Empathy and Stories

So recently the internet freaked right the fuck out when the promotional trailer for upcoming Tomb Raider game featured Lara Croft escaping an attempted rape. Luckily, the more sensible people on the internet have pointed out that the scene was incredibly powerful.  Susan Arendt, editor and writer at the Escapist, wrote a great piece about the scene that you all need to read:

…to see Lara fighting back is inspirational, and more importantly, it’s relatable.

Relatable: this is a critical component when we’re talking characters in a story, and I’m glad Susan Arendt brought it up during her article. I’ve said before that watching a character change and evolve during a story makes the story infinitely more enjoyable, and a big part of that is because we get to see them overcome adversity and become stronger for it. In the case of this trailer, that adversity is extreme and watching Lara cry and scream as her assailant makes clear overtures to raping her is extremely uncomfortable. Good. 

That’s the whole point, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. You’re supposed to get that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.

This isn’t supposed to easy to watch.

Her reaction to the situation is the same any of us would have in that situation, whether it’s her being impaled after a long fall or her desperate fight to prevent an imminent rape, her reaction illicits a very important reaction from us: empathy. That sick feeling you get when you see someone in pain? When you want to reach out and hug someone because they’re crying? That’s empathy, it’s how we relate to our fellow human beings, and if you can get the reader/viewer/listener to feel empathy for one of your characters, you’ve done your job as a storyteller.

When Marcus Fenix gets shot in Gears of War or when Master Chief survives an atmospheric reentry in Halo 2, their gruff manly-man macho reactions aren’t human. We can neither sympathize nor empathize with someone that doesn’t feel pain like we do, or have normal human emotions, and that means the story carries no emotional weight. When I play through Gears of War or Halo, it’s for the mindless fun of chainsawing aliens in half or blowing up a tank with a giant oversized laser. And you know what? That’s okay. Not every story needs to be a moving emotional piece. Read too many of those and you get burned out, emotionally exhausted. Yet a story that can move us on an emotional level are often the most important kind of story. Especially those stories that explore dark, uncomfortable issues.

According to the statistics, one in every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Among college-age girls, that jumps to one-in-four. Those figures are horrific, yet whenever we get a story that tries to explore this issue, we immediately try to hide it back in the dark murky hole it climbed out of. Hear no evil, see no evil. I heard similar objections about A Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which features a brutal, difficult to watch/read rape scene. In both cases I’ve seen and heard people decry it as misogynistic or shamelessly exploitative. Some compare it to the “torture-porn” that permeates most modern horror movies, like Saw and Hostel, but it isn’t. You know why? Because it’s not just showing us a rape or an attempt as the case may be, it’s showing us the characters reacting to a situation.

Yeah…this is totally the same thing as the Tomb Raider trailer.

There’s no gleeful presentation of the actual act, it doesn’t take it’s time showing us every inch of bare flesh it can get away with, nor does it relish in the idea of inflicting pain on the character. Watch Saw or Hostel or any of those other movies that revolve around people in pain. Everything in those movies makes it clear to the audience that it’s the situation your supposed to be enjoying, whatever the character is feeling is irrelevant, they want you to watch people being violently ripped apart. I don’t get that vibe from the Tomb Raider trailer. They’re showing you suffering for what it is:  hard, painful, fast, and terrifying.

Yes, this trailer shows a young girl suffering in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, but more importantly, it shows a young girl overcoming and surviving that suffering. That’s heroic. Marcus Fenix isn’t heroic; he’s a swearing block of unstoppable meat and one liners. He doesn’t feel pain or fear, so there’s nothing heroic about him facing down a horde of locusts. For that matter, the old Lara Croft wasn’t heroic either, she was a typical tough-girl hollywood stereotype. Tough but devoid of emotion. She was a pair of guns attached to a body, something we couldn’t possibly relate to.

Without an obstacle to overcome, without a fear to challenge, and without that pivotal moment where the character conquers both, there’s no story. The fact that this is a female character is even more important, because as Susan Arendt points out:

When we do see a physically capable female, she’s frequently portrayed of being nearly devoid of emotion, as though a woman’s condition was binary – either she feels things, or she can defend herself, but certainly not both.

Granted, we don’t know if Lara will actually be anything more than a stereotype until we play the game, but the woman we see in the trailer is a huge leap forward in terms of how women are treated in stories. Especially video game stories. In fact Tomb Raider and the old Lara Croft are a good example of how females are treated in most game: a pair of breasts for the male audience to oggle. If you meet a female warrior in a fantasy game, she’s most likely wearing a chainmail bikini. Yet with all these walking sex-bots wandering around in most games, it’s the new Tomb Raider that gets stamped as misogynistic.

And this is totally appropriate attire for delving into unknown tombs…

Creator Ron Rosenberg has said that you’ll want to protect Lara, which created a lot of backlash because let’s face it, that does sound like the chauvinistic sexist attitude we’ve all grown to loathe over the years. You need to protect Lara because she’s a woman obviously. However, I think Ron just put it badly, I think what he really meant by this statement was that you’d empathize with Lara. That you will actually feel bad when you see her get hurt, and that you’ll be rooting for her to survive. Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a character you care about. You’ll be connecting with her character instead of simply watching her character’s…um assets. I’ve never liked the Tomb Raider games, only played the original when it came out and have avoided it ever since. This is the first time I’ve actually been excited about an upcoming Tomb Raider game. It’s also been a long time since I’ve felt empathy for a character in a video game, even if this was only a trailer.

