Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A Criticism of Rhianna Pratchett

This post will be much shorter than some of the others I've written and, yes, we're back on the subject of Tomb Raider.

For those of you who don't know who Rhianna Pratchett is, she's a professional writer who has worked on games such as Heavenly Sword, Mirror's Edge and the Overlord games. She's also the daughter of Terry Pratchett, writer of the Discworld series. More to the point, she's the lead writer of the Tomb Raider reboot.

She did an interview with Gamespot a few days ago, discussing the game, and I have a few issues with it. Here's just a few of the quotes from the interview:
Pratchett has the task of finding a side to Lara's personality that has been lost over the years in favour of an increasingly clichéd male sexual fantasy.

"[The way Lara was portrayed] shifted the focus away from what was particularly cool about her: the tough, action heroine and archaeology lover," Pratchett says. "It made me feel that these were games aimed squarely at guys, and therefore weren't necessarily for me."

"In the past developers have definitely forgotten about the brains bit [when dealing with female game characters], mainly because that’s an aspect of a character that can’t be depicted visually, it has to be done through smart dialogue and appropriate action. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a female character being attractive, even sexy, it’s just when it’s done in a purely 'tits out for the lads' way that it becomes rather embarrassing."
I should state that the last Tomb Raider game I played was Tomb Raider: Legend. So maybe someone can enlighten me; in Anniversary and Underworld, did Lara Croft suddenly stop loving archaeology and stop being tough? Did she suddenly lack intelligence and wit? From the Tomb Raider games I played, Lara was not lacking in any of the areas Pratchett criticised her for but, who knows, maybe something happened in the two latest Tomb Raider games. We'll give her the benefit of the doubt and if anyone wants to inform me of how true Pratchett's statements are, that'd be very welcome.

However, something I do take issue with is this assumption of what Lara is vs. what she should be. It's even more pronounced later in the interview. It reminds me of our old friend Anita Sarkeesian. Like Sarkeesian, Pratchett views a character in a certain way that others may not share. Unlike Sarkeesian -- at least for the time being -- Pratchett is in a position to change that character to be more to her liking.

That's a big, big problem. First of all, while I have no problems with characters being changed for legitimate reasons, I take issue with the idea that a character is in some way not "right" unless they're changed to fit a certain mould. Let's say Pratchett's right and Lara had lost her lustre in Anniversary and Underworld. If she wishes to restore Lara's personality as a witty archaeology-lover, that's fine. There's a chance she may want to do something else, however, that I'll take a moment to explain:

In a previous blog, I wrote, "I'm a member of a comic book forum, amongst others, and I rarely visit there any more because every other thread is about the portrayal of women in comics and more diversity on superhero teams". The threads about the portrayal of women in comic books ranges from their appearance (expect eye-rollingly hypocritical attitudes to the unrealistic appearances of men vs. the unrealistic appearances of women) to personalities. Normally, there'll be something along the lines of "DC is much better than Marvel in regards to female characters" and plenty of Marvel-blaming for not doing more to promote female heroes.

This is willfully ignoring the fact that whenever Marvel puts out a book starring a female character, it gets cancelled, often long after the sales numbers said it should be. Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, X-23, S.W.O.R.D. ... the list goes on. Yet Marvel continue to do so, even though it's bad business to keep putting out books that get cancelled! Inevitably, the cancellation of these titles will be met with responses of "this just proves the inherent sexism of comic book readers" and "are male readers just incapable of relating to female characters?" This just ignores the fact that a ton of male superheroes have had their books cancelled too. Ghost Rider, Moon Knight and my old favourite, the critically-acclaimed Captain Britain & MI:13. Hell, Dr. Strange has never been able to hold down a series. Obviously, none of these examples are evidence of sexism against men, and they're not, but none of the cancellation of the superheroines' series are either. That doesn't stop the fans -- if you can call them that -- from crying misogyny at every opportunity.

