Some Thoughts on the New Tomb Raider Film

It’s no secret that I quite enjoy the two most recent Tomb Raider games and the upcoming third game is probably one of the few video games I’m actually looking forward to this year. Despite this goodwill, I had very low hopes for the new Tomb Raider movie, especially after the first trailer was released. However, my girlfriend and I wanted to catch a movie last weekend and ended up seeing Tomb Raider on a whim. I came away more impressed than I was expecting to (at the very least, it is far better than the Angelina Jolie-led Tomb Raider films), but it makes one huge, fundamental blunder near the mid-point which really screws over the rest of the film. Hell, just thinking about it, Tomb Raider could have been great – dare I say, easily the best video game movie of all time*. This isn’t a review (off-the-cuff, I’d probably give it a 6/10), but more of a lament of what Tomb Raider could have been.

First off, I feel like I should acknowledge that, as expected, Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander does a superb job as Lara Croft. Angelina Jolie was the perfect casting decision for that era of Tomb Raider, but I definitely appreciate this more grounded take on the heroine, and Vikander nails it. She has the physicality and confidence to sell the role, while also knowing when she should be vulnerable as Lara gets swept in over her head (for example, throughout the entire scene involving the plane hanging over a waterfall, the look of terror on Vikander’s face just sells the danger and makes it feel far more real than you would expect). The film also does a good job of making us care for Lara, giving us around 40 very solid minutes of set-up to establish her character, motivations and resourcefulness, while also giving us a pretty badass bicycle chase too.

Honestly, the first hour of Tomb Raider is very solid. In this time, we also get introduced to another compelling character, Lu Ren, whose past seems to be entwined with Lara’s own. There’s a tangible chemistry between the two – not necessarily romantic, but they really light up the screen together, sort of like Lara and Jonah’s partnership in the video games. The villain, Mathias Vogel, could have been very bland, but since he’s played by the underrated Walton Goggins, he is imbued with a sense of desperation and sympathy where you can identify with him. He is definitely a bad guy, but he just wants to see his family again and will do whatever it takes do accomplish that. He makes for a decent foil for Lara and is certainly a serviceable enough villain.

After the first hour, it’s pretty clear that Tomb Raider has all the pieces in place to succeed. Lara’s on the island being chased by bad guys, Lu Ren has been shot and captured, that awesome waterfall-to-plane-to-parachute sequence happens, and then Lara is forced to kill her first human being. She feels awful about it and breaks down… and then sees a hooded figure in the woods watching, she chases them down and the movie never gets its footing back. (Let me reiterate here once again: SPOILER ALERT!!!) In a massive deviation from Lara’s backstory and history in all other portrayals of the character, it turns out that Lord Richard Croft is alive on the island and has been trying to prevent the villains from succeeding since he disappeared.

This is such a blunder for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, it diminishes Lara’s own role in the story in favour of a character who should be, for all practical purposes, a plot point. In most portrayals of Lord Croft, he exists only to provide Lara with a motivation (inspiring her to seek adventure, an emotional investment in her current treasure hunt, an existential emptiness from losing her father in a foundational period of her life, etc). The Tomb Raider film initially follows this pattern, establishing Richard Croft’s strong bond with Lara and he proves to be the crux of her desire to set out on a quest to discover what happened to him. His journal notes drive much of the early plot, but Richard himself is more of a plot point than an actual character – hell, the only reason we care about him at all is because Lara (who we already like quite a bit) cares so much about him. However, when he shows up in earnest, he begins to dominate the plot despite still being just a boring side-character. He doesn’t change at all, doesn’t do much to drive the plot other than an obligatory heroic sacrifice at the end, and basically just takes up screen time from the actual heroine. Michael Phillips’ review hits the nail on the head in this regard: “The Lara Croft reboot Tomb Raider isn’t half bad for an hour. Then there’s another hour. That hour is quite bad. It’s no fun watching your action heroine get shoved, punched and kicked to the sidelines of her own movie, while the menfolk take over and take turns overacting before expiring”.

To make things worse, the twist also ruins other elements of the film which had been working well up until that point. As I said before, the twist comes immediately after Lara’s first kill, which is supposed to be a major emotional trauma for her character. However, by having her encounter Richard within seconds of that this, the gravity of the situation is undercut. As far as the film’s concerned, she gets over it immediately. In fact, it’s bad enough that I wonder if perhaps Richard’s role was expanded in rewrites, its inclusion is that jarring. It also doesn’t help that as soon as Richard shows up, Lu Ren is sidelined for the rest of the movie, doing little more than helping some of the captives on the island to escape. Furthermore, the film has hammered home that Richard should be a dead a number of times before this twist. Richard states that he is likely dead in his recording to Lara, and even Mathias says that he straight-up killed Richard. When it turns out that Richard is still alive, we’re given absolutely no explanation as to how Mathias could have possibly mistaken this. They don’t even have hints of his survival beforehand either, he just shows up out of nowhere, so it’s not like they even attempted any clever foreshadowing to ease us into the idea. Again, it feels like something shoehorned in awkwardly during rewrites.

Furthermore, we can just look at the video game to see how Tomb Raider could have been better. The film actually makes quite a few deviations from the source material which are net positives (particularly the first act set-up in London), and others which are unfortunate but I can understand (condensing the colourful cast of side-characters down into just Lu Ren and Richard). However, I feel like the film made a pretty big mistake by changing the central crux of Lara’s first big adventure: in the film, this is driven by finding Richard Croft, but in the games this revolves around rescuing Lara’s best friend Samantha Nishimura. These are both pretty archetypal adventure movie motivations, but I feel like giving Richard Croft so much prominence was the weaker route to take. For one thing, making your female-led action heroine’s motivation boil down to “daddy issues” is very cliche and boring. Elena Nicolaou puts it well: “with another Tomb Raider movie about Lara Croft and her father, the gulf between the starkly independent video game Lara, and the daddy-pleasing movie Lara, widens again.” Think about how this story places Lara Croft – she is picking up after her father’s work and any agency she has within the plot are just directed at that and at her obsession with her father. The film certainly isn’t misogynist or anti-feminist (hell, it even passes the Bechdel test, if you’re the sort of person who cares about that), but it does undercut itself by making Richard such a prominent figure in a film which is supposed to be all about Lara.

