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Essay

Ask Me Again In 2013: Thoughts on Tomb Raider and the Woman Writing It


If you get me talking about my early gaming years, you will learn very quickly that I love Tomb Raider. The original game was a favorite of mine back in middle school, and I was over the moon when the reboot was announced in 2010. When the rape scene controversy hit, several friends and acquaintances asked me for my two cents. I gave them all the following answer:

I don’t know. I haven’t played the game yet.

The controversy has had its back and forth between press, bloggers, and developer Crystal Dynamics, and one part of that back and forth was the reveal of Rhianna Pratchett as the game’s head writer, which many seem to interpret as either a panacea absolving the game of any poorly presented gender issues, or that her appointment as head writer was obviously primarily so it could be interpreted as a panacea absolving the game of poorly presented gender issues. I’m not fond of either of these reactions.

Do I think that the game’s executive producer said some very poorly thought-out things, not just about rape, but about how players (read as: dudes) can’t connect to a female protagonist unless they can protect her? Yes. Did that make me feel dubious about the quality of the game as a whole? Yes. Do I think that rape-as-backstory is overused and unnecessary? Yes. Do I think that the notion of having a playable attempted rape scene in a game is a bad idea? Yes. But all these questions are about concepts. None of them are actually about the game, which won’t be out until 2013.

The current controversy is about an interview and a short scene in a trailer. That doesn’t make any of the surrounding issues less valid, but it is an important distinction to make. Objecting to an excerpt or a statement is different than objecting to an entire piece of work. To judge Tomb Raider based on one scene and an interview would be like judging a movie by the trailer, or a book by the jacket. And certainly, a trailer or a jacket can be enough to make you decide to avoid a movie or book altogether. There might be a scene in there that crosses a line for you, or something that one of the creators said might make you decide to take your hard-earned cash elsewhere. That’s okay. It’s one thing to say that a game sounds terrible, or even that it sounds so terrible that you have no intention of playing it. However, saying “that game is terrible” is something else.

Which is not to say that I think Tomb Raider will be awesome. It might. It might not. I hope it’s awesome. I have concerns that it won’t be (not just because of this to-do; I have a general bias against “press X for QuickTime event”). Here are the things I know for sure: Last month at E3, executive producer Ron Rosenberg stated in no uncertain terms that someone in the game tries to rape Lara. This was corroborated by a game trailer that showed a scene in which a leering man slides his hand down Lara’s hip; a struggle ensues, but the outcome is unclear. Claims that the reported rape scene was a playable event began to arise from the E3 floor. Crystal Dynamics (the game’s developer) backpedaled hard, stating that “sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.” On Thursday, PC Gamer reported they had played the scene in question, and that failing to mash the right buttons results in Lara getting shot by the creepy hip-touching guy, not raped. A few hours later, a Crystal Dynamics press release hit the internet, revealing that the lead writer for the game is Rhianna Pratchett. Pratchett is an award-winning, BAFTA-nominated game writer whose past works include Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword. She took part in both Tomb Raider panels at SDCC this past weekend. No questions about the controversy were asked in the first panel, though Pratchett did indirectly mention “the scene where [Lara] kills a guy for the first time” (47:00 minutes in), speaking generally about emotional development and the gravity of taking a human life. An MTV report summing up the second panel mentions that global brand manager Karl Stewart did address the issue, stating “that much of the doubt and questions are borne out of a lack of context.”

I’ve seen two reactions to the announcement about Pratchett thus far. One side says that since a woman is in charge of the narrative, all controversy is null and void (or was even erroneous from the start). The other side says that Crystal Dynamics’ announcement about Pratchett was a pandering attempt to allay everyone’s fears, and that having a woman writer doesn’t fix anything.

I think both of these reactions fall short of the mark. And to be honest, I don’t like either of them.