Anyway, that's just to give you an idea of what comic book fandom has become. The point is that in the attempts to keep these female characters' series afloat, several superheroines -- Wonder Woman, the aforementioned Ms. Marvel -- are pigeonholed into the "strong, independent woman" archetype. Earlier this year, Ms. Marvel was rebranded as Captain Marvel and given a popular female writer (Kelly Sue DeConnick, who has also appeared at Comic-Con's deeply patronising "Women Of Marvel" panels) in the hope that her book would survive. Time will tell if she will but just take a look at Comic Book Resources' preview of the first issue. It's something to behold; the misogynist villain offset by Captain America's heroic obedience. It's particularly jarring if you're a comic book fan; the villain being fought in that issue, Absorbing Man, was actually part of a supervillain duo with his wife, Titania. So of all the villains to make a misogynist, the married man who reguarly worked alongside a woman was a bizarre choice.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Rhianna Pratchett are completely different people, however. There's a very good chance Lara won't end up being the silly battler of misogyny that Ms. Marvel has become. Although there is a point in all this; Pratchett has this idea that there is something wrong with a female character that needs to be fixed and she has an idea about how to fix it. She also is rather outspoken about the industry as a whole, as the "developers have definitely forgotten about the brains bit [when dealing with female game characters]" sentence above states. There's also this quote from Wikipedia, from when she was featured in Edge magazine's 'Game Industry's 100 Most Influential Women' list: 
"Games narrative is getting better, but we still have a long way to go. As the industry looks towards attracting a greater share of the mainstream audience, improving the way our games are told, as well as how they are played, will be more important than ever."
Now here's my criticism of Pratchett; this idea that there's something wrong with games or with characters. In my experience, Lara Croft was not a broken character in need of reinvention. Perhaps the games themselves needed a boot up the backside to make them fresh again (speaking of which, has any of the Tomb Raider reboot gameplay footage convinced anyone of that? Or is it all focused on the narrative?) but Lara Croft has been an all-around well-received character since her creation in the mid-nineties. Pratchett saw this woman as someone who needed to be fixed.

Likewise, her view of the gaming industry. "It's getting better" is something you say about sick people after an operation, not about writing in the gaming industry. Plus, and this is my real issue with Pratchett, if the quality of her writing is anything to go by, to put down the industry's writing as a whole (as well as Lara's characterisation in previous Tomb Raider games) is the pot calling the kettle black.

I don't like writing this kind of criticism, as it's not strictly about the portrayal of men or women in video games. However, I've played three of the games Pratchett has been the lead writer for and taken issue with the content in all of them. I'd have to play Overlord 1 and 2 to refresh my memory but I can recall the big reveals of the final bosses receiving very little build up. Don't quote me on that, however, because it's been a long time since I played the games. The other Rhianna Pratchett game I've played was Heavenly Sword. And between the misandry and unexplained plot elements, I think I said all there was to say about Heavenly Sword a few posts ago.

So not only has this woman has taken it upon herself to brand a beloved gaming icon as "wrong" and as someone whose sexiness was "done in a purely 'tits for the lads' way", she's also been put in charge of writing for that character. How insulting is it towards men that Pratchett outright said Lara was no longer a good character and the only ones who would like her were men, because of her appearance? Why not just say "guys are perverts" and get it out of the way? While we're on the subject, I hate the fact that Gamespot -- always a paragon of "unbiased" reporting -- states "Pratchett has the task of finding a side to Lara's personality that has been lost over the years in favour of an increasingly clichéd male sexual fantasy" as if it's a fact rather than Pratchett's opinion and nothing more.

I'm not going to say anything as ridiculous or unfair as "Pratchett is a useless writer". She's not. Heavenly Sword had hope. Overlord 1 had some good ideas. If she cuts down on the arrogance and, in Heavenly Sword's case, the incredible amount of misandry, she might be onto something decent. We'll have to wait and see in Tomb Raider's case but I'm not hopeful for the moment. To sum up, this attitude that there's something "wrong" with storytelling in the gaming industry or with female characters that she dislikes is insulting to everyone in the gaming industry who's ever written a script. It's even more insulting to the previous writers of the Tomb Raider games. And remember guys, even if you like a female character's personality, if Rhianna Pratchett thinks there's something wrong with her, she'll think you just like her because she's sexy and you like ogling hot girls!

I'm posting less these days, I've noticed. Not because of a lack of stuff I could write about but some wouldn't make for very good reading. For example, I'm tempted to write about the poor portrayals of men in Heavy Rain but the more I think about it, the more I think it'd just be a list of character names with a description next to them. I could write about the expendability of males in games but where do you start with a topic that big? It would probably be the easiest blog I ever had to write, given how prevalent it is, but couldn't you just hold up gaming as a whole? We occasionally hear the laughable sentence "gaming is institutionally misogynistic", so it'd be the perfect counterpoint to that. But isn't it a bit too ... obvious? To the point where it doesn't even need to be written about?

Anyway, thanks for reading and, as always, you can leave a comment below or sent me an e-mail at Feel free to suggest a topic. I'm off to play Dishonored!