The (Rise and) Rape of Lara Croft

[Trigger Warning: Rape, sexual violence]

[Spoiler Alert for Mass Effect 2; only hinting at spoilers for Tomb Raider]

 Is it too late to chime in on the “Tomb Raider rape controversy”?  I’ll readily admit that I haven’t played a single minute of any game in the series, but as a feminist gamer interested in gender roles, of course I’ve followed Lara’s story from a distance. I’ve watched a good amount of gameplay videos of the reboot (until the cremation of ********, not to spoil anything vital) and read a fair share of articles and blog posts and interviews and whatnot about it. But anyway … it is never too late to talk about rape and rape culture. I agree with many commenters that the “suggested rape attempt scene” has been a publicity stunt. I think that, apart from that scene, Lara has to endure pain and violent acts that IMO are over the top. Also: The constant moaning and groaning, COME ON! You’d NEVER subject a male character to all this! As explained by the game’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg, this all happens for a very specific reason:

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. 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.'”

(That would also never happen to a male character.) I also agree with Mary Hamilton in her Guardian article that

the use of rape “is a lazy shorthand that allows a writer to paint a bad guy as particularly bad, and a woman as particularly vulnerable (the genders are rarely reversed), without dealing with the consequences or meaning of such an act for any of the parties involved.”

There are just so many aspects of this affair that make me so angry I don’t even care whether it’s actually a good game. Let’s assume games are an art form and we want to discuss all sorts of topics from our daily lives in this medium. So let’s face it: rape, sexual assault and molestation are part of the daily lives of countless women and girls on this planet. And I do think that we have got to try to deal with this topic in video games. If it’s supposed to be a mature medium for grown-ups, we gotta figure out how.

Continue reading The (Rise and) Rape of Lara Croft

Saving Pirate Patty

Over a year ago, I finally finished Risen and started writing this blog post. Soooo much has happened since then, and I’ve neglected this blog. But hey, I’m back. 🙂

While the game has a lot of rare strong suits, like the continuous, interactive world with beautiful day & night cycles and some clever level design choices, it also has a few annoying aspects. I won’t go into details about most of them; let me just say that the quest log was particularly frustrating because I picked up the game again after several months and the log didn’t help at all. But overall, I liked the game a lot. Risen stands in the tradition of the German cult RPG series Gothic and was developed by the same studio, Piranha Bytes, after the rights to the series were temporarily unavailable due to legal problems with the publisher JoWood. It is very similar to the Gothic games, but not frustrating as hell. 😉

The people on the island of Faranga have daily routines and roam their camps and go to the tavern, go to sleep and back to their workplaces in the morning. That part was quite well done – but, it was also very revealing of the society depicted in the game. I am often confronted with the argument of “historical realism” when discussing gender issues in games but I won’t accept that for a fantasy setting. If you make up undead creatures, magic spells and whatnot, there is no claiming realism to justify why women aren’t treated or represented equally in a game. ( The “representation” vs. “treatment” is an important point, because I wouldn’t mind if the treatment of women in the game served the plot and could be protested against or changed, but it usually can’t be.) There are lots of unnamed NPCs in Risen, bearing markers like “Townswoman” or “Farmer”, etc. There seem to be roughly equal numbers of men and women, but none of the women work in the fields, smithies or in any other craft. Neither are there female guards, warriors, mages or bandits. The women also never go to the tavern. Ever. C’mon!?

