Tomb Raider #2: The Reboot

 

In the last gaming post, I wrote about the sexism in the gaming industry; the lack of female protagonists, and the unwillingness to give the same level of promotion to those female-orientated games that do exist. There are exceptions – games like Mirror’s Edge, Bayonetta and Beyond Good and Evil are all games published by major companies (EA, Sega and Ubisoft respectively) which feature strong, independent female protagonists. However, the earliest of those was made in 2003 and I’d struggle to think of many more, so what is clear is that there are precious few of them. Gaming, or console gaming at least, appears to be shaped by an industry with an extremely gendered world view, with Mulvey’s Male Gaze very much in operation; men making games about men for men.

Of those female protagonists, of course , the most famous is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft. 2013 saw the latest release in the franchise, Tomb Raider, published by Square Enix. As that back-to-basics name suggests, this was intended as a complete reboot, a redesign of the whole game and concept for a new generation (it’s almost twenty years since the first game was released.) In narrative terms, it is a prequel to all the other games, showing Lara’s first adventure. Ultimately, the game received much critical praise and sold somewhere around 4,000,000 copies. Despite being the most successful game in the franchise, and one of the year’s biggest selling games, sales did not meet Square Enix’s targets and were regarded as disappointing.

Lara herself was redesigned for the game. She is more life-like and less overtly sexualised. In semiotic terms, indices of femininity – breasts and legs, most obviously, but also lips and eyes – are emphasised less, and the palette associated with her is more muted. It would appear that Square Enix are moving towards a representation which relies less upon dominant, and perhaps outdated, ideologies about female roles in video games. Lara is still very conventionally attractive, but she looks less like a male fantasy and more like a fit and healthy young woman. Given the growing importance of the female gaming audience, this is perhaps an attempt to offer some sense of personal identity to that audience. Lara, it would appear, will be defined less by how she looks and more by what she does.

quicker evolution

The first trailer for the game, called Crossroads, was shown at E3 in 2012. E3 is an industry-only convention (unlike events such as Europe’s Gamescom and Hong Kong’s Asia Game Show, the world’s biggest gaming convention) and thus Square Enix were relying on word-of-mouth, journalists and bloggers to take the news about their new game to the audience.

In general terms, it is clearly a conventional game trailer in terms of structure and narrative; it features particularly exciting parts of the game and gives some sense of the plot and narrative (essentially, Lara learning to protect and defend herself.) It utilises some conventions of ‘realist’ film (‘shakycam’, sunspots and rain on the camera) in order to create a grittier gaming experience. The game is also much more violent than previous instalments, and it also borrows conventions from horror films, especially the slasher movie; the canted angles, fast edits and flashing transitions, for example, ant the dark, underground locations. Generically, this takes the game closer to survival horror than adventure.

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Reactions were mixed, but were soon dominated by discussions about the representational issues in the trailer. There were accusations that it was little more than ‘torture porn’; basically, that it offers pleasures to a male audience who want to watch a young woman being brutalised in a number of ways. (This again makes the diversions offered by the trailer similar to those offered by slasher movies, a genre typically aimed at a male audience.) Lara is battered and attacked for the first part of the trailer and even as she becomes more competent in defending herself, she remains stereotypically feminine and ‘soft’ – for example, she apologises to a deer before killing it. (Try to imagine the male protagonist of any game ever doing that.) Soon, she calls her mentor, a man, to help her defend herself from other men as she tries to rescue her female friend. So, judged by the trailer, we appear to be in a very conventional Proppsian narrative, constructed to appeal to a male gaze; girls are unable to defend themselves from men, so they need other men to help them. Things happen to Lara in this trailer and she appears to be powerless to stop any of it – there is no real sense of her being active and even the last shot is of her falling down a cliff face; she is being represented as a victim, which seems like a huge departure from previous games.

The real controversy, though, was about a scene in the trailer where one of the villains seems about to rape Lara, although she manages to fight him off. The editing in this scene is clearly designed to create excitement – jump cuts, quick cuts from mid-shot to close-up, MTV-style editing. Rape, it seems to suggest, is a fit topic for a game, particularly one aimed at a male audience. This reveals n=much about how audiences are regarded by the industry; Robyn Miller wrote ‘In brief, the marketing strategy assumes that its intended audience will only express interest in a female character if she is systematically victimized and portrayed as inert.’

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Square Enix released a statement which probably did more harm than good, saying that players would want to ‘protect’ Lara – again, we can detect paternalism here and an assumption that the audience is male. The ‘buzz’ was not about the game at this point, but about the trailer and given that the company were relying on positive reports from bloggers and media in general, this first trailer seems to have been a textbook example of bad marketing. In the mainstream, non-gaming, press in particular, the impression was created that the whole game was about rape. (Newspapers with large circulations like the UK’s The Sun and The Guardian are examples of this.) But influential gaming blogs like Kotaku were also bemused by the marketing angle; not at all the response the company wanted.

Closer to  the actual launch of the game, we can see that Square Enix have changed their approach. This trailer, called Reborn, is making a determined effort to appeal across gender and age groups.

Firstly, we actually see the intended audience; both genders, various ages and races.

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Secondly, they are speaking Lara’s words, giving her a voice; in the previous trailer, most of the talking was done by Roth. We still see Lara suffer a lot, but this time the ‘turnaround’, where she takes control of the narrative, comes a lot more quickly and more powerfully. ‘I must fight,’ she says, and then we have a list of adjectives to describe her – ‘fast’, ‘bold’, ‘brutal’ and so on. These are words and ideas which would not conventionally be associated with females. Finally, we hear ‘I am LARA CROFT.’ The focus is now on her as a survivor rather than a victim (the tagline for the game was ‘A survivor is born’) and as the protagonist, the active character in the narrative. This is much more in keeping with the established character of Lara Croft and, indeed, it offer a much more accurate representation of what was generally agreed to be a very good game.

There were other marketing approaches used – free DLC was given away to those who pre-ordered the game for example – but perhaps the damage had been done. Jeff Vogel wrote that the marketing campaign never made clear who the game was actually targeted at – the genre of the game, the mood and tone, the main character had all apparently changed and were represented inconsistently throughout the campaign – and perhaps that was part of the reason for the apparently disappointing sales.

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