Tomb Raider

Woman Rescues Princess

Tomb Raider Good news: Tomb Raider (2013) passes the Bechdel Test.  For the unenlightened, a passing grade requires a piece of media to feature two female characters, both with names, sharing a conversation about something other than a man.  Lara Croft, Tomb Raider‘s protagonist, who has finally become a respectable, layered, non-objectified female character after 10+ years of being the quintessential example of poor female imagery in gaming, shoots plenty of breeze with her best friend/roommate Samantha (Sam) about science, survival, filmmaking, and their deep-rooted friendship.  Her rival/frenemy is also female: Joslin Reyes, who considers Lara a greenhorn and blames her for the story’s central shipwreck.  Even the enemy, in the end, is a Sun Goddess (Himiko) who requires another woman to carry on her legacy every generation.

Most of the Bechdel-Test-scrutiny is placed upon media that has widespread influence – that is to say, big-budget films, episodic TV series, video games, and all manner of popular brainjunk, much of which stubbornly retains the view that a man must be a misogynistic, aggressive, meat-eating, alcohol-swilling American cowboy in order to be “masculine,” and women can only be measured by which role they occupy in regards to the man, and how well they can do it: love interest?  Damsel in distress? Dove-eyed sidekick?  Secretary?  Domineering mother?  Stripper?  An old strategy by mostly-or-all-male development teams has been to pander to male audiences by giving the illusion of strong and independent female characters (let’s stay away from the word “empowered,” since we all have different ideas of what that means) through implementation of shopworn stereotypes that still linger in the wrong column of most people’s “sexist or not?” lists.  The Femme Fatale is the one that comes to mind.  Bayonetta, for example, filled the shoes of the Old Lara Croft: she was an action hero who enjoyed murdering enemies with stylized flourishes, after which she’d strike a sexy pose as if she knew the camera was there.  “She uses her sexuality to get what she wants,” someone once told me when I questioned how-the-fuck Bayonetta is an [empowered] character.  We’re talking about a character who wears skin-tight, low-cut black leather, whose legs are twice the length of the rest of her body, and who is built like a telephone pole with two enormous Happy Birthday balloons taped to it.  Is there really any question about the target audience for this character?

But Lara does not enjoy the killing.  Not only does the new Lara Croft game feature un-stupid dialogue between women, but the mostly-or-all-male development team (female writers notwithstanding, since the execs make all the final decisions) resisted even the temptation to have a shot of Lara in her underwear (which they probably could have snuck in, considering she’s trapped on an island wearing the same set of clothes for days straight and would need to clean or dry them after spending hours in pouring rain, muddy jungles, and even a river of blood).  Throughout the adventure, Lara is clad in a tank top, baggy cargo pants, and hiking boots, and can also don a cool-looking bomber jacket.  Even with all of the climbing, rolling, and getting soaked she does, the camera lens is never opportunistic or crude, and never attempts to make Lara an object of the player’s (or anyone else’s) sexual desire.

Sometimes, a big problem occurs when male game developers attempt to verbally sell these games to the public.  Consider that these guys, if I may be so bold, do not, as it were, “get out much” (i.e. social interaction, specifically with and about women, is not on their daily to-do lists, and they’re forced to aim these games at male audiences, despite the fact that plenty of women and girls play video games, too).  Consider also that public speaking is not their forte’.  Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of Tomb Raider, used the word “rape” at a pre-release conference to describe what the island’s scavengers try to do to Lara before she’s forced to kill for the first time.  He also stated – and this miffs me just as badly – “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her….’”

