That is, until an ill-advised interview with the games producer Ron Rosenberg sent the gaming world into a veritable spin. Referring to a scene in which the young adventurer is captured and bound by a group of scavengers, Rosenberg described Lara Croft as the victim of an attempted rape. Cue worldwide outrage and a hasty retraction of Rosenberg’s claims. In an attempt to allay the mounting scandal, Crystal Dynamics has since released a sneak peak at the scene in question, alongside a statement that denies any hint of sexual violence in the game.
But are Crystal Dynamics right to apologise? Though emotions are bound to run high when it comes to such a sensitive subject, the media vultures have been remarkably quick to jump on the bandwagon with this one, dubbing the idea ‘sexist,’ ‘disturbing’ and ‘exploitative’ in equal measure. But one could be forgiven for wondering just how much thought the newspapers have put into their rabble rousing reactions. Sexual violence for titillation’s sake undoubtedly leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but what if the rumoured scene is handled with taste and sensitivity? Can rape ever be an acceptable subject for a video game?
First things first. It’s very telling that so many critics voiced their outrage before laying eyes on the questionable game footage. Lara Croft is indeed captured and bound by several menacing, male villains. The trailer shows an extremely bloodied and bruised Lara attempting to escape through the jungle, before being tied up and threatened by one of the scavengers. Despite what has been said by Crystal Dynamics, there is an indisputable air of sexual violence throughout the scene. A villain places his hand on Lara’s thigh, before the next shot, which see’s the two engaged in a brawl. The armed man is then seen to lie on top of Lara Croft. The short but emotionally intense scene is wrought with sexual intention. It is highly likely that the developer felt pressured by the media into denying the content, because it is there. But that doesn’t automatically mean that it shouldn’t be.
Art is an imitation of life. Art holds a mirror up to society. Artists use lies to tell the truth. There is an endless list of clichés used to justify the artistic exploration of sensitive or taboo subjects. Controversial issues like sexual assault, incest and domestic violence are routinely explored through the medium of cinema, yet when it comes to video games, such subjects have always been strictly off limits. But the times they are a’ changing. The once unwavering divide between the film and game industries is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past.
In 2010 the dark, interactive thriller ‘Heavy Rain’ was universally praised for its gritty portrayal of depression, torture and child abduction. In one of the games most controversial scenes, a sexually aggressive nightclub owner forces a young woman to strip at gunpoint. In Rockstar’s Wild West epic ‘Red Dead Redemption,’ a female rancher is kidnapped and bound by a large group of men who joke about ‘having a whore to play with.’ Neither of these scenes could be described as erotic or arousing. Both show women in physical duress, both use themes of sexual violence within longstanding narrative missions or during periods of intense character development.
The backlash that inevitably dogs any developer brave enough to explore issues relating to violence and the female body, is itself very trite and old fashioned. Unfortunately, too few people have examined the root of what appears to have become the critics favourite bugbear. The suggestion that women who are raped or sexually assaulted are weak, is wrong. It is an insidious belief that continues to inform and define our society’s concept of sexual violence. Yes, Lara Croft is shown to be in physical danger. She is bound and therefore vulnerable. But to believe that the proposed scene lowers or degrades Lara’s femininity, is to believe that a real life rape or sexual assault would cause a woman to lose her female reverence or dignity. This is an issue that Western society has been grappling with for a long time. A raped or assaulted woman is often thought of as ‘spoiled goods’. After Ronsenberg’s interview, it certainly didn’t take long for the critics to start labelling Lara as a ‘victim.’
What we must realise, is that sexual violence is an endlessly complex social issue. It's in our newspapers, it's in our films, it's in our neighbourhoods. Its survivors are fat and thin, old and young, male and female, meek AND strong. It’s the librarian, the pole dancer, the archaeologist. Being sexually assaulted does not make Lara Croft a ‘victim.’ But surviving it makes her a hero, our hero.