Contrast this with the plot of the game, which (in broad strokes) revolves around rescuing Sam. Lara sets out on this adventure of her own desire and fights to rescue Sam because she cares so much about her. This story puts Lara at the center of everything, where she should be. Furthermore, having a female action hero rescuing her female friend is far less-trodden ground than daddy issues is, and presents far more fertile ground for interesting characterization (if the film followed the game’s plot, Sam actually would get a chance to be more than just a living McGuffin, she gets scenes where she works to escape alongside Lara). You could argue that the removal of supernatural elements from the plot makes the inclusion of Sam unfeasible, but c’mon, you could rewrite it pretty easily – Trinity clearly believes in supernatural powers, so it’s not a stretch to believe that they could mistakenly believe Sam could be the key to unlocking Himiko’s power.

Tomb Raider could have been great. As it is, it’s just decent, and most of its issues can be linked back to Richard Croft’s survival. Here’s hoping that a sequel can correct the issues on display here, but if nothing else, at least the recently announced Shadow of the Tomb Raider should continue to carry on the series’ legacy into the future.

*Instead, that honour continues to be filled by DOA: Dead or Alive. That sounds like a joke, especially considering my love-hate relationship with the games, but seriously, the DOA movie is a legitimately fun film that does pretty much everything with a wink and grin. I’ve been planning on doing a review of it for a long time and one of these days I will need to actually do so, because it’s really that good.

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SJWs Part 1: Warriors, Come Out to Plaaaaay!

The amount of hate out there for SJWs at the moment is insane. I haven’t seen this much vitriol directed at a social group since around 2010 when “hipster hate” was just beginning to hit its stride. The backlash against SJWs has been playing out quite visibly lately, which has made me feel a need to put out a more comprehensive post on it than I have in the past. I had originally intended to put up one big piece on the current situation, but it ended up being really sprawling and incoherent, which has prompted me to split this into two parts. In this part, I’m going to try to unpack some of the issues people have against SJWs, while also pointing out some of my own criticisms about both sides of the divide. If you’re reading this on the publication date then be sure to come back in a couple days for my response to one of the current controversies that SJWs have been dragged into and some conclusions on the matter.

The cynical viewpoint… about half of these were cherry-picked from less-important titles and a couple of them are actually player customizable. It is emblematic of a the wider problem though when you consider that these are just game heroes from around 2005-2010.

WHAT IS AN “SJW”?
This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? Believe it or not, it is actually harder to define what an “SJW” is than you would expect. This is mainly because it is an insult thrown around by people who disagree with people advocating social justice causes. Naturally, I like the Rational Wiki’s definition which claims that it is “used primarily by right-wingers on the internet […] to describe liberals, progressives, feminists, and supporters of political correctness. The term is used to insinuate pretense and to label opponents as disingenuous people engaging in social justice arguments to raise their personal reputation”.  In many ways, this makes it seem to be similar to the “check your privilege” phrase used by some of the shittier SJW-types to shut down opponents without actually engaging them.

On a more neutral note, Know Your Meme has a brief article about the rise of social justice blogging (basically the source of SJWs as a group) and has some very fair criticisms of the movement. They state that “the group has been criticized for propagating unreliable information and espousing slacktivism and herd mentality, as reflected in the pejorative term ‘social justice warriors'”. That said, they acknowledge that “the influence of online activism on public opinion has grown significantly with the emergence of social justice bloggers”, meaning that these “armchair activists” are actually contributing to social change and aren’t as useless as your average flash-in-the-pan online outrage (anyone remember Cecil the Lion?).

Now to be fair to the anti-SJW side, I have also looked into the definition posited by Encyclopedia Dramatica… which, if you’ve ever been there, is about what you would expect. If you are curious about the mindset of someone who is against social causes, filtered through the voice of an angry, sarcastic teenager, then Encyclopedia Dramatica puts forth a very informative sketch of what you can expect anti-SJWs to think. This also helps to show why the term is so hard to nail down, because anti-SJWs range from people who just don’t care about social justice causes to full-on misogynists, Dugger-style proponents of patriarchy, racists and the like – in such an environment, “people I don’t agree with” can vary significantly.

That brings us towards the heart of the issue though. The big disconnect between “SJWs” and the people going around calling them “SJWs” is a difference in worldview (the ol’ ideological divide which has popped up on this blog many times in the past). Specifically, that SJWs are interested in advancing various causes, whereas their opponents don’t feel the need to change their worldview, could care less about social causes (or are actively opposed to such a thing) and want SJWs to shut the hell up. Obviously, “SJWs” are not the ones who came up with this label, nor are they the ones who affix it to people. This make it more difficult to properly pin down what makes a SJW. After all, a feminist will self-identify as a feminist based on their belief, whereas a SJW is defined by a third-party opinion as a reductive label. In many cases, there seems to be a strong vein of left vs right politics in the arguments – traditionally, the left tends to advocate for social justice for marginalized groups, whereas the right tends to want to maintain the status quo and are averse to change. Obviously, this isn’t always the case (I happen to know some moderately left-leaning individuals who tend to clash with SJW ideas), but it does give a general idea of how the lines are drawn.

