Before you can understand one of the most popular Tomb Raider porn videos online, you need to know about a key scene in a recent Tomb Raider game.

In 2013's Tomb Raider, Lara Croft sets out on an archeological adventure to find a lost civilization. Thanks to a storm, Lara ends up shipwrecked on a mysterious island full of hostile cultists. These cultists capture Lara and her crew.

In an infamous scene, one of the cultists grabs Lara by the shoulders, pulls her in close, and runs his hands down her body suggestively. He then pushes her against a wall, and brings his face right up to Lara's neck. Lara, thankfully, barely manages to escape.

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[Trigger warning: rape, sexual images. Also, several images in this post are NSFW.]

The scene caused much controversy in 2012: Lara is an iconic character, and for some people the idea of subjecting Lara to sexual threats felt uncomfortable, especially when considering the gender roles at play. Threats of sexual violence are not something games normally pose as a potential danger to male heroes like Nathan Drake from Uncharted, for example. But once the game was released, everyone found out that the scene with the cultist was minor—while the part helped set up the story for the game, Tomb Raider never actually made Lara Croft suffer rape.

In 2014, two guys got together and formed a group called StudioFOW. They hoped to create long porn films digitally featuring the heroines of popular video games, using a program called "Source Filmmaker"—a tool released by Valve that allows people to make movies, which are called SFM for short, using the Source engine. You can think of these creations like machinima, or movies that use digitally created models instead of human actors. Using character models that are sometimes ripped straight from games, tech-savvy people can use Source Filmmaker to put together movies with ease.

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StudioFOW's first project took three months to create, and it was called " Lara in Trouble." The movie depicted a "what-if" take on 2013's Tomb Raider. In their version of the story, Lara doesn't get away. In their version of the story, the threat looming at the start of Tomb Raider actually becomes real, and instead of going on to save her friends, Lara Croft gets repeatedly gangraped by her captors.

(A trailer for Lara in Trouble.)

Shortly after the gruesome 17-minute porn was released on the web, it went viral—on the porn site XVideos alone, it's been watched 2,836,891 times. This doesn't count the number of times people have downloaded Lara In Trouble off of StudioFOW's website, or the number of times people have viewed smaller clips of Lara in Trouble in GIFs on social media, or smaller porn websites. Lara in Trouble got popular enough that StudioFOW expanded to include multiple collaborators, such as animators, voice actors, and artists, who have come together to work on video game porn movies as a hobby. After Lara In Trouble, StudioFOW released KUNOICHI in 2014, a shocking 34 minute film where Dead or Alive protagonist Kasumi gets abducted and is repeatedly raped by demons.

(Trailer for KUNOICHI.)

To be clear, the YouTube trailers for StudioFOW movies don't really prepare you for what's in them. They're PG-13 at most, but what's in the movies is as explicit as it gets.

At current, StudioFOW is working on a couple of porn films, including Arena of Depravity, a World of Warcraft movie that follows a Draenei slave called Yrel who is raped by orcs that want to mentally break her:

Another in-progress film includes a BioShock Infinite porn featuring Elizabeth. Not as much is known about this film as it is early in production, but it's supposed to include three "erotic stories" in the BioShock multiverse:

While StudioFOW is part of a subculture that appeals to a niche audience within video games and machinima, they're not exactly a tiny operation. They're also one of the more successful studios making porn about video game characters. StudioFOW still pulls in over $6,000 per video production on crowdfunding site Patreon, thanks to hundreds of supportive fans who are hungry to see what else StudioFOW comes up with. For these fans, StudioFOW's reliance on rape isn't off-putting. For these viewers, rape, or the fantasy of rape, is a very sexy thing—and if anything, StudioFOW doesn't go far enough, according to some fans.

(A comments section on a StudioFOW film.)

But make no mistake, StudioFOW productions are brutal. In any given StudioFOW movie, you can count on the camera closing up on women's faces, so the viewer can see just how much the sex is hurting them. After sex scenes, the women gush semen or vomit semen endlessly, from just about every orifice at once. Occasionally, scenes emphasize the damage the rape is causing by letting you see inside bodies, X-Ray style.

