My favorite movie is a Brazilian film called City of God. It’s set in a favela in Brazil and follows an ensemble of characters (including our protagonist, “Rocket”), as they grow from kids to adults in the titular City of God.
It’s a tremendous film, with great characters and tremendous visuals to go along with a compelling story.
It’s also incredibly violent and gritty.
The most egregious scene of violence is a scene where one of the older kids (Lil’ Ze) corners the gang of younger kids (they are probably between 6 and 9), and, in a horrifying show of power and violence, forces one of the kids to shoot the other in the foot. It’s something that would never be shown in a film made in the United States, and the power of that scene stays with me still, nearly 10 years after the movie released.
The scene doesn’t really advance the plot, it’s there to color in the world and portray the desperation and forced adulthood that many of the kids in this favela have to endure in order to survive. It’s not really dealt with in any emotional way, and is simply presented to the viewer, as is, without judgement or comment. These are the stakes, it says to the viewer. No one is safe.
Recently, Crystal Dynamics (CD), developers of the Tomb Raider reboot, showcased their game at the E3 Microsoft press conference. The game is set as an origin story for Lara Croft, one that redirects the focus of the game’s theme from something fanciful to something much more dark and gritty. They showcased the new, much more appropriately proportioned Lara in beautiful island environments with gameplay that was much more grounded in the reality of a desperate survival from an island full of enemies (be they criminals, thugs, etc).
One of the scenes in particular stuck out to me and many others who were watching the press conference. In it, a tied-up Lara is faced with a situation wherein one of the gang leaders makes advances towards her that are predatory in nature, with the implication that if she doesn’t do something, he will force himself upon her. Lara breaks free, and kills her attacker.
After the presentation was over, I for one felt impressed with the new direction Tomb Raider was taking, and I was looking forward to seeing more, despite feeling very strange about the scene I just described.
Of course, other people had differing opinions. That’s fine, of course, and that was actually not where this thing went off the rails. The opportunity was there for the gaming community to have a civilized discussion about the ramifications of having such a scene in a major title, but then Crystal Dynamics Darrell Gallagher released this statement (undoubtedly at the behest of PR), and that’s when everything went to crap:
“Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.”
Why did Crystal Dynamics decide that the best way to face a controversy they created was to insult the intelligence of their audience?
It’s obvious for every person who has seen the “Crossroads” trailer (which is linked at the bottom of the statement, non-sexual-assault-sexual-assault included) that what Lara endures 3/4ths of the way through that trailer is something that could most generously (for CD) described as “an assault with sexual overtures.” My question is this: why run from it? If you handle it in your game in a mature way, why run away from your artistic vision?
The biggest problem (and one that CD themselves created) is that someone decided that including this scene in their E3 presentation was important, probably to stir up controversy and buzz for their game. But the problem with doing that is that you remove the most important element from any scene in media that pushes boundaries in a respectful way: context.
There’s no context to the scene in the trailer. It’s intercut with other parts of her escape, and the whole thing comes off as being for spectacle, not for the purposes of character growth and vision. When Lisbeth Salander is sexually assaulted in Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, it was a situation that had context within the rest of the film. It didn’t need to happen to advance the plot (she could have just had a nicer court-issued guardian), but it informs her character in a way that gives some context to her behavior and decisions later in that story and the rest of the series of novels/films. It wasn’t a scene that was played up for exposure of controversy, it’s simply presented, as is. Obviously the author wants us to feel some way for Lisbeth, and when she gets revenge on her assaulter, we as the audience revel in her triumph, and those moments instantly draw us toward her. Now, whether or not that’s a cheap way to draw sympathy for a character is another discussion for another day (my take: it depends…sorry), but the purpose of the scene is clear.
Going back to Tomb Raider’s E3 presentation, the problem is that the scene is placed so out of context that it’s impossible for us to know if it’s something that happens once (and informs Lara’s character), or if it’s a common happening in the game. We also don’t know really when the scene takes place, which would make a contextual difference when determining how the scene serves the larger theme of the game. If it happens at the beginning of the game (which is what we seem to think now), then it gives the scene a different resonance than if it happens at the end of the game. If CD had decided to leave that scene out of the presentation/trailer, and allowed the player to experience it in the proper context, then the writers and designers could have ensured that the reasoning behind the scene (a fight or flight situation in which Lara is forced to kill for the first time) was properly executed with respect for the material, the character, and the audience. Instead, we get these useless flash cuts that seem to equate the sexual assault of a character with an explosion or a death-defying jump.
There was an opportunity here to give players a situation that they do not experience in games. Instead, we get what we always do: sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Nothing except another company insulting the intelligence of its audience and missing an opportunity to showcase that the gaming community is mature and capable of having a serious discussion.