I also feel that I need to say that I have always felt that “social justice warrior” is a pretty wretched blanket term for socially conscious people. Whenever I see or hear someone using this term in a serious manner to describe a group of people, it makes me cringe. I understand that there’s supposed to be a certain amount of sarcasm to it, but I think anyone who actually could be called a “social justice warrior” would see it as anything but insulting. I actually like that the Rational Wiki points this out, with many probable-SJWs (myself included) “reclaiming” the term and self-identifying with it, making it into a label of pride and robbing it of its intended power. That said, it is also just horribly unspecific, covering the causes of gender relations, LGBTQ rights, racism and ableism, amongst other things under one umbrella. Considering that there are already sub-factions and differing opinions within each of these movements, it makes SJW an extremely useless and potentially ignorant term.

It’s also worth pointing out that SJW is a term that is almost inextricably linked with video gaming. It seems to have its roots in Tumblr blogging about various social causes within the wider culture, but it really became a mainstream term thanks to feminism and LGBTQ voices that have cropped up in gaming within the last few years and the resulting backlash. As a result, I’m mainly going to focus on the SJW label within video games, but it is worth remembering that it can apply to a much wider cultural context as well (although with considerably less backlash in those areas).

The wishful thinker. When you think “video game protagonists”, many of the “diverse” options on display here are from unsuccessful or only moderately-successful, non-AAA games (eg, Gravity Rush, Brutal Legend, Rayman Legends, Guacamelee!, etc). This means that, again, the meme-creator was cherry-picking hardcore.
 
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS WITH SJWs AND THEIR OPPONENTS?

As much as I am obviously ideologically biased in favour of SJWs, I don’t think that they are perfect by any means and certainly have their flaws. For one thing, a lot of backlash against SJWs seems to stem from an exhaustion of activists constantly pointing out flaws in society and media. Considering that one of the main breeding grounds of SJWs, Tumblr, is seen as “the place where teenagers go to air their causes”, I can see how this would happen. In such an environment, social justice activism will often be reactionary and poorly educated as posts go viral, not unlike the shitty, unreliable image macros that make their way around Facebook. This sort of social justice activist is also responsible for such irritating argument-enders as “check your privilege” – a phrase which, while perhaps true, is extremely uninformative and only serves to jerk off the ego of person spouting it rather than actually inform the person they’re arguing with that they may have been brought up in an advantageous environment. To such individuals, I would suggest that they need to learn how to pick their fights, write more eloquently and try to avoid sounding frivolous.

Let’s be honest as well, as much as we decry the death threats, doxxing and other strong-arm tactics employed by anti-SJWs, these tactics are also employed at times by misguided SJWs who haven’t heard of the “moral high ground”. Let me make this clear – I don’t give a shit which side of the ideological line you place yourself, if you’re utilizing terrorist tactics to try to get your point across, you’re an utter asshole.

This segues into the next point though, that the group is defined by its worst constituent parts. This applies equally to SJWs and anti-SJWs. I am trying to keep my words in general terms throughout this post, because there probably are some SJWs who want to see everything they dislike get banned and maybe even a few who are radical feminists or full-on misandrists. However, in all of my experiences within a culture which would certainly be considered “pro-SJW”, I haven’t seen anything of the sort and they do not have a prominent voice in the culture of the various SJW groups. Most of us are reasonable people, so long as you have the presence of mind to consider “someone who disagrees with me” reasonable, and are just acting out of a belief that our actions will be more beneficial to others in the long run. Whether you agree with the details of that assertion is your own business, but if you’re one of those people who thinks that liberalism is a mental illness or that SJWs are just trying to get into womens’ pants (an assertion which says more about the accuser than the accused in my opinion), then you’re being disingenuous.

Similarly, many anti-SJWs aren’t MRAs, misogynists and crazy conservatives as they are often portrayed to be. As I wrote earlier, I know some people who at least seem to be rather anti-SJW, but this seems to stem entirely from their negative interactions with SJW-types. I was hanging out with these friends on the weekend and one of them said that he had been accused of being an “ableist” because he didn’t have a problem with movies using able-bodied actors to portray people with disabilities. Throwing around such labels isn’t exactly conducive to a dialogue, especially when they had a pretty damn reasonable argument to begin with (you can’t exactly get a severely autistic person to portray such a character on film, for example, nor can you get a paralyzed individual to portray someone who is seen walking elsewhere in the film). I also have a brother in the Canadian Forces who is strongly opposed to “keyboard warriors”. With the Canadian Forces starting to crack down on sexual harassment, he has been whining about how bullshit these policies are. In my opinion, these complaints stem from a self-centered aversion to change, as he has expressed many complaints about how he’s sick of hearing about how everyone else wants things to change – it’s not the arguments that aren’t swaying him, it’s just the fact that some people have the audacity to want things to be different and a rather ridiculous expectation that this might work out for him. In both of these cases, the individuals in question are not crazy, regressive individuals – they are just normal people like you and I who have different priorities and experiences which have coloured their interactions with the SJW crowd. We should keep their kind in mind when we attempt to spread our ideology.

No discussion of the “bad apples” would be complete without Anita Sarkeesian though. To the anti-SJW crowd, Anita Sarkeesian is The Devil. It’s hard to go through an argument about feminism in gaming without having her name pop up and driven into the ground as they decry what an awful person she is (and I have literally seen people say that she is the absolute worst person they can think of). With all the shit she gets, she is basically seen as the face of feminism in gaming… by the anti-SJW crowd anyway. The fact of the matter is that most feminists don’t seem to actually care all that much about Anita Sarkeesian (myself included). I think you’ll find a general acceptance of her basic points and some respect for her attempts to further feminism in gaming, but from everything I have seen, your average feminist could care less about her opinions and even criticize her for some extreme views and for her inaccurate, cherry-picked examples. The only reason that she has any sort of clout at all is because:

  1. She receives a disproportionately severe amount of abuse and harassment.
  2. Anti-feminists won’t shut the hell up about her, keeping her in the public consciousness.
The realist. This is probably the most accurate (if somewhat outdated) distillation of  major video game protagonists, but even then you’ll notice that there’s only 1 woman represented (although, to be fair, Samus could have easily made the list as well, not that that would make a real difference).
SO WHAT DO SJWs ACTUALLY WANT?