The women might protest, and they might cry, but the action doesn't stop. Instead, the films intensify as they go on: many of the films build up to gangbangs, and increasingly rougher sex. In one particularly gruesome scene in Kunoichi, a giant demon penetrates Kasumi so deeply that every thrust by the demon lifts Kasumi's ribcage up. Kasumi screams in pain—the demon is tearing her up inside. Eventually, she gets hurt so badly, she collapses into a "mindbreak" state. The demon pulls out, and Kasumi crawls after him, asking for more. From that point forward, the men no longer have to force Kasumi into submission—she enthusiastically participates in the gangbangs.

Based entirely on their internet presence, StudioFOW give off a 'devil-may-care' vibe. To an onlooker, it might seem as if they are the product of 4Chan/internet culture. They go by internet handles, which renders their identities anonymous. They're fans of hardcore hentai. They seem to a revel in the idea of shocking other people, or pushing people's buttons. All of the films I've watched feature cameos by the Scout from Team Fortress 2—he often sneers and smirks in the background of certain sex scenes, as if he were a troll.

In an interview with Lewd Gamer, a founder of StudioFOW who goes by the handle 'Darkcrow' says that his group was founded in direct response to their disappointment with modern hentai. "[Hentai] has really stagnated in terms of darker, more hardcore content over the past few years, so we wanted to bring back a tiny slice of the glory days," Darkcrow said.

The StudioFOW website also pushes that narrative. "If you're here for vanilla stuff, you're in the wrong place," the official StudioFOW website warns. "We're always pushing boundaries and making sure the most unexpected of things happen." They describe their work as "insanity." Together, it comes across as if StudioFOW is trying to be 'edgy' with their porn.

But, those are appearances. Over the last week, I've spoken to many of the people who work with StudioFOW in some capacity, in an effort to better understand what kind of people make these films. On the one hand, I wasn't interested in talking to StudioFOW simply to write a takedown of their work, repulsive as some people might find it.

I understand that people have specific fantasies, and it's difficult to talk about these things honestly without shaming others for their kinks. I've spoken to a few rape survivors who told me they enjoyed some fiction that depicts rape—the otherwise-problematic media becomes a way to process an experience, if that makes sense. On the other hand, StudioFOW's work profoundly unsettles me, and as a rape survivor myself, I don't necessarily want to be an apologist for what they do. So, it's been a curious exchange, and a difficult balance. Here's what I've found.

Based on earlier interviews, StudioFOW made it seem as if they formed in an effort to push back against erotic SFM that was too safe, too boring. I reached out to StudioFOW to ask about this over email, and I got into contact one of the founding members, Darkcrow. When I pressed Darkcrow on why StudioFOW was formed, he seemed less adamant about what his group stands for.

"To be honest with you, there were no philosophical or moral reasons behind forming the studio," Darkcrow said. "I think due to the nature of our content so far, we naturally seemed to fill a void in the community.

"In the late '90s and towards the middle of the last decade there was a real abundance of quality hentai animations coming out of Japan," Darkcrow explained. "I'm talking about original and clever stuff—not to mention visually striking [material] with unique animation styles and interesting characters. Starting about 5-6 years ago many of these studios went out of business, and, as a result, there has been a real stagnation of quality erotic animated content which I personally found disappointing."

Specifically, Darkcrow is referencing titles such as Bible Black, La Blue Girl, Discipline, and Cambrian—hentai that is famous for being sexually violent and for including dark themes. La Blue Girl, for example, follows a female ninja who has to use sex-related ninjutsu to fight against sex-hungry demons.

"Without sounding too arrogant—because we can never match a professional studio in terms of quality—StudioFOW tries to emulate old school Japanese hentai animations and bring some of the styles you find in hentai," Darkrow said.

StudioFOW films don't just take cues from hentai. Traditional porn is an obvious influence in StudioFOW's work. The sex depicted might be fantastical and unrealistic thanks to the inclusion of things like orcs and demons, but you can still expect a scene to end in a cumshot and to use standard porn camera angles. The work is also influenced by anime, fanfiction, and visual novels.

