Hitman, Tomb Raider… and rape?!

June 19, 2012, Author: Andy Corrigan

So, that Hitman: Absolution trailer then. That caused a bit of a storm didn’t it? IO Interactive’s imagery of Agent 47 narrowly missing the wrong end of an RPG from some overly-sexualised nuns, before beating them down in the most brutal way possible has caused arguments that will rage on and on. From sexism, violence towards women, even through to rape, I’ve seen some video-game controversy in my 30 years on this earth, but I’ve never seen it turn the gaming community against itself in this fashion.

There are a lot of valid debates to be had as a result of the trailer, though. I mean, whatever your take, it’s an undeniable fact that women in games have historically been mostly over-sexualised. As the gaming community becomes more diverse, arguments about what is and what isn’t offensive needs to take place, but let’s not pretend for one minute that this is just a games industry problem. It’s not. It’s an entertainment industry problem. It’s why Susan Boyle didn’t get the Black Widow gig in The Avengers, and why Fabio graced all the escapist pulp-fiction novels aimed at a female audience. Sex sells. It’s when you add violence into the mix that the area gets rightly contentious, and that’s just what Hitman’s trailer highlighted.

As such, this particular trailer asks a lot of questions about the state of the industry, how it sees women, and whether this brutal beatdown is the type of thing we want representing us as a collective group. There have already been many well written and argued breakdowns of the trailer itself, so I’m going to avoid that here. While I do think that the trailer is shocking, tasteless and crass, I think it’s a bit tenuous to accuse an entire industry of propagating a subliminal message that it’s okay for men to assault, dominate and rape women, such has been some of the more extreme cases put forward recently.

Personally, I don’t think for a second that IO Interactive were trying to purvey a sick message. They made what they thought was an action-packed and stylish trailer that takes part in their exaggerated universe, where a man with questionable morals takes out another set of people with questionable morals. Call me naïve, but I fully believe that they simply misjudged how the gaming landscape has changed.

Brutal yes. Perpetuating rape fantasies? Nope, not for me.

Then, just as the public drama had died down, someone had to say the ‘R’ word again, only this time it was someone on a development team. Crystal Dynamics were quoted at E3 as saying that due to the intense physical torment that their new Lara Croft was going to go through, including attempted sexual assault, that gamers would want to ‘protect’ their rebooted heroine. The exact phrase was a poorly worded sentiment, but once again, it’s given people reason to make the argument that next year’s Tomb Raider reboot is ‘lazily written’ and ‘sexist’ because again, to many, it’s a case of a female being violently tortured for the pleasure of all the sick men watching. I’d argue the exact opposite. Lazy is the last thing I’d call it, actually.

Lazy would be wheeling out the same cartoon Lara in all her exaggerated, busty glory and having her feature in FHM yet again. Crystal Dynamics have actually desexualised Lara in many regards, and attempted to make her a believable, vulnerable character. She can no longer deal with every situation flawlessly without so much as putting a hair out of place. Yet while she’s more vulnerable, she now seems more resilient and resourceful, with a will to keep going and surviving, no matter how much punishment she has to take. That’s what I personally took from the trailer. This is the difference between Daniel Craig’s Bond and Roger Moore’s.

It’s not lazy to take such an established character and change everything we know, throwing in physical punishment and possible attempted sexual assault as part of a story of growth. Lazy implies that no thought went into it. The argument from detractors that “she’s female therefore she must be raped, equals lazy writing” doesn’t wash, either, as the majority of female characters in other games, hyper-sexualised or not, would have been suffering the same fate. Rather than being lazy, I’d call it brave, or risky.

Rape, attempted rape, violence towards whoever; there’s no denying that it’s a very difficult subject to approach. Anyone who says otherwise is likely a sick individual. It is, however, the type of difficult subject that gaming has to learn how to tackle if it’s to grow as a storytelling medium. The industry does have the responsibility to do it in the right way, though. As it happens, Crystal Dynamics have since come out and said there is nothing more sinister than seen in the trailer, and that there are no scenes of sexual assault in their game.

Madison in Heavy Rain nearly got assaulted/raped in a fucked-up dream sequence that was unrelated to the story, and existed only to get her tits out. Where was the controversy then?

Either way, the fact of the matter is that some of the most iconic moments in relatable media (media that we all want games to be as respected as) are uncomfortable to watch and experience. It’s these moments in books and movies that resonate the most or provoke a reaction, cause debate or thought. They can make us feel fearful, disgusted or nauseous. Movies tackle tough subjects like rape, racism, abduction, murder, even paedophilia on almost a yearly basis; and yet it produces some fantastic, emotionally charged viewing, despite the discomfort it might cause to viewers. We all want games to engage us more emotionally and to carry a message, and I’m sorry, but it’s in tackling tough subjects that a lot of cinema and literature manages that.

In striving for that, like other entertainment sectors did, the games industry will make mistakes and misstep in its early efforts to evoke difficult feelings. Games will undoubtedly manage to offend people as it does so, just like Hollywood did in its infancy. Do we stop trying to create something more profound simply because someone somewhere might get offended at something? Hell no. Imagine Hollywood without visionaries like Scorsese, Tarantino, Oliver Stone or Francis Ford Coppola. Directors never short of controversy in their careers as they refined their art.

Of course, no one currently upset with either of these scenarios really has any idea of how either of these stories will actually play out, or how tastefully either is really managed until the games get released. We have suspicions, sure, but getting up in arms and pre-judgmental about content when you know very little about it and in what context, particularly in Tomb Raider’s case, does us no good. It will simply prevent developers from taking shots at tackling difficult subjects going forward.

If we continue jumping aggressively at developers that even hint at something horrible in relation to one of their games before knowing everything there is to know about them, then we’re as bad as the tabloid newspapers and press that freely take swipes at us, week in, week out. At the moment there are too many high horses, when we simply need to judge the game when it’s ready to be judged. I for one would hate to see the industry keep playing it safe.

Either way, in what I’ve seen thus far, it looks to me that Crystal Dynamics at least, are trying to deal with a delicate subject in a way that shows that their poster girl is made of stern stuff, and you know what? They deserve the chance to tell their story. I’ll judge them once they’ve told it, and not a second before. Only then can we know if they’ve handled themselves appropriately.

If they haven’t, I’m sure they’ll soon know about it.