Crystal Dynamics has recently come under fire for the inclusion of implied sexual violence in its Tomb Raider reboot during a scene in which Lara Croft is forced to fight for survival against a group of scavengers who have taken her prisoner.
While the scene in question was included in the publicly available trailer shown at E3 last week, and in a behind-closed-doors demo for journalists, a subsequent interview with executive producer Ron Rosenberg, in which he suggests that the scavengers try to rape Lara, raised the hackles of commentators everywhere.
After our hands-on demo with with the game last week, which you can read about in issue 243, out July 4, we spoke with the game's art director Brian Horton about the mature themes it addresses.
"We’re not making a mature game because we want blood and gore and swear words," he told us. "We want to create a story that is informed by real life.
"If it was just something that we were trying to tack on, it would be the wrong answer. But in the game it is completely integrated with what you learn about the scavengers and what this island is about, and we felt we could go there, even though we knew we were making a play that was a little controversial.
"We’re doing it because we believe it serves the story and serves the character. It’s her turning point. It’s a place where she has to make a decision to go from reaction to action, and she realises this is what her whole life has to be if she wants to get off that island."
Horton was careful to point out that the game's gory violence, and the vulnerability of Lara in the aforementioned scene, are contextualised by the rest of the adventure and shouldn't be considered in isolation.
"If you play the whole thing you see the emotions she has and her evolution as a character," he said. "We believe at that point we needed a spike to the curve of getting to know Lara. But we feel like the way it is treated, the way we ‘filmed’ it – we spent a lot of time storyboarding it – we bring across that intent without being deliberately exploitative."
Quantic Dream stirred similarly uncomfortable feelings with two scenes in Heavy Rain: one in which Madison Paige must escape from intruders in her flat wearing only underwear, and another in which she is forced to strip for a leering club owner. As games continue to represent characters with greater realism and attempt to cover more mature topics, it's a disjoint that will become increasingly common.
Lara, though, with her exaggerated proportions and tight-fitting clothing has long been poster-fodder for adolescent's bedroom walls, and intentionally so. That perception of her might explain why it's so jarring to see her in a more adult universe.
"The way we’re trying to treat Lara is not 'oh, we’re making a game about a girl'," continues Horton. "We’re making a game about someone who is inexperienced and who has to learn how to become a hero.
"Now, the fact that she is a woman is not lost on us, and that’s an important part of the dynamic of it being Tomb Raider, but it’s not our primary concern to distinguish that she is a woman. We are playing up the fact that she is human and believable. So far the reaction has been very positive from the people who have seen the game, they’re starting to care for her and I don’t think they’re as eager to objectify her, in fact I think they want to protect her.
"I feel like some of those players might actually evolve their perspective. They might look at it in the beginning and say 'I’m protecting her,' but as they grow with her, become closer to her, they’d start to think 'I am her' giving them the fantasy and fulfilment of being Lara Croft."
Horton concludes by telling us what his wife of sixteen years thinks about the game.
"She’s a gamer, but there are a lot of games that I make that she’s not that interested in, [they don't] appeal to her," he explains. "She’s seen me develop this game through the whole process, and I’ve never seen her more invested and empowered as a woman. She’s like, 'This is the videogame woman I’ve been waiting for my entire life,' and I’ve heard other women say this as well. They realise this is someone they can relate to: she’s not just a buxom woman who is in the game for cheap visual thrills."