StudioFOW makes what is known as "non-con," which is short for "non-consent." As in, rape. The term 'non-con' could be considered a deflection, a way to call the genre something other than rape—some fans bristle at the mention of rape, even if that's technically what is being depicted. But, in the eyes of a fan, it's not as clear-cut. For fans of the genre, the characters in question could be interpreted as 'passionate'—forced sex becomes something admirable, a sign of love, or anticipating the desires of your partner. Or perhaps the woman 'wanted it' all along—curiously, both Lara and Kasumi always make sure to announce when they're about to cum. They sometimes touch themselves. They tell their rapists when something feels good. These are the sort of details that make the fantasy and its dependence on a power dynamic evident. The movies at once want to convince the viewer that they're brutalizing these characters, but also, they're not going that far. They're enjoying it, aren't they? And so can you. If you're into that sort of thing, of course.

Groups like StudioFOW are offshoots of a larger Source Filmmaker community with a more public face. Every year, Valve hosts a competition for SFM films, and there are categories for shorts, action movies, comedy movies, and drama movies.

In one award-winning SFM short, for example, a typical Team Fortress 2 match is summarized in 60 seconds. As of this writing, this video has been viewed 482,209 times on YouTube. In another highly-praised SFM short, Portal 2 personality cores discuss how to shoot a scene involving an explosion. As of this writing, the personality core video has been viewed 110,555 times. Compare to Kunoichi, which StudioFOW claims has been viewed over one million times. But, despite the popularity of Kunoichi, it's undeniable that family friendly SFM work that riffs off popular Valve characters is more ubiquitous on the whole—an endless number of shorts involving just Team Fortress 2 characters can be found on YouTube alone.

Then there's more "vanilla" erotic SFM—that is, porn that is consensual. Most of the work that I've found aren't actually movies—they're stills depicting sex scenes between pretty much any video game protagonist you can think of. Or, the erotic SFM will be a short GIF depicting penetration that loops. One erotic SFM artist named Sam Denham told me that she made gay porn of Team Fortress 2 characters because it was a natural extension of 'shipping.' In this case, making erotic SFM of video game characters is no different than writing, say, fanfiction—it's a way for a fan to express their appreciation of a work.

"Making my own erotic images with the characters that I've come to love so much is entertaining to me and lets me contribute to the fandom," Denham said.

(Source: Sam Denham)

According to many of the people I've spoken to who produce erotic SFM work, there's a divide between the "normal" SFM community, and the "erotic" community—think of the divide between Hollywood and the porn industry, and how people producing adult films are taken less seriously than big stars. This tension exists even though erotic SFM has been around just as long as vanilla SFM has.

"Within a week [after Source Filmmaker was released in 2012] the first [erotic] animated gifs came out," Ganonmaster, a software engineer from the Netherlands, told me. Ganonmaster is the proprietor of SFMLab, a popular website that hosts a variety of character models that anyone looking to make erotic SFM content can use. This is where StudioFOW gets many of its own models—not Valve's own official service, Steam Workshop. While Steam Workshop also holds a variety of user-generated content that people can use in SFM films, Valve isn't as open about sex on Steam: a good number of sex games released on Steam have been censored. Valve is just as harsh on sexual content on Steam Workshop, making websites like SFMLab necessary for erotic SFM fans.

According to Ganonmaster, even in its early days, the erotic SFM community held a soft spot for two franchises: Mass Effect, and Tomb Raider. Perhaps this isn't surprising—Lara Croft has always been a sex symbol in gaming, and Mass Effect lets players romance and seduce its characters. That StudioFOW would start out with Lara Croft specifically almost feels clichéd.

"[Lara Croft] was one of the first nude models ported to the Source Engine at the time [StudioFOW formed]," Darkcrow said, "And from a technical standpoint the model was good enough that we could animate her in different poses without the joints deforming too much."

Once StudioFOW has an appropriate model, they "rig" them—that is, they prep them to be animated. 3D character models are made up of things called "bones," and these bones allow people to define how a character model moves. Normally, you can expect bones in places like a character's arms and legs in a game. But erotic SFM necessitates sprucing up models with details not found in a character's actual game. "[We add] mouth bones, hair bones, accessories, [we dress them] up in outfits that closely resemble their game counterparts," Darkcrow explained. Sometimes, this means taking artistic liberties. In a short produced for Patreon backers, StudioFOW rendered the Mass Effect character Liara with a human-like vagina, for example—something which isn't actually canon in Mass Effect, at least as far as anyone knows. Asari, a mono-gendered alien species in the world of Mass Effect, are supposed to have sex via mind-meld.

