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

Essay

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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