To start, let’s focus on the original reactions to the interview with Rosenberg. There’s a difference between saying “I dislike the narrative themes being described, which are due to lazy/misguided/sexist male writers” and “I dislike the narrative themes being described, full stop.” At heart, both of these arguments stem from the same problem. Knowing that Tomb Raider’s lead writer is a woman does mean that you can’t blame those issues on male writers, but it doesn’t make those issues go away (if they were to be present in the completed game, that is). Women writers are not exempt from writing problematic female characters — and yes, men can write awesome ones. Just because Tomb Raider has a woman writer does not mean that all women are going to give their stamp of approval to whatever the narrative turns out to be.

So, no, if scenes like the ones originally described were (or are) included in the game, it wouldn’t matter who wrote them. We might consider them from a different perspective, but I don’t think the core arguments — on either side — would change much. More importantly, none of this changes the fact that Rosenberg’s remarks raised a lot of red flags. That’s what people were reacting to.

It’s very likely that Crystal Dynamics’ announcement about Pratchett was an attempt to smooth things over. The timing is rather telling. Saying right up front that the game has a woman writer at the helm would’ve been a great selling point. Again, that’s not because women universally write better female characters, but because Lara Croft has historically been the male gaze poster child. I’m sure there are men out there who could write Lara Croft as a complex, realistic character, but having an insider’s perspective does lend a little bit of cred in this situation. Waiting until now, after several weeks of heavy criticism, seems suspect.

But those points are solely about PR. It’s not about Pratchett herself, who has been Tomb Raider’s lead writer for two years. I don’t care why she’s on the project. I assume that she got the job because she’s a talented writer and was the best one for the game. Women are still a minority in the gaming industry, and we don’t often see them recognized publicly. It’s frustrating that once again, the conversation we’re having about a woman in the industry is not one about what she’s actually doing, but rather one of “we’re only hearing about this person because she’s a woman.” Criticizing PR is fine, but Pratchett’s work falls nowhere under that umbrella. Saying that the announcement about Pratchett doesn’t fix anything about Rosenberg’s comments is true, but that’s different that saying it doesn’t fix anything about the game. Nobody can speak to the game yet.

What would I have thought about Pratchett if I’d heard about her before the controversy? Probably something like this:

Tomb Raider has a woman as its lead writer. That’s noteworthy, because Lara Croft has historically been written from and for a male perspective, and because we don’t often hear about women in the gaming industry. I’m interested to see how the narrative in this game plays out.

And here’s what I think about her now:

Tomb Raider has a woman as its lead writer. That’s noteworthy, because Lara Croft has historically been written from and for a male perspective, and because we don’t often hear about women in the gaming industry. I’m interested to see how the narrative in this game plays out.

How I feel about the Tomb Raider controversy has nothing to do with Pratchett’s writing for this game. That’s an unknown quantity at this point. To preemptively judge her work by the ill-advised comments of others or by a PR move would be unfair. We can talk about those things, but we should do so separately.

So, what do I think about Rhianna Pratchett as the lead writer for Tomb Raider? I’ll get back to you in March.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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  • http://twitter.com/loerwyn Kathryn

    Good points all around. I’m not sure Rhianna has made an actual statement R.E. the controversy yet, but as the woman who helped bring Faith to life I have a feeling she had little to no input on that particular aspect.

    But if she did? Well, I’ll be a little sad, and the fact she’s a woman is completely and utterly irrelevant to that. Anyone who’s read books by women should know full well that being a woman doesn’t mean the ability to write a good female character, but from what I’ve experienced of Rhianna’s work, she’s pretty darned good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1208921 Nikki Lincoln

    Wow, Becky, what a well written article. I think you do a great job of tackling the issue from both sides. I had quite a few comments on the other two posts and I ended up just being really frustrated because it seemed like a lot of things were starting to be taken out of context. 

    Another great article about the controversy  was written a few weeks ago on the 1up Network:
    http://www.1up.com/features/op-ed-heroes-heroines-apples-oranges 

  • http://www.thedungeoncrawl.blogspot.com/ Sean Samonas

    Yep, that’s pretty much what I said when they originally posted the article about this controversy.

