A few years ago, I pondered on the use of video games, like movies, in causing aversion to crimes such as rape and violence against women. A key example was the Hollywood film The Accused featuring Jodie Foster. Viewers talked about how the scene actually caused one to develop negative attitudes toward the crime when the emotional trauma of the woman was on full display. This became known as aestheticising violence, and pointed towards using mainstream media to discourage the sexualization and desensitisation of the masses.
A particular game several years ago made headlines for it’s use of sexual crime as a gameplay mechanic (and no, I’m not going to name it here). However, this was more of catering towards fetishes, rather than instilling any real disgust. Then again, the fact that the game itself was lambasted for trying to monetize such a thing wasn’t lost on the world, and it’s still more or less reviled.
Cut to E3 2012. Two games made headlines for their so-called violence against women. One was Hitman: Absolution, that had taken it’s violence to a sexualised spotlight. Close-ups of female anatomy, scantily clad women dressed in nun outfits, wanton brutality and murder – not to mention the occasional slow-mo shot of a woman’s nose being broken by Agent 47. Put it against classic Hollywood action films and there may not be much difference.
But these aren’t movies we’re talking about and the trailer was criticised for being borderline exploitative in some circles, and “not that bad” in others. It could have been so much worse than it actually was, in an industry constantly one-upping itself on the violence quota.
But then there was Tomb Raider.
Our protagonist Lara Croft awakens in a cave, bleeding and bruised, hanging from the ceiling. She wriggles free, only to fall on a pile of bones and pierce her stomach. Further making her way out to avoid a collapse (and finding one of her friends dead), she meets up with a group of typical alpha male killers. As they murder her entire party and kidnap her loved ones, she desperately tries to make her escape only to be discovered by a guard who attempts to have his way with her. Lara fights back and overcomes the guard. She then finds the strength to fight against the men, and hopefully rescue her companions.
Looking at the gameplay demo, it’s hard to argue for the sexualization or violence against women. An air of brutality pervades the entire game – that the protagonist Lara Croft is facing her fair share of it is a given. However, when the developers set out to create a game where they want you to “fear for Lara’s life”, did they succeed? It’s hard to argue that they didn’t. Every impact, every event, every brutal battle serves to push Lara further and further down into the muck – where eventually, she must find the strength to rise. It’s not unlike The Accused. There was far less emphasis on the sexual abuse but it made audiences squirm.
While Tomb Raider is still a better example than most games of real brutality against women highlighting their emotional turmoil, video games are still a long way off from finding that sweet spot. Take the manga Battle Royale, for instance. A particular scene involves a mix of brutality against a woman, with emotional and physical turmoil. It’s sickening, it’s disturbing, it makes our hearts sink to the very pits of our stomachs – as it rightly should. No one is going to write or illustrate such a scene keeping titillation in mind if they want to sell it, much less sleep at night.
So goes the same for Tomb Raider. Could Crystal Dynamics have gone further in their torment of Lara? Arguably so. Would they have been able to create an impact, and still sell the game? Undoubtedly. However, it still reflects a fine line between movies and games – where we are the victim, rather than the voyeur looking in on a crime we’re helpless to stop. It only makes sense that the player, as the victim, can fight back. Because if the developer allows the protagonist to be brutalised, it stops being a game and is now simply a game over. What happens next isn’t on your conscious because you can start off where you left from. Not so in the case of movies and comics based on reality.
But just the very fact, that by not going for an in your face sexual route and still achieving that aversion from the audience, Crystal Dynamics deserves some kudos. It’s amazing that we’ve even gotten to this stage in the first place. Real progress has been made and developers are finally getting it. There’s still a long way to go before we actually get there, but strides have been made in these past few years. If successful, it will create a precedent for violence and sexual abuse in video games as it did in the media. A precedent for not simply catering to the cheapest common thrills, but teaching and affecting games in it’s own brutally beautiful way.