"Some modelers like to really 'enhance' the assets of the females into unrealistic territories whilst other modelers like to keep the assets to canon proportions," Darkcrow said. "If the nude model resembles the actual in-game model as closely as possible, it helps immerse the viewer. So when we are creating our custom meshes we try to stay close to the in-game proportions."

Like more traditional porn, StudioFOW productions always provide a flimsy reason for why sex happens, and these stories actually get storyboarded out, as any animation might. Darkcrow reasons that stories "help the immersion factor" for fans, so StudioFOW always makes sure to include lore for their creations.

"After [storyboarding] we pose the models in Source Filmmaker and build the sets using various SFM models," Darkcrow said. "Then comes the arduous process of animation, which can take up to two months for a 15 minute movie. We do this in phases, first by blocking out the animation, then our voice talents record their lines and we sync their dialogue."

For Lara in Trouble, StudioFOW actually ended up using Lara's in-game combat audio—and given the violent nature of the rape scenes, the audio was eerily appropriate. Lara sounds distressed and like she's in pain in the actual game, after all, and as many critics have asserted over the years, pained women in video games often sound inadvertently sexual. In an interview with Lewd Gamer, StudioFOW explains that they "had to make the movie a rape fantasy due to the audio limitations." Now that StudioFOW have the resources to hire voice actors, they continue to make rape fantasies anyway.

After audio is sorted out, StudioFOW moves on to the smaller details.

"Finally, we animate the faces," Darkcrow said. "Once all that's done we run the final draft, make any necessary tweaks and create a master copy for release.

"The hardest part is definitely that lipsyncing phase where we have to bring the character to life. It's really difficult work but necessary to make the movie look good."

There's only so much that they can do with Source Filmmaker, of course. In a different interview, StudioFOW said that they often bump up against the limitations of the tool. "Particle physics are also a big problem," Darkcrow said. "Getting realistic cumshots to work is nearly impossible due to the models not having collision detection." Additionally, there's no way to get around the uncanny effect that certain models have. Even if StudioFOW spends time making characters more conventionally attractive, they're still limited by what computer graphics can handle. It's no wonder that many developers opt to make sex scenes in games simply fade to black—it's difficult to depict video game sex in a way that isn't cringeworthy, period.

StudioFOW's work depicts rape, a thing that is, for some people, a very real and horrifying experience. And yet, despite its taboo nature, the studio's work still exists. It still gets people off. It's somewhat popular, even. Does its existence reflect the tastes of the people creating it? And if so, should that be a cause for worry? Darkcrow doesn't think so.

"I don't believe that personal fetishes play a part, at least not for me personally," he said. This answer seemed bizarre to me—how do they ensure that what they're depicting is 'hot' if they personally don't find it attractive? Darkcrow says that, for him, making something look good comes down to the technical details more than what the sex actually depicts. Stuff like lighting, the fluidity of the animation, how good the models are, the camera angles, the audio levels, the variation of sex positions and their tempo—those are the things he worries about the most. He says he does this for the sake of the fans, who provide funding for StudioFOW productions.

"I think it would be wrong of us to force personal fetishes into these movies as you lose sight of the bigger picture in the process, so it's my job to make sure we're all doing what is best for our fans, whose support has put us into the position we are in today," Darkcrow said.

"I think we have a healthy outlook on sexuality in general," Darkcrow asserted. "This medium allows us to explore fetishes in a safe environment where 3D models are used instead of actual people...we don't think there is enough education or meaningful discussion about the depths of human sexuality in our society at the moment.

"There seems to be an aversion to discussing the psychological aspects of sex, which is disappointing as everyone should be able to explore the naughtier sides of our sexuality without the fear of labels or branding. If our work can spark up some debate or get people thinking about taboo content in a new way then I think we have achieved our goal," he said.

Darkcrow also emphasized to me that it's important to remember that their work isn't real—it's fantasy.

"I think part of being a responsible adult means having the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality," Darkcrow said.

"We aim to make movies for responsible adults...this medium bypasses the seedier facets of the pornography industry. In live action movies the viewer never really knows if the actresses are being exploited, especially in rape fantasies.