  • http://www.thedungeoncrawl.blogspot.com/ Sean Samonas

    “Anyone who’s read books by women should know full well that being a woman doesn’t mean the ability to write a good female character,”

    *cough* Twilight *cough*

  • http://twitter.com/Ostercy Ostercy

    Not only has Vicky Arnold been air-brushed out of the Wikipedia article about Tomb Raider (and all the credit given to a man, Toby Gard), but none of you lot have heard of her either. 
    http://www.wikiraider.com/index.php/Vicky_Arnold

  • http://twitter.com/SergProtectorat sticky bun

    Just shows how far video games are behind other literary mediums (media?) when this non-event causes such controversy :(

  • Anonymous

    Good points all around. I take back my initial statement of “this was written from a male perspective”. Obviously not; that was my assumption and it was wrong. I’m glad these things mentioned by other creators of the game and scenes from the trailer are stated as “red flags”, because they are. And they are enough to where I do not wish to play the game. I’m judging something based on the fact I have PTSD, and I’m trying to find entertainment that won’t trigger me at the same time. I think that’s pretty fair. I’m glad others are giving it a chance though; let me know how it goes.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to know more about her involvement. I read back in the day that by the time they hired her for Mirror’s Edge, all the gameplay including bosses and everything was already designed, and she had to juggle with all the elements already there and put together a story.

    I very much doubt the fetish torture pornography that we’ve seen in the demos is her idea.

  • Anonymous

    to be fair i’ve never heard of Toby Gard either. But that might have to do with the fact that i don’t really give a shit who wrote the story for my computer game as long as a good job was done.

  • Anonymous

    oh this hasn’t caused controversy at all. This is the very definition of a storm in a tea cup: With a group of fanatical, overly obsessive people, obsessing over something that really doesn’t matter. The only reason its at all interesting is becuase it shut down the argument made by to many of our ilk, that this game had intrinsic problems due to the assumed gender of the main writer.

    But it does kind of go to some length to show how hard we work to be offended about something, when there is nothing to be offended by.

  • http://twitter.com/Ostercy Ostercy

    You may be reading the wrong article then

  • http://otherscribbles.com Becky Chambers

    You’re right, I hadn’t heard of her. Thanks for the links. My Knowledge has just increased by 1.

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    I’m not sure you mean this but I basically read that as “I don’t find this offensive, so no one else should either.”

    That many people (men and women) have been troubled by the trailer and comments made by a clearly completely out of touch PR guy suggests this is not a small group of fanatical, overly obsessive people.

  • Anonymous

    “That many people (men and women) have been troubled by the trailer and comments made by a clearly completely out of touch PR guy ”

    Many people are troubled by chemtrails too, but no such thing actually exists. Being troubled by a thing, especially an incomplete thing is fine, but its not indicative of an actual issue.

    “suggests this is not a small group of fanatical, overly obsessive people.”

    Of course it is. In fact you take one step outside of this circle & i doubt there is more then a handful of people who would have any idea what you are talking about… Including other computer game fans.

    This is about a clear a case as you’ll get for storm in a tea cup as you’ll ever get.

  • Hexiva Javed

    How bad can she possibly do? She is related to Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett! If she inherited even a tenth of his writing chops, this game’ll be worth a play.

    Maybe that’s a little bit much of an expectation to have based on her name, but still, it’s Pratchett. 

    I also believe she’s worked on other well-received games before? IDK, I ought to get some of her work now that I’m out of Sir Terry’s work again, and see if she’s as good.