Of course, there’s a brothel in the island’s only town. (My fingers are itching to write a whole post about courtesans/prostitutes in games.) The brothel is the only place outside their house in which women actually do work; and I really dislike the message that sends. The more important NPCs, like merchants and quest givers, all have names. That’s why it sticks out that there are very few female ones, and their portrayals are rife with clichés. A few examples:

Rachel – the wife of the bandits’ leader, Don Esteban. You will mostly see her work in her fancy open-air kitchen in the bandit camp. She does play a role in your getting to speak to the Don, but overall, she’s the camp’s cook, and that’s that.
Kayleigh – a rather annoying woman who wants a pearl necklace in exchange for a stolen ring that you need to bring back to his owner.
Sonya, Olga, Lilly, Gwen, Anika – prostitutes, some of which you can actually have sex with. You can save Gwen from physical abuse by a guy called Erikson. You can distract a guard called Marek by paying for Anika’s services.
Jasmin – a hunter and merchant, lives in a remote cottage, protected by a tame wolf and her partner Hendrik
Tilda – a mother of three sons who is worried about them and sends you on a quest to see if they are okay
Patty – the only female skill trainer in the entire game. Guess for what skills? Acrobatics, a largely useless skill that you can also get temporarily by wearing a ring. And lockpicking, okay, that’s useful. 😉

But there’s more to Patty. She is the only woman in the entire game that has more than a negligible role. Patty is the daughter of a famous pirate, and owns the tavern in Harbor City. You will be sent on a quest to retrieve some documents for her then enable her to leave the town through the secret tunnel. In a later chapter you will help her find her father’s treasure and spring her from the cell where the infamous Pirate Romanov locks her up. Here’s what she looks like – yes, it’s your typical cropped, cleavage-exposing nothing with hot pants and overknees. SIgh.

Pirate Patty, wearing hotpants and a kind of vest that bares her belly and much of her cleavage
Pirate Patty

For the longest time, the quests involving her didn’t portray her as a woman who could hold her own in a fight, but at least she had a background and some really good lines. Here’s a short video captured from the later part of the game, where you rescue her and she then helps you, until after the final bossfight.

Patty is an interesting character because for quite some time, I had no idea that she would turn out to be a companion rather than eye candy; and strong woman who was cheeky and flirtatious without appearing easy or needy of the hero.

Since I started writing this post, Risen 2 was published, but I haven’t yet played it. So I might soon continue telling Patty’s story from my feminist gamer’s perspective. As of now, I am quite hopeful – but it wouldn’t be the first time that a strong female character was twisted into a mere shadow of her former self in a sequel. Yes, I’m looking at you Isabela.

Gender Swaps Revisited (Links)

Here are some links in addition to those in my original post on gender swaps:

Hope you enjoy!

I May Freeze To Death, But At Least I Will Die Sexy

The following ad for “Last Chaos” popped up from some game site. Now, I do not know anything about the game (and don’t care much, either), but the images caught my eye, after reading various posts about the depiction of male and female characters in games recently.

The Titan character is one of the few examples of male characters without full plate armor, the rogue (Schurkin) one of the few of females with full (leather in this case) armor. [Note: The image is photoshopped to see both characters without the icy layer, which disappears on mouse-over.] Yes, the second one, the Knight, as well as the third, the Mage and the last, the Healer characters are pretty stereotypical again, but it was enough to screencap it and post it now.

Screenshot of character classes in Last Chaos, showing one male in full armor, one male with exposed abs and legs. One female character wears a full light armor, two are scantily clad in typical Mage or Healer fashion..
"You can do it, oh no you can't." (Devs create characters with sensible armor.)

However, seeing that this world seems to be covered in ice and the heading reads “Survive the icy times”, I don’t see much of a chance of survival for any of them if they don’t have a warm coat and thick fur boots ready somewhere.

I fondly remember Robinson’s Requiem and The Dark Eye/Realms of Arkania, where your characters would die quickly without the proper equipment. Mind you, I wasn’t so fond of this when they died the first time. 😉

So, as I said elsewhere recently, I either want all characters to wear silly armor that exposes their vital organs while emphasizing their assets, or the laws of physics (however exotic they may be in fantasy/sci-fi worlds) to apply to all sexes equally – and that means they should cover up for protection from the weather as well as their enemies’ steel.

Bewitch(er)ed and Bewildered

Note: NSFW but only very minor spoilers.

