Sadism Is Fine As Long As It’s Short

Tomb Raider has been criticized for being exploitative in its depiction of violence towards Lara. It’s a valid criticism, but whenever it’s made, there are two death scenes in particular that are always used as examples: The scene when Lara is impaled through the chest by a tree branch while parachuting and the one when she is impaled through the neck by a metal spike while being carried along on a river. There are other horrible ways to die, but those are rarely discussed: She’s also crushed by a boulder, mauled by wolves, shot through the neck with an arrow, or perhaps the worst one, she falls into the ocean and hits her head on a rock and drowns while unconscious. With all the horrible ways to die, why are the impalings singled out as gratuitous or exploitative? I think that it has less to do with their content and more to do with their context.

The gameplay around the impalings contains a noticeable spike in difficulty. In both cases, the player is steering Lara left and right, trying to avoid obstacles, and if the player fails at any point, he has to start the sequence over again.. The “water slide” gameplay is particularly problematic because hitting an obstacle is an instant kill, whereas during the parachuting sequence Lara has to crash into a few trees before she’s impaled.

The “water slide” isn’t a particularly long sequence, but it’s not particularly well-designed either. It’s hard to see the spikes among all of that splashing water and through those distracting camera effects. It’s also hard to gauge the distance between Lara and the spikes, and yet you have to start dodging the spikes before you even see them because Lara doesn’t move very fast.

Tomb Raider actually has the opposite problem that Bioshok Infinite has. The latter game didn’t take its violence seriously, so what should have been disturbing just came across as cartoonish. Tomb Raider does take its violence seriously, but when we see a horrible thing repeated over and over again, it loses its ability to provoke a sense of horror. And violence without horror is exploitative.

The death scenes in Resident Evil or Dead Space are similarly gory if not more so (actually, probably more so), but they rarely feel exploitative because they’re spread out more. In either franchise, it’s rare that you’ll find a gameplay sequence that will kill you in a spectacularly bloody fashion a dozen times in a row with less than 30 second in between each death. Sure, you might die a lot during a boss fight but in between each death is a substantial amount of gameplay. You die at a good pace. It’s a pace that keeps death scary by keeping it relatively rare.

Tomb Raider doesn’t mean to be exploitative, and the content itself isn’t particularly exploitative either, but this scene becomes exploitative by virtue of the bad gameplay that contextualizes it. The genuine horror of these scenes is undercut every time they’re repeated. This is what makes gaming so weird, frustrating, and amazing. At any one particular moment, there are multiple things influencing our perception of the game — art, level design, lighting, gameplay, controls, the HUD, dialogue, etc — and if just one of those things fails, it affects our opinion of everything else. Every moment of every game is a crazy juggling act for consistency.

Tomb Raider is a great juggler for the most part, and even when it drops a ball, it proves that game design can be just as interesting when things go wrong as when things go right.