First off, Lara never becomes a victim of sexual assault in the game.  In one scene, a grizzled island inhabitant who has captured Lara attempts to feel her hip and makes a pretty obvious threat, but before anything goes further, the player is tasked with pressing a button combination that allows Lara to fight back, kill the guy, and escape.  On one level, the enemy character’s actions fit what the developers are trying to say about the people of the island: they’ve been trapped here for years without seeing a woman, and have become savage brainwashed cultists in the meantime, so when they’re tasked with killing Lara anyway, touching her body comes to mind.  Okay, whatever.  But even if the player fails to press the buttons in time and in the right order, the implied sexual assault does not go further (the player does, however, receive what amounts to a “game over”).  With real-life events such as the Steubenville Rape Trial (which I canceled a lesson in order to talk to my students about last week), we don’t need to act out sex crime in games.  Using a term like “rape” to describe what the enemy tries to do to Lara in this scene also perpetuates the inaccurate and frustratingly widespread  assumption that every rapist is a bogeyman in a dark alley (or an island) who jumps out of the shadows to grab the woman, and that the woman always screams and fights.  Young people are impressionable.  If you present this material to a young man enough times, this is how he thinks things are.  Before you say “But this game is for mature audiences; young people aren’t playing it,” consider the fact that when I used to teach kindergarten, I met five year-olds who played Call of Duty.  Send your sixth-grader into GameStop and see what they can’t buy.

Rosenberg’s haphazard comments (which I have to believe were at least partially informed by the need to pander to male gamers who need a “reason” to play female characters in games) caused the problems, nothing in the game itself.  He also likened sexual assault victims to “cornered animal[s],” which again has nothing to do with the actual content of the game, but which is cripplingly reductive and creates a pretty shitty image of his company.  I can only hope he’s looked back on these comments and realized what’s wrong with them (not to mention that one should actually plan out what one says in a public forum).

What disturbs me even more than the rape comment in and of itself is the thought that it was made on purpose.  No, Lara as a character does not ever give the impression of needing protection or help (as appropriately overwhelmed as she is by the story’s events), but was this just a way to get men to want to play the game?  Just like the Femme Fatale, the Rape-and-Revenge trope has only been perpetuated by male storytellers and is aimed at male audiences who get off on the idea of women as victims (whether or not in tandem with the Chicks With Guns trope).  Lara gets plenty roughed-up in this game, even if the player never “dies” or fails at a task.  She jumps off cliffs, slides down waterfalls, is shot non-fatally by arrows, does plenty of bleeding, and spends lots of screen-time tending to her flesh-wounds.  I immediately think of Nathan Drake, the main character of the Uncharted series, who was originally envisioned as the male Lara Croft and who never receives so much as a bruise in his games.  Is this because, when playing a male character, a male player wants to be completely dominant and in control, but with a female character, the titillation that comes with the victim/protection/violence against women nonsense is too much to resist?  I know this is not how all men and male gamers feel, but maybe it’s still what the gaming industry considers a safe bet for getting a game sold.  To briefly counterpoint this, I don’t think even my kindergarteners would have “believed” the story of this game if Lara had emerged from the adventure without a single cut.

Onward.  If I had anything like an epiphany during this game, it was that during the second-to-last scene of the story, after 20-ish nonconsecutive hours of play, I realized that this ended up being a story wherein a woman rescues a princess.  Yes, Sam turns out to be descended from Japanese royalty and is the “chosen one” Himiko requires in order to remain in control of the island.  Lara’s final task in the game is to rescue her.  After she does so, we witness a long sweeping hero-shot of Lara carrying Sam from Himiko’s lair to the beach, where safety awaits.  Throughout the story, the duo have a very chummy rapport.  They are referred to as “best friends” and “roommates” on occasion, and Lara goes to incredible lengths to save Sam multiple times.  Not only is Woman Rescues Princess noteworthy, but there’s some gay subtext here.  I’m not the only one who has noticed; there’s even a Tumblr page devoted to “shipping” the Lara/Sam relationship (note the word relationship; no one is saying “I wish they made out onscreen!”).

This is encouraging: are gamers more willing to accept and love LGBT characters in their games?  Mass Effect 3 included openly gay male and female characters, and the option to place the player character in a steady relationship with either of them (depending on gender of course).  Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Tomb Raider, says this concerning Lara’s sexuality:

“There’s part of me that would’ve loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure [the developer] would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either. Who knows what the future might hold?…But people have talked about Lara’s boyfriends and stuff like that, and I’m like, ‘No, no, I don’t want that to be part of it!’ This is about her. I didn’t feel like a boyfriend or that side of things fit into it. But I do like the fact that people speculate about what Lara’s relationship to Sam might have been…”

And the following concerning Lara’s identity as a female character in gaming:

“I wanted to make a human story. But I never wanted to forget that [Lara] was female either. And, I mean, certainly the way she reacts to things could be said to be more female as a reaction. I’m not talking about being scared, or being vulnerable. But the way she interacts with other characters, her friendship with Sam in particular…you wouldn’t see a male character holding the hands of an in-pain male character or hugging a dying male character…And certainly her friendship with Sam, especially when it’s fleshed out in the camera sequences, it’s quite a female friendship. It’s quite sort of playful and fun and girlish. And that underlines Sam’s importance in Lara’s life. They both have their differences, but they’re both ambitious women in their field. And they care a lot for each other. Maybe with a female character it’s easier to show those kind of emotions…But there things—the language she uses, or the way that she interacts—that could be said to be more feminine. I’m very much not talking about her sense of vulnerability or being scared. That again has been rolled out as: male characters aren’t shown as being scared or vulnerable, why should female characters? Well, just because it hasn’t been done with male characters doesn’t make it wrong! It’s probably more of a problem of the way we depict male characters.”

Subtext, then, maybe be enough to work with for now.  More significant is the desire of the game’s fans to see a relationship like this not only canonized, but portrayed as wholesome and equal, not steamy and exploitative.  We certainly have issues with how we portray male characters (see my comments on masculinity above and throughout this blog’s pages), rugged heroes and gay men alike.  When they’re one-note tough guys, no one has a problem.  Same with female characters: if they fit a familiar role, male gamers are satisfied and the game sells.  Give them some substance, realistic quirks and ambitions, anything to rock the boat, and there’s “controversy.”

We need to be able to go all the way with the idea of women being “equals” in gaming if we’re to go there at all.  Mass Effect made strides when revealing that more players, including men, chose to play the female version of Commander Shepard, and BioWare (the game’s developer) subsequently released the final game in the trilogy with a reversible cover that could feature hardened, cool-looking versions of either gender of the hero (yes, you can still have the pervy-looking buzzcut Shepard gracing your shelf if you like).  The previous two game covers, however, feature only the male version of the character.  Why not have the mandatory “FemShep” printed on this one?  Could the assumption be that male gamers would not want a female character, however strong and deep, on display in their home lest their friends consider them – gulp – feminine?  How about the marketing campaign of the new Bioshock Infinite that featured Elizabeth, the male protagonist’s female partner (action partner, not romantic), with her breasts mostly exposed and a crosshair circling her head as if to declare her a victim that must be rescued by any man who would purchase this game, only to realize that in the game, she’s actually a well-developed character who keeps her clothes on?  Come to find out, the game developer left the marketing to another company altogether.  What is it?  The need to “possess” the female character?  The need to let male friends know that you do?  This one really killed me.

With game-scripters like Pratchett taking risks and breathing life into characters like Lara, who has traveled as long a road as any game character to earn her place, maybe we’re not far away from something that truly feels like inhaling new air, something that will dissolve the conflict some of us have about enjoying video games vs. smashing the status quo, or even just admitting to colleagues with preconceived notions about video games (and often how video games should be steadfastly discouraged) that we find enjoyment in this stuff.

Mass Effect 3

Your complaints are Massively Ineffectual

If you drill down to this blog’s proverbial crust, you’ll see that I enjoy a video game now and then.  As a fiction writer, I particularly (nay, almost exclusively) enjoy a game with a strong narrative, hence my whatever-comes-right-before-obsession with BioWare’s Mass Effect series, which began in 2007 with a single-player sci-fi/space opera adventure on the Xbox 360.  The final volume of the trilogy, in which your decisions from the first two games (ranging from the way you treat certain characters, your conversations with them, and your romantic ventures, to the manner in which you chose to complete missions with galaxy-wide consequences) are reflected in every character interaction, every quest, every blade of grass.  Nothing like this has ever been done in a game.  Mass Effect 3 alone contains over 40,000 lines of dialogue, considerably more than most films.  The development team has worked themselves to the bone trying to cater to their fans – a naive choice and a perpetually thankless task, as any writer knows.  As was inevitable, a world wide web of whiners were unhappy with the game’s ending, and a host of “change the ending” campaigns have begun, including but not limited to a shameful hostage situation in which $70,000 in charity money has been raised for Child’s Play, only to be paid if BioWare modifies the game’s ending.

