Friday, 7 September 2012

The Tomb Raider & Hitman: Absolution Issues

For my first "real" blog, I'd intended to start with two of the hot button issues of 2012; the Tomb Raider reboot's "rape" controversy and the Hitman trailer featuring Agent 47 fending off an assassination attempt by "The Saints", a group of women dressed in skimpy latex nun costumes.

However, it was only when I was explaining the entire situation about Tomb Raider for the six people who had been living under a rock back in June that I realised something: I didn't think I had anything to add. I looked over a few articles from Wikipedia's citations, followed by articles linked to by those articles and, long story short, I thought they were far more comprehensive than I would've been. A few things stood out for me though; for one, I didn't agree with their assessment. For example, many people took Lara's fearfulness during the E3 trailer to mean she was suddenly "weak" and this, combined with the "rape", was proof of misogyny in Tomb Raider, perhaps even gaming as a whole; an otherwise-good article on Destructoid referred to a "sexist status quo" in gaming culture.

Basically, I wasn't seeing what everybody else was seeing in the E3 trailer. I've occasionally responded with frustration at kneejerk reactions from bloggers and commenters and I'm certain I did back in June, when the rape controversy was the talking point of every gaming site. For example, it didn't matter that Crystal Dynamics stated, "sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game", I can still recall at least one article that showed a picture of Lara being set upon by one of the enemies in the game and saying, "uhh, yeah, that's sexual assault!" There was also an open letter to two people who had dared to crack a joke about the non-rape of a fictional character in a comments section, which further continued to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Now, it's understandable that people reacted this way. Not just because rape is such a sensitive subject but also because we knew -- and still know -- so little about Tomb Raider. However, what was so annoying closer to the time was that while plenty of people chose to believe Crystal Dynamics when they stated, "sexual assault is not a theme we cover in this game", plenty of others chose to make up their own story and say, "it looks like a quick-time event", as in, "press X to avoid rape".

The moment in question starts at around the 2:20 mark in the above video, if you want to judge for yourself.

So like I say, it's not so much that I didn't care as much as I didn't see what everyone else was seeing or I figured they were being hypocritical: did Sarah Connor's weakness in Terminator stop her from being strong in Terminator 2? What about Ripley in Alien? It's not even specific to women; did Peter Parker have super-strength even while being beaten up by bullies? It sounds like certain audiences wouldn't be satisfied unless Lara was clutching a pair of handguns at birth.

So how does Hitman: Absolution fit in? Well if you're a gamer, there's a good chance you've seen this picture while visiting your favourite gaming site over the last couple of months, albeit a bigger version:

Basically, to sum up the trailer they appear in, they blow up the motel that Agent 47 is staying in but 47 survives and kills them. There's some blood and, of course, people complained. The controversy boiled down to this; the objectification of women, the violence against women and the two together encouraging sexual violence.

The reason I wanted to draw the parallel between Hitman and Tomb Raider -- and I realise the word "wanted" is looking increasingly pointless -- is because the reaction to the two trailers was exactly the same but the roles were reversed in each one. The Hitman trailer ends with Agent 47 killing his assailants and they are considered victims by the game's critics. The Tomb Raider trailer ends with Lara killing her assailant, yet she is still considered a victim by her game's critics.

Why is this? Presumably because Lara was "weak" and fearful, right? Okay but the Saints in the Hitman trailer weren't fearful at all. So why are they considered victims? Why is violence against them so bad?

The answer, unfortunately, is the same answer that we always roll our eyes at in this situation; because they're female. Never mind that they're villainesses and just blew up a motel in the attempt to kill one person (probably killing many more innocents in the process). Never mind that they have guns and 47 has to defend himself while unarmed. They're female and therefore, any violence against them = bad. Are we honestly supposed to accept that even when your life is being threatened by women, a man should sooner accept death than dare to harm such angels? According to the critics, yes.

