Whatever happened to Lara Croft?

several_laras

So here are a few images of Lara Croft from games, film, and (at the bottom) the trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot game. I’m not sure why she switched from dual pistols to a bow either, must be the Katniss effect. And actually, in discussing the reboot, I keep feeling The Hunger Games as an influence. I’ll come back to this later.

However, the elephant in the room with Tomb Raider has now become comments made by the executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, with respect to Lara’s new backstory involving being kidnapped by island pirates and an attempted rape (she beats the guy up, kills him and escapes, incidentally).

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

“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.'”

So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.

“She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper,” he said. “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.

Who is this /you/ he is addressing? It looks as though it should be anyone who might play the game, except there’s some assumptions there about how people identify with main characters which look as though he’s assuming the player is male. That’s one of the reasons he got people’s backs up. Lake Desire has a nicely nuanced writeup on the Borderhouse explaining why she appreciates what the devs are trying to do and feels that the trailer does make her want to play the game, while acknowledging that there are some issues around assuming that female characters need to be seen as vulnerable so that players will think they are ‘feminine’ enough.

I am torn, because while I agree it’s problematic if every strong female character has to have a traumatised background and the male characters don’t, I’ve also enjoyed stories like Kill Bill and the city elf backstory from DAO which do feature badass protagonists who are rape survivors. There’s a place for that kind of story and if it’s done well it can be empowering for players. I’ve liked Blaxploitation films too, and I loved Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (maybe I’m just a Tarantino fan).

It is, however, something of a genre in itself and usually features strong revenge plotlines which aren’t really the pulp adventure of which Lara Croft stories are made.

The other blogger I was reading on this subject wrote about Lara Croft 3 years ago. Ms Pixel decided back in 2009 that Lara needed a reboot and discusses what SHE thinks needs to happen.

Lara was born during a time when sex in games and digital nudity were avant garde. Now it’s common place. Shed more light on Lara’s personality traits. She needs to become a full blown character that makes me laugh, cry, cringe, marvel and scream at the same time.  Full and impossibly flawed characters like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake and Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake have intense fan followings. Men don’t want to admit it but they’ve got a Bromance with Nathan and Snake that rivals the love affair they have with Lara. Women also love yearn for lovable characters. Gender doesn’t play that big of a role.

Get that, devs? Women also want /loveable/ female characters (or at least one woman does, and I don’t think it’s a half bad idea either.) Having said that, I think the devs here were gunning to highlight Lara’s personality traits. I just don’t know from that trailer whether loveable is really the personality trait that will shine here.

And aside from that, do we really want to see our characters beaten up, sobbing, and bleeding  (yeah scratch the bleeding, everyone does that)? Would it be possible to present the same story without making the vulnerability quite so front and centre, and focussing more on the aftermath and recovery?

Katniss is not Indiana Jones

My issue with the reboot is that I think the devs are mixing genres, perhaps unwisely. It isn’t impossible for a pulp action hero to get the grimdark makeover, it happened very successfully with Batman in the 1980s when The Dark Knight Returns was published. But some heroes, some stories, work better when they are left to their own strengths.

Lara was originally presented as a sexy female Indiana Jones, hence the tomb raiding. Along with that character type come the wisecracks, the keeping a cool head in a crisis, exotic locations,  falling into and escaping death traps, massive charisma, risk taking, and generally trying to be Harrison Ford. Katniss Everdeen (that’s Hunger Games if anyone hasn’t seen it yet) is more about survival and trying to be true to yourself and your friends in a world that is against you. It’s not quite the same. Katniss will never be a pulp action heroine (in fact, I’m still not recovered from having read book 3 in the series which is ultra grim).

However, much like Lake, I’m now quite curious to hear more about this game. Maybe I’ll pick it up cheap in a Steam sale in a few months time, if only to see how well they managed the storytelling. Shall we call that a win for the PR team?

Good, Evil, and other Genre Conventions

I always play good characters in games. I have never set out to be evil just for the sake of it.

When I murdered the child in Redcliffe (in Dragon Age) it was because I was saving the world from a worse evil. If that’s not heroic then I don’t know what is! If Mrs Spinks kills the odd few hundred people in Tarren Mill, it’s to protect her homeland. And it isn’t as if she hasn’t helped to kill a lot of dangerous dragons too, even though she totally could have forged a sick note and got out of it.

Or we could just say that I like dark fantasy which involves murky noir-esque moral setups. So when I have a choice, I lean towards the in-game faction or options which let me tell stories in that genre.

I wonder if all good vs evil choices in games really do boil down to letting the player pick their genre. Even a game like KOTOR, in which playing as evil involves scheming, betrayal, random nastiness, and power grabbing for personal gain is just a more hardcore version of the dark fantasy. With some Randian philosophy thrown in for kicks.