However, this was only a trailer. It is entirely possible that the actual game will turn out to be an exploitative, disgusting shambles that will leave the entire gaming community with a bad taste in their mouths. I’ve been let down by too many promising trailers to assume the game will be any good based only on that trailer. However, I think the fact that the developers were able to make a compelling character experiencing gut-wrenching hardship bodes well for the game, because at least we know they’re trying to make a compelling story. Now I’ve seen a lot of people complaining that using rape to garner sympathy for the character is a cheap tactic, and they’re right, it is. If the sole reason people ever feel sympathy for your character is the fact she was or was almost raped, then you’ve not done a very good job. However, in the trailer at least, we’re shown several of Lara’s characteristics right off the bat.

First of all, she lights the cloth she’s wrapped in on fire in order to escape. That demonstrates not only ingenuity, but bravery as well. Then she’s impaled on a god damn spike, but even then she doesn’t give up. She rips the thing right out her and keeps going, perseverance in the face of adversity. We see here sending out a desperate SOS and starting a feeble fire to keep herself warm. She finds a bow and some arrows, where she hunts a deer so she can eat. All of this is believable drama. Finally we see Lara captured but still sneaking through the camp despite the fact its crawling with bandits and her hands are bound, right there she’s already showing us her willingness to overcome fear and keep going. That’s all before we ever get to the rape attempt.

My god, is that shirt actually covering her breasts? I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lara without her ample cleavage showing.

When we finally do get to that scene, it’s not out of left field either, it’s a realistic scenario for the situation she’s in. If it were just Lara wandering around in the jungle and suddenly being jumped by natives who want to rape her, yeah I’d call bullshit and say it was a shameless, completely out of place maneuver to generate sympathy or shock value. However, in this case, it’s already been established these bandits are almost animalistic in their savagery and on this remote island, probably haven’t seen a woman in years. It’s dark and the guy has caught her alone while she was trying to sneak away. So you’ve got a guy who in all likelihood is mentally unstable, most certainly prone to violent behavior, and alone with a woman who looks defenseless. It isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to think this is a possible scenario where a rape might happen. And the big thing to remember here is that she fights him off.

Had the scene cut to black, followed by screaming and grunting, then I would call foul. If Lara only managed to escape by tearfully picking up the gun while her rapist is in a post-coital stupor, I would’ve said that was cliched and in bad taste. But none of that happens. She knees the bastard in the groin, by all appearances bites something off his face or neck, and finally puts a bullet through his head in a desperate struggle. Walking the line between victim and hapless loonytoon character is difficult. If the game features nothing but Lara going from rape attempt to rape attempt, then clearly we have a problem. However, going off the story the trailer has told, I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic.


  1. Nicely put Mr Stevenson. I must confess I was one of those who was a little bit put off by the trailer and still have mixed feelings about the game. For one thing it isn’t helped that sexual assault seems to be an all too common thing in the back story of female heroines (to paraphrase one Escapist commenter it seems the that in order for a woman to earn her badass merit badge she needs her sexual assault one as well). Another reason for my nervous probably comes from the way trailers work and it seems like she is constantly suffering and just going through the grinder and then we get that scene with the implied threat of rape top off our suffering sundae. Hopefully the game itself will have the peaks and valleys not to just burn a person out too quickly.

    I did grow up playing Tomb Raider games so perhaps thats why it bothered me? To see ones child hood heroes possibly torn down in such a manner is never easy but that is a personal issue (I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say here to be honest).

    And what certainly doesn’t help is that the last time I felt THIS nervous about video game (thinking “oh god I hope they don’t fuck this up but I have this horrible feeling they might”) was Mass Effect 3 but that might just be the paranoia talking at this point.

  2. I think I saw that same comment, and I’ll ask you the same question: what other female heroines become badass after being raped? I’m not being sarcastic or anything, because I genuinely haven’t seen that a lot. The only case where I’ve seen female heroines turned badass killers is in those rape-revenge style movies that seemed to dominate the 70s and 80s. And they were all absolutely terrible. Maybe I just haven’t been playing the right games, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rape or anything approaching it in a game before. Not that I want to necessarily, I’m just curious where people are coming from since they make it sound like a common occurrence and that hasn’t been my experience.

    As for everything else, I can see where you’re coming from. I’m also hoping that they just crammed the trailer. Like the later seasons of 24 showed us, cramming the entire thing with non-stop action eventually just deprives the entire story of life.You can’t constantly be having your character in danger, you need rest periods so you get some characterization as well as letting the audience breathe.

    It definitely seems those who already know and love Lara Croft from the original games are having the most difficulty. I can definitely see how some people would get angry over what appears to be a completely redone character. If someone took a character I loved and totally changed them in a reboot, it might piss me off too.

  3. I just finished Tomb Raider: Underworld which is my first Tomb Raider game every. I couldn’t relate to Lara what so ever and didn’t understand what the hell was going on. May this game might make Lara a bit more relate-able by making her seem more human. Though I probably won’t play it since the only reason I played this Tomb Raider is because Playstation gave it to me for free.

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