I can’t really speak for the other side, but I feel that a lot of hate against SJWs comes from a lack of understanding of their positions. I was reminded of this recently when a friend of mine tried to make a joke about how SJWs are trying to boycott Starbucks coffee because they don’t have “Merry Christmas” on their cups. Myself and a couple friends respectfully let him know that that is not an SJW cause, to which he replied that he had been put under the impression that it was something that they cared about. This friend has complained about how much he dislikes SJWs in the past, but this revealed that he really has no idea what SJWs actually stand for. Obviously this is anecdotal and speculative, but it does help paint the picture that there is a good deal of ignorance being fostered and used to fan the flames of the conflict. For another example, the Encyclopedia Dramatica definition claimed that SJWs “are currently the biggest hindrance to the arts, and are overall a cancer to society that needs to be put down”. Obviously, this is a completely idiotic claim (I’d say that mass market homogenization, lack of funding for artists, studio-enforced censorship, etc are all far worse for the arts), but it does show a lack of understanding of the driving ideology behind SJWs and the “destructive” power that people seem to think that they wield.

Just a couple weeks ago, I made a blog post about how feminism has been gaining influence within gaming in the last few years and how it has positively impacting female representations. Since I don’t want to repeat myself too much, put simply representations of women in gaming have often been ridiculously objectified or marginalized, if not completely absent, since games were traditionally marketed towards a young, white, male audience. However, since feminist and LGBTQ commenters have begun to receive a voice in gaming culture, we have seen strides made in their representations (Mass EffectSaints Row, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, etc are some of the quality experiences which have been positively impacted by these efforts). Other SJW-types have begun speaking up as well, and we’ve even seen PlayStation implement control remapping on PS4 to allow greater accessibility for people with disabilities.

Now, just the simple act of writing about this is enough to have some people frothing at the mouth, but if that is the case then they’re probably missing a key point of context which runs through most social justice commenters: they generally aren’t calling for flat-out bans or censorship on things that they find objectionable. This is a point I have hammered home in the past whenever I write about feminism and pop culture. For example, Ninja Gaiden Sigma is one of my all-time favourite games, and it ticks off pretty much every negative female portrayal trope in video games. Would it utterly ruin the game if Rachel, our supposed action heroine sidekick, wasn’t dressed in stripper/bondage gear? Did she need to be rescued by Ryu on two separate occasions, despite the fact that she’s hyped up as a badass demon hunter and gets to do a far bit of ass-kicking in the Sigma rerelease? Asking for this sort of consideration isn’t a call for censorship, it’s a demand for better writing. Damseling the main female character and then giving them enormous boobs is probably not a key artistic choice, but it is extremely lazy writing and artistic direction used to shuffle the player from place to place and is directed at the lowest common denominator in the male demographic. Is it so bad for us to hold game writers to a higher standard, to think of the wide variety of audiences that are going to consume their product, or at least to make them consider their choices when they choose to use a trope? Or what about the glut of games on the market with white, straight, male characters in their lead roles? That said, I still love the Ninja Gaiden games, but I just think that they could be improved if they weren’t so juvenile in their approach to female sexuality and could stand to make their “badass” female characters more than MacGuffins in need of rescue (now much an uproar would there be if Ayane, Rachel or Momiji had to spend a good deal of a Ninja Gaiden game rescuing Ryu Hayabusa?). If that’s enough for you to still think that social justice-based criticism is nothing more than censorship, then maybe you should reevaluate whether “censorship” is such a bad thing after all, or whether you are just opposed to “censorship” as an concept.

Put simply, SJWs want gaming to become more of an even playing field which is directed at everyone, not just the young, white males that are generally the assumed demographic. As I have said, strides have been made in the past few years and we have begun to see developers respond with new IPs and sequels with better representation in them (such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate). I have a feeling that those who push against this often just don’t care about SJW-causes, are sick of hearing about them and are afraid that they might somehow make games worse. In response to this, I will put forth this great little quote I found by Kelly Flatley on Link Saves Zelda:

“It doesn’t stop there either as these people also disregard the push for equality of race and sexual orientation in games because “who cares?” I typically see this type of argument placed before me by white, straight, cisgendered males. I know it’s hard for some people to see the other side when they have privilege. […] Take a step back and realize that simply because your demographic is most often represented in games doesn’t mean that other people’s demographics shouldn’t be recognized because ‘oh well, I got mine’.”

What this quote demonstrates for me is that people need to broaden their horizons and realize that other types of people like the same things that they do. If you’re apathetic to SJW-causes, then you shouldn’t be opposed to more female representation, right? You also shouldn’t be surprised that those who are interested in female representation are advocating for it. Maintaining the status quo isn’t the neutral choice, it’s giving the middle finger to tons of people who would like to see it improved. Think about transgender rights for example. Up until a year or two ago, I had some pretty poor views on trans people just because I knew basically nothing about them. They got absolutely no representation in media outside of being the butt of jokes. When a person I knew from school had gender reassignment surgery, I made the (idiotic, in hindsight) observation that it felt like I had walked into some sort of sitcom because I had never been faced with this sort of thing actually happening. However, with the lives and stories of trans people becoming more and more visible in society, I have become aware of a whole kind of experience which I had never even thought about before. What this all says to me is if you’re just annoyed that people won’t shut up about things that you don’t care about, then they aren’t the problem, you are.

SJWs don’t necessarily want to take away you stuff, they just want there to be media that acknowledges them as well. There will, after all, always been macho shooter games and there even is a place for fan service and objectification to some degree – it just requires some balancing out.

