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True Grit

2 July, 2012 (10:31) | Philosophy, Video Games

They tell me she’s been reborn, stronger, darker, more real. They tell me to look at her suffering and see how she becomes a hero by overcoming adversity. They tell me to watch the world beat her, assault her, rape her.

I grimace and cringe, tossing and turning at the prospect. Why does it have to be so vile, so painful? Why can’t she just be great? Why does she need such odds to become a heroine of epic proportions?

And yet a part of me eats it up.

A screenshot of a cinematic from the Eidos Tomb Raider reboot featuring a bloodied Lara Croft.
A screenshot from a cinematic in the upcoming Eidos reboot of Tomb Raider.

The reboot of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is generating lots of buzz, and much of it is unsure how to react.

Lara Croft has always been an exploited character. She was sex incarnate sold to a male adolescent public raised on Mario and Sonic, weaned on Monkey Island and Wolfenstein, and clamoring for media that could continue to grow alongside them. In walked the Barbie of video games, the unrealistically proportioned female Indiana Jones, whose catlike reflexes could overcome devious Mayan puzzles locking away the world’s greatest treasures. She filled a void in popular culture that clamored for vine-swinging, arrow-jumping, T-Rex-dodging shenanigans and became the first true video game vixen, a pixellated pin-up who elicited a lust unseen since Zelda and Princess Peach.

Despite the hypersexualized context in which Lara Croft thrived, there was a certain amount of liberation featured in her character. Much as the counterargument to pornography’s objectification of women has become a powerful call that taking control of one’s sexuality is a true measure of self-confidence and social control, Lara Croft presented a female lead character who was strong, intelligent, beautiful, and empowered, even if this female empowerment was sold to boys instead of girls.

But something strange has happened in the 15 years between when Lara Croft first appeared on TVs and monitors in 1996 and when Eidos Interactive’s reboot of the series began taking form in the public eye; the gaming audience changed, grew darker and began to consume grittier and more “real” fantasy.

This summer features high-profile reboots of Spider-Man, Batman (the Dark Knight Rises), and a new Judge Dredd, as well as a less campy take on Total Recall that’s sure to disappoint. It seems as if no hero or character can remain in the realm of childhood anymore; that each and every one must grow cynical and experience pains adults fear just to survive.

Eidos has chosen to take our empowered heroine in that direction.

There’s nothing as important to fantasy as the suspension of disbelief.

As children, we’re blessed with this incredible ability to ignore the world around us in favor for the world within our heads. As we get older, this imagination and vision starts to deteriorate, our daily lives filled with grounded concerns and immediate needs.

The same thing is true of our fantasy lives. A flimsy charade will entertain a four year-old, but an adult often needs details fleshed out, incongruities hidden, and an air of seamlessness. Just consider for a moment that last word: for a costume to be seamless means that there’s no apparent way for the wearer to get in or out; in essence, the viewer isn’t sure if it’s a costume or reality.

There are many arguments and theories as to why we are such a skeptical and disbelieving society, but it’s easier to prove that previous eras featured a more willing and malleable audience.

The great heroes of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia drew their power from the gods. Hercules was the son of the philandering Zeus and a mortal, making him a demigod. Ulysses was favored by Athena for his preternatural guile and aided along his journey. Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god and one-third man, though how that’s genetically possible is unclear to me.

Moving forward through myth, Jesus’s abilities come from his demigod status, and the miracles of the saints are attributed to god’s work. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are ordained by powers outside the realm of reality (a magical sword, anyone?) and on a holy quest from God.

While the grandiose myths about heroes are rife with these greater powers and heightened abilities, folklore has always been a bit more grounded. In the myriad versions of Cinderella, the modern fairy godmother appears as either a wealthy benefactor or pure happenstance, the slipper fur rather than glass (and likely not a pump, popularized by Louis XIV’s five-inch heels), and the tale one of obsession. Robin Hood avoids nearly every trapping of fancifulness, instead replacing superhuman traits with camaraderie, teamwork, and skill. In stories like the Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel or Little Red Riding Hood, the villain has otherworldly powers while the protagonist must overcome via wits, luck, aid from someone else, or a human trait such as love or perseverance.

Folklore isn’t completely free of illogical or supernatural trappings by any means, especially when magic is the mitigating factor, but it seems fewer and farther between.

By the late 1700s, recorded tales seemed to diverge between those which were fanciful and more juvenile, and those which were complex and more adult. Perhaps the nature of literacy and the prerequisite of years of study meant that  literature simply couldn’t be considered accessible or viable for the young. Or perhaps the higher literacy rate among adults merely meant that there was an increasing desire for complexity over the simplicity and embellishment that came to define oral tradition.

Whatever the cause, the rise of literacy seems to correlate with the debilitation of our societal suspension of disbelief.

If the popularization of a new medium is the root of our desire for the real, we can infer many conclusions about the last two centuries and the ways in which the rapidly evolving media has caused immersion to replace imagination.

Radio and film brought the advent of mass media that didn’t require literacy, allowing media that catered to kids. Broadcasts such as The Shadow and films like Metropolis captured the public’s imagination. Visual printing of comic books such as Action Comics and its most famous otherworldly star Superman even offered simplified text which was devoured by a youth starving for its own literature. Each iteration, television with shows like the Twilight Zone, I Dream of Jeannie and Lost in Space, built on this childlike fascination with otherworldly powers and possibilities.

