The people behind the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot say they misspoke while using the word "rape" to refer to a scene in the game during an interview with Kotaku three weeks ago.
According to Crystal Dynamics global brand director Karl Stewart, there is no sexual assault or rape in the upcoming video game, despite Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg's statements to this website in Los Angeles earlier this month. Rosenberg had said that island scavengers will imprison and attempt to rape protagonist Lara Croft. But Stewart says that's not true.
"He said something which is certainly a word that is not in our vocabulary and not in our communication," Stewart told me on the phone yesterday. "He did say it... It's his personal opinion and certainly... like I said, it's not something that we communicate."
Stewart says he doesn't know why Rosenberg used the word "rape". He continues to emphasise that the scene, which you can watch below, does not represent any sort of sexual assault. He calls it a "pathological situation". He says it was meant to evoke fear and intimidation.
In the scene, an island scavenger creeps up behind Lara and rubs a hand against her thigh. There are undeniable sexual connotations, and Stewart even admits that if a male hero like Nathan Drake had been placed in the same situation, the thigh-rubbing wouldn't happen. But he says it's not sexual assault: it's "close physical intimidation".
Here's a partial transcript from our interview:
Kotaku: Karl, do you think that a male protagonist in that same situation would have- do you think the scavenger would do the same thing, rubbing his hand against his thigh?
Stewart: No, of course not.
Kotaku: How is that not sexual-
Stewart: We have a female character that we're very proud and very honoured to be able to have in our game and build a story around. And by giving her motivation to become the stronger action-adventure hero and the girl that's willing to fight to stay alive and move forward throughout the game, we use that device and that intimidation to make her stronger. To make her feel empowered and to take her beyond that breaking point where she realises the severity of the situation and she's willing to fight to stay alive.
Kotaku: Sure, but if you're admitting that this wouldn't happen in the case of a male-on-male crime, violence, then isn't that by definition sexual assault, sexual violence?
At this point, the PR representative on the call interrupted to shut down this line of questioning: "I'm pretty sure Karl answered as well as he can the question — I understand where you're going with this, I think it's like, you can see the outcome if this continues and you actually — nothing sexual occurred. Violence occurred as a result of that. I just don't think you're going to get any further than what you're getting out of Karl."
It's understandable that Crystal Dynamics now wants to avoid using terms like "rape" and "sexual assault". There was severe backlash to Rosenberg's comments after the publication of my initial article, for a number of reasons, but some websites and publications completely skewed what he actually said. One website, for example, ran an article titled: "Does Crystal want you to rape Lara Croft?"
But sexual assault is a subject that other entertainment mediums have been able to tackle without the kind of backlash that this conversation has received. So I asked Stewart: is rape a subject that just shouldn't be covered in video games?
Here's that chunk of the conversation:
Kotaku: So do you and the team — do you feel like sexual assault and rape is too taboo a subject to cover in a video game?
Stewart: That is a hard subject because I believe and the studio believes that it is a subject that we see played out in many ways through movies and TV shows and I think in our medium we are trying to bring an immersive narrative to which- in all the research and all the work that we do in building the story and building this game, we take it to many different places. And this isn't something that's uncommon in story narrative.
And what we're trying to do is in a way, as you know, raise the bar of story-telling — how Lara Croft how that plays out how you interpret it... as you play the game out for yourself, as you review the game and try to answer how you felt from that input, we're trying to raise the bar in immersive storytelling through the video game. So I'm being careful in that we're not choosing to say "this is a word we want to be associated with that," that is not the case.
Stewart also clarified that when Rosenberg said people want to "protect" Lara, he was referring to the focus group testing the team has done. They don't want to tell you how to feel about your avatar, he said.
"We are not building a game where we're basically saying 'Hey... our goal is to have the player protect Lara.' That's your choice in playing the game. How you interpret it is your choice. What Ron is saying... that's the results from fairly significant amounts of play-testers."
It's clear that Crystal Dynamics wants to dissociate from the idea that there's sexual assault in their game — Stewart completely avoided saying the word "rape" during our conversation yesterday. You can watch the scene for yourself right here.