Writers need to stop using psychological health as a narrative crutch and start presenting it as just normal mental maintenance
On Monday, gamers were treated to a trailer for the upcoming Square Enix title “Rise of the Tomb Raider“. In the trailer a bedraggled and hooded Lara Croft is silent as some older male therapist is droning on in Therapy Trope speak about making progress and flashbacks. Lara, in direct opposition to what her therapist is saying, soundlessly grips the arms of her chair as the trailer shows what we can only presume are flashbacks of her time Raiding Tombs. At the end they have an exchange:
Therapist Guy: For many people these traumas become a mental trap… they get stuck, like a ship frozen in ice. But there’s another type of person. You know what happens to them?
Lara Croft: We become who we’re meant to be.
Okay probably not what Therapist Guy wanted to hear…
Anyway, I think the intention is to humanize Lara Croft a bit and ground the reality of the Game World inside familiar tropes of Our World. There’s a bit of an Anti-Authoritarian streak to the whole thing as well because Lara is obviously impatient with these sessions and doesn’t want to be there. The whole session is just a way for the viewer to be interested and then surprised when they reveal that it’s Lara Croft at the end.
Why are you surprised? Because Video Game Heroes don’t need Therapy. It’s not something we ever see expressed through this medium. I don’t blame developers, therapy is something that’s hard to make interesting in a narrative. We don’t have time to sit around and chat about our feelings when there’s a world to save or a tomb to raid. The setting of a Therapist’s Office is altogether alien to Video Games so our reactions are going to be just as alien.
It probably doesn’t need to be mentioned but this trailer caused a bit of a firestorm in certain circles. Leigh Alexander’s most recent article encapsulates the type of visceral reactions that spread all over the internet. She justifiably is perturbed by the continued portrayal of women who kick ass in Video Games as being broken and traumatized while men are not only free to wantonly kill and be killed with little psychological effect, they are only emotionally effected by the death or removal of a woman in their lives.
Self-actualization through peak experiences usually doesn’t involve violent sexual assault or mass murder
The problem with this critical analysis is that Lara doesn’t seem broken or traumatized. She seems bored. The Therapist practically has to wake her up to get a response and when he does it’s obvious that she’s unmoved by his calming and fatherly speech. The subtext is she isn’t seeking therapy out of psychological necessity.
We, as a gaming public, see a therapist and automatically interpret that as weakness. Therapy is a narrative short cut for emotional conflict or weakness when it should just be a part of the background radiation of setting. Normal, everyday people go to therapists without having to had survived a traumatizing experience or killed scores of drug dealers. Writers need to stop using psychological health as a narrative crutch and start presenting it as just normal mental maintenance.
I can understand why people would see this minute and a half trailer as one that perpetuates tropes of weak heroines in media and Leigh correctly surmises that our nuance needs to increase in order to portray these woman as more than just broken dolls… but Lara Croft and her new trailer are not a catalyst for feminist action. The exchange at the end of the trailer highlights the problems with presenting mental health issues in escapist media.
Lara obviously isn’t getting any help here and the implication is that there are only two options when dealing with a psychologically traumatic experience. You either stop working as a human or you become who you were meant to be. Self-actualization through peak experiences usually doesn’t involve violent sexual assault or mass murder (as what happened to Lara in the first game).
There is no third option of properly dealing with the experiences and moving on in your life without them defining you or psychologically haunting you. In order for these stigma to be changed, we have to have more and varied representations of mental health in games from here on out, from both men and women.
Lets have Shepard regularly go to therapy, cause lord knows he needs it.