Another note: Proud to announce that this post was featured on The Border House! If you want to see the comments that were posted over there, follow this link!

I was very excited when The Witcher 2 was released earlier this year, but I quickly got annoyed with a few things (controls, balance) so I took a break from the game soon afterwards, somewhere in the middle of chapter 2. Then, I’ve spent a lot of time playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed for my thesis. When that was done, I put 153 hours into Skyrim and now I’m back to The Witcher 2.

These three games combined would make for an amazing experience: I love the openness and the beautiful world of Skyrim, but the characters are generic and flat. I love the way Assassin’s Creed makes the virtual world physically plausible and movement realistic even though your avatar is pulling the wildest stunts. I love the “adult” setting of The Witcher, it is dirty, gritty and damn funny.

Posts about the other two will follow, but this one will be about Andrzej Sapkowski’s (I spelled that correctly right away, wow!) creation in general, and specifically regarding the representation of women in the game and in its promotion. I am a huge Witcher fangirl, in spite of many things that initially annoyed me about the franchise – I went into detail on this in this post and explained what changed my mind here. I am currently reading one of the books, partly to see whether these problems are built into the franchise by its creator or if it’s the gaming industry’s doing.

If you made out the latter as the culprit, well done, but it wasn’t too hard, eh? Get this bit from the Witcher Wiki about one slight but revealing *giggle* difference between the novels and games:

After her fall at Sodden Hill and her consequent resuscitation, Triss mentions that she “will never again be able to wear a dress with a low neckline”, suggesting that some skin disfigurment still remains on her chest. In the game however, she displays a generous amount of cleavage without any traces of damage whatsoever.

While Triss’ normal attire in The Witcher 2 is almost chaste, you have ample of time to… uhm, inspect her skin for possible scarring in her nude scenes. 😉 Here is, though, her outfit, which I adore:

Triss' standard outfit in The Witcher 2. She is wearing pants, boots and some sort of light armor that doesn't show any cleavage at all.
Triss in The Witcher 2... when not naked ;-)

A general statement before you get me wrong: I do not criticize nudity (in games) per se, I just don’t want it to be an end in itself, and one thing that annoys me in particular is the double standards many guys have, i.e. female characters are expected to wear plate bikinis in combat and nothing at all in romance/sex cutscenes, while male characters wear reasonable armor in combat and keep their pants on at all times. It doesn’t make sense from an in-game perspective and it’s immature if you can’t look at a naked person of the same sex, especially if it’s just pixels.

In a scene in which Triss and Geralt take a bath in some ruins, Triss immediately removes her clothes with a spell and jumps in the water. Geralt begins undressing, but when he reaches his pants in the process, Triss grabs his arm and pulls him into the pool – pixel penis exposure averted!

However, The Witcher 2 does a good job on some counts. While the very explicit sex scenes – which must make BioWare with its “mature RPG” Dragon Age blush – caused “complaints” on forums from guys who didn’t know how to complete the game with just one hand, Triss and Ves are both reasonably dressed when out of bed. And the romancey dialogs are quite well done.

Ves is a kickass soldier, who exemplifies the “beauty vs. talent” dilemma, because she does get picked for special assignments that make use of her pretty face.

Her journal entry in the game reads:

The fair-haired Ves stood apart from the rest of Vernon Roche’s unit, and not only in that she was the only woman in an elite formation of hardened cutthroats and swashbucklers. Her girlish face and shapely body would stand out even if a uniform did emphasize them. For there is something in soldier women that attract a man’s gaze, and Ves was no exception. The reader should not, however, be mislead by this description – one does not earn a Blue Stripes membership with good looks, but with skill, determination and, at times, ruthlessness. Anyone disregarding Ves would pay dearly for misjudging this young woman. Because of her gender, Ves would sometimes receive assignments where her beauty was more important than her combat abilities and efficiency. Roche had used Ves as his trump card more than once.

Here’s a screenshot of Ves – I love her outfit, stance, hairdo, everything!

