Were the Death Scenes in Tomb Raider Too Much?

6

We live in a golden age for video game criticism. What was once believed to be a childish and novelty medium is now open to fantastic discussions about politics, gender, class, etc. Earlier this week one of our writers took the question of torture and gender to reveal sudden inconsistencies in a recent controversy. Today, two writers look back and discuss the thin line games tread when representing death and violence.

Emily Payton

Art imitates death. Actors have practiced “dying” for literally centuries, since the dawn of civilization. For as much as it frightens us, we’re fascinated by our own mortality. Death is, after all, the great unifier, the one common denominator we all share. If you’re very lucky you’ll die peacefully, in your sleep or surrounded by loved ones. But sometimes dying is lonely or painful or both. And sometimes it’s gory.

m_tombraider_01I never finished playing the Tomb Raider reboot, but I remember that death scene vividly. Lara Croft, impaled through the neck on a stick, clutching her throat, her blood mixing with the water as the screen fades to black and white. It bothered me too, which I found immensely surprising.

I’m no stranger to gore, real or otherwise. As a lifelong gamer and horror movie enthusiast, I’ve seen my fair share of violent, simulated deaths. The two that immediately come to mind, respectively, are (BioShock spoiler) when you bash Andrew Ryan’s skull in with a 9-iron and when, in Alien, a baby xenomorph bursts out of Kane’s chest. So why did I find Lara Croft’s death(s) so upsetting? Graphic violence doesn’t bother me, which leads me to believe that it’s not about gore, per se. Like you said, it’s all about context.

Sometimes graphic violence and gruesome deaths serve a narrative purpose. For instance, films based on real life atrocities (Thin Red Line, Pan’s Labyrinth) necessitate a certain degree of realistic gore. How else does one depict, say, the horrors of war, or genocide?

blackmambasprinklesOther times the violence is so preposterously exaggerated as to defy realism (Evil Dead series, Kill Bill Vol. 1/2). The gore in these movies has an over-the-top, campy quality that negates any mixed feelings one might have about the violence itself.

This got me thinking about the difference between gore and torture porn. Whereas pure gore is just that, bloody and violent but nothing more, torture porn as a sub-genre is perversely sexualized. Like you said, is exploitative. You know what I’m talking about when I say “torture porn,” movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede. They’re gory, to be sure, but that’s not the problem. What’s more troublesome is how they encourage the viewer to voyeuristically watch, and in a sense be complicit in, the sexualized torture and murder of a fellow human being.

Torture porn is hardly better than snuff films. Yes, I know, no one actually dies in torture porn, but the motivation is the same: deriving pleasure, or at any rate entertainment, from someone else’s suffering. In other words, fetishizing another’s pain. We have a term for that in the psychological community. It’s “sadistic.”

tomb_raider_definitive_edition-2437117I’ve been talking about films, but torture porn is just as prevalent in videogames. To clarify, I don’t mean the outrageous violence in games like Mortal Kombat. Hell, I don’t even mean killing cops and prostitutes in GTA. Although these tend to be the games that people, politicians included, blame when some kid decides to shoot up a school, I’d argue that by comparison they’re relatively harmless.

It’s torture porn that we really should be worrying about. So what makes Lara Croft’s death(s) torture porn? It’s not because Lara Croft is a woman, although that’s a logical conclusion. After all, the victims in torture porn tend to be female. Rather, it’s how the game treats her death(s), as spectacle. They’re elaborate and drawn out, long enough to be cutscenes. It’s almost got the sadistic pageantry of watching someone be executed. I’d feel just as disgusted if we were talking about a male protagonist.

pans_labyrinth_01_largeThe worst part isn’t even how she dies, but how she struggles to survive. Desperately, she pushes against the stick impaling her, trying to get free. In her last moments she is terrified, helpless, and alone. And here we are, watching the spectacle of her suffering. If it weren’t so upsetting, it would almost be funny. The reboot we all had such high hopes for, a Lara Croft who’s more than just a pair of tits in a turquoise tanktop, ended up a character study in torture porn. Even Conan understood how fucked up that is.

1 2
Share.

About Author

(Senior Writer)

Part-time writer, full-time hero in training. Enjoys all manner of games that thrill, stress, and terrify. Love also includes anime with varying degrees of questionable nature. Find me on any social media and maybe we can bond over common interests? (woundupbird.tumblr.com)

  • icuntbeliefit

    Too much of a stretch to have found them erotic ?

    • http://twinfinite.net Matt Kim

      Literally the best comment.

  • ChatWraithGamma

    This article is pointless. The entire purpose of you cringing at lara dying is to make you not want to die. Death in videogames is typically “whoops, back to checkpoint.”

    It happened here too. I saw conan obrien play the game before I bought it and, knowing in advance about that particular scene, I got nervous going down the rapids. I didn’t want to get impaled. I didn’t want to cringe, and have to try again and see it again. It was violent and not in a “well, i was being dangerous” way.

    Lara is supposed to be (at least for half of the game) a victim, and vulnerable, then she learns to be stoic and whatnot like all the classic games typically portrayed her to be. If you’re bothered by lara dying, well…Eidos did a good job.

    They wanted you to cringe. They wanted you to feel the effect of messing up and getting killed, and you did.

    TAAA-Daaaa?

    • http://twinfinite.net Matt Kim

      That’s a really good point. There’s an affection there that makes you care for the character and really wants you to avoid the penalty of death. There’s a quote that reminds me a lot of what you said:

      “No more Lara Croft, busty platformer that maybe has a nude code if you
      try hard enough. Now it’s reborn Lara Croft. A human Lara Croft, an
      emotionally resonant Lara Croft. One of the most iconic video game
      characters, with a single bloodied cover page, was rewritten in our
      minds and we all began, in some form, imagining what sort of character
      she could become in this new narrative. Whether intentional or not, we
      all began growing attached to her as a character simply by the dynamic
      shift between our history as gamers and understanding of gaming icons,
      with a new socially conscious idea of what video games are today.”

      – This article.

      • ChatWraithGamma

        You kind of negate that with the article title and final paragraph. My interpretation of the game designer’s choice was that it was intended to be “too much”. The gore had to be overkill.

        You can chainsaw a guy in half in unreal tournament (which, I’ll admit, that was the first time I had seen that even simulated, and I cringed then too) and eventually you get desensitized to the point where pieces of enemies is either hilarious or ignored.

        I don’t think I ever saw lara get dismembered in this game, so for what it’s worth, it’s comparatively less gory than most M rated titles. In that aspect, I think crystal dynamic/eidos showed considerable restraint in choosing how they wanted you to react to lara’s death. Would you have cringed if she got her head torn clean off by a river log? Probably not, right?

  • Pingback: Twinfinite Insider - The Death in Gaming and $500 Million Edition! - Twinfinite()