This morning, BioWare’s co-owner, Dr. Ray Muzyka, released an official statement addressing the concerns of the “fans” (a term I use very loosely to describe the folks who have issued such disrespectful, inflammatory, and in many cases unfounded and ignorant feedback to the developers).  In a nutshell, BioWare as promised a modification to the ending, and while no real details have been given, the development team is trying its “damnedest” to provide more “clarity” to the trilogy’s finale.

Allow me to back up for a moment before explaining why I am satisfied with the already-provided ending, and why everyone complaining, pandering, and threatening the developers are spoiled, entitled, and just plain wrong.  For readers unfamiliar with the series, I won’t tread the stories of all three games, but the overarching thread is that a race of machines known as the Reapers enter the galaxy from Dark Space (a real place, by the way) to harvest all organic life every 50,000 years.  Taking a page or three from Lovecraftian horror, the Reapers’ motives are incomprehensible to humans (not to mention the dozen other alien races who share power in the galactic government) and their methods are ruthless and absolutely thorough.  Commander Shepard (Jennifer Hale/Mark Meer), the story’s protagonist, an officer of the Earth Systems Alliance (the human military), whose gender, appearance, and complete background are determined by the player at the outset of the first game, is the first organic being to come into verbal contact with a Reaper and uncover the truth behind the cycle.  Among the series’ wonderfully-woven character-centric sub-plots, the lion’s share of Shepard’s story revolves around foiling the Reapers’ plans, and more importantly, preventing the cycle of galactic genocide from ever happening again.  Prior to this discovery, the galaxy enjoys prosperity and commerce among its various races through use of the Citadel, the center of galactic politics and trade, and the Mass Relays, a network of (for lack of a better word) “portals” that make use of mass effect energy, a substance/process that virtually erases the issue of light years by providing quick transport from one star system to the next.  The Citadel and Relays are thought to be created by an ancient race known as the Protheans, who disappeared from the galaxy after the Reapers attacked.

Spoilers follow.  In reality, the Citadel and the Mass Relays were created by the Reapers in order to ensure that once the galactic races discovered them, culture and society would develop along specific, predictable paths.  Advanced technology would be based upon the technology of the Mass Relays, and the Citadel, a majestic, technological dream several times larger than Manhattan, would become the center of galactic society.  The Protheans, like the countless races before them, were systematically wiped from existence when the Reapers returned, harvesting and destroying every sapient life form in the galaxy and leaving only the primitive races (which, in the time of the Protheans, included the humans, asari, turians, and salarians) to inherit the galaxy.  Once the technology of the new races reached its apex, the Reapers would return and the cycle would be repeated.

At the end of Mass Effect 3, the final chapter in the series, a battle between the Reapers and the amassed galactic fleets takes place, after which Shepard goes to the Citadel with her mentor, Captain Anderson (Keith David), in an effort to activate the Crucible, a large weapon with an unknown function, whose plans were left by extinct races in order to provide the future generations with a means to defeat the Reapers.  Still with me?  After a final confrontation with Shepard’s rival, the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen), who believes the Crucible will allow him to control the Reapers, Shepard is the only one left standing and must activate the device herself.  Upon doing so, Shepard is confronted by the Catalyst, an ancient virtual intelligence responsible for creating and controlling the Reapers.  The Catalyst explains that the purpose of the Reapers and their cycle is to prevent organic races from destroying themselves with technology by harvesting and preserving them (in the form of new Reapers) before they reach that point.  Shepard, having united races of organic and machine people throughout the course of the story, maintains that the Catalyst’s logic is flawed (and it is – it destroys organic races with machines in order to prevent organic races from destroying themselves with machines, albeit with the long-term goal of ensuring the ongoing existence of organic life).

