Breaking Lara: Tomb Raider like we’ve never seen it before

When Crystal Dynamics said they were taking a more mature direction for the new Tomb Raider, they weren’t kidding. Reports are in, and footage from the upcoming game is downright brutal: violent, merciless, and sexually explicit. Since the game is more a reboot than a prequel, the developers aren’t torturing the bad-ass weapons and tomb expert we’ve come to know over the years — they’re traumatizing a young, inexperienced girl. We have to wonder whether Lara will make it out alive with her sanity and endearing British wit intact.

Throughout my own childhood and adolescence, I threw Lara off cliffs and watched her die in the most painful ways possible for the sake of progressing. It was often difficult to figure out which rocky juts were actually viable platforms and which would send Lara plummeting to her doom. Taking risks was a natural part of Tomb Raider, and with the convenience of saving anytime in the earlier games, players never so much as blinked when their clumsy mistake caused Lara to careen off mountainsides, drown in underwater labyrinths, or die in the clutches of a mythological monster or ferocious bear.

Now when Lara suffers, we’ll remember. The recent trailer from E3 and all of Lara’s very vocal screaming suggests that every time she falls, she’ll gain a new scar. Keeping Lara alive won’t mean avoiding constant reloads as much as it will helping her to survive — and hopefully resist total mental and physical exhaustion.

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One scene shown to journalists at E3 involved the sensitive issue of rape, and the developers included it as a quick-time event, no less — not a cinematic cut-scene, but an actual situation that could leave Lara even more of a victim than she already is.

During the writing of this article, Crystal Dynamics head Darrell Gallagher released a statement clarifying the nature of this scene, calling it “misunderstood”:

In this particular section, while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game. … We’re sorry this has not been better explained, we’ll certainly be more careful with what is said in future.

Speaking previously to the Penny Arcade Report, he used the exact words "almost raped."

While reporters were obsessing over the idea of an attempted rape scene, it was worth wondering if the option to fail the scenario actually existed. When it comes to QTEs, that’s a natural question to want to ask. How much would the developers dare to show, and should they flirt with such a topic that’s a painful reality for so many people? Inadvertently, Crystal Dynamics did just that as soon as the media caught word of rape and the studio took too long to silence it. Either the scene would hypothetically fade to a game over screen, or players would be witness to Lara’s agony, only to have her walk away presumably “stronger.” It’s difficult to imagine Lara continuing her adventure when so many survivors of sexual violence experience fear, depression, anxiety, and flashbacks of the event. Not to mention whether she’d have the strength to ever raid tombs again.

“Survivors of sexual violence and attempted violence may relate to the world differently after the trauma as a way to feel secure and safe,” Miriam Elizondo, executive VP of client services at the Rape Crisis Center, told us in an interview. “They can withdraw, project anger to non-offending family members, and have a general lack of trust in others and the world. Even healthy relationships may suffer and be negatively impacted after an assault. "

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“Generally speaking, when a person is recovering from extreme stress or trauma (i.e. sexual assault), additional stress may keep survivor from healing or working on original trauma,” she says. “Survivors as any other individuals will work and try to cope with the most current stressing issue (i.e. shelter, food, safety, etc.) before they can begin to emotionally and psychologically heal from a trauma.”

In other words, Lara could keep focused on leaving the island and saving her friends, if only for her own survival.

“Although,” Elizondo says, “sometimes returning to the day to day stress (work, routine, school, parenting, etc.) may be helpful in the survivor's healing process because it can reassure them their ability to continue functioning and coping with life, at the same time it can give them a sense of control. Every new challenge in life can be seen as a new challenge to overcome and to try out the survivor’s new set of coping skills.”

When watching trailers and demos for the game, it’s hard not to cringe. There seems to be no end to what the developers are willing to put Lara through. While fans might draw numerous connections to the gameplay of Uncharted, it’s clear that what we’re seeing is far from the hapless adventures of Nathan Drake — even at their most grim. It’s doubtful that all of Lara’s travel companions will survive the ordeal, and aside for Lara’s self-referential “I hate tombs” line (think Indiana Jones and his feelings toward snakes), humor might be in low supply.

Whoever this Lara is destined to become by the end of the game, she won’t be the same woman as the one we’ve gone on adventures with before.

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“I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft,” she says in the “Crossroads” trailer, picking up a gun for what might be the first time.

“Sure you are,” a voice responds. “You just don’t know it yet.”

Crystal Dynamics might be testing Lara’s courage in taking a life, but perhaps they’ve also raised new questions about possibilities in gameplay — how far developers are willing to go, and how much gamers would risk to see.

Follow @wita on Twitter for tales of superheroes, plumbers in overalls, and literary adventures.