With this increase in cultural production and consumption came the will to organize it. We began to divide media into genres.

The idea of genre is ancient. Aristotle and Plato (whom we can’t separate) divided poetry, prose, and drama. Each of these divisions are based on the mode in which we consume said arts. These categories could be subdivided into comedy, tragedy, parody, and epic. Shakespeare’s plays are traditionally divided into comedy, tragedy and history; each division was based on how the tale affected the audience, with history being politicized and its historical roots being emphasized, and patrons could choose a show based on their mood. With the rise of publishing, we suddenly had pulp literature, political literature, non-fiction, westerns, romance, etc. These divisions were based on intent, plot devices, theme, setting, and a number of other criteria that began to blur the lines.

By having so many different criteria, it becomes difficult to tell what a genre denotes, often culminating in stories falling multiple genres. Superman, for instance, can be considered Science Fiction (he’s an alien), Superhero, Fantasy (super powers), or Adventure among others; its comic book origins and treatment often get it lumped in with Children’s publications; and it’s had multiple forms across media, from the romantic drama Lois & Clark to the campy classic television show to the angsty novelization of the Death of Superman in the 90s. As American morality and understanding continues to flow toward a more blurred shades-of-grey approach, so too does the trend of redefining and genre-bending our great works and tropes.

And while Lara Croft may be the latest icon to undergo this moral makeover, she the latest in a line of heroes and heroines whose existence has been brutalized for our entertainment.

Ultimately, society and consumers have driven this move toward a sadomasochistic desire for suffering heroes, but one man may be the linchpin of the adult hero movement: Frank Miller.

If you’re unfamiliar with Frank Miller, he’s the man who wrote and drew the hypermasculinized Sin City, 300, and, most influentially, The Dark Knight Returns. His comics take the Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart images of masculinity–the non-crying, grit-their-teeth-at-pain, overcome-anything-through-sheer-willpower heroes–and sends them spiraling into the darkest most masculine corners of their psyche to an alarmingly unhealthy degree.

Published in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns took an aging, angry Batman and drove him virtually mad. It took a childhood icon and made him grow alongside his now-grown, bitter baby boomer fans. And they devoured it.

At the same time, Alan Moore, the intellectual master of comics, published Watchmen, which deconstructed the heroes role within the garish materialism and disenfranchised lower-classes of the 1980s. Soon, every comic was being rewritten darker and more adult. The Sandman, a minor costumed hero of dubious worth, was reinvented by Neil Gaiman as a depressed god struggling with his existence and his family. The second Robin, Jason Todd, was beaten, bloodied, and blown up, leaving a grieving Batman on the verge of self-destruction based on a vote from the comic-reading public. Superman was killed, leaving the world in mourning and searching for a replacement. And that’s all before the trend jumped into full swing in the late 90s.

When Tim Burton released Batman, it was a careful balance of the camp of the 60s TV show and the quickly deteriorating worlds featured in comics. Michael Uslan, producer of every Batman film since Burton’s 1989 classic, explained his desire for a continuously darkening Batman a few weeks ago, citing his anger over the silliness of Adam West’s Batman and the way in which the world received it. Batman Returns continued to darken with a creepy Catwoman origin story of an abused woman.

By the end of the last millennium, a campy Captain America and Judge Dredd had bombed at the box office, Joel Schumacher’s upbeat, nippletastic Batman had been reamed by critics, antiheroes such as Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, and Hellboy were cropping up all over, and mature video games known for gore, twisted tales, and hyperviolence such as Doom, Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem 3D, and Resident Evil were proving that the darkening trend was here to stay. The rise of Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto’s reinvention as a dingy 1st-person take on the underworld of Liberty City cemented this change in the public’s eye, and their success fueled this move.

Which brings us to  the heart of a swirling storm, where Batman is receiving its third film in a dark and mesmerizing trilogy, where middle schoolers pattern themselves after South Park without ever understanding the satire intended, and where Lara Croft becomes a hero by surviving an attempted rape.

For the first time in nearly three decades, the video game industry is beginning to question itself and not simply pander to its audience. Certainly, many pundits still defend the trend. At E3 this year, PlayStation software product development head Scott Rohde explained that violence in Sony’s games, such as God of War, is used to tell a story. But many insiders have been shocked and surprised by the level of violence. And some designers, such as Epic Mickey’s Warren Spector, have taken a downright antagonistic stance against the violence.

Whatever the case, pop culture may be experiencing the first notes of a paradigm shift away from ultraviolence under the guise of realism. It certainly won’t curtail the hooker-beating ways of Grand Theft Auto (currently preparing its seventh release, Grand Theft Auto V) or the explosive and bloody shooters such as Call of Duty, but the success of games such as Portal, Epic Mickey, and Quantum Conundrum indicate it’s becoming more acceptable once more to create media that reach a younger and broader audience at the same time.

Once upon a time, heroes were heroes not because of difficulties overcome, but because of a strong sense of justice, duty, and morality. Willpower alone was enough to drive them. Lara Croft, despite the pain and suffering currently inciting conversation, remains a rare example of a strong female role model in games. And while I appreciate that those people who have been abused and overcome great difficulty need examples to look up to, I hope the every hero can remain one not because of injustices perpetrated against them, but rather because it’s their choice to stand as a paragon among men.

If suffering is the only way to become a hero, what sort of life are we driving our children to seek?