Women of Significant Gravity

I didn’t want to like Tomb Raider.

I mean, I really didn’t want to like it.  The earliest footage of its gameplay looked like something out of a snuff film with a heroine who was constantly moaning and whimpering at being constantly beat up between violent deaths.  I mean, the stuff that made it in was horrifying enough (warning: that link includes a lot of footage of Lara Croft dying violently, I wouldn’t look at it unless you really want to).

I mean, I got what they were going for.  They wanted to establish the overwhelming odds that Lara had to overcome to become the heroine she ended up as.  I expect some of it was made to address a rather tarnished reputation she had as a sex object.  While I never played the original Tomb Raider games, she always seemed to embody some strong ideals: confident, bold, sex positive, okay with who she was, that sort of thing.  This Lara seemed like someone who was intentionally being made weak to demonstrate how horrible the world was (is that a trope, by the way?  A character made weaker just to demonstrate horrors of the world?  Not quite Women in Refrigerators, but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Then you had comments like this.

I wasn’t on board and I was more than ready to write it off.

My friend Carl, whose taste I generally trust when it comes to most forms of entertainment, told me it was a good thing.  But it was really this post here by Ashelia at Hellmode that made me want to give it a go.

So I did.

I was pretty surprised.

The violence was horrifying.  Like, I say this as an unapologetic fanboy of God of War.  It was more shocking than personally gouging out the eyes of someone (whose eyes you happen to be looking through) because the tone was different.  This violence was presented as unexpected, horrible, out of the norm.  God of War’s violence is…trivial isn’t the right word I’m looking for, but it’s close.  It’s more like it’s procedural, it’s how you get from point A to point B, which is fine for the kind of story that God of War is telling.  But Tomb Raider’s violence is telling a different story, something about the price of blood, the cost of violence, the measure of a human life and human suffering.  Tomb Raider’s violence was different.

It had weight.

I don’t want to talk about grimdark anymore (though for those of you that do, Jenny’s Library here has put up a pretty comprehensive list of stuff discussing it).  What I’d like to talk about is a concept that just hit me a few days ago going hand-in-hand with weight: heft.

When I talk about the weight of violence, I mean the impact it has on the story, the way it affects the characters, the way it shapes the world and the way it makes the outcomes of each conflict mean something.

Something wigglypoo (which I am now coining to be the inverse of grimdark) fantasy fiction doesn’t do well is show the weight of violence.  An orc is an orc, so let’s kill that orc and move on and not think about his family or what choices drove him to end up on the bad end of this blade.

Something grimdark fantasy fiction does pretty well is show the weight of violence.  Almost too well.  I’m not going to list a lot of the dangers of doing so, since I’ve already done that and Elizabeth Bear also said everything I wanted to a lot better, suffice to say that the weight of violence becomes crushing.  Something we’re unable to get out from under.

Heft, then, is the way we interact with the weight, how it feels in our hands, how far we can throw it, how well we can swing it, what breaks when we hit something with it.  It’s the harmonious nature of joy and despair, the moment where tragedy becomes triumph and triumph becomes tragedy.  It’s the moment when Robb Stark rallies the North to avenge his father.  It’s the moment when Katniss makes the decision to take her own life.  It’s the moment when someone reacts to the violence in a way that shapes their character.

And that’s what we’re missing.

The more I played of Tomb Raider, the more I really, really liked it.  Because I saw so many moments of emotional heft that it was impossible not to start liking Lara Croft.  The violence she suffered served to make the moments when she overcame her circumstances so much stronger (and those moments, in turn, made her tragedies so much more profound).  I found I quickly recognized the moments of violent goreporn (of which there is a bit) weren’t nearly as important as the moments where she looks up at some impossible obstacle and says: “I can do this.”

Those moments are what defined this game and Lara for me.

That and the moment when she busts out of a flaming building with a machine gun screaming (in a British accent): “RUN YOU BASTARDS, I’M COMING FOR YOU ALL.”

But I digress.

The highest praise I can offer a video game is that it somehow affected my work.  And yeah, Tomb Raider definitely did.  It made me think more about what makes a strong character, how vulnerability and violence affect that, what makes a tragedy powerful and what makes blood meaningful.

But most importantly, it made me appreciate the cost of a human life.  It made me appreciate how it affects people, how they kill, what it makes them.  It made me appreciate violence far more than my previous work ever could.

I can’t help but feel that this project is going to be my strongest yet.

I mean, either that or it sucks ass and this will all have been an exercise in futility.

Either way, good to know.

Featured image is by Mad-Jill on Deviantart.  Amazing artist, go check her stuff.

5 Responses to “Women of Significant Gravity”

  1. deniz

    Sort of like the part in LoTR when Sam has his first view of Men fighting Men, and wonders what choices led the man from the south to join the battle, and whether he had a family, and whom he’d left behind…

  2. Linky moves in surprising ways | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

    […] Sam Sykes, who surprised me with his thoughtful contribution to the “grimdark” swings and roundabouts, talks about the weight of violence in the new Tomb Raider: […]

  3. A.E. Marling

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with orcs or any other fantasy Other that it’s ok to be violent toward in a casual way. True, fantasy gives us glowing swords and fireballs, and it’d be a shame not to use such beautiful violence. But even the most escapist fantasy likely has a duty to temper the blood-splattered fun with gravitas, both toward the fallen, and those who have survived but still carry the weight of violence in their hearts.

    And, Sam, I look forward to reading your next novel.

  4. Charlie

    Hey Sam, I’ve got a question for you.

    I watched that video and you’re right, the level of violence is horrific. Really OTT. She gets impaled by ice-picks, scaffolding, trees, and spears. It’s like the devs had a meeting to decide what objects they could stick her with. There’s also graphic crushings, violent strangulations, and lots and lots of blood.

    What I want to know is, do you feel Lara’s story (and your experience of her character development) could have been just as effectively told without the need to be scuh a gratuitous gore-fest?

    • sam

      Now this is a very tricky question.

      I get to discussing this with a friend of mine in regards to sex scenes (I’m not equating violence and sex, mind you, it’s just an example). Sex being often gratuitous and frequently poorly-done, is it truly necessary to move the story forward? Can’t we cover the same bases by just fading to black? Why do we need it when it just comes off as icky and over the top, much like violence?

      The truth is, I haven’t found an excellent answer to that question just yet short of this: it’s the artist’s vision.

      We’ve talked about voice on this blog before. This is roughly the same concept. Whether or not the story chooses to show that violence is a decision made by the artist, something that separates it from every other form of violence out there. The graphic death here was a decision made to really sensitize and drive home the impact of that violence. You could make an argument that the vast majority of gamers see death and killing as just something that happens procedurally. This made it count again (in some ways).

      Could it have been told without the gore-fest? Maybe. Probably, even. But it is the artist’s decision. We have to respect that.

      Note, though, that respect doesn’t mean support. Under no circumstance should you ever feel wrong for criticizing, ignoring, lambasting or not buying a piece of art you don’t like.

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