The problem with good or evil in games is that either people complain that the choice doesn’t matter, or else there’s one clearly superior option, so it isn’t much of a choice. i.e.:

1. It’s just colour. Or flavour. It might affect what race you play or which faction. It may affect the twists and turns of the story. But your choices are so restricted in other ways that you can never really go all out evil, or all out good.

2. One side will usually have the game mechanics behind them. For example, if a game strongly encourages cooperation then the side which can best cooperate will always win. If a game encourages selfish, backstabbing behaviour, then the side most prone to do this will always win.

It is a dilemma that can be solved. But the game would need to be focussed on playing out the conflict between the different philosophies. Give them different but balanced game mechanics and then see who wins. I’m jonesing to try playing Anti-Monopoly someday, because this is exactly the approach that the designers take. You can either play as a monopolist or as a free marketeer. The mechanics support both. And then fight it out on the board to see which philosophy wins.

But to do that, we need to get away from ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Alignment and Alpha Protocol

Given these genre musings, I was intrigued at the approach with Alpha Protocol, the upcoming spy action game, takes. Instead of letting you loose to pick good or evil, players can instead pick between Bond, Bourne, or Bauer. Three different genres of black ops style storytelling. Each with its own definition of good or evil.

For example, you’ll never see James Bond court-martialled for fraternising with the enemy. But you’ll also never see him in a situation where he’s in an actual no-win situation where he’s forced to make dark moral choices either.  Other genres could take you deeper into different types of stories. And as a bonus, people who are fans of the genre will know who Bond, Bourne, and Bauer are, so it’s a meaningful choice for them.

I’m not a fan of action games so I won’t be trying this one. But I find the approach far more interesting than just being asked to pick good or evil.

The Alpha Centauri Angle

Alpha Centauri is one of my favourite games of all time. It’s like Civilisation set on a new space colony, with an underlying storyline and where each faction has a very distinct philosophy which is underlined by the game mechanics.

The game itself is sheer genius. You can pick your philosophy by picking the faction which shares it. And then you can use it to conquer the world. Military supremacy? Mad science? Economic win? Be one with nature? There’s some very very clever game design going on in there, and it works brilliantly.

And again, there’s no clearcut choice between good and evil to be made anywhere at all. Instead, you get to choose how you will define good and choose how you will define evil. And to my mind, it leads to a stronger gaming experience overall.

My hope for SWTOR is that Bioware will have learned from previous outings that good vs evil isn’t really interesting enough to stand alone. And instead, when you pick a class, you will really be picking a genre for your space opera. And any good vs evil choices you get to make while playing are more about letting you tailor that genre to your own preferences.

Do you like games where each faction has a distinct philosophy? (Warcraft kind of manages this for Horde, but not so well for Alliance in my view.)

Walking in a linking wonderland

Here are some of the posts and threads that caught my eye over the last couple of weeks.

  1. Kurt Vonnegut explains why people become drama queens
  2. tankspot dares to ask, “Has tanking made you mean?” Obviously not in my case, and I’ll boot anyone who disagrees.
  3. Tobold has an interesting theory about the different players who are attracted to different payment models. If all the players who really want games to be free go with free to play then how can that model make money? Similarly, if all the hardcore 40 hours a week guys flock to subscription models which depend on having lots of casual players, can those thrive too?
  4. Cassandri at HoTs and DoTs wants to know how much you’d pay for a battered hilt (leads to a quest which results in the best non raiding weapon in WoW). Does knowing that it has a high value affect whether you’d roll need on it?
  5. We get a lot of gaming genre blending in CRPGs. Some puzzle solving, squad based combat, exploring, maybe even FPS segments. Rampant Coypte wonders if players enjoy the mix of genres. For me, only if I like BOTH genres. I never forgave Prince of Persia for including stupid fighty bits when I just wanted a platform game.
  6. Mike Schramm has an intriguing post on wow.com asking whether Facebook might count as an MMO. After all, ‘players’ have avatars, homes, and can interact with others virtually. This is also his last week on wow.com so good luck to him in the future, I know I’ve enjoyed his writing.
  7. Larisa has some thoughts on how to take command over the random PUG. I’m hoping she will later address the question of whether or not anyone should be taking command.
  8. Hawley loves healers and says we’ll all miss them when they’re gone. He also wonders about Blizzard’s decision not to have a crowd control class; funnily enough I remember at the time thinking that it was inspired to spread the crowd control between different classes, but it’s true that in practice they weren’t all treated as equal.
  9. Jason Henniger writes the ultimate dear john letter, “Nyarlahotep, I’m breaking up with you.”
  10. Megan at Forbearance and the Drama Mammas (sorry but that column name makes me want to spit nails) at wow.com both think that everyone should chill and welcome the poorly performing players into PUGs.