Well what about Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 you might ask? Didn’t the SJWs get this game banned? If you did think of this, then I’m glad because that is what we’re going to be covering in Part 2…

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Circular Logic (aka, Let’s Blame the Feminists for Gaming Sexism)

So recently my morning started off in fantastic fashion as one of my friends on Facebook shared a forum post by Merlynn132 which blamed feminists for the issues with female representation in video games (click on the picture for the full-sized image):

Now admittedly, I actually found this guy’s points to be quite interesting at first glance and there may actually be some kernels of wisdom in here. However, the more I thought about the points that he was actually making, the more I realized that his argument is fundamentally flawed and falls apart under just a little scrutiny. So you know what time it is then, good reader: it’s time for yet another I Choose to Stand feminism post!

One big disclaimer before we move on though. I get the distinct feeling that Merlyn132 is directing some of these criticism specifically towards Anita Sarkeesian, but unfortunately its context has been removed to make it “shareable”. Admittedly, I haven’t looked into Sarkeesian’s criticisms myself, although I have found some of her examples to be at least somewhat suspect. If this post is intended to be a direct response to specific criticisms that Sarkeesian has made, then that’s fair enough (I would still disagree with its ultimate conclusion, but I could at least get behind some of its points). However, the tone and body of the post is written in such a way that it ends up being directed at feminism in general, which makes it fair game for a general response as far as I’m concerned. The lack of overall context for the post is unfortunate, so be sure to keep that in mind as the reality of the original post may somehow be shifted if we could see the whole conversation it was a part of.

As usual with this kind of criticism, Merlynn132’s first problem seems to be a lack of understanding of what feminists are actually campaigning for. His critique opens up with a statement that female characters aren’t allowed to have negative traits or feminists will cry out “sexism”. This could actually be the case with Sarkeesian based on some of the examples that I have heard her use for Feminist Frequency, but even that could be a misunderstanding of her intent when using these examples. As I have written previously, these examples are likely not intended to be blanket moratoriums, but rather ways to make writers make more deliberate choices when they write characters and to avoid lazy stereotypes (such as objectification, sexual violence for shock value or the desire to “fridge” a female character to give the male lead a motivation). An example of this in action would be the Tomb Raider games. Critics (not just including feminists) complained for a long time about how ridiculous Lara Croft’s boobs were, for good reason. However, they also praised Lara Croft for being a great character, in spite of the game constantly sexualizing her. Consequently, when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider series, their much more realistically-proportioned Lara Croft was praised as she was still a very interesting character with a much less garish visual design to go along with it. Despite what Merlynn132 would suggest, this actually earned Crystal Dynamics two separate purchases of the game from me (not to mention that I’m eagerly anticipating the end of the Xbox One’s exclusivity deal on Rise of the Tomb Raider, whereas before I wouldn’t have even looked twice at a Tomb Raider game). All of this is comes down to Crystal Dynamics deciding to listen to their critics and making a better product for it.

Let’s tackle Merlynn132’s assertion directly though, that women can’t have a negative trait or it will be deemed sexism. Merlynn132’s own examples are less-interested in physical traits and more in reference to their character, so we’ll leave objectification out of this. I’ll address his second example first because it is just flat out wrong. He claims that women aren’t allowed to be mentally unhinged as they walk across a hellish battlefield, but this is just not true. Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot is made far more interesting as she feels remorse as she is forced to kill for the first time (although the gameplay-narrative dissonance in this aspect is annoying admittedly). I also just replayed Metal Gear Solid for my upcoming retrospective series, and found Meryl Silverburgh’s admission that killing for the first time made her not want to be a soldier anymore to be a fantastic character moment. If anything, I find it offensive that more men aren’t given this sort of treatment, as most big shooters just force you to stupidly mow down hundreds of enemies like a psychopath (with the Uncharted series being one of the most egregious offenders in this regard).

The first example that Merlynn132 gives is that men are allowed to be lecherous drunks, but women are not, because “sexism”. “Sexualizing women and what all” as he puts it. This is an example that I can actually see possibly happening, but the context of the character is probably the most important part in whether it will be accepted or not. Does her character start and stop at “lecherous drunk”, or does she have some actual depth? Are they a main character? Or are they background dressing that exists just to give the player something to ogle at? Such considerations make all the difference in this sort of situation, as there is no quick-and-easy answer. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a contextual difference as well, since men are rarely sexualized in video games whereas women are quite frequently. Since it’s so prevalent for women to be reduced to sex objects, it can come across as very lazy if you put in a lecherous drunk background character unless you’re being very deliberate when doing so. Think of it this way: if I made a white character who loves watermelon and picks cotton, it would be fine. However, if that character was instead black, it would obviously be ridiculously offensive. This is because meanings change based on the contexts that they are placed within, so you have to be aware when you’re falling into a stereotype and, if you are aware, you have to have good reason for doing so.

Merlynn132’s third example revolves around a theoretical situation where Guybrush Threepwood is replaced with a female protagonist in Escape From Monkey Island. He is convinced that “Galwood” would never be allowed because she would be a cowardly, weak and socially awkward character hated by everyone around her. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that this would cause a feminist uproar or even be considered sexist for that matter (depending on how the game handles these elements in a female context, as I said before). For one thing, this sort of character actually sounds rather interesting and would fit into the very different sort of characterization which feminist critics have been asking for for ages. I can’t be the only one who thinks that this description fits Amanda Ripley, the extremely well-received heroine of Alien: Isolation, right? Ripley is a strong, positive female character, not because she is a Markus Fenix-style meathead, but rather because she is absolutely terrified, avoids confrontation as much as possible and just tries to stay alive by being resourceful.

Secondly, Escape From Monkey Island was just a poor example for Merlynn132 to use for this argument. The main thrust of Merlynn132’s overall argument is that feminists are actually being sexist, and by being sexist they are making female-led games economically unviable. Using the Monkey Island games to support this idea is very strange to me as they are hardly a mega-selling franchise. In fact, the Monkey Island games have far more in common with the modern day indie-game scene where female-led games are far more common and interesting than in the AAA blockbuster space. I can’t even remember the last time that we had a proper adventure game, although Quantic Dream and Telltale-style narrative adventures seem to be the closest analogue… and what do you know, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Beyond: Two Souls and Until Dawn all tend to have pretty solid, flawed and interesting female characters without causing a feminist uproar.

