grumbley: rape grumbley. Here was a strong, capable character from many of our childhoods being thoroughly broken by game developers right before our very eyes. People were upset, and that wasn’t helped by executive producer Ron Rosenberg telling Kotaku writer Jason Schreier that they set up an attempted rape in the game so that players will “want to protect her” since it’s not like they could relate to her… being a lady and all. Sophie Samson sums up the issue fairly well in her post I’m a Person, You’re a Person when she says “I don’t want to shepherd a whimpering, broken teenager through her brutalization.”

Taking into account the obvious assumption by Rosenberg that only men play videogames; what man would come home, sit down on his couch and think ‘I know, I’m going to watch a twenty-one year old girl sob and whimper for the rest of my afternoon, that’s sure to clear the stress of the day away.’ I can understand doing that for 10 of 15 minutes, sometimes that kind of stuff can hit the spot, but then you clean yourself up and you play some real videogames. With real heroes. Not little girls you’re supposed to want to ‘protect.’

In an effort to curb the backlash, Crystal Dynamics has released a series of statements disavowing any knowledge of Rob Rosenberg or his mission. The front page of the Tomb Raider website has a statement by studio head Darrell Gallagher defending the trailer, and trying to clarify the rape situation by stating: “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.” So they picked the rapiest part of the game to feature in the trailer. It’s not really that type of game, they just wanted to make it look like it was.

Holly Green at Destructoid says in her interview with Crystal Dynamics creative director Noah Hughes that after seeing more cut scenes and gameplay footage, the difference between the game and the trailer is so significant that “even being told directly that Tomb Raider plays on dis-empowerment does not faze me.” She goes on to quote Hughes as saying that “the difference between genuine character exploitation and a valid point of view IS context. My hope is that they play the whole game and realize that it isn’t just these little clips of her getting hurt and moaning and being in a vulnerable position.” Basically what Hughes is saying is that we’re getting our hackles up without all the information, that the attempted rape of a young Lara is sort of nothing, and we should just buy their game before we write it off. Isn’t that nice of Crystal Dynamics, offering to clear everything up once we’ve purchase the product?

My speculation on what game play might look like.

Hey kids, maybe we try to rape your childhood hero, and maybe we don’t. If you could just sign this pre-order form and give us sixty bucks, you’ll be the first to find out! Now that we’ve hyped it beyond all belief, I’d hate to be the only person who doesn’t know exactly what the ‘death’ scene looks like if you fail to pull the trigger on that thug who’s laying on top of her in the trailer. Collectors editions come with a replica of the rape-kit Lara is forced to craft out of jungle detritus if you don’t press B fast enough.

Could this be the screen we see if we don’t press B fast enough?

You can’t make attempted rape a feature of your trailer and then send a bunch of dudes into the media shrugging their shoulders and telling us that it’s really not that big a deal after we get you all the free advertising that is every single angry article.

I’m not saying that gamers shouldn’t buy the game. If you want to play Tomb Raider, play Tomb Raider. There’s actually nothing wrong with media that portrays sexual assault, at least not inherently. My problem isn’t with the a game I’ve never played, but with a marketing campaign I’m very familiar with at this point. We’re all falling for a bait and switch and everyone should be aware of it. Crystal Dynamics told us all a knock knock joke where the answer to ‘Who’s there?’ is ‘Attempted rape’ and when we all said ‘Attempted rape, who?’ they answered ‘Well, not really attempted rape so much as general creepiness… you should really buy the game.’

I get that the whole point of advertising is to get people to buy stuff. That’s basically the whole point of our entire capitalist pig-dog society. But there’s a difference between good advertising and bad. There’s a difference in the way the marketer treats the consumer. Is your customer a trusted friend, a loyal partner in this symbiotic relationship of producer and consumer, or are they an idiot that needs to be tricked into buying your product? Can you present something to your potential customer honestly and openly, or do you need to put a warning label on the outside that says ‘If you don’t buy this, you’ll die fat and alone in a pile of angry cats.’

The fact that Crystal Dynamics felt that this was the appropriate way to market this game speaks to their perceptions of us as a community. It’s not like they just threw together the first footage they could find. The advertising campaign for a product like this is truly monumental. A lot of thought went into what we would see at E3, and they decided that the most important thought they needed to convey to gamers about the Lara Croft reboot was suffering and victimization. Certainly the number of gamers who would play a game based only on the sniffling and sobbing that were featured in the trailer is very few. I’m loathe to attribute to malice (or craftiness) what can be adequately explained by stupidity (or carelessness) and yet, I find myself hoping that this was a planned backlash. It’s hard to imagine that no one realized the kind of waves they’d be making by turning the franchise on its head like this. The alternative is that they saw this young woman cowering in fear or crying in pain for 3 minutes and thought ‘this is great stuff.’

Neither prospect is particularly attractive to me as a consumer. Either Crystal Dynamics thought that they would make something offensive so I would squawk about it and raise their PR points, or they didn’t consider me at all and assumed male gamers base would love the blood and the gore and think nothing more of it.

The reboot of Lara Croft could have been marketed as a journey of strength, a young woman’s coming of age. But instead, the label we see is ‘maybe there’s rape.’ Crystal Dynamics could have a great game on their hands, only time will tell. But they do deserve our ire for the torture porn marketing campaign they’ve given us.