I’ve heard the phrase Deus ex Machina thrown around to describe the introduction of the Catalyst.  Deus ex Machina, a term I teach my writing students, from the Latin “god out of the machine,” is defined as a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is abruptly pacified by way of the contrived or unexpected introduction of a new character, device, or ability.  The Catalyst, while quite literally a machine god, does not fit this description, as it doesn’t come completely out of left field.  As far back as the first game, Shepard and others have speculated that the Reapers were controlled by someone (come to find out later, even the Protheans knew this).  Who would it be besides a machine?  Moreover, the Catalyst does not solve anything; it actually creates a fresh conundrum.  Seeing Shepard’s determination in preserving her people and her home, the Catalyst rethinks the cycle and offers three choices to Shepard, all of which involve activating the Crucible: 1. Destroy the Reapers, which will also bring about the deactivation of the Mass Relays and the Citadel, as well as the destruction of all purely synthetic life (a choice the Catalyst doubts Shepard will make due to synthetic implants that saved her life in Mass Effect 2); 2. Control the Reapers, per the Illusive Man’s wishes, which will remove the Reapers from the galaxy (albeit alive) and cost Shepard her life; 3. Add Shepard’s own life energy to the beam fired by the Crucible, the fallout from which will create a new DNA framework such that every living being in the galaxy will become part organic and part machine (per the wishes of Saren, the original Mass Effect‘s main antagonist, who was, notably, brainwashed by the Reapers into thinking this was a good idea).

My choice, which I believe not only to be the best ending but the only choice, was to destroy the Reapers.  In this ending, the Crucible’s energy spreads from one Mass Relay to another, deactivating each, killing the Reapers (many of which are seen collapsing on Earth as humanity cheers) and obliterating the Citadel.  Shepard’s crew, separated from her, speed away in the Normandy (Shepard’s ship), and crash-land on a lush, green planet in an unknown system near Earth.  They escape the wreckage, safe and sound, looking out on this beautiful world as a new day begins.  Meanwhile, Shepard awakens in a pile of rubble (perhaps on Earth, judging by the color scheme) and takes a deep, hopeful breath.  Cue credits.  After the credits, a scene is shown: at some point in the future, an old man (voiced by Buzz Aldrin) living on the newly discovered world, speaks to a grandchild about how anything is possible, including this young child one day traveling to the stars.  As the child looks out into space, dazzled, he/she begs his/her grandfather to tell another story of “The Shepard.”

Complaints about the ending have stemmed from the very short cinematic that accompanies any of the three choices, and that the scenes are too similar and non-reflective of the player’s previous choices: the Normandy’s escape is always the same, and the crash-landing is always the same, albeit with slight landscape/character changes depending upon what choice the player made, who the player’s love interest was, who was on the player’s squad at the time of the escape, etc.  However, to say something as sweeping as “My choices had no effect on anything” is absolutely ludicrous.  Player choices are reflected throughout the entire game; the fact that you did or did not fetch a random person’s car keys should have no bearing on the fate of the galaxy.

Aside from the pallet-swapped ending cinematic, other questions arose, most of which are answered in the game if you’re paying attention and not cruising Facebook while characters are speaking (Q: How did the Normandy escape Earth?  A: It never landed; Joker explicitly states he’s rejoining the fleet after he drops you off; etc.).

The other big complaint is that after all of Shepard’s work and sacrifice, she deserves to be reunited with her friends and love interest.  Sorry, but this is not what happens to heroes.  This can never be Shepard’s fate.  Heroes throughout literary (and spoken) history give of themselves and offer the greatest sacrifices for the sake of others.  Heroes die, and if they live, you don’t get to see them buy a big house with a white picket fence, a golden retriever, and little blue children.  I’ve seen blogs and forum posts, in some cases by “journalists” who actually get paid to write blogs, in which the ending (every option) is described as “dark” and “unhappy.”  Let’s examine this.  Shepard, whether sacrificing herself or living, has completed what she set out to do from her first step on Eden Prime: stopped the cycle of death, prevented future generations from ever having to know the horror of the Reapers, which included not only the destruction of entire worlds, but the re-purposing and indoctrination of men, women and and children to serve the needs of the machines.  A new life has been made possible, a life in which the organic races will discover and develop technology on their own terms and develop along their own paths, not the paths of machines or gods.  This, to me, is the happiest ending possible.