The third, and probably most ridiculous, aspect of the argument is in regards to Merlynn132’s conclusion. Basically, they believe that feminists force female characters into a very specific mold, which makes female characters boring, which doesn’t sell, which is why we don’t have female characters leading our games. This is just so obviously bullshit that I shouldn’t really have to explain why… but will, naturally. The games market would be boring if there were more female-led games? Seriously? The market has ALWAYS been dominated by male characters, many of whom are the exact same macho-fantasy repackaged over and over again (Contra, every Call of Duty ever, Gears of War, Booker in Bioshock Infinite as the generic/requisite action game hero, etc). Despite featuring the same stereotypical leads over and over again, they still continue to sell and are often some of the highest-selling games of the year. It’s not feminists’ fault that female-led games are in the minority, it’s because publishers believe that their teenage male target demographic won’t play unless they offer them a male fantasy.

Just to look into this claim a little further, I decided to check the list of best selling video games of all time. I was actually surprised to discover that most of these games feature no distinct characters at all, either being 100% gameplay-based (Tetris) or 100% player determinant (Minecraft). Only three franchises dominate the list. Mario has the most entries, with 8 games selling over 15 million copies each. I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Mario has a personality that is anything other than boring, not to mention that the franchise formulas of his various franchises have been nearly the exact same for well over 20 years now. Call of Duty comes in second with 7 games selling over 15 million copies. The franchise is notorious for featuring paper-thin characters, iterating very lightly from game-to-game and for its macho-fantasy, male-dominated plots. While I, along with many others, would definitely argue that this franchise has gotten extremely tired in the last few years, the fact that the series still continues to sell is proof enough to me that the claim that “boring” female characters are the reason why they don’t get any representation is bullshit. The third highest-selling franchise is Grand Theft Auto with 5 games, and it’s a bit of an oddity since these games actually are known for their interesting characters and writing. However, I have a strong feeling that this is not the main reason why these games have had so much success, but rather that their core gameplay is extremely appealing. If this is truly the case, then the picture that these three franchises and the characterless mega-sellers paints for me is that characters are not a major factor in determining the success of a game, but rather fun gameplay. As a result, whether or not a “feminist conspiracy” caused female characters to end up being a bunch of bland copies, it shouldn’t matter because we already have a bunch of bland male copies running around and raking in the cash. Of course, if the actual argument being made is that “real gamers” don’t want to buy games with female protagonists, then at least be honest…

As I said in the opening paragraphs, I don’t really know the exact circumstances that prompted Merlynn132’s original post, but I kind of wish that I could understand where his perspective is drawn from. Is he directly responding to arguments made my Sarkeesian? As I have hopefully shown, his arguments will still end up being incorrect in the end, but if Sarkeesian’s arguments are just as flawed then that might make a difference in the way that this is all handled. Or perhaps Merlynn132 just misunderstands the whole point of feminism, having equated feminism with the opinions of its more extreme or unlearned factions, or worse, with the gigantic strawman feminist which is so often evoked in these sorts of rebuttals. In all honesty though, I’m glad that I came across this post. While I think that the overall argument is extremely flawed, it is quite interesting and is a good reminder that feminists could actually hurt their own cause sometimes with their critiques. I hope that Merlynn132 is open to this sort of critique, as I think that both sides in this debate could learn things from one another and hopefully come to a point where we can understand one another.

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Deliberate Inequality

So I was recently reading this article on Polygon about unequal racial representations in gaming, and it got my mind jogging. Oftentimes, when someone calls out a system or representation for being racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever, people less versed in the subject are quick to come out and ask what the big deal is, that the person is looking too far into things, claim that it’s a part of the “creative vision” or that SJWs are trying to censor art (that they agree with, of course), etc. In any case, I believe that some of these responses stem from a misunderstanding of some of the basics of social justice analysis.

I think that many people believe that racism et al are only actually worthy of being pointed out if examples of them were done deliberately with malicious intent. For example, my father complains about how the media seems to always be complaining about racism in regards to police activity or their representation in Hollywood, and yet would quite likely stand up for someone if somebody was slinging racial slurs at them in public and discriminating against them in an obvious manner. People like him probably find these “smaller issue” social justice concerns to be extremely frivilous, get burnt out from hearing them all the time and definitely do not consider themselves racist. Unfortunately, due to a lack of interest or education on the subject, they are missing the underlying, unconscious issues in society which are contributing to the lingering of racism/sexism/etc. This often means that people concerned with social equality need to be concerned not so much with the less-common and clearly unacceptable examples of deliberate racism, but moreso with the unintentional examples.

Honestly, I find that deliberate examples of inequality are potentially less offensive than the unintentional, ingrained ones where people don’t even realize that they’re being potentially offensive. To link back to the start of the article, think about how big budget video games and movies rarely feature a hero who is a white, a male and a power fantasy of some sort. Think of how Assassin’s Creed: Unity ditched the option to play as a female assassin, claiming that they didn’t have the development time or budget to do it (which was promptly revealed to be a bullshit excuse, they just didn’t prioritize the female audience). Another good example is in Warhammer 40,000. Every couple months, someone comes onto the Dakka Dakka forums and asks where all the non-whites are in 40k. The simple answer is that there ARE other races in the Warhammer universe, and there are a handful of examples of them in 40k art, but it has literally not even occurred to the painters to paint any of their soldiers non-white. Honestly, I fell into the same trap with my 40k armies. When I was growing up, it never even occurred to me to paint any of my Space Wolves anything other than white. When I started an Imperial Guard army years later, I still didn’t think to paint them anything other than white for quite some time, until one of those Dakka Dakka topics pointed out the issue. We all have our own blind spots where we don’t even realize that we’re missing out on a chance at equality, or at least to make a conscious artistic decision one way or the other.