  • Anonymous

    The character needs to be rewritten as a guy – it is always a good thing when they change gender of the characters…….right?  A guy is much more believable anyway for this activity.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/Travis.K.Fischer Travis Kyle Fischer

    “This was corroborated by a game trailer that showed a scene in which a leering man slides his hand down Lara’s hip; a struggle ensues, but the outcome is unclear.”
    In what way is the outcome unclear? IIRC, that struggle ends with Lara putting a bullet in the guy’s head.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7TELVJHZFNF5EC5WKBW5ISYHYA Ben

    I think what he meant by rape not being a theme they are exploring in the game is that there is no rape scene in the game. She is never raped. Sure, I haven’t played the game, but from everything I’ve read, there is no rape in the game. Some people said her friend gets raped or something, but the most I’ve read and seen just implies that this dude WOULD rape her if Lara didn’t beat him up. So what, we can show FAR worse in movies, but not a game? Are men being cry babies because they’re on the other end of the stick so to speak? Ask yourself what exactly it is that bothers you. A 30 second scene of a game with maybe not  rape, when you get payback on every man on the island for the next several hours? You can shoot arrrows through all their crotches for the next several hours. It just seems very weird to me that we can make tons of explicit movies about rape, write books about rape, make Law and Order: SVU a show mostly about rape, and it’s NOTHING. But oh, maybe imply that rape is going down in a game…and it’s controversy? BS.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7TELVJHZFNF5EC5WKBW5ISYHYA Ben

     That 1up article just goes on and on about how the “idea” of Lara being in sexual danger is bad and shows how much games have to grow up. Really? Really?? She’s a pretty young woman on an island with MEN. Not good men. Bad men. Realistically, they’d all be trying to get with her. That’s realism. Women could be in sexual danger just walking home. It’s in life, its in movies, books, its on tv every night, but people don’t like it’s in a game? Does that mean those other mediums aren’t grown up? I just think it’s an insult to victims of rape that we don’t want to accept the truth of their situation. It’s like “Oh we know what happened to you but uh..we don’t want to think about it. We’re going to sweep it under the rug because…we aren’t mature enough to handle it”. Anyways, I think the “controversy” is blown way out of proportion when we haven’t even played the thing yet.

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    “Many people are troubled by chemtrails too, but no such thing actually exists.”

    Many people do not accept that there is climate change, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Again; just because you are not offended does not mean there is nothing to be offended by and anyone offended, angered or annoyed isn’t right to be.

    “Of course it is. In fact you take one step outside of this circle & i doubt there is more then a handful of people who would have any idea what you are talking about… Including other computer game fans.”

    What is this circle and how do I step outside of it (or into it)? I’ve spoken in person to people who don’t even know TMS exists and they find the trailer and subsequent PR farce troublesome.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Fetish torture pornography is such an incredible exaggeration. 

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    “But it does kind of go to some length to show how hard we work to be offended about something, when there is nothing to be offended by.” I appreciate the hell out of this sentence.

  • http://twitter.com/Ostercy Ostercy

    Have we discovered yet if Lara Croft is still an university-educated archaeologist, still a member of the English aristocracy or even still 100% English? If she is none of these things any more, then her status as a British iconic character has been has been diminished both in her world and in ours. I cannot see how this would improve the game and I feel as if the developers are “reigning in an uppity woman” and putting her firmly in her (new) place as their (intellectual) “property”.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AV43FJHI7V463XVSGTMPAOMQT4 Kenbei

    Everyone speaks to people in person and they always wholeheartedly agree with the poster Incredible. I can say I know no one who has even heard of this argument, but has seen the trailer, and it’s such a non-issue.

    This is not pornographic depiction. It’s someone trying to intimidate the protagonist, and she dutifully kills him. If she does not, then he kills her. And that has been CONFIRMED. The OUTCOME is not left to question, or assumptions, he bloody murders her.

  • http://twitter.com/Ostercy Ostercy

    “Just because a female writer is the lead writer doesn’t mean that she is not going to be willing to conform to the majority male perspective of the rest of her team.” How true. Not only that, but she’s a relative newcomer to Lara Croft compared to the “big beasts” in the team, and so unlikely to be able to prevent the bowdlerisation or Americanisation of Lara Croft.

  • Penny Sautereau-Fife

    You Miss, win all the Internets. ALL of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/natalie.wainwright.96 Natalie Wainwright

    Okay. Does the near-rape scene stay in?