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Crystal Dynamics on alleged Tomb Raider "rape": why is death "okay", but not sex?

"We don't shy away from the choices we made."

CVG has an intriguing interview with Brian Horton, art director on Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot. As is de rigueur for Tomb Raider chitchats, the conversation soon turns to gender, sexiness versus sexism and specifically, the so-called "attempted rape" scene alluded to in June. But the fine details are less of a retread than you might expect.

Asked about the challenges of writing a female protagonist, Horton commented: "It's a numbers game, there's just not that many female protagonists in the games industry still. As much as Lara Croft broke ground in 1996, how many more female protagonists can you think of that are the stars of their game?"

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He's impressed by BioWare's efforts in this area, but notes that those efforts aren't all that apparent at a glance. "I think that's what's really great about Mass Effect for instance: you can choose to be female Shepard. You can choose to make the protagonist a heroine, but that's not the way they market the game, right? It's marketed as the male Shepard. So for our game, Lara stands alone in an industry of AAA third-person action games, in that it has the female hero."

(Remember Me, Heavenly Sword and Kameo would probably beg to differ.)

"The challenge for us is, that now we're making it more realistic, it starts to conjures up different emotions in people," Horton continued, discussing how Lara's character has evolved beyond the buxom James Bondalike we know and, in some cases, love from the '90s. "They're playing as Lara and she's struggling - you have a mixed emotion.

"Before she was really just an expression of male energy in a female body. Now she's both female and feminine, but at the same time very strong, has that inner strength, has those smarts - the things you associate with Lara Croft - but also with a little more texture."

Less forgiving critics have suggested that Crystal's portrayal simply trades one kind of objectification - the pneumatic action heroine - for another - the beat-up, sobbing beauty from the teen horror genre. Horton is alive to the risk that Lara's new capacity for suffering might be perceived as an extension of her gender. "So that's the challenge for us: how do you get that vulnerability and still make people feel like we're not making her vulnerable because she's a women? We're making her vulnerable because it's her first adventure, and she happens to be a women. That's the distinction."

Regarding the "rape" scene, in which Lara fends off and eventually shoots a bandit, he observes: "in that situation, out of context the story was more salacious than the actual content. You got to play the demo today, and you got to see in context what the first kill is all about. What forms Lara is not what he [the foe] did to her, it's what she did to him, and that's the big distinction for us.

"The tightrope is how people perceive it, because she is a woman and it's a man in an overpowering position. He was over the top of her in a menacing way, but the outcome is such that you either pull the trigger or he kills you. It's a little more binary: it's not so much... "ooh I don't know what he did." [It's obvious] he would kill you."

"I think it's weird that we view death as being okay," Horton added. "It's one of our things as a culture, in the video game space. We still have to be very very careful about how we deal with these issues.

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"As an industry we've grown up, but not enough to do everything you can do in films or TV. We made a conscious decision to make a bold storytelling choice and gameplay choice, to give that scene more emotional weight. We don't shy away from the choices we made."

Crystal's marketing boss Karl Stewart has discussed the difficulties of the portrayal elsewhere, stating among other things that there's "a fine line between how you keep her sexy and real without getting into sexist." One early concept for the reboot saw Lara escorting a young girl - an ICO-esque twist which obviously pays into traditional gender roles.

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