Now, while I've mentioned the women in both of these trailers for most of this blog, I haven't mentioned the men very much. Agent 47 and, for lack of a better name, "Lara's Assailant". The reason I've kept quiet about the two of them is simply because there aren't as many criticisms to counter. However, it really says something when rapists -- male, of course -- are appearing for the first time in a Tomb Raider game and all people can comment on is how sexist it is against women. On the off-chance that there are any women who are reading this blog, I'm going to let you in on a little non-secret; men get pissed off at the lack of positive male role models in the media too. Be they helpless sitcom husbands and useless dads or Lifetime movie-of-the-week domestic abusers and rapists, there's plenty for men to get annoyed about. So what's it like to have Tomb Raider -- you know, the series about the witty, upper-class female archaeologist? -- turned into one of those incredibly sexist Lifetime movies-of-the-week, complete with rapist? Who, of course, Lara exacts revenge on. And how! While Agent 47 respectfully closes the eyes of the Saints' leader, Lara comes out of it looking like she just performed a Fatality:

Now, if you've been keeping up, you'll have noticed that I'm taking Crystal Dynamics' word for it that there is no sexual assault in the Tomb Raider reboot. However, if I was in a similar mindset as the people who criticised Tomb Raider for the sexual assault, it would follow that Lara's Assailant was also a sexual predator. So if you believe one, you have to believe the other.

There isn't much to say about Agent 47, although I'm sure if someone were to criticise my parallel of the two games, they'd point out that while Lara is being portrayed as "weak" for the first time in the series, 47 is as strong as ever, able to fight off eight armed enemies at once. However, I would say that's a flawed argument for this reason; in the critics' eyes, both Lara and the Saints are the victims while 47 and Lara's Assailant are the perpetrators. Plus, from a non-gender issues point-of-view, Lara being the victim works from a storytelling standpoint while 47 being a victim wouldn't.

There were a few other criticisms of the Saints, of course. On the topic of sexual objectification: yes, the Saints are sexy. However, try to keep something in mind; the Hitman series has featured more than one fetish club. Also, lest we forget, it's about a man who murders people for a living. Objecting to adult themes in Hitman is senseless. It's also worth mentioning that the Saints make far more memorable villains dressed as they are than if they were dressed less outrageously. I'm almost certain there'll be people who read that sentence and respond with "uhh, are you trying to justify objectification because the women make better villains than if they were dressed sensibly?", to which my answer would be a resounding "yes". A good villain is an important thing to have in this kind of game and, although I'm not completely shrugging off the objectification, the critics shouldn't shrug off the value of a good villain either. Want proof? Okay. Who's more memorable, Lara's Assailant or The Saints? Without looking at the E3 trailer above, could you describe Lara's Assailant? Could you draw fan art of him from memory? Would you even want to? That's only considering what little we know at this point, so I could turn out to be completely wrong. I'm guessing Lara's Assailant won't be anything special but the Saints could end up being lousy too.

The other criticism of the Saints is so frustratingly ludicrous that it pains me to have to answer it, but here goes; violence against virtual women, dressed provocatively, will not encourage sexual violence in real life. I find this point particularly irritating because it's only in the past few years that Jack Thompson has quietened down; we've heard no mention of "murder simulators" or any games that train people to kill. Yet people within, or claiming to be within, our very own community are now levelling these comments towards themselves. It's bizarre and either gives fellow gamers a lack of credit or, the more likely possibility, shows a low opinion of men.

Some previous Hitman adverts. Guess which one was controversial! Here's a clue; it didn't feature a dead male.

These two games represent two different sides of gaming though; Tomb Raider's sexual assault issue is realistic while Hitman Absolution's objectification issue is clearly unrealistic. So there are two different things the critics need to take away from this: for Hitman, accept that games are fictional. They're fantastical. We use them for escapism. So deal with the fact that we can have scantily-clad women in games and, more to the point, get over your sexist attitudes and accept that men hitting women in self-defence is actually not unreasonable.

What you should take away from Tomb Raider is that a character's origin doesn't reflect the character as a whole. There's also something else worth mentioning here; at some point during the year, you'll probably run into a blog or comment about whether or not video games can be art. For the people who believe they are, how many of those people also decried the "rape" in Tomb Raider? The reason I ask is because all art tackles the issue of mature themes. Even for those of you who don't believe that games are art, how about this; hypothetically, if Lara's Assailant was attempting to rape her, how is that different from any other video game/movie/television show that builds tension through placing the main characters in danger? Because it's rape? Yet it didn't actually take place, so how can it be misogynistic when Lara proves herself strong enough to kill her (evil male rapist) attacker?

That'll do for now. I'm sorry that this post has been so long but, hey, that's what blogs are for. You can tell from the start of this blog that I wasn't intending to write this much about Tomb Raider and Hitman, to the point that I actually had points prepared about other games. I wrote a lot about the women of each game in this blog when I'd hoped to raise some points about sexism against men instead. Still, it's probably best to start with something people are familiar with than throwing them in at the deep end with new issues.

If you'd like to suggest other topics for future blog posts, feel free to leave a comment below or e-mail me at I welcome all suggestions!