This is why the Bechdel test is so crazy – women rarely speak to one another about something other than a man because of the way that the screenplay is written. When 2 women speak, they have to advance the plot in some way by the very nature of the narrative. However, the fact that most movies fail the Bechdel test really shows how marginalized women are in movies, and that they aren’t generally the ones who the movie really cares for. It shows that women are not prioritized in the scripts, nor are they generally the focus, and generally serve as little more than plot convenience, especially when they speak to one another (because rarely do they bother to have 2 real women characters with any agency). My friend and I were watching the 1998 Godzilla, which isn’t an overtly sexist film by any means. However, we were commenting on it the whole time, when halfway through I was suddenly struck by the realization that the film had bombed the Bechdel test. There were only a couple scenes in the whole movie which featured two women talking to one another, and they spent all of them talking about a guy as the focal point to set up the love story subplot. It really illustrates where the film’s real focus is, and the fact that it’s so common is distressing (and let’s not even mention the 2014 Godzilla, which doesn’t even feature a single scene with more than one woman in it with a speaking role… this is a frighteningly common reality in movies).

What about deliberate examples of inequality though? The Witcher 3 is getting taken to task for apparent sexism in the game (although I’ll admit, Feminist Frequency does not have the best track record of picking good, clear examples). I haven’t played The Witcher 3 unfortunately, so I can’t comment, but one complaint that sounds valid is that the game features a lot of gendered insults when you play as a female character (or when they’re around at least… again, haven’t played it). Moral judgments about it aside, can we at least agree that having such marked differences in the insults directed at male and female characters is sexist? How odd would it be if enemies taunted your male game hero by saying they were weak, had a small dick, couldn’t pleasure their partner, or threatened to sexually assault them if they fail? Unfortunately, this is a strangely common trope for women in video games: quite a long time ago I wrote about Lollipop Chainsaw, a game I actually rather enjoyed, but lamented how the enemies will frequently call the protagonist a “bitch”, “slut” and threaten to violently sexually assault her. This also apparently happens all the time when you play as Catwoman in Batman: Arkham City – there’s a 6 minute video on Youtube of nothing but the instances where enemies hurl gendered insults at her, which is kind of insane. On the more positive end of the scale, I recently replayed the Tomb Raider reboot on PS4 and, despite the island being inhabited by violent, insane, foul-mouthed sailors, I didn’t find the game any less “realistic” for not having them sling gendered insults at Lara all the time. Rather, they simply act as if she was any other badass running around kicking their asses, and shout out her actions (“she’s flanking us!”) rather than taunts.

While gendered insults are undeniably sexist just by definition (male characters get generic taunts, female characters are taunted based on their gender), that isn’t to say that this is something that needs to be eliminated necessarily. I’m wondering if the point that Sarkseesan is trying to make (and the one she tries to make whenever she picks a really questionable example) is simply pointing this out to bring awareness to this potential issue in gaming, rather than saying “This is bad and needs to be eliminated from gaming RIGHT NOW.” If anything, it is more likely stopping devs from taking this sort of thing for granted and trying to get them to be more deliberate when they utilize gendered insults and female characters – is being beaten down and shamed for their gender key to the experience that the devs want to give the player when playing as a female character?

One common mistake that inexperienced writers make is when they try to make their story “mature”, they tend to overcompensate and just saturate it in misery, rape and constant violence. This causes the plot to be completely forgotten or overshadowed, and the acts themselves to feel meaningless. The fix, of course, is for the writer to be more deliberate with the use of mature themes, so that they have the impact that they SHOULD have. Rape, sexism and the like can be used in fiction effectively, but artists should be very deliberate when doing so and do it with the expectation of some potential backlash.

Like, in Season 6 can we finally get to a storyline other than “Who is going to try to rape Sansa this year?”

For example, I hardly want to call myself a great writer, but this deliberate inequality is something I have tried to take into account with my own sci-fi novel I have been working on. It takes place around a thousand years after humanity undergoes a biological revolution and colonizes the galaxy. Racism and sexism aren’t totally dead, but they are significantly diminished because the fearful have turned their attention towards bio-engineered organisms. As a result, women and men (of various races) hold equally prominent positions within the civilian and military structures without people having to comment on it. Homo/trans-phobia is also considered a non-issue in the universe of the story. One major character is bisexual and hated by basically everyone, but no one even thinks to belittle him for his “queerness”. When deliberate inequality is brought up, it is done to show characterization, not just because I decreed that this story featuring six foot spiders and space magic has to be “realistic”. This is not pressuring me to conform to diversity, this is making my story far more interesting and opening up more avenues for creativity than if I stuck to my own narrow “vision”.

People seem to assume that criticism is an attempt at censorship (a misunderstanding which helped kickstart the whole GamerGate movement…). They claim that criticizing media for just fitting with the status quo and featuring “realistic” examples of sexism/racism/etc is an attack on the creative rights of the artist. However, I think that criticism should be seen more as an attempt at artistic improvement. By pointing out examples of inequality, critics are effectively saying “this art would be improved if the female characters weren’t such a flat plot device, consider making them more interesting in the future, because it will enrich the narrative”, or “I would enjoy this more if they weren’t calling the female protagonist a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ all the time, this is grating for me because I hear these sorts of insults get hurled at my sex all the time”. The artist is free to accept or dismiss that criticism however they wish, but if they dismiss it then they shouldn’t expect not to be criticized for it.