Soldier Ves in her armor (boots, pants, a blouse showing a bit of cleavage but not overtly much, and a studded uniform jacket)
Ves, as she should be

Of course, we can’t have reasonably dressed female characters, so we have to create a mod that changes this outfit to the default whore apparel… I do suppose people who prefer this one have no imagination whatsoever. Their loss, right? (btw, when I last looked, the mod had only 400-something unqiue downloads.)

Ves, when using the mod, wears the game's standard "whore outfit", consisting of hotpants, a half-unbuttoned jacket over a barely-there vest and a massive choker
The extremely essential "Ves Whorification Mod"

Incidentially, a bug in The Witcher 2 made it possible for Geralt to undress without exposing *any* kind of skin… 😉

Geralt stricken by a bug that, quite ironically, strips him of his pants
They DID say he can't keep his pants on...

Seriously though, unlike the first game, there is much less blatant sexism in the second one. The awkward pin-up cards were dropped, to name one example. Similar to the two main relationships in The Witcher 1 with either Shani or Triss, you can choose whether Geralt remains faithful to Triss or not. In general, I find Geralt to be very respectful towards women, taking into account his general disrespect towards authority, religion or mages.

Yes, The Witcher 2 is a very adult game (both regarding the general setting and sexuality), but it is much more than that. It has a beautiful world, interesting quests, intriguing and nuanced characters, original details like the bestiary that is refreshingly different from other RPGs and much more to please a fan of the genre, whether male or female. It certainly diserves the Mature rating for the nudity alone, but apart from that, there’s cursing, blood, torture, incest, drug abuse… and the aforementioned dirt and grit that makes it “adult” in the other meaning of the term. It’s not a fluffy fairy tale, it’s a story filled with pain, death, injustice, prejudice, loss in a harsh setting.

What has been used to promote the game, however, boils down to naked skin in its truest sense. For example, Triss was on the Playboy cover in Poland and in Russia, a nude calendar was produced, here’s a video from the shooting, showing a completely naked Triss and a fully dressed Geralt:

[Side note: Perhaps she dropped the Triss outfit because it didn’t look as awesome as in the game?]

I really don’t care about the calendar or the video per se. What I do care about is that this is the part of the campaign that sticks, and gives a skewed image of the game. It does not do the game justice at all. I am not sure if I would have given it a second look if confronted with the marketing campaign. This is hardly how you promote a game to female gamers (who, if I am any indication, might come to love this game almost as much as the guys), or to male gamers who expect more from a game than pixel porn and are against sexism in or outside of games. Most feedback I get here on my blog is from guys, not girls, so I know they exist. 😉

Now for a little experiment: Imagine an Oscar-winning Hollywood film with a great plot, characters and special effects that features some explicit sex scenes was marketed primarily with explicit material. I am finding this incredibly hard, to be honest. It is economically stupid to give your product an image that does not correspond with its actual content, but will most likely alienate parts of your audience while not gaining considerable new target audiences. This is of course guesswork, but I don’t think that many RPG-hating shooter fans (sorry for the stereotype, but I’m trying to make a point *cough*) would think “Hey, I hate RPGs, but this one has sex scenes, so I’m going to buy it” especially in times where you can watch screencaptures of everything on YouTube two days after the game’s launch.

After noticing similar differences between the content and campaign for Dragon Age 2, I get the impression that while many developers are (trying to be) more inclusive of the interests of female gamers (and the wonderful group of male gamers that support gender equality), the publishers go behind their backs and leave out these aspects and emphasize the “made for the male gaze” parts instead. So I can’t help but wonder: Why is the game marketing obviously more sexist than the game development? Are they too dense to realize that pleasing a decreasing percentage of gamers while alienating an increasing one is plainly irrational?

[Edit: If you understand German, here’s an article with the opinions of the male journalists of PC Games Hardware, who seem to agree with me. And this English forum conversation is quite fun to read.]