"We animate digital models in a safe environment, and the voice talent records from the safety of their own homes, which means that our medium is the ideal platform for exploring these darker themes with a clear conscience," Darkcrow said.

The voice actors I spoke to confirmed this—in fact, they seemed very enthusiastic about the work they were doing with StudioFOW. One voice actor, Anastasia Snow, described her collaboration with StudioFOW as "embarrassing" but "fun." Other voice actors, like HangingRabbit and Mr. Kristoff, view this sort of erotic voice acting as a sort of interesting challenge. "The hardest part is doing orgasms," HangingRabbit said. "[Voice acting for StudioFOW] allows me to really push myself and my performance," Mr. Kristoff said.

Of course, StudioFOW does understand that the content of their porn can make people uncomfortable.

"The content of our movies can be polarizing," Darkcrow admitted. "We do get death/rape threats and trolls [because of our work.]

"I feel this either stems from unhealthy obsessions with the characters chosen for our movies or the individual's social and political beliefs," Darkcrow said. "Of course, they are entitled to their opinions, and we welcome criticism with open minds. However, when they cross the line into harassment over content that is created by consenting adults for consenting adults that does not break any laws, they are wrong."

StudioFOW also chalks up part of the outrage that their work receives to cultural differences—many of the members of StudioFOW are from all over the world, and they borrow heavily from a certain Otaku subculture found in Japan.

"We have a pretty massive fanbase in the Far East, and this kind of adult content is ingrained into their culture, so we target them mainly with the non-con themes as they understand it instantly," Darkcrow said. "I think Western audiences have quite a ways to go before they becomes as accepting of this theme, but judging by the tremendous fan response the numbers are bigger than we initially thought."

Still, it's worth noting just how often Japan gets used as a scapegoat, a get-out-of-jail-free card that can come into play whenever people discuss sexuality and nerdy things. The way some people pose it, anything hailing from or influenced by Japan is immune to criticism, because being critical is the same as being culturally insensitive. Obviously, cultural differences are important to take into consideration, but the potential problem with this line of thinking is that it can peddle the idea that Japan is really different. I mean, have you heard about the ridiculous tentacle rape sex they like!? Wow! Meanwhile, one of the biggest brands of 2015 in the USA is 50 Shades of Grey, a movie/book that could be interpreted as 'non-con' if not outright rape thanks to the questionable-at-best depictions of BDSM and consent between its protagonists, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Maybe the cultural differences when it comes to sex aren't as pronounced between Japan and the USA as people think.

Despite StudioFOW's lax attitude toward subjects like rape, there are lines that even they are not willing to cross.

"Anything illegal is out of the question," Darkcrow said. "We've done fantasy animals and monsters before, but guro, underage, and scat type content is out of the question.

"We have no problem with gay and lesbian content and actively encourage SFM porn makers to be diverse when creating new content. Futanari is another popular category, and whilst we personally have not done it yet many in the community have built thriving portfolios on this content type alone, so it's wonderful to see the diversity being accepted by an open-minded fanbase," Darkcrow said.

While StudioFOW's has a reputation for taking things too far, erotic SFM can indeed get darker.

"A few people within the larger community are very much into lolicon, to the point where they create nude models of characters like Clementine from Walking Dead and Sunny from Metal Gear Solid," Ganonmaster of SFMLab told me. "Luckily the community seems to be aware [that this type of content is illegal and offensive]."

The video game companies who own the rights to the characters who appear in StudioFOW's movies don't necessarily take kindly to erotic SFM, period. According to Darkcrow, StudioFOW has received a couple of takedown notices. One was supposedly for the Arena of Depravity trailer:

According to StudioFOW, the notice was issued by a firm that Activision hired to police their intellectual property. The problem, StudioFOW claims, was that the trailer was thought to depict the sort of sexual content that exceeds World of Warcraft's actual "T for Teen" rating. As the YouTube trailer, unlike the end product, is rather innocuous—there is no sex in it—StudioFOW says that they "laid out the case and [Activision] dropped it." I contacted the firm to ask for verification, but they did not respond in time for publication.

In another incident, StudioFOW claims that Valve issued a cease and desist order that demanded that StudioFOW take down an image of Team Fortress 2's "Scout" character from their website. Ironically, the Scout is one of the few characters in StudioFOW's films who remains clothed during sex scenes. We also contacted Valve to ask for verification, but they too did not respond in time for publication.