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Video Game Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

I’ve never really had much interest in the Tomb Raider franchise. There was always a stigma of sexism which surrounded the series due to Lara Croft’s sex icon status. If you were a guy and you played Tomb Raider games then you only wanted to stare at her boobs and ass. However, with the release of the Uncharted series, Indiana Jones-style adventuring was back in vogue and an intriguing reboot of the Tomb Raider series was announced that finally piqued my interest. It was going to star a vulnerable, unskilled Lara Croft. It was going to be more about survival than action. It was going to have a very mature story. Lara was actually going to be realistically proportioned. Stigma be damned, as soon as it was announced the Tomb Raider reboot was on my must-play list. Did the game manage to live up to the hype? Read on to find out… (Note that this is only a single-player review, I didn’t bother with the unnecessary multiplayer mode.)

Tomb Raider opens in a bit of a mess. I’m not referring to the whole sinking of Lara’s ship and dead bodies kind of mess: I mean that it fumbles the narrative and gameplay right out of the gate. It starts in media res which might be fine for an action-focused game, but this really hurts the narrative off the bat. If they had given the game a real opening, maybe I would have known who the secondary characters where and maybe I actually would have given two shits about them. However, story seems to have been set aside in favour of an Uncharted 2-style explosive opening – a terrible compromise in my opinion, since it hamstrings at least the first act of the game. In fact, the opening also features a jumble of quick-time events and scripted set-pieces which feel like its hewing too closely to the Uncharted formula… don’t get me wrong, I love the Uncharted games, but their formula doesn’t work in every game. It’s kind of like how after Die Hard every action movie was set in a single location, or how after The Bourne Ultimatum every action movie had quick cuts and shaky cam: it just reeks of studio-enforced money-grubbing pandering to the lowest common denominator.

While the game’s opening was a bit of a mess, there are some great mechanics underlying the gameplay. The game features an XP system which is very fun, encouraging you to maximize the yield of your actions to level up. It might be a little tonally-off for the young, vulnerable Lara to be headshotting everyone with her new bow, but it’s forgivable. The game also features a weapon-upgrading system based on finding salvage, which changes the weapons as one would expect it to. However, there are also some very cool upgrades, such as explosive or incendiary ammo or the ability to get burst-fire on your pistol. In addition, the game features plenty of traversal options when you unlock the pick axe and rope arrows – the game ends up playing like a funner version of Assassin’s Creed as Lara finds herself traversing the environment (although these can be somewhat imprecise… I died from failed jumps more than anything else). Finally, while the narrative might be half-baked and the secondary characters aren’t given their due, Lara Croft herself is given a proper development and is actually fairly well fleshed out. Her development is quite natural and actually works into the game with the player unlocking new abilities and weapons.

However, as I’ve alluded to, weak point of the game is definitely its story. Between the gameplay, the half-baked characters and the script, it just doesn’t convince. Why should we give a damn about any of the characters when we don’t even know anything about them (barring Conrad Roth I suppose)? Most of them are just there to be plot devices… especially Whitman, who you know is going to be a traitor as soon as he appears on screen. Lara’s supposed to be vulnerable and just barely surviving, but how are we supposed to believe this when she survives a dozen falls from extreme heights by pure luck? Or how about when racks up a bodycount in the hundreds all by herself? This particular problem definitely feels like an Uncharted ripoff – Lara just so happens to land on an island inhabited by cultists of the “murder everyone for no reason” kind. Narratively, Tomb Raider just doesn’t lend itself to the requisite third-person shooter bodycount and the game actually gets quite tedious at the points where it turns into a linear shootout (especially because enemies LOVE throwing molotov cocktails which force you to move from cover and back over and over again). The game’s also just gratuitously violent at times, seemingly just to hammer home that it’s “gritty” and “mature”. There’s one section which is a total rip off of The Descent where Lara falls into a random pool of blood. There’s also dead bodies and guts just lying all over the island for little discernible reason… I guess because the bad guys are cultists and all religious people are mindlessly violent and irrational… *ahem* That said, the game didn’t really have any real reason to not get itself a Teen rating, because the gore that they threw into the game is just unnecessary.

Even worse, the game is supposed to be about survival and makes a huge deal about having a hunting system, but it’s 100% optional – you get a bit of XP for killing animals and some salvage if you have an upgrade, but that’s it. Tomb Raider would have really benefited from a Metal Gear Solid 3-style survival system where you have to keep Lara from starving to death, and would have certainly helped make the game feel less linear than it is. A related issue is that you don’t even have to worry about non-human enemies, because the only ones that appear are a small group of wolves at the start of the game… and then that’s it. I never saw another wolf after the cultists showed up. That’s just a damn shame. Killing human enemies makes the game feel like another boring third-person shooter…

I guess the bottom-line is that Tomb Raider isn’t what I was hoping it would be. I was hoping for more of an emphasis on the survival aspect, but what I got instead was a game with great mechanics buried beneath an Uncharted-wannabe (oh the irony). That said, as the game progresses it becomes quite fun in spite of its shortcomings – I definitely was enjoying it by the end. However, I think the game would have benefited if it had cut the cultists entirely (or at least reduced their ranks significantly), emphasized player vs environment and survival gameplay and increased the number of puzzles. In fact, the puzzle-based sections were the highlights of the game. The Uncharted series has always struggled with its “puzzles”, which typically are insultingly easy, but Tomb Raider‘s puzzles are very fun to attempt. They’re not particularly difficult, but they are very satisfying to complete when you figure them out. Anyway, with those elements the game would have been much better – of course once you beat the game you can travel back to the hubs and do just that. Hmm… I might have to go back and go do some open-world tomb raiding unshackled from a mediocre third-person shooter narrative…

7.5/10

By the way, the next Retrospective series should be starting in about 2 or 3 weeks. I’ll be finished school on the 20th of August, and so will have more free time once again at that point – it was hell finishing the Resident Evil retrospectives and just finding time to write blog posts since the start of July when school started up again. That said, I’m really looking forward to writing about the next series – it’s a personal favourite, which should alleviate the negative feelings which tend to permeate the Retrospectives. Until next time then!

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