From Celes to Lara Croft: The Evolution of Sexual Assault in Gaming

Categories: Gaming

I recently had the chance to review the new Tomb Raider game, a title I put roughly four hours of play into before penning the article because that's what happens when you get it the day before release. The game was steeped in controversy over a brief scene where a member of the Sun Cult who has been stalking and killing people who land on the island briefly feels up Lara Croft while whispering extremely rape-y lines, and strangles her to death if you fail to input the correct action triggers. If you do succeed, you shoot your attacker in the head with his own gun.

The game is extremely brutal and intense, and I considered its execution to be more along the lines of a torture porn film than a traditional action-adventure outing. I stick by those words, but I've had a chance to play it a lot more over the course of the last week and think some more commentary needs to be made. Yes, Croft's ordeal over the course of the game is still frighteningly realistic in its portrayal of her being pursued and assaulted by an endless string of violent men, but the manner in which she overcomes it speaks loads about how the depiction of women has changed in gaming.

Let's look back to my favorite game of all time, 1994's Final Fantasy VI.

It can be argued that VI has no true main character and is instead an ensemble cast piece where everyone is equal. If that's true, then it would rob the game of its status as the first Final Fantasy title to feature a female lead. Terra Branford, the half-human, half-esper who represented the game in Dissidia, is usually considered the main character, but the problem is that she becomes completely optional in the second half of the game. Her spotlight is ceded to Celes Chere, the former imperial general, and it's Celes that we need to talk about.

The scene above is from the original SNES release, and was omitted from the Game Boy Advance rerelease in 2007. In it, Celes, who has betrayed the Gestahlian Empire, is chained up in a basement in South Figaro. There, two soldiers merciless beat her until she collapses.

Now, at no time is this treated explicitly as a rape, but type "celes rape scene" into Google image search and a screen shot of the video is the first thing to come up. That's nothing compared to some images you find of this scene done up by Internet artists indulging in Rule 34. I would argue that the idea that the two men have injured and humiliated Celes in every way possible is heavily implied from the cruel, bullying tone of the guards. The military setting certainly adds to the scene. Thirty percent of women in the American armed forces have experienced rape or sexual assault by fellow soldiers.

Celes is freed. Not by her own prowess as a rune knight, but by having her shackles picked by the thief Locke Cole. Locke had also previously rescued Terra, who had been put under the control of the empire through the use of a slave crown that robbed her of all resistance. A pattern emerges.

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As a woman who has been raped, I can tell you that you still don't have an inkling.  Refusing to be a victim?  Blame the victim much?  Why is there rape in video games at all?  And why do men (and women) want to play games that include virtual rape?

JefWithOneF topcommenter

@KaraThraceThis is a conversation I had about your comment with one of the rape survivor friends I have that inspired the article in the first place. 

Me: Teach me, Mogster. Where did I fuck up? 

Her: “Women, no matter how powerful and capable, in fact, especially if they are, still must be rescued from an enemy that will savagely use them. They cannot, and will not rescue themselves. 

This brings us back to Lara Croft. Even though the nightmare she is put through as she is stabbed, kidnapped, bound, and shot at is sadistically as real as Celes being beaten in a basement, she represents progress. Croft saves herself, time and time again, and the game delivers on its promise to show how she became a survivor. No man swoops in and makes it all OK.” 

Okay you have two scenarios here and in both it is not the rape per se which is discussed but the "victim's" behavior. When the woman fights back it is described as progress. 

Me: Isn't it? Isn't resistance better than passivity? 

Her: From a rape survivor's point of view it could be seen that you're saying a woman should fight back and if for any reason a victim didn't fight back that is the victim's issue.

This is where we step on shaky ground. 

Me: I had honestly not considered that as it wasn't the thrust of the piece. 

Her: Not all two victims react the same. It suggests that if a woman fights back she is powerful, if she doesn't she is weak and by extension this could be read as she didn't try hard enough. Do you see? That's what the critic will have been upset by. 

Me: I can see that, yes. 

Her: I read it twice and knowing you as I do I knew you didn't mean it that way. But it could easily be read to mean that. 

You see whenever a discussion on rape focuses on changing the victim's behavior rather than the attacker's it can lead to accusations of victim blaming. Many of us are very sore that we are constantly told about what we should do to avoid rape. The message can easily become corrupted to, “Well if you don't take my advice to avoid rape then you deserved it.” 

Me: We have two scenarios here, Celes and Lara. In both cases both women do in fact have the ability to defend themselves. In Celes' case, the makers of the game deliberately make her unable to fight back so a man can forward his story arc. In Lara's the ability to fight back IS her story arc. I call that progress. 

You'll notice I didn't make the same point about Terra, who was incapacitated with a slave crown. She could not have fought back, though the larger point of using sexual assault to disarm female protagonists holds up. 

Me: That reads much better. 

Me: I understand what you mean about the "don't get raped" crowd. I really do. But I don't really think that you can make that sort of point in a video game. It wouldn't be a very good game. All you can really do is show a potential rapist getting his head blown in. 

Her: Sure, but if you want to know why the woman was upset it was those two paragraphs and a hell of a lot of cultural shit simmering in the background. 

Me: I know, but I can't help but feel it's a deliberate misreading in context of the whole. 

Her: I disagree, sorry. I think that what you have written can easily be interpreted in that way by someone who does not know you. 

Me: But it's bringing up a point I didn't even address! It's like questioning the legitimacy of a rape when that question hasn't been brought up. At least that's my take. And I said, both in the article and in the review that the real power of the experience is how it puts you in the place where you feel powerless against an attacker. Isn't that something you would want a man to feel? Now that I think on it, that IS how you teach don't rape in a game. Make you feel the fear and pain. 

Her:  If you choose to reply to the comment you could try saying that. 

And so I did. I hope this expresses my feelings better, and I apologize for the length and for any offense. None was meant. Thank you for reading. 

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