Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett on controversy and characterisation
Lead writer of the Tomb Raider reboot Rhianna Pratchett has had an uneven relationship with Lara Croft since she first played – and loved – the original Tomb Raider. ”I fell out of love with Lara after playing Tomb Raider 2 and when I found other games,” she tells us. “I didn’t like the way she had been oversexualised by the wider media. As a young female gamer I felt it said ‘ladies – this isn’t for you’, though I suppose icons are always very visual.”
Any progress on the desexualisation of Lara Croft came under the microscope last year when the PR machine for the forthcoming reboot churned out a damaging comment from producer Ron Rosenberg. Pratchett, who has also worked to craft strong female leads in Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword, said the problems around the now infamous Crossroads trailer came down to two words, not one. ‘Protect’ as well as ‘rape’. And she’s happy to reflect on what she calls the ‘blink-and-you-might-miss-it’ controversy.
The response of a gaming press and public, many of whom had not even seen the trailer let alone played the scene in context, was a source of frustration to Pratchett. Not least becuase at the time of the furore she had yet to be announced as one of the writers working on the project.
“It got people talking and thinking about character and the relationship between characters and females. The debate had a value to it. I just wish there had been more restraint and people had waited to judge it in context. People were assuming you were white, straight, middle class American man.”
“The scene is supposed to show her reaction to taking a human life,” explains Pratchett, who intimates she would include scenes featuring the threat of sexual violence, but only if a narrative required it. Tomb Raider, she explains, “is not The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”
The discussion – and subsequent “two weeks of face-palming” – did, however, confirm to Pratchett just how cherished this character is. Given the opportunity to rethink Lara, she fleshed out a brief bio and focused on the heroine’s relationships with other characters. “I wanted to smooth the corners of the British ice queen. She has a different relationship with money now – her parents are missing presumed dead, but they don’t really come into the story,” she says.
“She doesn’t want to touch her wealth. It’s as if by accessing her money she is admitting her parents have gone. Heroes and heroines who throw money about and use their money to get out of everything just isn’t as apealling as it once was.”
It doesn’t take a psychologist to spot a parallel with Pratchett’s personal story. She has proudly crafted a successful career – there were few games writers when she started out – based on her talent and not on her surname. Her minority status as a woman in games is also something she has shied from using as a calling card.
“I stayed away from talking about gender. I didn’t want anything but my work to shape people’s opinions. I started at an all-male team at PC Zone. I was passionate about games and could write fairly eloquently.”
But avoiding gender was never going to be easy as soon as Pratchett took on the Tomb Raider project, after being approached in July 2010 to submit two test scene scripts. “With Lara it’s almost inescapable,” she explains, “My friends call it jokingly me ‘coming out as a woman’. Lara is arguably the most famous female action game heroine out there. I realised that even though gender doesn’t matter to me, it does matter to young women in the industry.”
Over the years Pratchett has taken a more active role in highlighting the lack of women in the games industry, working with BAFTA on campaigns and by giving talks in schools.
“It’s sad that the number of women in games seem to be dropping off,” she adds. “There are a variety of reasons for that and one is the way the industry deals with crunch and the impact of that on work-life balance. That’s detremental to men as well as women in games. And it’s one reason the average industry burn out is five years. There’s a lot the industry can do to make things more comfortable for everyone.”