Here in the first world, though, we have an unfaltering craving for entertainment that is “comforting,” and if we don’t get to see that scene with the big house and the blue children, something sits uneasily.  Somehow it’s unhappy if every thread isn’t tied off, if we don’t have a Tolkien-esque epilogue ensuring us that every character lived a happy, conflict-free life and died of old age in a big house surrounded by little blue…okay.  I’m sympathetic to folks who get so invested in fictional characters that they become impassioned about a story’s ending.  Hell, as a writer, I love getting that response.  But you, the reader, the consumer, do not know the characters better than their writer does.  Don’t be entitled.  Don’t threaten the developers.  Don’t demand another ending.  The writers do not owe you anything; you knew what you were getting into when you slid your 60 bucks across the counter at Gamestop, that every story in media form, no matter how open-ended, must have a finite end, and if you don’t know or believe that, I cannot help you.

So, what will the modifications to the ending be?  “Clarity?” Artistic integrity will be difficult to uphold if you’re slapping padding on an ending that was already conceived, revised, and executed. As a fan of the ending as a whole (particularly the “destroy the Reapers” ending wherein Shepard survives), I would humbly put down my vote for no major changes. “Clarification” can sometimes trump drama, and as a writer, I’d ask that primary attention always be given to the story, not the consumers.  As it stands, the ending is a beautiful set-piece with the biggest stakes imaginable for a series of this type, percussed by the wonderful music of Clint Mansell.

That being said, if the proposed changes will be made only in the form of additions (and not a complete retooling of the entire end sequence), I would ask for two things: more dialogue choices with the Catalyst (a la the conversation with Vigil in the original game) and a post-credits, post-Buzz Aldrin, text-only catch-up on what the future of the galaxy’s other races held, depending upon the player’s choices.  This way, the drama of the ending, so epic in scale and rife with scene (no summary!) is preserved.

Pandering for more content is one thing – if I was blessed with so many readers that thousands of people demanded another book featuring the same characters, I would be flattered, but my first instinct would not necessarily be to hit the grindstone: I wrote the ending I wrote for a reason.  Demanding a different resolution to an already resolved narrative is another side of the same coin; when either gets out of hand, it becomes an entitlement issue, and as the story scribbler, you cannot marry yourself to your readers (or players), even if they’re tossing money at your feet.  Unless, of course, you’re willing to forgo the integrity of your work for another paycheck or further “attaboys” and pats on the back.

This does not apply only to writers with a wide circulation, either.  Most of the best literary writers of our time aren’t making a full living (and in some cases, no money at all) from their work, and still have readers (whether they be friends or avid devotees to literary magazines) who rabidly lap up every published word.  If one of these writers is asked (or better yet, told) by a reader to change a pivotal scene, resurrect a dead character, or tack on a “happier” ending, is she going to do it?  Will she even consider it?  Whether or not she does, the demand is insane.  This is the position you must put yourself in when considering what you’re asking of the writer.  These aren’t people playing with chess pieces.  Characters cannot be moved with the flick of a finger.  At some point, the writer and the character found one another, and the former has, hopefully, gotten to know the latter as intimately as possible through drafts, revisions, outlines, brainstorming, and a truckload of scrapped synopses.  The writer knows where the character’s story ends, and you must understand that, even if you hate where the story ends up.

If there was any question, no, I do not hold video game writing anywhere near the same tier as literature, but the reaction to ME3‘s finale seemed a valid touch-point for a growing issue that spreads as the concept/practice of “fandom” expands.

Would I like to see Shepard reunite with her romantic partner?  Sure.  I’m human.  Does it belong in the finale of this story?  No.  It does not.  Muzyka announced the development of further Mass Effect games in addition to the modified ending, so there is going to be a rebuilt galaxy, if that wasn’t evidenced enough by the post-credits scene, which is why I think the ending where the Reapers are destroyed and Shepard lives despite the Catalyst’s warning about Shepard being unable to live without synthetics due to her implants, is so fucking stellar.  That breath Shepard takes upon awakening is the final defeat of the Reapers and the final flaw in the Catalyst’s argument, not the big explosions and the collapsing metal squids.  A single breath.

Stop complaining and take one yourself.