This isn't a problem limited to StudioFOW, either. According to Ganonmaster, after a Game of Thrones erotic SFM received mainstream attention in an article by Buzzfeed, SFMLab was asked by a firm representing HBO to take down models belonging to the official Telltale video game version of the Game of Thrones characters. I contacted the firm allegedly representing HBO, and they declined to comment. However, it is worth noting that, when Buzzfeed originally published their article in February 2015, they included screenshots of SFMLab's version of Cersei Lannister, who is played by Lena Heady. If I search for Cersei Lannister on SFMLab now, a month later, there is no Cersei Lannister model to be found—so if nothing else, Game of Thrones models did indeed get taken down from the site.

"Whether or not it's ethical to use character models with the likenesses of real people to make a porn animation is another matter entirely," Ganonmaster said. "But I can't dictate what people use those models for…[the models] weren't NSFW, and I removed them when HBO objected. Either way, I always try to comply with takedown notices. I'm not a lawyer."

It's not the first time that fans have gotten into hot water for using the naked video-game likenesses of real actors. Two years ago, Ellen Page was rumored to have pursued legal action against websites hosting revealing footage of a shower scene in Beyond: Two Souls. You could make the argument that cases like those of Lena Heady or Ellen Page are no different than, say, people stealing and distributing revealing pictures of Jennifer Lawrence on the internet. In both situations, the actresses concerned didn't give gave anyone permission to possess or distribute naked images of them.

At least one StudioFOW work includes the likeness of a real person. A virtual version of actor Danny Trejo makes a couple of appearances in Kunoichi—at one point, Trejo appears to take part in a gangbang involving Kasumi, a character in Dead or Alive. But StudioFOW doesn't seem worried about companies taking legal action against them. They maintain that their work is "parody," though when I asked how this was true, they didn't quite give me a clear answer.

"[Our work is parody in] the same way you see the mainstream porn parodies of characters like Lara Croft," Darkcrow asserted. "It's taking a character a putting them into a subversive situation you would not normally expect them to be.

"We would never claim anything to be canon, and since our work is all non-profit and released for free it falls squarely under the Fair Use copyright laws of the United States," Darkcrow said. "I'm sure the people understand them to be parodies as we plaster big warning signs at the start of the movie, and on our website as well."

As StudioFOW becomes more popular, their movies are changing. Fans write in to StudioFOW, asking for specific things. While rape fantasies might have been what got fans interested in StudioFOW's work in the first place, those aren't the only thing these viewers are interested in watching. In February, after StudioFOW uploaded a short where Mass Effect's Liara gets captured by mercenaries and raped, fans asked for consensual scenes with the character and Shepard, Mass Effect's protagonist. StudioFOW's response? That if fans gave them at least $10,000 for it, they'd do it.

They're also reconsidering some of their personal cardinal rules of erotic SFM films. Throughout 2014, they maintained that they would not show male faces during sex scenes—women are always getting raped by unseen men. This, too, is changing.

"A lot of our female fans wrote in saying they'd love to see more interaction between the male and female models," Darkcrow said. "We are actively working on upgrading our male models to make them more expressive. We even hired a talented male voice actor (Mr Kristoff) to voice our males and hopefully give future love scenes (like the Booker x Elizabeth scene in our upcoming [BioShock porn movie]) a bit more of a dynamic quality to them."

StudioFOW says that they're "looking to widen their audience reach" with their upcoming BioShock porn. For them this means fewer rape scenes than usual, though they assure fans that they would never fully stop doing non-consensual scenes.

One of the things that struck me the most about Lara in Trouble is its ending. After Lara Croft is repeatedly raped by her captors, Deus Ex Machina occurs: a gun appears out of nowhere. Lara picks it up. She shoots every man in the room. The words "A Survivor is Born" appear on the screen—it's the same text that appears in so much of Tomb Raider's marketing. Even after degrading her and breaking her, Lara in Trouble still wants to maintain a central idea behind the Tomb Raider reboot: Lara's pain and suffering will transform her into the hero that everyone knows and loves.

The film then ends, and the credits roll.

Top image by Jim Cooke.


To contact the author of this post, write to patricia@kotaku.com or find her on Twitter @xpatriciah.