What comes to mind when you think of Tomb Raider? Is it leaping across a bottomless chasm deep in the bowels of some forgotten cave? Turning stopcocks and flipping switches to unravel the mysterious machines of some ancient civilization with far too much time and engineering talent on their hands? Perhaps jumping though the air while firing a pair of pistols at dinosaurs? Whatever your answer, it’ll be sure to change after playing the newest game in the series, titled simply (and confusingly) Tomb Raider. After this new adventure you’re bound to be haunted by images of staring gaming’s greatest heroine in the eye as she twitches and writhes after having been impaled on a tree branch.
A generation of gamers have grown up thrilled by the adventures of Lara Croft. The strong, resourceful homage to Indiana Jones has spent the past 17 years leading players on artifact laden journeys around the world. The Tomb Raider series spans over 30 gaming titles across more than a dozen different hardware platforms and two feature films. It is a legendary franchise of high adventure where the violence never escalated beyond what you’d expect to find while Raiding a Lost Ark. Until now. Unfortunately for Lara, the 2013 release of Tomb Raider see a much younger, less experienced version of the well known action star appearing in her first “M for Mature” rated adventure. An adventure full of pointy objects ready to stab her through the neck and in-game camera all too eager to deliver snufftastic close-ups of her final moments.
So, how graphic are the ends Lara is destined to face in Tomb Raider? Well, in addition to the aforementioned obsession with puncturing the young Lady Croft’s neck with sharp objects including, but not limited to, branches, arrows, machetes, and pick axes, there is a great deal of impaling Lara through the abdomen as well. One particularly vicious end sees our protagonist run through with a two meter-long awl, hoisted into the air, and planted in the center of the room for the game’s camera to capture her final tortured moments. This being a Tomb Raider game, there is, of course, ample opportunities for being crushed by rocks. The directors certainly take advantage of this tradition to bring the view mere inches from Lara’s face to witness this fate. Apparently somewhere along the line all the impalement must not have been enough to keep the developers ‘jolly’ and they were forced to combine the rock crushing or stomach skewering with drowning in a 2-for-1 sale of distasteful death. Even when Tomb Raider isn’t treating your character like a shish kabob because you couldn’t jerk your joystick back and forth fast enough (yes, this is a real mechanic employed in the game’s do-or-die ‘quicktime’ action sequences), the game features frequent cutscenes of non-fatally smashing Lara against trees, rocks, and other debris to cover her in mud and open wounds. This is Tomb Raider through the eyes of a troubled voyeur obsessed with the X-rated exploitation films of the 1970s. It is less Last Crusade and more Cannibal Holocaust.
So what went through the minds of the men behind the making of the 2013 version of Tomb Raider? Kotaku has some form of answers in an interview with executive producer Ron Rosenberg from 2012. In it, Rosenberg states that "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… When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.” When asked about the new “less voluptuous” version of Lara Croft (A claim made by EVERY major Tomb Raider game for nearly a decade now), Rosenberg explains, “The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear. She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.” Well, that certainly explains the sequence where a lecherous baddie caresses Lara’s hip before chocking her to death with both hands in a full-screen HD close-up.
Graphic depictions of violence certainly have their place in both art and storytelling, no matter the medium. There is, however, a responsibility on the part of the artist to ensure that these depictions are appropriate to both the subject matter and the audience. Production company Crystal Dynamics has taken a venerable franchise full of two decades worth of PG-rated action-adventure staring one of gaming’s only female heroes and dropped it into a cesspool of misogynistic torture porn the likes of which would make a Call of Duty: Black Ops director blush.
Yes, as gratuitous and tacky as it was, at least Black Ops never told me to wiggle my joystick as fast as possible while staring a dying woman in the eye.