Analysis: The question of character trauma in video games

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One of the questions that popped up in my head, due to some previously written about hype for the Tomb Raider reboot, is whether or not there is a right way to handle  the victimization of a character in a story.

And the answer, unsurprisingly from the perspective of a writer, is yes.

There is a proper way to victimize and traumatize a character regardless of their gender.

The development team for the Tomb Raider reboot just seems to be going about things wrong with trauma, especially if you’re planning a rebirth of the franchise rather than a one-shot re-envisioning.

Trauma and victimization is an issue that has to be dealt with in a matter of degrees. Some traumas don’t mix or stack well with others. The original back story of Lara Croft becoming the adventurer that we all know from the previous games is simple: A plane crash dropped her and, in a later version of the backstory, her mother into the Himalayas where her mother disappeared while tinkering with a sword. Lara had to survive on her own in inhospitable terrain until rescue. That backstory alone is full of interesting possibilities that allows for adventure and survival. It’s also a quite common story as one of the basic story archetypes is man (read as human) vs nature. There was no real need for attempted murder or attempted rape. It was also a competently written backstory that did exactly what the reboot’s development team said that they  really wanted to do with the reboot.

There are games that actually do delve into the topic of trauma and victimizing but they do it better. For example, Mirror’s Edge deals with the topic on a societal level. What happens when an overbearing and corrupt utopian government starts to repress the rights and needs of the many? Bioshock also deals with victimization quite nicely by asking what happens when the only moral imperative you have to follow is the one that only most benefits yourself, even if it might hurt others. Basically, what happens when you make a society based off of Ayn Rand’s objectivist moral philosophy?

Probably the best example of trauma and victimization in games so far is the Silent Hill franchise. Everyone’s victimized or traumatized in that series. Alessa/Cheryl/Heather was pretty much forced to become the mother of God and was then set on fire. There’s tons of material various types of child abuse there. After rebirth, she dealt with the cult stalking her and even killing her re-adopted father. James Sunderland is haunted by euthanizing his wife. Angela Orosco was a product of physical, emotional and sexual abuse from her father and her story is all about trying to find a way to move beyond the trauma of her backstory. Alex Shepard’s trauma and victimization was the fact that he was supposed to be a family sacrifice to the dark gods of Silent Hill’s cult via drowning, but is haunted by being spared because he accidentally drowned his younger brother. These are just four examples from the franchise, but there are many other examples.

The fact is there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with trauma. You can’t just pile and mix traumas because it’s lazy writing and, sooner or later (and more realistically), a character would shut down and refuse to continue soldiering on through the plot.

If you’re going to play with trauma, it’s usually good to deal with it as backstory and having the actual plot being the attempt(s) at recovery from the trauma.

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